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Jay Paterno: THON's Other Impact

by on February 23, 2012 6:00 AM

Shortly after the stunning THON fundraising total was announced Sunday afternoon, I started to contemplate just how much money that represents not just for the Four Diamonds Fund but beyond. While the primary focus is rightly placed on the money raised For The Kids, there is something else going on with THON weekend.

THON weekend is also good for business in State College. The information I have is purely anecdotal and not representative of any in-depth scientific economic analysis. From hotel and restaurant owners I know, each year I am hearing more and more about the increased activity during THON weekend. One restaurant owner downtown told me his numbers from last Thursday through Saturday night were football weekend-esque.

Walking around town on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I met proud parents of dancers, moralers, committee members and other students involved in every aspect of THON. There was the Hope Express R.V. I ran into outside the Nittany Lion Inn — a group of THON alums that ran from Hershey to State College.

But the caravan of visitors doesn’t end there.

During my time at THON, I was fortunate to spend time Friday night with Elaine Tanella, the overall chair of THON. Right next to her were the two previous THON Overall Chairs — from 2011, Kirsten Kelly and from 2010, Caitlin Zankowski. There was a kinship beyond the obvious bonds of sisterhood. There was a commitment to the cause and a push from each to help the next chair be successful in breaking the record it had set.

They told me of countless friends from previous THONs returning for the weekend.

In town and at the Bryce Jordan Center, I met scores of THON alums. As the tradition of THON begins a fifth decade as a Penn State institution, there are thousands and thousands of THON alumni all with a deep tie to the event, the cause and to this university.

As one THON alumna told me, “It is like a homecoming weekend for us.”

In the future, as THON grows bigger and bigger, they’ll be more and more students working on THON each year, and that creates more and more alumni of this incredible event. They will graduate and feel the annual pull to come back.

In 2005, Sports Illustrated named a Penn State football weekend "The Greatest Show in College Sports." THON has become "The Greatest Show in College Life."

While the economic numbers of a football weekend or Arts Fest have been studied over and over again, I have not seen the numbers run for THON weekend. I cannot help but wonder what the big-picture numbers might be off-campus between hotels, restaurants, gas stations, sales of merchandise and parking downtown.

For the Jordan Center, the attendance numbers boost concession sales. People are filing in and out of the building by the tens of thousands over a 46-hour period. Friday night it was filled to capacity. On THON Sunday morning, they shut the doors on a capacity crowd of around 15,000 at 7:30 or 8:00 a.m and the place was jammed to the rafters until after 4:00 p.m.

That represents sales of a lot of Subway sandwiches, hot dogs, nachos and creamery ice cream. When you compare that eight-hour stretch to a two-hour concert or basketball game, you realize that THON Sunday has to represent the single biggest day of concession sales all year long.

Taken all together, it definitely adds up for the State College community. I’d venture a guess, but it would be what a former colleague used to call a S.W.A.G. — a sophisticated wild-a** guess. If it hasn’t already been done, our world-class Penn State Smeal College of Business ought to look at the number of visitors that come into town and the amount of money they spend over THON weekend. I’ll bet it is an impressive number now, and one that will grow as more and more people become tied to this event each year.

Ultimately the most important number is the money raised For The Kids. The total of just less than $10.7 million represents almost 180 percent of the roughly $6 million Penn State makes in Beaver Stadium for each home football game.

THON provides funds For The Kids in Hershey, but the number we haven’t yet fully grasped is the economic surge it creates each February in State College. What is becoming clearer and clearer is the bond it is creating among students who become alumni that return each winter to celebrate THON weekend and what is good about Dear Old State.

One thing is certainly clear, it is only going to grow into the future. Perhaps next year THON parades across the street on the last morning for THON Sunday in Beaver Stadium.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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