Imagine what Lincoln would look like if the sea of red dried up during the first fall in 13 decades without Nebraska football.
Like a dozen consecutive bye weeks.
No sidewalks spilling over with red-clad fans, no tailgate parties, no packed parking lots always trying to squeeze in one more, no scalpers, no gridlock or Go Big Reds!, no ever-optimistic score predictions on the Melichar's 66 sign.
Instead, a very costly quiet.
At his news conference Monday, Nebraska coach Scott Frost said he wanted to skip past the economic impacts of no games, but he estimated them anyway: an $80 million to $120 million hit to the university’s athletic department; upward of $300 million in losses for the city; hundreds of more millions statewide.
And there are other costs, harder to measure, in a city and state that sets its calendars and clocks to kickoff, and all of the rituals and rhythms surrounding it.
“I’m sitting here in mourning,” said Tracey Scissors-Domgard. “I feel bad for everybody. I feel bad for the players, I feel bad for the coaches, and I feel bad for the staff. This is not like anything ever.”
Her season tickets have been in her family for 60 years; she inherited them from her uncle. But she and her husband, Tim, decided Sunday not to hold onto them this year, and instead wait until next year to return to their seats.
“It would be super-hypocritical on my part to sit in a stadium,” she said. “We’re not of the age where it would be a healthy decision for us.”
Don't think for a second NU officials wouldn't look for teams to play if the Big Ten shut down. In fact, they've already reached out.
But she’ll miss the tradition — tailgating with family and friends at the top of the 14th and Avery streets garage — and she worries about the pain businesses that rely on the fan base will feel if the season never kicks off.
It’s such a sad situation, she said. “But in the big scheme of things, all of that history is nothing when it comes down to people’s health and welfare.”
Bob Stephens remembers watching from the knothole section — 25 cents a game — as a fifth grader. That was 60 years ago.
Now he owns a downtown lot where he sells Saturday tailgate spaces, and where he parks his 37-foot Husker-themed RV, slides out his side-mounted mobile kitchen and fires up his gas grill.
Stephens has been a regular downtown, and at Memorial Stadium, for 30 years, and hasn’t missed a game in 20 years.
He doesn’t want to start now. “It’s still important to me. I would go even if I had to wear a mask and sweat.”
He’s not the type of fan who knows all the nuances of a play. But he likes to watch the game, and even more, playing a part on gameday.
“It’s about being there, and the tradition of it.”
Nearly a quarter-century ago, Lincoln author Joe Starita wrote the book about gameday, “The Fans of Memorial Stadium.”
He and photographer Tom Tidball spent the 1995 season following fans before the games, and into their seats, recording all of the rites that defined a football Saturday in downtown Lincoln.
He thought about that book, and the notion of a silenced season, Monday.
“For Lincoln to be bereft of a Red October Sea swamping Memorial Stadium is like Rome without the Coliseum, Paris without the Eiffel Tower, London without the London Bridge,” he said. “It's an identity issue. Come autumn, people staring into a mirror — not seeing an N tattooed on their cheek, a Husker cap on their crown, a Throw the Bones shirt crossing their chest — will be confronted with a haunting question: "Who Am I?’"
And others will be confronted with: What will this cost?
"There's been a lot of emotions into this thing, especially for guys who feel really, really, passionate about this game of football, like me."
‘Repercussions across the state’
If the season is canceled, it would be devastating to bar and restaurant owners, especially those downtown.
Husker football Saturdays are "why you open up a bar in Lincoln, Nebraska," said Eric Marsh, who owns Longwells in the Railyard.
"You live for those seven Saturdays a year.”
His revenue on home game Saturdays is about 50 times more than an average weekday, Marsh said.
"It's the money that allows us to make it through the rest of the year.”
Health measures aimed at combating the coronavirus pandemic — mandating masks, social distancing and that customers stay seated — have already cut into his business.
A canceled season would force him to "try to figure out how you're going to make it through to the next football season."
He hopes Nebraska finds a way to play at least a few games this fall.
"I'm not giving up on the football season until it's Dec. 5 and they haven't played a game," he said.
It's not just bar and restaurant owners who would see a big hit, though.
Nebraska head coach Scott Frost called for a fall season in a potentially last-minute effort as the Big Ten considers punting until spring.
Barb Ballard, who owns the From Nebraska Gift Shop with her husband, Jim, spent most of Monday trying to cancel or postpone merchandise orders after the "gut-punch" stream of social media posts that the Big Ten Conference was likely canceling fall football.
The shop at Eighth and Q streets just doubled its size and added a cider house and mercantile store.
The store sees a significant boost on football Saturdays — typically 50% more than regular Saturdays — especially from opposing fans drawn to its Nebraska-themed memorabilia.
That increase is even more important this year: The store’s sales fell by 90% in March and April, and only recently rebounded to about 50% of normal.
"Without Nebraska football, September and early October, until we can gear up for Christmas sales, is going to be pretty bleak for us," Ballard said.
While downtown businesses will feel the brunt of the economic effects, no football this fall would have ripple effects across the city on bars and restaurants, hotels and other businesses, said Lincoln Chamber of Commerce President Wendy Birdsall.
A 2014 study done by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Bureau of Business Research found Nebraska athletics, as a whole, had a $245.5 million economic impact on the city, supporting more than 3,400 jobs and $87 million in worker income. The numbers for football alone (based on eight home games, plus the Spring Game) were $44.8 million in spending outside the stadium, supporting $14.8 million in wages.
"Nobody escapes this," Birdsall said.
And it's not just Lincoln that will feel the effects, she said.
"This has repercussions across the state."
Direct hit to city budget
Based on the 2014 UNL study, each home football game sends an estimated $260,000 in tax revenue to the city, Lincoln City Finance Director Brandon Kauffman said. That includes sales and gas tax, and other funds.
Even parking revenue could take a hit: The 2019 season delivered nearly $1.1 million in parking revenue to city coffers, said Urban Development Director Dan Marvin.
When the city prepared its budget for the upcoming fiscal year, its finance staff estimated sales tax revenue conservatively, Kauffman said. If there were games, there was no guarantee there would be fans in the stands.
The proposed budget accounts for a downturn in Husker football revenue, he said, but it remained unclear whether it sees a boost in the spring if the season is moved.
“There’s so many unknowns,” Kauffman said.