The University of South Carolina Gamecocks might have a new title – South Carolina’s largest tourist attraction.
The 1.1 million fans who attended University of South Carolina games in the fall of 2013 and spring of 2014 surpassed the state’s recognized top spot for visitors, Columbia’s Riverbanks Zoo, according to data from a first-of-its-kind study.
Gamecock athletics score an economic impact of $199 million and create 2,329 jobs annually for the Columbia metro area, according to a new University of South Carolina study. More than half of that money comes from outside the Midlands.
The university has analyzed the financial impact of its football team over the past two decades but has not looked at all sports. However, new surveys in the past year examined how much fans spent at football, basketball and baseball games, said Tom Regan, a sports and entertainment professor at USC who conducted the study that polled 1,273 fans.
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While he has not studied all sports in the past, Regan estimated the financial impact of Gamecocks sports would grow with the athletics department’s revenues. USC’s athletics revenues have grown from $19 million in 1991 to $46 million in 2004 to $90 million in 2014.
“I can’t think of anything else that brings 1.1 million (fans) to the city with all the spending and goodwill that comes from that,” he said.
USC leaders said they understand athletics is not the school’s main mission. Sports is what USC president Harris Pastides called the university’s front porch.
“I think of great universities, private and public – like Stanford, Michigan and South Carolina – that have managed to have great academics and great athletics, so I certainly reject the notion that it’s either/or,” Pastides said. “At the best universities, athletics and academics work in tandem.”
Still, the report provides a peek at the financial impact of the passion that fans have for Gamecocks sports – and of those willing to travel to see their teams play USC, Pastides said.
The school did not release the report with an eye toward justifying a new building project, said Charles Bloom, USC’s senior associate athletics director for external affairs.
Just like other parts of the school, USC’s athletics department has gone through a spurt of building projects in the past few years – including new administration and academic buildings, new baseball and softball fields, two new football practice fields, a new 3,000-spot tailgating lot and a new plaza around Williams-Brice Stadium, now under construction.
USC athletics director Ray Tanner has spoken about adding more luxury boxes at Williams-Brice to generate added revenue, but the school has not submitted any plans.
The athletics department is self-sustaining and does not receive money from USC’s academic operations. But students pay a $172-a-year fee that generates about $2.5 million a year for Gamecocks athletics. In return, they are not charged for game tickets.
The UK bandwagon
Columbia area tourism officials already are working to find ways to take advantage of the number of visiting teams and their fans who come to town for Gamecock games.
Advertisements touting the region’s attractions are placed in alumni magazines and other publications for teams coming to Columbia, said Kelly Barbrey, vice president of sales and marketing for the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports & Tourism.
“We’re trying to get them to spend the night and get them talking about Columbia,” she said.
Sometimes, however, USC has no control over how many fans of visiting teams attend a game.
“It depends: How is your team doing?” USC’s Bloom said. Simply put: A hot team draws more out-of-town fans than one with a losing record.
One constant that USC’s Regan found was the bandwagon that follows University of Kentucky basketball. Last season, Wildcat fans helped set the season high in attendance at USC’s Colonial Life Arena.
Consider: Two out of three fans who came to Columbia the weekend of the Kentucky-USC game were there to see the Wildcats. For other football, basketball and baseball games, most fans come to see the home team, the Gamecocks.
“They can’t get tickets (at home), and they travel,” Regan said of the Wildcat fans. “And their spending is unbelievably high.”
The Kentucky faithful spent more on shopping than visiting fans attending other games, according to surveys. The Wildcats dropped $110 a person on average. Only fans who traveled to Carolina Stadium to watch a three-game baseball series against Alabama came close to that number.
One other interesting finding in Regan’s study: The 2013 in-state rivalry football game against Clemson brought fans from the farthest distance of any of the events surveyed. Fans of what’s now called the Palmetto Bowl traveled some 527 miles, on average.
“That game will attract alumni for both schools from across the country,” Regan said. “It is the game.”