On Husker home football game Saturdays, more than 90,000 people flood downtown Lincoln, packing bars and restaurants and sending shoppers into stores where purchases often exceed those of a normal Saturday.
But that Husker-fan invasion takes a toll on entertainment that’s not in Memorial Stadium, putting a damper on the movies, almost eliminating concerts and closing art galleries.
“It doesn’t matter when the game is at — 11, 2 or 7 — it’s going to ruin our business,” said Ross Media Arts Center director Danny Lee Ladely. “If you’re not going to the game, you don’t want to come downtown on a football Saturday.”
The Ross, Ladely said, does get some gameday business from people who live downtown and can walk to the on-campus theater to see a movie — "So we’re not completely empty on football game Saturdays, but close to it,” Ladely said.
The Grand Cinema, Lincoln’s only downtown commercial movie house, also experiences a drop in business on gamedays, primarily caused by a lack of nearby parking.
But those who want to see a movie playing at the Grand, with usually one or two exceptions, can go to one of the city’s three other multiscreen theaters outside downtown — East Park, Edgewood and SouthPointe.
A block away from the Ross and the Grand, the Lied Center for Performing Arts tries to avoid booking anything on Husker gamedays.
“In general, there’s a lot of excitement on game weekends,” said Matthew Boring, Lied’s associate director of marketing and patron development. “A lot of times, we’ll do headline concerts on Friday nights of those weekends. But generally, we try to avoid gameday programming, home or away, when we can.”
This year, the Lied couldn’t work around a pair of Saturdays with games scheduled — Oct. 26 and Nov. 2 — which land during the 12-day run of the musical “The Phantom of the Opera.”
“If it wasn’t for the home game, we’d do two performances that day,” Boring said. “So we’re doing a weekday matinee to make up for it. It requires some creativity to work around the gamedays.”
There’s little chance there will ever be a major concert in Lincoln on a gameday.
Putting on a gameday show at Pinnacle Bank Arena would be a near impossibility, even if the game is early.
Major concerts are booked months in advance. The kickoff times of football games can be set as late as two weeks before the contest. Which means a concert could be set at, for example, 7:30 p.m., only to have the kickoff scheduled for 7 p.m.
That, arena manager Tom Lorenz said, means prospective concertgoers would hold off buying tickets until the game time is announced.
And many who might want to go won’t — first because of the lack of parking and then, he said, because many will have gone to the game and not want to spend a few more hours at a show.
There are other less obvious complications for booking gameday concerts. First among them is hotel rooms. Tours require dozens of hotel rooms, sometimes the night before, sometimes the day of shows. On Husker home game weekends, hotels are sold-out months in advance.
And the parking crunch can hit productions as well, limiting space to park the semis, buses, vans and other vehicles.
While there are no parking issues at Pinewood Bowl, the other factors working against gameday concerts remain in play. In fact, promoters initially wanted to do the Steely Dan show set for Sept. 8 at Pinewood the night before — putting it up against the Huskers' game at Colorado. They were talked into booking the show, which is approaching a sellout, for that Sunday instead.
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The “no shows on gameday” rule also largely holds true for smaller downtown venues.
Asked whether he’d book a major touring act on a gameday, Eli Mardock, former co-owner of the Vega nightclub, quickly replied “never.”
He cited the lack of parking and game time uncertainty. Booking those shows, Mardock said, is too risky, a chance to lose hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Vega, which operated from 2013 to 2017 in a prime space on the Railyard’s second level, only offered one major gameday show in its four football seasons in the Haymarket — and it was free.
Andrew W.K. had been booked for a festival on the day of the Nebraska-Miami game in 2014. That festival fell apart, so Vega picked up the show, moved it to 11 p.m., immediately after the game, and made it free.
“We had a good turnout,” Mardock said. “But people had already been partying all day. So do you serve them or not? That was another problem we didn’t think about until it happened.”
The Royal Grove, away from downtown and with a couple parking lots, does do some gameday shows, said Mardock, who took over the longtime Cornhusker Highway venue two years ago.
But even those are booked with the Huskers in mind, They tend not be the popular cover bands or rock or country touring shows. Instead, they’re likely to be EDM and Latin offerings for “crowds that don’t care much about Nebraska football,” Mardock said.
For the third year, the Sheldon Museum of Art will be closed on home football game Saturdays and the Friday after Thanksgiving when Nebraska plays Iowa.
The University of Nebraska’s art museum, just a couple football fields from Memorial Stadium, has had two of its outdoor sculptures damaged by drunken football fans. One, “Man in Open Air,” required significant conservation to restore and has never returned to its outdoor location.
Closing the museum, which was usually visited on football Saturdays only by fans of the visiting team and those looking for a restroom, prevents any damage to the building’s interior and to the artwork, some of which is valued in millions of dollars.
The gameday slowdown even hits some downtown restaurants — such as Dish, which offers high-end dining that doesn’t cater to the red-clad hordes.
“The 11 o’clock games, we end up having a slow, steady Saturday night,” said Dish co-owner/general manager Marypat Heineman. “By the time the game’s over, people are leaving downtown, it’s less of a mess and some of our regulars aren’t afraid to drive down then. The 7 o’clock game is a ghost town, an absolute ghost town.”
Dish, however, does get some business before 2:30 p.m. kickoffs.
“Then we end up very, very busy,” Heineman said. “I think it’s simply a volume thing. There are so many people downtown, we get some of them. Some people are thrilled that it’s a completely different atmosphere, that it’s quiet and away from the chaos. But we definitely have folks that come in, sit down, look at the menu and go ‘Where are the burgers?’”
All that said, downtown entertainment venues and restaurants understand they’re going to get hit by the Huskers six or seven times a year and plan accordingly.
“There’s nothing to be done about it,” Ladely said. “So Go Big Red.”