If the Sun Belt Conference were to cancel its fall football season — as of this week, playing 12 games, maybe 11, remained the members’ goal — there would be an economic impact on Lafayette and its environs. But how much?

Ben Berthelot, president and CEO of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission, said the impact depends upon the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s football schedule every year. And it’s not necessarily the Ragin’ Cajuns’ Sun Belt opponents who provide the biggest draw of out-of-town fans, people whose hotel visits and local spending can make an economic difference for Lafayette-area retailers, restaurants and on local sales tax collections.

“This year, it’s McNeese State,” Berthelot said of what he believes is UL Lafayette’s most attractive game — a game that was canceled Thursday. Tourism officials thought the scheduled Sept. 5 game against the Cowboys would drive about 1,000 overnight stays at areas hotels and make an impact of $1.525 million on the local economy, based on an average expense of $227 per person attending the game.

McNeese, although not a member of the top college football division, has a proud football tradition and, located in nearby Lake Charles, poses as a natural rival. The expectation — pre-COVID-19, that is — was that 28,000 would attend a McNeese-UL Lafayette game in Lafayette. Not now.

Some concerns were raised about the game being played because the Southland Conference, of which McNeese is a member, decided this week to delay its conference football schedule until spring. Nonetheless, the Southland may permit individual member schools to play some fall games. But the Cowboys confirmed Thursday they would not play this fall.

Berthelot said that McNeese and schools from the Southwestern Athletic Conference — in-state SWAC programs Grambling State and Southern University, in particular — usually provide the biggest local draws. Fans of those schools travel enthusiastically to road games.

But the other out-of-town opponents initially scheduled to visit Cajun Field this year — Wyoming, Georgia Southern, Coastal Carolina, Arkansas State and South Alabama — were less promising for filling local rooms and packing the stadium. Berthelot said those opponents were projected to fill only 100 to 250 hotel rooms per game — for the most part, visitors from the opposing teams themselves — and generate only as little as $554,800 of an economic nudge per game. Here’s how Berthelot said the home games were projected to affect the local economy: McNeese, $1,525,000; Wyoming, $656,100; Georgia Southern, $893,500; Coastal Carolina, $637,400; Arkansas State, $656,100; South Alabama, $554,800.

Wyoming dropped from the UL Lafayette schedule because its conference, the Mountain West, has postponed fall sports. The Ragin’ Cajuns have since filled that Sept. 12 spot with a road game on Sept. 12 vs. Iowa State and is hoping to add a home date to replace the Wyoming game.

Gary Wagner, Acadiana business economist and economics professor at UL Lafayette, said scholarly literature on the economic impact of college football shows that few programs make a big economic impact on their local communities.

“We’re not in the league of an LSU,” Wagner said of UL Lafayette. “Even if you have UL playing here and the stadium is sold out, many of those would be local people who might spend money at the stadium. But that money would displace money that would be spent elsewhere in the community if they hadn’t gone to the game.”

The real economic impact, he said, is felt by out-of-town guests who are staying overnight and opening their wallets in the community for such activities as buying gasoline, shopping or dining out.

“We’re talking about a one-day event,” Wagner added of football games. Even if people travel to Lafayette to watch football, it wouldn’t necessarily have as much economic impact here as a three-day event, such as a festival.

Randy Daniel, president of the Acadiana Chapter of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, said restaurant owners have been discussing a variety of ways to serve customers during home games. For example, he said, they might broadcast games on big screens and host tailgate parties in restaurant parking lots.

“It will affect us,” he said of the home schedule. “We do a lot of catering for tailgates. For restaurants, football is a big deal.”

Some customers want to sit at the bar, others prefer outside venues. However restaurant owners decide to serve customers, he said, they must follow COVID-19 social distancing rules.

He said association members have been discussing how to accommodate game night customers but for now, there is no one clear plan.

“What I tell everyone is to have four or five plans in your back pocket. Be ready for whatever. It’s kind of the way restaurants have had to be all year.

“I’ve changed the layout of my restaurant six times this year. Restaurants change on a whim; we do what’s best for our customers.” Those changes come as often as mandates during the pandemic.

A 2013 economic impact study by the Lafayette Economic Development Authority suggests that college football’s impact is not insignificant here. It measured the impact at $37 million, with a contribution of $23 million to the Acadiana Gross Domestic Product. College football supports 291 jobs, the study said.

Of course, college football does more than move the bottom line, Berthelot said. Fans needs the shared, unifying community impact that sports teams lend to an area, he said.

Adam Daigle contributed to this report.

Acadiana Business Today: Economist: Total jobs lost in Louisiana due to COVID-19 now nearly double total lost from Katrina

Email Ken Stickney at kstickney@theadvocate.com.