High School Sports

Championship return is a win for Columbia

Byrnes High's Skylar Franklin, left, and Marcus Lattimore celebrate their win over Sumter in the Class 4A, Division I championship game, Saturday.
Byrnes High's Skylar Franklin, left, and Marcus Lattimore celebrate their win over Sumter in the Class 4A, Division I championship game, Saturday. The State

When Northwestern High wide receiver Stewart Hunt of Rock Hill takes the field at Williams-Brice Stadium tonight, it will cap a Cinderella season.

After an 0-4 start, the Trojans will be playing for the Class 4A Division II championship against the Berkeley High Stags.

And his mother, Allison Jordan, is overjoyed that the game is back in Columbia after a one-year stint in Clemson.

"Barring the fact that I am a South Carolina fan, I can't imagine the drive teams like Myrtle Beach had to make to get up there," she said. "It just made no sense."

The city of Columbia and corporate sponsors pledged $30,000 to the S.C. High School League to bring back the two-day Weekend of Champions event, which decides who is No. 1 in the top four football classifications.

The money also kept next year's S.C. high school basketball championships in USC's Colonial Life Arena.

Centerplate, USC's concessionaire, pledged an additional $15,000.

USC offered the use of Williams-Brice Stadium and Colonial Life Arena for free, records show, although it and Centerplate will keep all income from concessions.

The high school league agreed to pay $53,000 for backup costs, including medical services and security for the football games. No deal has been reached for the basketball games.

Berkeley and Northwestern square off at 8 p.m. Three more championship games will be played Saturday.

The games generally attract about 32,000 spectators, athletes, cheerleaders and band members. At $8 to $10 per ticket, the league should net $256,000 to $320,000 at the gate.

That number was off about 8,000 in Clemson last year, despite rave reviews about Clemson being a genial host with outstanding facilities.

Clemson offered Memorial Stadium last year for no charge, and the $50,000 in backup expenses was paid by area chambers of commerce.

Scott Powers, director of the Columbia Regional Sports Council, put Columbia's bid together. He estimated each spectator and participant would spend an average of $25 per day - more if they stay overnight.

That's an estimated economic impact of about $1 million. The basketball championships, which drew about 26,000 last year in Columbia, would add to that total, although not at the same rate because many of the best basketball programs are in the Midlands.

"It's definitely worth the money," Powers said. "It's a win-win for everybody, but especially for the people who don't have to drive four hours to the game."

But keeping the games in Columbia might be short-lived.

The high school league offered only a one-year contract to Clemson last year and to Columbia this year, setting up an annual bidding war between them and another likely host, Charleston.

"Geographically, Columbia is always the best (choice)," high school league commissioner Jerome Singleton said. "But is it the best financially (for the league)? We had to look at the opportunity that presented itself to offset the costs presented to us."

That rankles Berkeley fan Don Brown.

"It's awful that Lowcountry people had to travel four and half hours to the game last year," said Brown, principal of Berkeley Alternative School. "And if the teams have to stay overnight, it becomes a financial hardship on the schools, too."

Brown said he wouldn't take his family of five to the game if it was in Clemson again this year.

"I understand that they are trying to make money," he said. "But they are putting a hardship on the people of South Carolina" by moving the games around.

Singleton disagreed.

"We have no idea (which teams are) going to get into the games," he said. "Depending on where people live, you might get a different reaction."

Singleton said the drop in attendance last year was due more to the economy and the weather than the change of venue.

"All those played a major factor," he said. "Attendance was down all through the playoffs."

For decades, the league organized the state championships by region. A champion was named in the upper half of the state; another in the lower. Then the two team would battle in the state capital for the title.

But because of the dominance of programs in the Upstate, the league made the switch to "cross bracketing," or seeding, in 2006.

That took some of the tradition off a showdown in the Capital City.

Brown misses that.

The new system "may put the best two teams in the game," he said, "but I like the old days."

Despite the controversy, Columbia officials say the championships are worth chasing.

"It's an obvious benefit for the city both economically and for tourism," Mayor Bob Coble said. "It's a great use of the university's facilities and brings a lot of people into town."

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC