While Weekend of Champions attendance at Williams-Brice Stadium was slightly higher than at last season's games at Clemson, the number of spectators for the high school football title games remains down from its 2007 figure.
The four championship games for the Class 4A divisions and Classes 3A and 2A drew around 23,000 people Friday and Saturday, S.C. High School League commissioner Jerome Singleton said Monday.
That was an increase from the 19,000 who attended the event last season, when all four games were held at Clemson for the first time.
But it lagged behind the event's last appearance at Williams-Brice Stadium in 2007, when more than 30,000 people attended.
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"It's the lowest we've had in Columbia," Singleton said. "It's got to be the economy. People don't have jobs. The $10 or (advance-purchase ticket price of) $8 is just too hard to come by."
The most recent unemployment figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor show South Carolina's 12.1 percent unemployment rate is the nation's fifth-highest.
Columbia Regional Sports Council executive director Scott Powers, who spearheaded the effort to get the games back after their one-year stop at Clemson, said a poor, and ultimately inaccurate, weather report might also have played a factor.
"It turned out to be a great day," Powers said. "The forecast Saturday morning was still saying 80 percent chance of rain and temperatures in the 40s. If you were in Myrtle Beach or Spartanburg County and deciding if you were going to come to the game and saw the forecast, that may have hurt attendance."
The absence of Midlands teams in the title games is a double-edged sword. The closest teams to Columbia were Northwestern and Clinton, which each had about a 70-mile drive to Williams-Brice Stadium.
Because everyone else had to drive 90 minutes or more, the walk-up crowd was lighter.
At the same time, all those out-of-town fans meant a greater economic impact on the Midlands, as those fans were more likely to eat in restaurants, stay in hotels and fill up their cars with gas.
"Having no local teams involved probably hurt the game attendance," Powers said, "but it was good for Columbia that everybody who came was a visitor."
With the games done, the process of finding a location for the 2010 championships begins. As has been the case the past three years, the SCHSL will take proposals from all interested sites in February and pick a location in the spring.
Singleton remains uninterested in signing a multi-year contract, choosing instead to shop around each year.
"We have to explore what's in the best interest of our schools because they receive the lion's share of the money," Singleton said.
Powers said Columbia will attempt to land the games again next year. He said the process will be challenging because he successfully lobbied City Council for a one-time $30,000 grant to help secure the football and SCHSL basketball championships.
But that money might not be available again, so he plans to turn to the local business community for help. He also sees the need for a stronger marketing effort aimed at bringing out Midlands football fans, whether their teams are playing or not.
"We'll be trying to make (the event) even better," Powers said. "We'll see what we can do to improve local attendance. Whether they are a fan of a team or not, just come out and see good high school football."