In September 2013, Dawn Staley launched a bold initiative. Her women’s basketball program was coming off two straight NCAA tournament trips and had started to build a following, and she thought it would be a great idea to produce a “Drive for 5,” hoping for 5,000 fans per game for the 2013-14 season.
At this rate, she’ll be lucky to see five more fans jammed into Colonial Life Arena for the next game. There won’t be any room.
South Carolina leads the country in average attendance. The Gamecocks’ mark of 11,631 makes them the only one of 349 teams averaging over 10,000 fans per game. The next two teams on the list, Tennessee and Connecticut, have combined for 17 national championships.
The Lady Vols average 9,938 in a building that holds over 21,000, and the Huskies get 8,832 in a 16,000-plus stadium.
The cavernous CLA, praised as a beautiful facility for concerts and events but rarely a home-court advantage for its primary tenant, has been transformed into the place to be on Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons.
Staley’s Gamecocks, ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25 for the eighth straight week and cruising with a 16-0 record (4-0 SEC), have placed 16,465 and 17,156 in the 18,000-seat arena during their past two home games.
Those are the third- and second-largest crowds that have watched a USC women’s game in the building’s history.
USC is getting used to re-adjusting the top 10 attended games – the former No. 2 and No. 3 games were last year, with 12,458 fans attending a win against Georgia to witness the Gamecocks clinch the SEC regular-season championship and 10,547 the game before that.
The most the women’s team has ever had is 17,712 on CLA’s opening night in 2002, when $1 admission and archrival Clemson in the house nearly sold it out. Staley has had her eye on surpassing that.
“I think we’re inching toward selling the place out, and I hope we do it,” Staley said. “Not very many women’s basketball teams are selling out arenas that hold 18,000, let alone 10,000.”
Gamecock fans have poured through the turnstiles as USC has taken its place among the heavyweights, the team winning 45 of 50 games since Staley created the “Drive for 5.” Her team loves it, many remembering the days when a crowd of 1,000 was considered phenomenal.
“You can look up in any direction and see our fans, and they’re all behind us, no matter if we’re down, no matter if we’re up,” junior guard Khadijah Sessions said. “They’re good people. I’m telling you, the more fans we see, the (more) hyper we get and the better, I think, we play.”
With six home games remaining and potentially two more in the NCAA tournament (the Gamecocks are expected to host the first and second rounds this year), Staley hopes to keep filling the all-time attendance chart.
It would be great if the top-10 list was entirely composed of games from this year and topped by a sellout or two, she said.
“Gamecock Nation is greedy. They’re greedy fans. They want to be the very best,” Staley said. “In order for you to do that, you got to get people in the stands. It’s a beautiful thing to see unfold.”