Keeping Score

Texas A&M-Alabama: Inside College Football’s Supercharged Economy

From tailgating to sponsorships to early-morning beer sales, college football Saturdays are a carnival of commercialism. Except for the actual players.

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Todd Spoth for TIME

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel walks with his teammates onto the field for warm ups prior to an NCAA football game between the Texas A&M Aggies and the University of Alabama Crimson Tide.

“Insane!” says Mark Robinson, a graduate of Texas A&M University, as he parties with his former frat brothers just outside Kyle Field in College Station, Texas on Saturday afternoon. He had just been chanting — I couldn’t really tell what he was saying, but it was a joyous noise.

We’re an hour away from the highly anticipated battle between No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Texas A&M, which features defending Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Another Texas A&M student, huddling under tailgate tents that stretched forever around the stadium, called this day the Christmas he’s been waiting for his entire life.

Robinson, a global product development manager for a telemarketing company, calls the campus vibe “exciting, energetic, exhilarating.” He’s feeling it. “Lively.” Now Robinson, 42, puts his arm around my gross shoulder — the Texas heat is making me sweat; Robinson doesn’t care — his enthusiasm is kind of contagious. “The most important thing, it’s unifying. You see all cultures, all races, all religions out here.” Robinson belonged to an African-American fraternity — Omega Psi Phi — and he’s right, everyone is intermingling. Black and white. Alabama fans and Aggie fans, chugging beers together.

Robinson is wearing a No. 2 Texas A&M jersey — a Johnny Manziel jersey. He wants me to know one more thing, besides how damn happy college football makes him. “Manziel should get something,” says Robinson, referring to a cut of the money he paid for that shirt. “Absolutely, absolutely these guys should be paid. Football is a job, and it brings in millions.”

A few hours later, Manziel finished off another statistically freaky day, as he compiled 462 passing yards, five touchdown passes, and 103 rushing yards. His two interceptions, however, hurt. Texas A&M couldn’t overcome a 35-14 third quarter deficit in 49-42 loss to Alabama. (Alabama’s AJ McCarron, by the way, isn’t half bad either. He threw for 334 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions.) The defeat surely dampened Robinson’s, or any Aggie’s, mood.

Still, no scene captured the perks of college football quite like College Station on Saturday. Games like Bama-A&M deliver psychic benefits to guys like Robinson, publicity benefits to Texas A&M, economic benefits to everyone from sponsors to shirt-sellers to the port-o-potty operators. Thanks to Manziel, a polarizing figure who was accused of accepting money for signing autographs — Texas A&M and the NCAA cleared him — this was one of the most highly anticipated regular season games in years.

According to one study, a season’s worth of Texas A&M home games delivers $86 million in sales to Brazos County, where College Station sits.  The people who deliver the actual product everyone is all excited about — the players — deserve the right to earn more. An athletic scholarship, no doubt, is sweet. But College Station on Saturday resembled any insane NFL game, rock concert or NASCAR event in size and scope. It’s a commercialized carnival. In a fairer world, the college entertainers — just like the NFL players, the rock stars, and the NASCAR drivers — get a fairer cut.

(MORE: TIME Cover Story: It’s Time To Play College Athletes)

For John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M University system, the carnival delivers. Sharp says that private giving to Texas A&M has more than doubled in its most recent fiscal year, to $740 million. More than two-thirds of this haul, says Sharp, went for purposes outside of athletics. This rise follows Manziel’s Heisman run, and that’s no accident. “Football is one hell of a megaphone to make everyone look at your university,” says Sharp, speaking outside the president’s box at the top level of Kyle Field. (Jumbo shrimp is on the menu up here). He says he supports the Olympic model of player compensation, where athletes can secure sponsorships and profit from their names. “It doesn’t seem fair to me that an Olympic player, for instance, that may be a student here at A&M or the University of Tennessee or any place else, can sign an autograph and get $25 or something, and these guys can’t.”

On Saturday, the carnival got started before sunrise. At about 6:30 a.m. Chris Spletter, a senior chemical engineering major at Texas, was putting up a Karbach Brewing Company tent: the Houston brewery supplies the beer for the tailgate, in exchange for getting its name in front of hundreds, if not thousands, of passers-by. A Honda dealership donated three flat-screen TVs to the tailgaters, in exchange for flying a “John Eagle Honda” flag.

These types of deals are common.”Where the f–k is Trey?” asks Clay Thomas, an A&M alum who graduated in 1996, after I ask him why his tailgate has Nolan Ryan Beef signage. Thomas finds Trey Kirby, another Texas A&M alum who knows the controller of Nolan Ryan Beef and made this agreement.  Kirby says that they received 150 pounds of brisket, and 25 pounds of sausage, in exchange for the plug.

