USC hopes win will boost season ticket sales

jperson@thestate.comDecember 6, 2009 

University of South Carolina head Steve Spurrier, left is congratulated on a victory by Clemson University head coach Dabo Swinney at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday. South Carolina won 34-17.

ERIK CAMPOS/ECAMPOS@THESTATE.COM

  • Gamecocks vs. Huskies

    WHO: USC (7-5) vs. UConn (7-5)

    WHEN: 2 p.m. Jan. 2

    WHERE: Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.

    TV: ESPN

South Carolina's victory against Clemson last weekend did more than save the season.

The 34-17 victory likely saved the Gamecocks' bowl budget and, boosters hope, will stem the fan malaise that set in last year, after a season-ending losing streak and the implementation of seat fees at Williams-Brice Stadium.

This fall, USC failed to sell all its season tickets for the first time in a decade, resulting in sections of empty seats at several games. With the economy in the tank and the Gamecocks losers of three in a row entering the Clemson game, USC was in danger of staggering into another offseason of trying to sell tickets and Gamecock Club memberships to a disgruntled fan base.

But last week's win changes all that, some say.

Those observers - including an influential, long-serving member of the university's board of trustees - think the win was one of the biggest in the school's history for the collective psyche of USC fans.

"In looking back at my time at the university, I think this is probably the biggest win that I can remember," said Eddie Floyd, who donated $1.5 million toward the construction of USC's football offices. "I think it is huge."

"It's not just beating Clemson. It's the timing. I think the university needed this boost."

The win did not help the Gamecocks (7-5) reach a more prestigious bowl; they are expected to receive an invitation today to the Papajohns.com Bowl, which gets the last pick from the SEC's bowl-eligible teams.

But it likely played a part in last week's announcement that coach Steve Spurrier will receive a one-year contract extension through the end of the 2013 season. It is difficult to envision such an announcement had Spurrier lost for the fourth time in five tries against Clemson.

Though no one has suggested one game will turn the Gamecocks into an instant SEC title contender, officials hope to ride the momentum of the Clemson win into the offseason.

"A program has to create hope, and I think what transpired (against Clemson), it created excitement and hope for the future," athletics director Eric Hyman said. "Unfortunately, last year we didn't end it on the same note."

Hyman called the game a "huge step" for Spurrier's program.

"This is not a quick fix," Hyman added. "This is a program we're trying to build, a winning program."

Likewise, some experts and Gamecock supporters think it will take more than one game to win back fans who were alienated when USC rolled out its YES - Yearly Equitable Seating - plan last year. That plan required season-ticket holders to pay fees ranging from $50 to $395 for the right to buy their seat.

USC lost 16 percent of its season-ticket base - an attrition rate that was three times as high as anticipated, in part due to the weak economy, officials said. The Gamecock Club has 1,400 fewer members than in 2008, although officials said 1,400 new members are lined up for next year.

The Gamecocks' home attendance dropped to an average of 75,368 fans a game from 80,529 in 2008. Still, USC ranked 17th nationally and seventh in the SEC in average attendance.

Among the schools ahead of USC in attendance, only Texas A&M had as steep a drop-off. Clemson, which implemented seat licenses a year earlier than USC, saw a slightly smaller dip - to 74,214 fans a game from 78,001 in 2008, dropping the Tigers two spots to 20th nationally.

USC sport and entertainment management professor Matt Bernthal, who has done research on fan motivation, thinks the Clemson win will help the Gamecocks sell tickets to the Jan. 2 bowl game in Birmingham.

Last year USC sold 7,284 tickets from its 11,000-ticket allotment for the Outback Bowl, and needed a bailout from the SEC to cover the nearly $250,000 difference.

Bernthal thinks USC needs an 8- or 9-win season next year to recapture the fans who walked away.

"You're always going to have your strong core," said Bernthal, who came to Columbia for graduate school in 1990. "But to get them really, really jazzed to where virtually all your home games are packed through the season, (and) club contributions are (up), it's going to take more than one emotionally satisfying win over a rival that you've been losing to fairly consistently."

Eric Mohn, a Columbia attorney with two degrees from USC, had season tickets "of one form or another" every year since 1976 until this season. Mohn said he and his father, a retired USC business professor, grew tired of being asked to pay more to support a program with an overall record of below .500 (534-535-44 in 116 seasons).

Mohn, who attended 111 consecutive home games until missing a 1992 game for his sister's wedding, went to only two games this year. He doubts he will buy season tickets again.

"There's only so much the athletic department can ask of people if they continue to put out the same product," said Mohn, who was not a Gamecock Club member.

But marketing professor Bernthal said USC had to find a way to raise the money needed to build and maintain the facilities necessary to compete in the SEC.

For example, the athletics department is scheduled to open the $13 million Dodie Anderson academic enrichment center in January - the first phase of a plan to transform the Roost area into an athletics village modeled after the Horseshoe.

The YES plan brought in $6.7 million, although it cost USC $2 million in lost ticket revenues and several thousand fans.

Floyd calls the seat fees "excessive" but is hopeful the Clemson win will bring back some of those fans.

"When the economy went bad, I thought we should scale back. But it was done," Floyd said. "I think this is a boost, and I think we'll have a lot more people signing up for our (YES) program.

"I think we will come much closer to filling up the stadium."

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

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