Florida-Alabama To Draw Huge Fan Attendance

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Angel Wells plans to attend a tailgate Saturday morning with a group of her friends before joining the droves of football fans headed for Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for the 3:30 p.m. kickoff. 

Rick Fowler looks forward to sitting on his couch, surrounded by friends, and tuning in to CBS on his 90-inch TV.

No. 1 Alabama will play at No.11 Florida in Gainesville for the first time since 2011. This notable SEC matchup in The Swamp is expected to draw a huge fan turnout, with tickets for Saturday’s game sold out since last week.

Sarah D’Elia has fueled a jet sitting on the tarmac. Like many other employees at the University Air Center, a fixed-base operator near Gainesville Regional Airport, she has worked long hours throughout the week because of an influx of tourists arriving in Gainesville for the much-anticipated Florida-Alabama football game on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Alabama is ranked No. 1, and Florida, No. 11.

D’Elia’s colleague, Kyle Spears, a line service technician supervisor for the airport, added that the airport is anticipating 120 jets and over 100 piston planes.

“Normally we would have 20 to 25 jets,” Spears said. “Roughly half a billion dollars’ worth of aircraft will be on the tarmac.”

University Air Center is preparing for this increase in traffic. The airport is also discussing shutting down taxiways due to airport overflow. If shut down, these taxiways would be used to as overflow parking for extra aircraft that the airport would not normally have storage for.

“It puts a strain on the airport, but it’s nothing we can’t handle,” Spears said.

High attendance for the game will be comparable to Florida’s 2019 victory over Auburn, which was attended by over 90,000 fans. This gives the game potential to turn into a super-spreader event. The game’s potential to spread COVID-19 has not deterred fans from attending, however.

Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on a sunny Gainesville day. The University of Florida is preparing its campus in anticipation of the large fan attendance for Sunday’s game. (Connor O’Bryan/WUFT News)

There was a slight rise in COVID-19 cases at the University of Florida after September 4th’s home game against Florida Atlantic University.

UF Health reported 59 new cases of COVID-19 on September 3, the Friday before that game. This was a relatively high number compared to similar averages for that time. In the days after the game, few cases were reported. However, these cases rose steadily, plateauing at 40 new cases on September 8, several days after the game.

This would be around when those who had contracted the virus at the event would have begun experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Regardless of this slight surge, a massive fan attendance is still expected for Saturday’s game.

The tourists are expected to have a huge economic impact on the city of Gainesville. Staci-Ann Bertrand, the vice president of economic development for the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, has noticed a significant increase in the local hospitality sector’s economic output this month. This comes in large part from an influx of people from outside of Gainesville who have come to town for Saturday’s game.

According to Bertrand, this influx of tourists has led to a major increase in hotel occupancy rates, with the current occupancy rate for the month of August being higher than it was pre-pandemic.

Bertrand says that in August 2019, the occupancy rate for Gainesville area hotels was 65%. This number dipped to 54% for August 2020 but has now risen to 68% for August 2021.

“The overall impact to our region is that the Gainesville region is back to pre-pandemic levels in sports tourism. We rely on students and sports tourism when times are tough and not a lot of people are here to keep businesses doing well,” Bertrand said.

Bertrand also noted that due to this increase in tourists, these hotels are running low on materials. Similarly, many restaurants are short-staffed and are now offering increased wages to meet this weekend’s large tourist demand.

Saturday’s Florida-Alabama game will be senior Alex Mueck’s first ever college football game. (Connor O’Bryan/WUFT News)

The Gator Gameday Experience

Many University of Florida students plan on attending the game. One student attending the game is Alex Mueck. Mueck, a senior, transferred to Florida from the University of North Florida. Saturday’s game will be the first college football game Mueck has ever attended.

“It’s my first game ever. It’s amazing. I’m very excited,” Mueck said. “It’s an awesome opportunity to see the Swamp go nuts against Alabama.”

Another Gator fan who will be attending the game is junior Angel Wells. Wells will be tailgating, then walking to the game with her friends.

“I expect it to be crazy. When Auburn was here my freshman year there was 90,000 people in the Swamp. It was so loud as soon as you stepped foot in it. I expect it to be even crazier than that,” Wells said. “If we end up winning, Gainesville is going to erupt.”

Like Wells, junior Lauren Dostal will also be tailgating. Unlike Wells, she will not be attending the game.

“I don’t really care about going to any of the games to be honest. I had really bad experiences going to them when I was a freshman. And I don’t really care about football. I just like when they win because my friends that care are happy. I really just like tailgating and going out after. It’s the gameday vibe for me,” Dostal said.

While many Gator fans are excited to attend Saturday’s game, others seem to be dreading it, with spirits low against the juggernaut Crimson Tide. One Gator fan with low expectations is Rick Fowler. Fowler, who graduated from Rollins College, became a Gator fan after a friend brought him to the game.

“I just fell in love with it and became a part of the team. I call it Gators fan by osmosis,” Fowler said.

Fowler will not be attending Saturday’s game. However, Fowler did attend the last Florida-Alabama game in Gainesville.

The Oct. 1, 2011, game was an Alabama blowout victory. The Gators lost the game 38-10. Fowler noted that Alabama seemed larger and more physical than Florida. He also said that in the post-Tebow era, the Gators were not as strong of a team. While that game was a blowout unto itself, Fowler expects Saturday’s game to go even worse for the Gators.

“It was ugly. And it will be uglier Saturday,” Fowler said.

Fowler believes the Gators will lose against Alabama because of their poor defense, noting that the team gave up double-digit points to both Florida Atlantic University and the University of South Florida, both of which are unranked teams. Despite his low expectations, Fowler is still excited to watch the game.

Not every North Central Florida resident will be rooting for Florida on Saturday. Luke Nelson, from Lake Mary, Florida, is an Alabama fan excited for the game.

“I feel like Alabama is my team. You just feel it. I have such a connection to them,” Nelson said. “When I go to the gas station, I wear an Alabama hat. I always get a ‘Roll Tide’.”

Nelson believes Alabama’s offense will control the game, and that the Crimson Tide defense will play exceptionally well too. However, he also believes that Saturday’s matchup will be much closer than most fans expect.

“It’s the SEC opener for both teams, and we don’t play each other often. This is a prove it game for both of them. We get to see what they’re both made of,” Nelson said.

About Connor O'Bryan

Connor is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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