Plenty of blame can be passed around for the thousands of empty seats at South Carolina home football games this season. You know about the economy and its effect. USC's first-year seat-licensing program has not helped, either, and outrageous parking fees probably have shooed a few fans away.
Let's add another reason for the embarrassingly low attendance figure for Saturday's game against Kentucky at Williams-Brice Stadium: the first-year, $2 billion deal between ESPN and the SEC, which ensures every football game involving a league team will be televised.
It might not have mattered to the SEC bean counters at the time of the deal, but you have to wonder if league officials considered the effect of televising every game on the average fan.
More and more, I am hearing from USC fans that the comfort of watching the game at home beats the hassle of traffic, crowds and general discomfort of going to the game. The savings to the bank account can't hurt, either.
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"This is a transitional period for what we're going into with the new TV package," said Eric Hyman, USC's athletics director. "There are a lot of positives. On the other side of it, there are some down sides."
Hyman said he does not recall any discussion with ESPN about possible local blackouts of televised games that are not sold out. The NFL uses blackouts, and because of the economic impact on attendance this season, they are being used more often.
Had blackouts been part of the SEC's deal with ESPN, none of USC's four home games this season would have been televised in the Columbia area. Using 82,000 as the Williams-Brice Stadium capacity and the announced figures at games, USC has fallen an average of 9,000 fans short of filling the stadium for each game.
The low point occurred Saturday when the Gamecocks -- ranked 25th at the time -- played host to Kentucky in a crucial game for both teams. The announced crowd of 68,278 was the smallest since 67,930 watched USC face Arkansas in 1998, the final season under coach Brad Scott.
There is no doubting the sagging economy is the main reason for declining attendance. Had Hyman been able to predict the economy's free fall, he likely would have postponed the institution of seat licensing. The 12 percent decrease in season-ticket sales resulted in USC's not selling out its season-ticket allotment for the first time in nine years.
Beyond that, the athletics administration is hurt by USC fans' misguided belief that they long have filled Williams-Brice Stadium, even during the lean seasons. Not true. In fact, more often than not in recent years, the stadium has not been filled on game day.
The stadium was expanded to 80,000 seats to begin the 1996 season. Since then, USC routinely has announced crowds in excess of 82,000. So it stands to reason that any crowd announced at 82,000 or more means the stadium was filled.
There have been 89 home games played during the past 14 seasons. Of those, 29 have been played to full houses. That is 32.6 percent, a far cry from filling the stadium for every home game, as many USC fans believe.
The Gamecocks never have played before capacity crowds for every home game of a single season. The closest fans came to filling the stadium for every game was 2001, when USC carried a top-25 ranking throughout a 9-3 season. But there were an estimated 4,000 empty seats when USC defeated Wofford that year.
Since the stadium expansion in 1996, USC has filled the stadium for at least one game each season, and that likely will happen again this season when Clemson plays in Columbia in the regular-season finale on Nov. 28.
The more interesting game by which to gauge crowd turnout will be the contest Florida on Nov. 14. The defending national champion could be the first No. 1-ranked team to play at Williams-Brice Stadium. Florida fans are likely to gobble up many remaining tickets, but there still could be empty seats.
That probably is not what the SEC was thinking about when it agreed to the 15-year deal with ESPN that encompasses all sports. The agreement amounts to a $150 million annual payout to the SEC, meaning each school receives about $12.5 million a year.
"The bottom line here is that fans of SEC football will have access to games and better distribution than they ever have in the past," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said at the time of the deal.
Slive also touted that every SEC football game would be available to fans, either on free TV, pay-per-view or on the Internet. The SEC failed to realize TV coverage provides many fans with another option on game day - not attending.
There are a few solutions. When the economy turns for the better, fans are likely to use more expendable income at sporting events. The SEC also could consider instituting blackout rules.
The sure-fire solution for USC and others with attendance problems is to produce winning football teams. Put a championship club on the Williams-Brice Stadium field, and fans will return to their seats in record numbers, even if the economy stinks and all the games are televised.
Until then, USC will have to get used to watching the aluminum bleachers glisten in the afternoon sun.