The uproar over House Bill 2 has cost Charlotte and North Carolina millions in canceled sporting events, concerts and other business, but Thursday’s Belk Bowl – which is expected to bring thousands of people into the city – remains one of the few bright spots.
More than 40,000 tickets have been sold to see Virginia Tech face off against the University of Arkansas.
“When there’s a Belk Bowl in town, we do get very lucky – we get lots of business,” said Megan Sweeney, manager at Blackfinn AmeriPub at EpiCentre in uptown.
Businesses like Blackfinn had also counted on the ACC football title game to bring in business this month. The game had been the city’s second-largest annual event, behind the CIAA basketball tournament in February. The ACC championship game had been played in Charlotte every year since 2010 on the first Saturday in December.
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But it was pulled this year over HB2, with the event moving to Orlando. The ACC game’s total economic impact last year was an estimated $32.4 million. By comparison, last year’s Belk Bowl had a total economic impact of $16.3 million, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.
The ACC and NCAA both decided in September to move their tournament games out of North Carolina over opposition to HB2, the law limiting legal protections for LGBT individuals. The controversial measure also mandates that transgender people in government buildings use the bathroom that matches their birth certificates. In July, the NBA opted to move its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte over the law.
Lawmakers met last week after a deal to repeal HB2 had been hammered out among Gov.-elect Roy Cooper, Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore and Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts. When the deal collapsed, no path forward was apparent.
That has left city leaders with little hope for a return of the lost sporting events, concerts and business.
The Belk Bowl didn’t get pulled because of the way the event is organized. Despite being certified by the NCAA, the Belk Bowl has remained because the participating schools and conferences are the contracting parties, according to a statement from Gail Dent, spokeswoman for the NCAA.
Lee McShane, the general manager of Connolly’s Irish Pub, said he’s seen an increase in business in the week leading up to the Belk Bowl. Connolly’s is opening at noon, three hours early, to accommodate fans.
“For this period inbetween Christmas and New Year’s, it would be a little slower, but with the Belk Bowl being on, it helps a lot,” McShane said.
Last year, 40,723 attended the Belk Bowl, according to the CRVA. More than 26,000 visitors traveled to Charlotte for the game – with more than 17,000 staying overnight.
Besides the Belk Bowl, two other key sporting events will remain in Charlotte: the signature CIAA women’s and men’s basketball championship tournaments and The 2017 PGA Championship, which is still scheduled to come to Quail Hollow Club next summer.
Fans excited for game
Even with the HB2 controversy, fans say they’re excited about the Belk Bowl. The game, which is being played at 5:30 p.m. at Bank of America Stadium, has been declared an extraordinary event, which allows for increased security measures. Tim McGraw is performing a Belk Bowl FanFest concert at BB&T Ballpark at 2 p.m.
Huntersville resident Jennifer Ferguson, a Virginia Tech fan who plans to attend Thursday’s game, said she opposes HB2 and believes it has hurt Charlotte’s economy. In past years, she has attended the ACC championship game and wishes it hadn’t been moved.
Despite the law, she said she’s hoping for a great game – and a win for the Hokies.
Dr. Mitch Collins arrived Wednesday with his family from outside Little Rock, Ark., to cheer on the Razorbacks at the Belk Bowl.
Collins said HB2 hasn’t been a big issue in Arkansas. Many people in the conservative state – which voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump for president – likely support it, he said.
“Any bowl game is good, but this one is quite a ways away,” said Collins, who is planning to stay in Charlotte until Saturday. “But a lot of people are excited about going somewhere new.”
Staff writer Katherine Peralta contributed.
Jane Little: @janelittle26; 704-358-5101