Empty seats looming at Williams-Brice?

Gameday at Williams-Brice Stadium
Gameday at Williams-Brice Stadium

You might have heard Todd Ellis pitching season tickets for South Carolina football on the radio recently. He talks about the smell of freshly cut grass at Williams-Brice Stadium, and how the game-day atmosphere cannot be duplicated on television.

Ellis, the radio play-by-play voice of the Gamecocks, soon might be talking about the smell of freshly printed tickets that went unused during the 2009 season.

For the first time in a decade, USC is not likely to sell all of its football season tickets.

There is no reason for alarm, though, according to USC athletics director Eric Hyman. USC expected a drop in season-ticket sales when it embarked on the YES program, a seat-license fee that coincided with the recession.

“All people are impacted by that,” Hyman says of the economy. “You can’t really second-guess yourself on something like this.”

Hyman says USC began studying seat-licensing programs three years ago. USC found that 19 schools across the country averaged a 10 percent to 12 percent drop in season-ticket sales when they started such a program.

At those schools, as at USC, many fans held eight to 12 season tickets. But with a USC license fee ranging from $50 to $395 on each seat — charged annually on top of the cost of the $320 season ticket — fans elected to cut back on the number of season tickets they purchased.

Thus, the expected 10 percent to 12 percent drop in season-ticket sales.

“One of the reasons we did the YES program was we got a lot of complaints from people who couldn’t get access to season tickets,” Hyman says. “People had their arms around many tickets. This is a way for younger people to have (better) access.”

USC is believed to have sold its allotment of approximately 57,000 season tickets every year since 1999, which coincided with the arrival of Lou Holtz as coach. It probably could have sold its entire allotment this season, and perhaps as long as Steve Spurrier remains as coach.

But USC elected to jump on board the ticket-tax train along with just about every other Division I football program, or at least all of those where a high demand for tickets exists. And why not? It is an easy way to generate revenue without raising ticket prices.

Unfortunately for USC, the timing could not have been worse. For a second consecutive season, the team limped to the finish line, taking fans’ enthusiasm for the next season down with it. Then the economy collapsed.

USC had implemented an annual 10 percent increase in Gamecock Club dues beginning in 2008. That was the first dues increase in nearly four decades, and it affected all USC supporters, not just football season-ticket holders.

In deference to the economy and the implementation of the seat-license fee, the annual dues increase was discontinued this year. Still, the economy has kept many fans from opening their checkbooks for USC athletics.

Chuck Shirley is a 46-year-old resident of Gilbert and Gamecock Club member for seven years. He had purchased eight football season tickets each year for his wife, three sons and other family members and friends. He stopped in 2008.

“With all the talk of (prices) going up, it just hit me to say, ‘Now’s the time,’” Shirley says. “I still like Carolina. I still root for them. I just do it from the house.”

Shirley figures his family saved close to $5,000 by not attending USC football games last season. Instead, they watched nearly every game on television at home.

As families like the Shirleys drop out, Hyman is banking on a new brigade of fans to join in. The second phase of the seat-licensing program is “Carolina Now,” which is about “creating opportunities for our loyal fans,” according to a letter recently sent to alumni and friends. The letter was signed by former USC football standout Sheldon Brown.

“For the first time in years, it is possible for fans who join the Gamecock Club to also enjoy Gamecock football from the stands in Williams-Brice Stadium,” Brown writes.

The two-step process is outlined in the letter and begins with membership — as low as $55 annually — in the Gamecock Club. USC also scheduled three days for fans to select their season-ticket seats, the second of which is 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday at the stadium.

On top of that, USC has shifted funds in its advertising budget to begin promoting the sale of season tickets, something the school has not done in more than a decade.

It is a push to fill the stands at Williams-Brice Stadium again. The last thing USC wants is for Ellis to have to describe empty seats in the fall.