The line stretched around the concourse. It was made entirely of South Carolina students, waiting to get their free chicken tenders and French fries. Who paid?
When she’s not coaching her Top-10 team, Dawn Staley has picked a USC dormitory and gone through the halls, knocking on doors. When the students answer, they’re thanked for their support and handed a free Bojangle’s biscuit. She’s also springing for supper for the students before Thursday’s game when USC plays host to Auburn.
With whiteouts, blackouts, a looming “garnet-out” and free food, Colonial Life Arena has become the hot ticket in town. It’s the only arena in the country where the men’s and women’s basketball teams each average over 12,000 fans per game; the USC women lead the nation in average attendance (12,317) and the men are 16th (13,023, with eight of the schools above them playing in larger stadiums).
Of course, winning helps. But fresh, savvy marketing helps too, and that’s where Josh Waters and Eric Nichols have been instrumental.
“The more involved a coach is, the better our marketing efforts become,” said Nichols, in his ninth year at USC. “If you’re swimming in two different directions, it doesn’t work.”
“They’re both just committed to anything public, especially students,” Waters said of Martin and Staley. “Students are at their heart.”
It’s not easy to sell out an 18,000-seat arena for basketball in South Carolina, yet the Gamecock men did it against Georgia this year and the women did it for Connecticut last year. Each team is progressing toward its goal of 12,000 season tickets per year – making sellouts more likely – and the promotions for the remaining home games will be special.
The NBA’s top-selling jerseys are “Latin” jerseys. USC will distribute T-shirts with “Gamecocks” and “Forever to Thee” etched in Spanish. They’ll encourage fans to wear garnet or pink (in support of breast cancer awareness) for certain games. They’ll give away bacon to students.
“We’ve found students like food the best,” Waters quipped.
Nichols and Waters, who arrived eight years ago, have tirelessly worked to promote USC basketball, knowing their efforts were going to be determined by two factors they had no control over – the teams winning and the coaches being accessible. When Martin was hired, USC had spiraled to three straight losing seasons after winning the SEC East and the building couldn’t draw flies.
“Frank, from Day 1, when he started, it was, ‘Whatever students need, whatever the public needs, just let me know,’ ” Waters said. “He’s the only coach I’ve ever worked with who gave me access to his calendar.”
Martin hit the community circuit as hard as the recruiting trail, re-building burned bridges from previous regimes. He couldn’t promise wins right away, but he appealed to USC loyalty – any fan base that routinely packs tennis, softball and soccer matches could surely come to basketball.
At the same time, Staley was building interest after her first NCAA tournament appearance. The Gamecocks made it two in a row in 2012-13, and then she began the Drive for 5, asking for 5,000 fans per home game.
The women exploded into one of the country’s most dominant teams while the men steadily built into a 25-win team last year, and has 19 wins this year. Attendance reflected it, and the coaches never quit promoting their brand.
They aided school programs (estimated to have reached 250,000 Midlands youngsters) and kept reaching out to USC’s students. Women’s attendance has been the country’s best for the past three years and the men are trending toward a program record for accumulated and average attendance this year.
Coaches, marketers and wins go hand-in-hand.
“I think it’s more a testament to Gamecock fans being so loyal, and being so passionate,” Nichols said. “It’s great, but until it’s sold out, there’s a lot of work to do.”
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Double the fun
USC is the only school in the country with men’s and women’s basketball teams averaging more than 12,000 fans per game. A closer look:
Total attendance: 196,778
Home games: 15
Average per game: 13,023
Percent capacity (18,000): 72.88
National rank (avg. att.): 16
Total attendance: 135,491
Home games: 11
Average per game: 12,317
Percent capacity (18,000): 68.43
National rank (avg. att.): 1