Steve Spurrier offered a conciliatory message Tuesday to fans he once chided for leaving Williams-Brice Stadium early.
“We are fired up that (Saturday’s game against Kentucky) is another sellout. We appreciate our fans buying the tickets, and I want to say this: I can’t criticize our fans if they leave early. I appreciate you buying the tickets,” South Carolina’s coach said.
That olive branch didn’t reach all the way to the Williams-Brice student section, though.
“Now the students, I think they should stay,” Spurrier said. “They got nothing else to do all night except party around a little bit. They are going to be up half the night or all night anyway. So, students, sing the alma mater with us.”
Eric Nichols, the Gamecocks’ marketing director, was working on making that happen before Spurrier issued that challenge. In response to lots of empty seats in the student section in the second half of games this year and last year, a problem facing almost every team in the country, the South Carolina athletics department has reached out to the students to find ways to assure more of them make it through the entire game and the singing of the school’s alma mater along with the team.
Those meetings led to four main student concerns — improved shuttle service to and from the stadium, lower concession pricing, a reward program for staying at the game and better communication from the athletics department. The athletics department looked at all those areas, and department staff members met with leaders of the student newspaper, The Daily Gamecock, on Tuesday afternoon to discuss implementing changes.
Among those changes are the fact that students will now be given extra loyalty points on their student identification cards by picking up a coupon at the end of football games and be able to purchase bottled water for $1 throughout the fourth quarter. The loyalty points help determine availability of football tickets, among other things.
“We just want to correct or improve some areas that matter to them,” Nichols said.
The Gamecocks do not charge students for tickets beyond what students pay as part of their student fees paid along with tuition and have handed out all their available student tickets for each of the season’s first two home games, Nichols said. South Carolina provides approximately 10,000 of Williams-Brice’s 80,250 seats to students each game.
“We have never had more interest in football games from our students,” he said. “The interest and demand is there.”
That’s not the case everywhere. At Georgia, students did not use 39 percent of their available tickets in the past four years, according to a recent Wall Street Journal study. At Alabama, the number was 32 percent for the same time period.
The Gamecocks, who have won 33 games since the beginning of the 2010 season, are on a 13-game home winning streak, the third-longest streak in the nation. They aren’t having trouble attracting students. Keeping them there has been another issue, as it was at LSU this year when the Tigers went up 21-0 at halftime against Auburn or at UCF last week when the Gamecocks scored their fourth consecutive touchdown to take a 28-10 lead in the fourth quarter last week.
When it happened on Sept. 14 in South Carolina’s 35-25 win against Vanderbilt, it upset quarterback Connor Shaw enough that Shaw mentioned it unsolicited in his postgame news conference.
“I don’t think there’s any excuse for our stands to be emptying out,” he said. “I was kind of disappointed in that.”
There are plenty of excuses, though, from bad weather to big leads to long games to poor cell phone and Internet service at large stadiums that cuts students off from their social media lifeblood.
“I just think there is a cultural shift from that age group,” Nichols said.
As for the older crowd that decides to head for the exits early, Spurrier understands, he said.
“You look at these stadiums all around the country. They are not packed like ours,” Spurrier said. “I really want to tell our fans, keep buying the tickets and if you have to leave in the third quarter, that’s OK. If you have little kids or something, you want to beat the crowd, I can understand that, I really can. Keep buying tickets and be there at the beginning and yell and scream.”
Last September, Spurrier felt differently, which he expressed after the Gamecocks beat East Carolina 48-10 in front of what was a small crowd by game’s end.
“I hope we’re not reverting back to the days when football wasn’t very important around here and the pregame party and the postgame party was more important than the game itself,” he said. “I’m hoping the Gamecock fans will treat the game as the most important part of their Saturday football day. It didn’t appear that way yesterday.”
Now, he’s more understanding
“I know sometimes I go to a ball game here on campus and I leave before it’s over, too,” he said Tuesday, “because I like to beat the crowd out.”