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Citadel retains USC athletics

South Carolina’s sports broadcast rights holder has decided to stick with its Columbia outlet, Citadel Broadcasting, for another five years.

Citadel Broadcasting vice president Bill McElveen said Monday that “we’re thrilled it’s us” after ISP Sports and Learfield Communications renewed the USC deal with his company.

“We think what we did the past (five) years was a huge help to convince them we were the better partner,” he said.

Tom Bustard, market manager for competing Clear Channel Communications, said he didn’t get the courtesy of a news release.

Bustard is not thrilled after negotiations to regain the rights, which Clear Channel’s WVOC-AM held for 48 years, came up empty. Bustard said he was disappointed that “this decision isn’t based on what is best for Carolina fans.”

Welcome to the return of Columbia’s “USC radio wars,” as the companies that fought over the Gamecocks sort out the results.

Terms of the contract were not announced. Citadel paid $240,000 in the final year of its previous deal, but both McElveen and ISP/Learfield general manager Liz McMillan said the new price was “significantly” higher. In February, ISP/Learfield agreed to a $50.6 million, nine-year deal with USC, a 150-percent bump from its previous contract.

“We paid more than before, but it’s more valuable, too,” McElveen said. “The next few years will be exciting for Gamecocks fans.”

Those fans will listen to USC football, men’s basketball and baseball on 40,000-watt WNKT-FM, aka “The Game,” which Citadel put on the air in November as a one-stop Gamecocks shop. Women’s basketball games will continue on WISW-AM. Before “The Game,” Citadel aired games on several of its Columbia stations.

The new agreement means new programming, too, McMillan said. Besides games and coaches’ call-in shows, WNKT will air a weekly, hour-long “USC Athletics Show” at 7 p.m. Mondays from August-May. Also, USC’s football pregame show expands to three hours with a 90-minute postgame. Men’s basketball will have 30-minute pre- and postgame shows.

McMillan cited “a combination of things” in Citadel’s win. One, she said, was a home station for all of USC’s teams, which Bustard said Clear Channel did not offer.

“An all-sports station dedicated to USC and USC fans ... When we did that, it tilted the balance,” McElveen said.

But Bustard said Clear Channel’s plan to put football on 100,000-watt WCOS-FM and other sports on 5,000-watt WVOC would’ve meant better Midlands coverage for USC games.

Among male listeners age 18-and-up, WCOS-FM ranks No. 2 and WVOC No. 3, while WNKT is No. 21, Bustard said. “It’s kind of baffling how they made the decision they did,” he said. “They went with a station that’s nonexistent in their fan base.”

Bustard suggested that Clear Channel never had a chance to win back USC’s rights. In 2002, Clear Channel officials didn’t offer the FM signal USC wanted, which insiders said was the reason the school moved to Citadel.

“Those feelings have never gone away,” Bustard said. “We were trying to overcome that past, but we ran into a brick wall.”

Teddy Heffner, whose “Talking Sports” morning show airs on Clear Channel’s WCOS-AM, called the decision “very disappointing. From what I heard, we put together a good package.”

Said McElveen: “It’s not a point of discussion anymore. Avid Gamecocks fans will find (their games) wherever they are.

“Now, they don’t have to think about it for five years.”

Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.