Even the all-time strikeout king is profiting from Johnny Football. “They get some good exposure for this,” says Kirby. “They already sell food in the stadium, this gets them out in the crowd.” Thomas pokes fun at this tailgate’s very distant connection to the Texas Rangers president, and baseball hall-of-famer. “Nolan Ryan came to my house, and I told my wife to get that bastard out of here,” says Thomas. His crew offers me a beer; Lone Star, the “National Beer of Texas.” It’s a little after 8:30 AM. Declining would be rude.

Tailgate deals can be more lucrative. Five years ago, an Auburn alum named Parker Duffey helped start a company called Tailgate Guys. Duffey worked out an agreement with A&M. Tailgate Guys offers prices — on this day, as low as $300, and as high as $30,000 — to set up any corporate or individual tailgate. The deals include a tent with the company or person’s name on it, food, chairs and other necessities. Tailgate Guys split the revenues with A&M (Duffey would not reveal the percentages).

Tailgate Guys has at least 40 tents scattered near the A&M Student Center and other locations on campus, for outfits like Mercuria Energy Trading Co., American Lumber, and Worham Insurance. Another client is Halliburton, which has a tent and food truck in Spence Park, to the east of Kyle Field. Charlie Schulze, a business development manager at Halliburton, said the oilfield services company gave $8,000 to the Tailgate Guys for chairs, tables, and a tent that’s 40 yards long.  Schulze spent $2,000 on alcohol and $4,500 on the food trailer to entertain 250-300 guests, which included many families of oilfield workers. “It’s like a family reunion,” says Schulze.

College football’s corporate influence is particularly strong at ESPN’s College GameDay setup, which took over the Simpson Drill Field on campus, just north of the stadium and student center. Sure, the scene is fun: students go nuts behind the TV cameras, trying to get themselves, and their handmade signs, on national television. One guy’s sign said, “I put off heart surgery to see Johnny woop ‘Bama.” I was skeptical of his claim — “I could have a stroke at any minute,” he said a bit too enthusiastically. I asked to immediately call his surgeon for backup. He said he didn’t have the doc’s phone number, but offered one for his dad. Pop verified it on the spot. “Aw, hell no,” Dad said when I asked if he tried to talk his son out surgery. “He’s a tough kid. He thinks he’s Johnny Football.” If this is some ruse, well-played, I guess.

On the GameDay grounds, Coke Zero — which in this taste-tester’s opinion is a fairly terrible beverage — set up a spectator section. Reps were handing out Coke Zeros all morning. Nissan’s Heisman House is right around the corner: the company erected a 3,600 square-foot facility on another A&M field. People snake around the corner to snap pictures with the Heisman Trophy and check out the latest Nissan model, of course. Home Depot, presenting GameDay sponsor, gave out orange helmets to the students, which meant the kid holding an “AJ McCarron pees while sitting down” sign was wearing an orange Home Depot helmet. Neat bit of branding.

Cheez-It also had a booth on the GameDay field. “We have these sweet glasses,” says the rep, handing over specs that say “Cheez-It” on the lenses. College students were playing Cornhole with Cheez-It bags. One pair of students walked toward the stadium wearing Cheez-It glasses and Home Depot helmets. Too bad they were carrying beers, not Coke Zero.

For the sponsors, ties to the popular GameDay program has real value. “They get exposure on high-profile real estate on ESPN,” says Lee Fitting, senior coordinating producer for GameDay. “And this week, they got it for three days instead of two.”

A host of other big brands are on campus. Chik-fil-A is giving away sandwiches. At the Ford booth, sign up to win a new car. Inside AT&T’s truck, you can play with some new phones. On football Saturday, a college campus morphs into a free market business fair. But for some reason, one set of very valuable assets on a campus — players — can’t work in such a free market.

Up on University Drive, right off campus, the Texas Aggieland Bookstore is seeing an uptick in sales. The No. 2 jerseys — Manziel’s name isn’t on the back, but they’re Manziel jerseys — go for $65 for a large, $35 for your two-year-old. “Last fall, we couldn’t get them in quick enough,” says Wiley Tarver, a book store manager. “But they’re still very popular.” Closer to kickoff, the huge Barnes and Noble bookstore in the student center overrun with customers, like Disney World. There,  the top-seller Manziel jersey goes for $84.98.

University Drive is also home to A&M’s bar strip, which is having a very healthy week. One popular spot, Dixie Chicken, already has 125-plus patrons at 9:45 AM on Saturday. Katy Jackson, a co-owner, says that the night before, business was up 50% over a normal Friday before a big game. “We never release specific numbers, but we can tell you that we are happy,” says Jackson. “Managers and bartenders are loving their tips.”

After the loss to Alabama, A&M fans flock back to the bars: they need to drink away their sorrows, which is always good for business. They go back to their hotel rooms, which cost a fortune. They buy more food to finish off their tailgates. The football-fueled fun, and profits, aren’t over.

Manziel, meanwhile, marches toward the stadium exit wearing his headphones, surrounded by three guards. He opens the passenger-side door of a Ford SUV; one of the guards gets in the driver’s side. The guard drives Manziel away.

(MORE: Johnny Manziel Can Change The NFL’s Rules Forever)