Through it all — the eyebrow-raising quotes, the pointed tweets — Frank Martin was trying to make clear one particular point. If South Carolina men’s basketball fans were purchasing all these tickets, why weren’t they showing up to games?
You might remember some of this narrative from last season. The Gamecocks were playing the non-conference foes on their schedule in front of sparse Colonial Life Arena crowds, and Martin was noticing.
“It would be nice if our marketing department helped us to get people in seats,” Martin said after an announced 10,205 showed up for a win over Wyoming on Dec. 6. “It’s a little disappointing to continue to play, after the two winningest years in the history of the school, in a building with [4,000] to 5,000 people. It’s embarrassing.”
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Martin, through Twitter and additional media opportunities, later clarified his remarks. He knew what the season ticket numbers were, and he just wanted that support to show in CLA. The Gamecocks weren’t all that far removed from a Final Four run.
“We have sold more season tickets than at any point in the history of our school,” Martin said. “I need our fans to come help my guys out. That’s all I’m asking for. I’m not being critical.”
The message didn’t fall on deaf ears among USC officials. That was proven when the school introduced a new ticket program on the day of the Gamecocks’ 2018-19 opener against USC Upstate.
It’s called the Forever Loyal program. Its goal, as started in a Nov. 6 release, is to “incentivize season ticket holders to use their tickets at every men’s basketball game this season and continue to help create the best home-court advantage in the SEC.”
“Our fans have been incredible,” Martin said in the release. “They’ve bought season tickets at a record pace on this campus. Now, I’ve challenged our staff to make sure every seat that has been sold is filled.”
Eric Nichols, USC’s marketing director, said Forever Loyal’s creation was sparked by Martin’s pushing.
“It’s a backdrop nationally,” Nichols told The State. “People are buying fewer tickets, but then they’re also not going to as many games. But, yeah, he was frustrated last year. We have fantastic support, but many times other things got in the way and for one reason or another, they might not be in the building for all games.
“So some other things were happening in the background of the technical side of things that allowed us to tie those together and we wanted to put our best foot forward to address it.”
Nichols said, as of late last week, this year’s season ticket sales are around 7,700. Should any of those season ticket holders not be able to make it to a game, they’re now able to use their tickets in others ways.
“You can forward to a friend,” Nichols said, “you can donate to a local charity, you can return for experience bucks. (Experience bucks means) you can return it, you don’t get cash for it, but it’s value that you can use at a later game for a Cocky visit, an upgraded seat, etc.
“And then the final option is just a straight sell your tickets on the ticket exchange.”
The Forever Loyal program can be accessed via the South Carolina Gamecocks app. This kind of project is mostly unique to USC, Nichols said.
“We looked around colleges, NBA, NFL and there were smatterings of pieces of this,” he said, “but we didn’t find anything like this at all, really.”
CLA this season has drawn an average of 9,901 fans for games against USC Upstate and Stony Brook. Norfolk State (2-1) comes to Columbia on Tuesday. Nationally ranked teams Virginia and Clemson arrive next month. The SEC slate begins in January, when attendance typically rises.
“No one puts as much pressure on those sorts of things as we do in our own department,” Nichols said. “We have our own sets of goals that we either hit or miss and we get frustrated or we celebrate.
“Having a coach like (Martin), his passion kind of cuts both ways. Just the other day, he was out mixing it up with students on campus because he cares. He always comes from a good place.”