NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The night air is crisp and the leaves are changing colors, both signs of fall. In many college towns across America, the changing leaves also signal the beginning of football season and one of the most important weekends of the year for students, alumni, residents and small businesses in town: Homecoming.
Oklahoma State University in Stillwater boasts one of the largest homecoming celebrations in the country, according to Chase Carter, director of communications for the OSU Alumni Association. The festivities, which begin a week before the big Saturday game, include campus competitions, a harvest carnival and chili cook-off, street painting and parties and culminate on the Friday night before the game with a "Walkaround" in which hundreds of thousands of people walk a 10-block area to see the Greek houses elaborately decorated. Carter says it is the Walkaround that really draws the crowds, bringing in an estimated 80,000 people last year. That is pretty amazing, given the football stadium only holds 60,000 people, he says. The stadium is a sign of just how big the business of college football has become: Once known as Lewis Field for an education pioneer at the university, it is now branded Boone Pickens Stadium for corporate raider, oil and gas entrepreneur, and OSU alum T. Boone Pickens, who donated $165 million to the university. Homecoming at OSU, which has been held since 1913 has grown progressively since the alumni association took over in the 1920s, says Carter. The town of 50,000 -- 25,000 of whom are students -- prepares for this one big weekend in October (this year homecoming will be held on Oct. 19-20 when OSU plays Iowa State) all year. About 250 students participate directly on committees and Carter says that the alumni association spends about $200,000 on homecoming festivities each year, which includes a stipend to each Greek house to decorate for Walkaround. Most of the alumni money currently is raised through fees, although some restaurants in town donate a portion of their sales the week of homecoming to help offset costs. Carter says that about 15 eateries participated last year. The return on investment for the town and its business owners includes more than just getting to meet up with some of the 245,000 alumni each year. The Stillwater Chamber of Commerce estimates that an average of $80 is spent by each visitor in the town during homecoming weekend.