Rio Rio on The San Antonio Riverwalk advertises itself as the "Official Home of TCU". Photo by Scott Ball.
Rio Rio Cantina on the San Antonio River Walk advertises itself as the "Official Home of TCU" ahead of the 23rd annual Alamo Bowl. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Come Thursday, tens of thousands of football fans from Texas to California will descend upon downtown San Antonio for the kickoff of the 2017 Valero Alamo Bowl at the Alamodome.

But so far, demand has not met the previous year, said Robert Thrailkill, vice president of operations for Zachry Hospitality and general manager of the Hilton Palacio del Rio and Staybridge Suites/Convention Center.

“My sense is that TCU will bring their supporters, but Stanford supporters may not travel as well as they typically do,” he said, likely in part because of the distance the California team’s fans have to travel. “We expect to be sold out the night of the game.”

The 25th anniversary event will feature the bowl game’s fourth straight top-15 match-up, with the #13 ranked Stanford University Cardinal representing the Pac-12 Conference and the #15 ranked Texas Christian University Horned Frogs representing the Big 12.

The nationally televised game will air on ESPN, unopposed by any other college or NFL football games on network television. When the Horned Frogs beat the Oregon Ducks in January 2016 bowl game, 10.9 million viewers tuned in, according to the Alamo Bowl website.

But for the tried-and-true fans who travel to San Antonio to watch the game, it may mean a hotel room, especially for those coming from out of state. Those visitors stay an average of 3.2 days for the game, according to a SportsEconomics study, and the spending doesn’t stop there.

Last year, the Valero Alamo Bowl delivered a $50.1 million total economic impact for San Antonio, according to the study. Featuring #10-ranked Colorado and #12 Oklahoma State, the event drew a crowd of 59,815, the fifth-highest attendance in bowl history for a game matching two out-of-state teams, the study reports.

During the 2016 Alamo Bowl, both Marriott Rivercenter and Riverwalk hotels were fully booked, and the nearby Hilton Palacio del Rio was at 99 percent capacity. (The Hyatt and both Marriotts served as team hotels.) The Grand Hyatt was at 86.9 percent capacity for the Dec. 29 game (65.6 percent higher than the previous night) and the Hyatt Regency was at 95.2 percent, according to Richard Oliver, director of partner and community relations for Visit San Antonio.

The 2017 match-up was announced on Dec. 6, and roughly two weeks later both downtown hotels and Airbnb rentals were available. Yet hotel managers are still gearing up for a full house.

In an online search, the La Quinta Inn & Suites Riverwalk on Blum Street, located about one-half mile from the Alamodome, was still taking reservations at the 347-room hotel.

But the manager at another LaQuinta a little more than a mile away on West César E. Chávez Boulevard told the Rivard Report that though the hotel had also not booked all its rooms for Dec. 28, she expected things to get “a little crazy” due to the hotel’s downtown location.

Also near the Alamodome, the Staybridge Suites San Antonio Downtown was not yet full either.

“Each year is a little different depending on when the game is played and which teams are playing,” Thrailkill said.

Weather conditions also play a role in the event’s success. Tom Furgerson, director of operations for Casa Rio and Schilo’s restaurants, said good weather during bowl game week for most of the past 10 years has driven increased sales, as high as 35.3 percent. But two of those years saw cold and rainy weather that contributed to decreased sales, by 25 percent, on game day.

“The forecast currently shows a high of 50 [degrees Fahrenheit] with a low of 36 and rain, so not ideal,” Furgerson said. “We do the best we can to prep for these instances by moving regular seating into our event spaces.”

Still, restaurants and bars in the downtown are staffing up.

“People come here to have a good time,” said one manager at Margaritaville on East Commerce Street, who did not want to give his name, adding that he expected sales to jump significantly in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

With a burger and fries plate priced at $13.99 and a house margarita at $8.25, diners often spend 5 to 10 percent more than they would on a normal day, he said, due mostly to alcohol sales. That’s because “people typically have more than one margarita plus an appetizer.”

Adrian Martinez, owner of the Sunset Station barbecue restaurant, Smoke Downtown, expects plenty of traffic, though most of his business will likely come from scheduled Alamo Bowl-related events and parties, he said. Martinez has his sights set more on crowds expected for the forthcoming 2018 NCAA Men’s Final Four as well as a visit by performer Lionel Richie at the restaurant in January. (Hello!)

Longtime general manager of Rio Rio Cantina on the River Walk and now event coordinator at Jazz, TX, John Carbajal, has experienced the event in “a very personal way” because he has seen firsthand the impact it has on downtown service staff.

“For front-line employees, it’s a huge boost after the holiday season that can be counted on year after year,” said Carbajal, who also serves on the Alamo Bowl committee and on the board of the Paseo del Rio Association.

“It’s allowed me to see that the end result of each game is so much more than what the stadium scoreboard shows. I see parents who know they’ll be able to recover from holiday expenses and college students who are able to put additional funds toward their upcoming semesters.”

Alamo Bowl fans also spend on souvenirs, of course. This year, they can take home the first-ever Alamo Bowl fiesta medal, produced by locally-owned medal and coin manufacturer Celebrate Excellence.

At LIBER-T, a souvenir and T-shirt shop on Alamo Plaza, store manager Ashley Hernandez expects business to pick up during the Alamo Bowl, she said, especially because November and December are slow months downtown.

Nationwide, the economic impact of the annual 41 college bowl games is $1.5 billion, according to a new report compiled by researchers at San Diego State University’s L. Robert Payne School of Hospitality & Tourism Management and George Washington University, commissioned by the Football Bowl Association.

Because bowl games are meant to create a unique experience for fans beyond the game itself, they often feature fan events leading up to the kickoff.

“Our signature Pep Rally [on Dec. 26] has about 2,000 visitors line the River Walk to watch the players and coaches do an ‘only in San Antonio event,’” stated Rick Hill, Alamo Bowl vice president of marketing and communications, in an email to the Rivard Report. “Almost every year, ESPN features this on the ESPN game broadcast to an average of 6.5 million viewers.”

Teams also spend roughly one week at the bowl game destination before the actual game takes place, according to the Football Bowl Association, participating in public appearances and community service and media events, as well as enjoying some free time.

Just prior to the 23rd annual Alamo Bowl in January 2016, a TCU quarterback was suspended after he was arrested following a fight outside a River Walk bar.

This year, the Valero Alamo Bowl awarded 140 San Antonio students with high school and college scholarships totaling more than $1 million, according to the Alamo Bowl website, making it the largest scholarship total among the 39 bowl games.

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.