Sold out: Football fans fill dorms left empty at Mizzou after enrollment drop

COLUMBIA, Mo. • Die-hard fan Dave Merz sent an email in May to leaders at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

“With enrollment down and the closing of several dorms, could some of the closed dorms be used for housing parents during home football games?” he asked.

A month later, Mizzou announced plans to do just that.

The dorm-turned-hotel planning was likely months into the making by the time Merz sent his email, but the loyal Tigers fan put his money where his mouth is.

With their arms full of bags, Merz and his wife, Holly, checked into Discovery Hall hours before kickoff Saturday — their third game this season where they opted for a dorm room over a hotel to sleep in after a day of tailgating and football.

For a two-room, four-bed and shared-bathroom suite, the cost is $120 per night. It’s an extra $30 to park in a parking garage that’s a jaunt away, but Mizzou students man golf carts that pick up guests from the garage and take them to the dorms.

When Mizzou administrators announced they would rent out 94 suites per weekend for the football season, the criticism rolled in from people who are still frustrated with the way the school handled protests in 2015. Renting out the dorms is another way of handling the fallout — with almost 2,000 fewer freshmen this fall than there were two years ago, there is no shortage of empty rooms.

It’s scrappy, Merz argues. It shows leaders are “thinking outside of the box.”

It’s not a Band-Aid for the millions of dollars in lost tuition revenue, but Mizzou spokesman Christian Basi said the school pulled in more than $20,000 per game so far on the dorm rental.

And they’re booked for the season.

Andrew Sommer, a finance guru for the residential life office, said the waiting list for Homecoming weekend is 150 requests deep. He’s getting at least 15 per day.

They didn’t know what to expect in June when the chief operating officer announced the dorm rental to the governing board and the public, but it’s been worth it according to Basi.

“We had a total loss of about $5 million, so you’re talking zero (dollars) if we do nothing versus $60,000 (three games in) — of course it’s worth it,” he said.

Not a five-star hotel

Mizzou has received more than 5,000 dorm rental requests for the season. There are three buildings that are being used for guest housing: Discovery, Respect and Excellence halls.

People interested in staying in the guest housing have to file a request form, and if other people cancel they get a notice from the campus that the reservation is theirs.

The university doesn’t collect much trend data about the people who are staying, like whether or not they’re alumni, but Basi said about 40 percent of all requests are coming from the St. Louis region.

Just more than a third of the guests come from out of state.

Staying in the dorm was an adventure for Auburn fans Susan Jernigan and Jeanette Mizerany this past weekend. They traveled to Memorial Stadium as part of their personal challenge to visit all of the Southeastern Conference stadiums and schools. Auburn won’t come to Mizzou for at least another 12 years, so this was their shot.

“I heard on the radio in Birmingham (Alabama) that (Mizzou) was doing this, so I called the number and tried to get a reservation,” Jernigan said. The longtime friends go on an adventure at each school they visit — staying in the dorms was their Mizzou adventure.

Once they got their reservation, they canceled a hotel booked in Kingdom City that was $900 for the weekend for two rooms — six times what they paid at Mizzou.

Jim Romanek, a Purdue fan from Chicago, said his family had a memorable experience when they followed their team to Columbia for the matchup against Mizzou the previous weekend.

“If you’re looking for a five-star hotel, it’s not that,” he said. “But if you want to go back to college and stay in the dorms, it was great.”

Each room has a few sets of towels and some travel-size soaps, but that’s about it. Romanek was among a half dozen guests who said the simplicity worked considering fans from either team spend most of their day out at tailgates before the game, and really only come back to the room to sleep. Being out and about also makes it less bothersome that alcohol isn’t allowed in the guest housing.

With three home games left, the calls are still rolling in for remaining football games, basketball season, May 2018 graduation and next football season. While graduation might happen, there won’t be dorm rental options for the much-anticipated basketball season.

Sommer said there are restrictions that come with the buildings, which were built on bonds, that limits the number of days that the space can be used for events that aren’t more directly related to the university, like a conference.

By next football season, there’s also a question about whether or not enrollment will be back up at Mizzou and the dorms will be filled with students, not guests.

Holly Merz, who traveled with her husband from south St. Louis County, joked that the couple are getting to relive their college days at the school where they met. She unpacked a black-and-gold blanket for her dorm bed before the Auburn game. Her daughter is a freshman, living in a different dorm down the street.

“I shouldn’t say this but I hope the next three years that enrollment is down so I can stay in the dorms and come hang out with the kids,” she joked. They’ve stayed in hotels on and off for the last few seasons. “It’s been a lot of fun acting like we’re young again, and the price is right.”