Midlands retailers usually look forward to the football season for a boost in sales, but this year the dismal economy has put a damper on fan travel.
Florida Gator fans are in town in force to watch their No. 1-ranked team take on the Gamecocks at 3:30 p.m. today.
The Florida game has sold out Williams-Brice Stadium for the first time this year. Many of the fans are coming up from Gainesville, Fla. - a six-hour car ride - as they support the defending national champions.
"This looks like the best weekend yet," said Sharon May, owner of Hennessy's on Main Street.
Hennessy's is among the restaurants and hotels in the Midlands that had seen sales and bookings drop this fall as fewer football fans spent money on dining and staying overnight.
May said the restaurant's sales on football weekends have been off by as much as 60 percent so far this season. But this weekend, she had advance reservations for Friday night and tonight.
Embassy Suites hotel on Greystone Boulevard was booked for the weekend up two weeks in advance.
"Everybody wants to come to this game," said Steve Graves, the hotel's general manager. "It was not a difficult task to get the hotel filled up. That has not been the case with other opponents we've played."
Eddie Wales, owner of Motor Supply Co. in the Vista and Tombo Grille in Forest Acres, said games with strong Southeastern Conference opponents, including Florida, typically mean more sales on Friday night.
He said business was worse last year and has picked up some this year. He hopes next year - when the Gamecocks host more SEC opponents - will be even better.
"Every other year, we get bigger SEC games here," he said. "This is the off year."
Tony Tam, who manages the Hilton and the Hampton Inn on Senate Street, said his hotels are booked up for the weekend.
For other games this season, many fans have waited until the day of the game to come to town, which meant his hotels were not always booked on Friday night.
But this weekend, Graves of the Embassy Suites said, nearly every hotel room in the downtown area is booked for the full weekend.
"With this much demand in the city, everybody's going to sell," he said.
Stanley and Angela Cox, of Lake City, Fla., were shopping in full Gator regalia Friday evening at Green's Discount Beer and Wine on Assembly Street. They said they have seen large Florida crowds on the road this year.
"It's got to be because of the record," Stanley Cox said. "We're 9-0 going into this game and ranked No. 1 in both the polls, so more people are traveling."
Angela Cox said the couple attends at least two away games a year not including the annual game against Georgia in Jacksonville, called the world's largest cocktail party. In addition to the Jacksonville game, the couple always attend Florida games in Columbia.
"When South Carolina first joined the SEC, the people here were so nice," she said. "They have the best fans in the conference. They're amazing."