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New fees too much for some USC fans

Shortly before today's 7 p.m. kickoff, Tim Connor plans to be seated for South Carolina's home opener against Florida Atlantic.

But for the first time in more than a dozen years, Connor's seat will be at a booth at a local restaurant or on his living-room couch while someone else uses his former seats in Section 101 at Williams-Brice Stadium.

Connor said the additional $1,300 in seat fees he would have been required to pay this year prompted him to give up his five tickets in the lower west stands.

"I'm not against them trying to get money," said Connor, a 1975 USC graduate who remains a Gamecock Club member. "But I think all at one time is a little bit much."

When USC rolled out its YES (Yearly Equitable Seating) plan last year, athletics director Eric Hyman expected to see a 5 percent attrition rate among season-ticket holders. But the recession caused a bigger than anticipated drop-off.

Hyman said 11 percent of the school's 55,000 season tickets were not renewed - the first time in a decade USC did not sell out its season-ticket base.

"The economy has made it very difficult, as it has with pro sports," Hyman said. "It's impacting us all."

In the NFL, 29 of the 32 teams introduced sales initiatives or froze ticket prices this year. The Jacksonville Jaguars lost 17,000 season-ticket holders, a decline that could lead to local TV blackouts for all the Jags' home games this season.

Industry experts say college football has not been impacted as much by the economy, but a lot of USC fans felt the pinch when they were asked to pay fees - often referred to as personal seat licenses - ranging from $50 to $395 per seat. That is in addition to the $320 cost of a season ticket.

Connor's five seats carried a fee of $260 each - more than he wanted to spend.

"That's a lot of money," said Connor, who is a systems programmer for the state Budget and Control Board. "You have so much to give."

Connor kept his basketball season tickets because there is not a fee attached to them. The 55-year-old lives in West Columbia near the family of ex-USC baseball player Matt Riddle, so he appreciates how Gamecock Club dues support scholarships.

But he and his wife decided it would be better to save the money, spend Saturdays attending their daughter's soccer games and doing other activities - and watch the Gamecocks on TV.

"Maybe Donald Trump wouldn't notice $1,300. But $1,300 is a lot of money, and we have other things to do," Connor said. "There's other things going on besides football."

The surplus of tickets has created opportunities for Gamecock Club members to upgrade their seats and for new members to have a shot at good seats rather than being stuck in the nose-bleed sections.

Bill Osborne, a 1991 USC grad, said he was "trapped" in the uppermost reaches of the west stands for years. Osborne, a project manager for a local construction firm, increased his giving level from half to full scholarship when Lou Holtz arrived, "and went nowhere - complete lockdown in the upper west."

"I just gave up even trying," he said.

Osborne said he felt like a "fool" when he would arrive at games and notice people outside the stadium selling tickets at face value for seats better than his.

"I know a bunch of people that bought double the tickets they needed and didn't (care) whether they used them or not," Osborne said. "They just had them."

After paying an additional $800 in fees on his four seats, Osborne stayed in the upper deck, but shifted from the goal line to around midfield and moved down about 20 rows.

"Man, it was awesome," he said.

Hyman believes the Florida and Clemson games will be sellouts, but he expects to see empty seats at the other home games, including today's against a Sun Belt Conference opponent.

And though ticket revenues are down $2 million from last year, the YES program has generated about $6.7 million, which Hyman said would go toward facilities.

"It's not like we're all driving around in Wells Fargo trucks," he said. "We turn around and plow it back into the infrastructure. That's why we've been able to do the facilities projects."

Osborne applauds Hyman's businesslike approach. But he said fans who are treated more like consumers might expect more of a finished product on the field.

"The whole deal is we're having to pay up to compete," Osborne said. "Well, OK, if we're going to pay up, we need to compete."

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