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Nichols' job: Marketing USC in down economy

Eric Nichols is the USC athletics department’s head of marketing, which includes digital billboard images promoting the men’s basketball team.
Eric Nichols is the USC athletics department’s head of marketing, which includes digital billboard images promoting the men’s basketball team.

Eric Nichols spent 10 years at Vanderbilt, the final four as the athletic department's marketing director. But ask him if he's still got any black and gold in the closet and he demurs.

"I might still have a tie," he said. "But it certainly doesn't have a Vanderbilt logo on it."

Eighteen months after taking over as the South Carolina athletics department's director of marketing, Nichols is a full-fledged Gamecock.

From his office in the Colonial Life Arena, the 36-year-old Nichols oversees every aspect of athletics marketing and the game-day experience while serving as a liaison to the ticket office, Web site and video production.

He's also learned a few things in a short time: The "2001" intro at Williams-Brice Stadium is sacred. The city seems ready to embrace a new energy in the two basketball programs. Gamecock fans are passionate about their teams.

"You have to take your cues from the fans," he said.

One example involves the playing of the song "Sandstorm" over the Williams-Brice P.A. system when the Gamecocks get some momentum going. The fans - especially students - responded so strongly it has become a fixture.

Nichols' goal involves getting as many fans as possible to all sports and making sure they have a good experience. He cannot control the wins and losses part of that equation, but he tries to harness the other elements that play into any fan's decision to come back.

That can range from traditional marketing tools such as billboards - whether they promoteSteve Spurrier or emphasize deals available for basketball season tickets - to newer ones like the bells and whistles of a more interactive game-day experience.

"I'm responsible for driving awareness and driving attendance for our athletic events as well as the entertainment value within the games," he said.

He calls cutting through the everyday clutter the most difficult part of grabbing the attention of prospective fans.

"Everybody is so busy these days. You have to find new ways to communicate and more effective ways to message them when you do get their attention," he said.

USC athletics director Eric Hyman calls Nichols' position critical. He adds that Nichols is coordinatiing multiple areas that had never been organized in any manner before Hyman's arrival.

The move proved especially timely when the economy began to slump a year ago.

"We needed to have these things funneled through somebody," Hyman said. "Having somebody emphasizing our marketing made a tremendous amount of sense before, but it makes even more sense now that we're going through a period like we are."

Nichols realizes fans have less disposable income to spend, a fact not helped by the economic woes coinciding with USC's campaign to require more of a financial commitment from football season-ticket holders. The result, aided by the growing number of televised home games, has been a larger number of empty seats in Williams-Brice Stadium.

"We knew this season was going to be a drop, but we anticipate getting back to a sellout situation in two to three years," Nichols said.

He notes the final two home games against Florida and Clemson are sold out. And he is already trumpeting the value of basketball season tickets with a campaign that includes a Garnet Army-painted Hummer making the rounds to tell people about a $125 season ticket for men's games and $100 season tickets for four women's games.

"Some of that (bad economy) marketing isn't going to overcome," he said. "We can't put money in people's pockets, but we can give them more value."

Nichols admits his job can be made easier by winning teams and high-profile coaches such as Spurrier, women's basketball coach Dawn Staley and baseball coach Ray Tanner, who offer credibility to fans.

Shiny new ballparks such as Carolina Stadium also help.

"That was the first real sign of where we wanted to be in terms of a facilities standpoint," he said. "To me it's perfect. It's a perfect size and has all the amenities you need."

Nichols wants each program to have its own stamp, whether it comes through the venue, the coach or the athletes, and offer something fans can find appealing. For people who have been hit by tough economic times, he advocates they check out other sports where they can spend less money and still support the Gamecocks.

He understands how difficult it is to make everyone happy, and any time fans leave displeased is not a good time for him. He agonizes over "anything that goes wrong that's my responsibility."

"If Eric Hyman's name shows up on my phone, it's a bad day," he said with a smile.

Hyman brought Nichols in based on his track record at Vanderbilt, where he started in the mailroom and quickly climbed the ladder to assistant director of facilities, to director of game operations, to director of online services, to - finally - director of marketing.

Each promotion served as evidence of both his adaptability and work ethic, according to Rod Williamson, Vanderbilt's director of external relations.

"I'm proud of him because his success here is one of my favorite stories," Williamson said. "He's a quick study, he's bright, and he has a desire to excel. He's an inspiring and remarkable story."

Williamson was sorry to see Nichols leave for USC, but he understood the decision to try his hand at a state flagship university.

"He's a very good strategic thinker," Williamson said. "He brings some valuable experience and innovation to South Carolina."

Hyman knew of Nichols' track record at Vanderbilt and knew he wanted to interview him as part of a nationwide search.

"He came highly-recommended," Hyman said. "He was head and shoulders above everybody else. We feel really fortunate to have him on board."

Nichols admits he was ready for a new challenge, one reason he moved his wife and daughter to Columbia. The adjustment is going well.

"We were a little apprehensive coming from Nashville," he said. "But Columbia has more than exceeded my expectations. We couldn't be having more fun."

That goes for the job and being a new garnet and black guy.

"In August of this year I was telling people that I was officially a Gamecock when I started hearing '2001' on the radio and got goosebumps."