High School Basketball

Tournament's a sweet boost for businesses

Life goes in and out with the tides around Rupp Arena these days.

A tide of fans goes into Rupp as each game begins in the National City Boys' Sweet 16 basketball tournament.

The tide goes out of Rupp and into nearby businesses as each game ends.

"At least half the teams are going to be celebrating," notes Tony Atwood, manager at deSha's Restaurant & Bar on North Broadway. "That's good for them, and us, too."

It's even better when record crowds — like the 21,048 that attended the Elliott County-Anderson County first-round game Thursday — roar into downtown Lexington.

A consultant estimated in 2007 that the tournament was worth $4.8 million a year to Lexington's economy, plus $286,000 in state sales tax collections, said David Lord, president of the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Even in a recession, the impact is likely to be in that range, Lord said Friday. "We feel safe with that."

In fact, attendance at most sports events has been little affected by the economy, he added. Sports marketers are saying "if there's a slowdown, they haven't seen it."

Neither have business managers near Rupp Arena.

Those interviewed Friday said their business is as good as a year ago, recession or not, and some said their sales are higher.

At Sawyer's Downtown at West Main Street and Broadway, owner Jim Sawyer said business was up 17 percent before the Sweet 16, and even more after Thursday night's record crowd.

After some tournament games, "the line (of customers) will be out the door and down the street," he said.

"It's been intense," Sawyer said. "It's like two UK (University of Kentucky) games back to back every day. ... It's my favorite four days of the year."

The influx of business goes beyond downtown, with casual dining restaurants across town picking up crowds of Sweet 16 fans.

And this year the tournament coincides with UK's spring break, when business is generally off as students leave Lexington, said T.J. Gordon, part-owner and manager of DeVassa Bar & Cafe in Victorian Square.

"It's helped us out. We have had some pretty good (Sweet 16) dinner rushes," he said.

The tournament is basically a shot in the arm as DeVassa heads into spring and more business from warm-weather pedestrians, Gordon said.

At Kentucky Korner, where UK sports apparel is the No. 1 product, the Sweet 16 trails only the UK basketball season in sales frenzy, said manager Darrell Tackett.

High school students and their families often use the Sweet 16 trip to Lexington to stock up on UK apparel.

Even with the recession, "we are about where we were last year" in sales, Tackett said as high school students dug through stacks of UK shirts and other items all around the store.

"We haven't seen a difference (in sales) at all so far this year," he added.

Other downtown merchants have products that are less appealing or affordable to high school students. They have to try harder for sales.

Some, like Rachel Savané of Savané Silver jewelry in Victorian Square, get lots of Sweet 16 browsers, but her jewelry is "high-end" enough ($145 and up) that "reflection is required" before most browsers will buy.

So she gives every browser a free bookmark to help them remember her store and her creations until their next gift-buying occasion.

"I keep putting myself in their minds," Savané said.