Better than UCONN. Better than Tennessee. South Carolina fans did better than anyone in filling up seats at the Colonial Life Arena for women's basketball home games this season. The Gamecock men's basketball team also enjoyed a significant bump in home attendance, ranking fourth in the SEC and outdrew successful programs across the nation such as Florida, Cincinnati, and West Virginia. It's now a common thread for Gamecocks athletics.
"Our fans love to support our team and our program," South Carolina women's head coach Dawn Staley said. "That's the kind of experience you want to give student-athletes. It raises the level of play out there on the court. When you create a product that people can be proud of, they're going to come out and support that team."
South Carolina led the nation in attendance at home women's basketball games for the 2014-15 season with an average of 12,540 fans per game for the 14 contests played in the Colonial Life Arena. That number jumped to 14,516 per game for the eight SEC games played at home. South Carolina sold more than 8,500 season tickets for women's basketball prior to the start of the season, more than doubling the amount from the previous year.
"I think it's a compliment to coach Staley, her staff, and student-athletes that we're in the position we are today as far as the interest in women's basketball at the University of South Carolina," Athletics Director Ray Tanner said. "I certainly believe that if you have a great team, people will come see you play. In our case it's much more than that. We do have a great team, but we have a program that is all about the community and the city of Columbia. Our fan base feels like it is part of the program. They have ownership, and I think it's reciprocal. It's great to see that."
Tennessee was the only other SEC women's program to average more than 10,000 per home game (10,913). Those figures are almost exactly twice as many fans as the previous year when South Carolina averaged 6,371 fans per home game, including 7,745 per home SEC contest.
"This has been growing," Tanner said. "This is not a one-hit wonder. This is an investment that coach Staley and her team have made to get us to the point we are today. I think it will continue. Our fan base is solid, and we're not going to price our fans out. It's a family atmosphere. I can see the interactions that our young women have with the children and the fans. They understand what that engagement means."
It takes talent to win games, but having a large crowd behind you doesn't hurt. Staley's team has gone undefeated at home in each of the last two seasons and is currently riding the nation's second longest winning streak in women's basketball with 32 straight on its home court.
Fans identify more with coaches and student-athletes when they have built a connection with them outside of the in-game environment. It has helped all of our programs, but you can see the immediate impact with our men's and women's basketball programs.Ray Tanner
The Gamecock men's basketball program under head coach Frank Martin not only ranked fourth in the SEC, but also 33rd nationally, with 11,520 fans per home game this season. That's nearly 1,500 more than last year. South Carolina averaged 12,405 fans per home SEC event this year as well.
"What our fan base has seen is that we have a coach in Frank Martin who is passionate about building a great program here," Tanner said. "He, as well as Dawn, has really worked hard at building a relationship with our fans and students. Fans identify more with coaches and student-athletes when they have built a connection with them outside of the in-game environment. It has helped all of our programs, but you can see the immediate impact with our men's and women's basketball programs."
Out of 14 SEC schools, South Carolina was one of six men's programs to average more than 10,000 fans per home game. Fans are creating a home court advantage as ten of South Carolina's 15 wins during the regular season were on its home court and attendance at men's games has increased 31% over the last two years.
"I think our fans appreciate the 110 percent effort that Coach Martin's teams give," Tanner said. "They watch players who competed extremely hard, night in and night out. From where I sit today, I know we are a lot closer than people realize to being an NCAA Tournament team."
"I don't think the increase was a surprise," added Kamryn Hollar, Assistant Director of Ticket Operations. "Each year we set a goal to increase the number of season tickets and this year we were successful in doing that. We have a great marketing department that is constantly attracting new and different segments of the population to our events through promotions in the community."
While winning certainly helps, there are still challenges in getting fans to begin thinking about other sports during the height of football season.
"Being in the SEC, our fall is spent at Williams-Brice Stadium and that's when basketball renewals are taking place," Hollar said. "That's when we are also trying to hype up the start of the season so our marketing department will do things like have the players sign autographs at Gamecock Village in Gamecock Park or be part of a recognition on the football field, just so people can start thinking about the winter sports. Single game sales are definitely affected by the team's performance. It's a cyclical process that happens; the teams win, media ups their coverage, interest picks up and more tickets are sold."
This is becoming common among South Carolina athletics venues.
The women's soccer team ranked second nationally last fall with an average of 2,683 fans at the 12 home dates at Stone Stadium. The men's soccer program ranked sixth nationally and led Conference USA with an average of 2,602 fans for its 11 home games in the fall.
Gamecock football ranked 16th nationally and eighth in the SEC with 81,381 fans per game in the seven contests played at Williams-Brice Stadium. There are certain limitations as Williams-Brice Stadium ranks 8th in the SEC in maximum capacity. Meanwhile, South Carolina volleyball ranked 34th nationally with 1,239 fans per home match, which also ranked fifth in the SEC.
The momentum has carried over to the spring sports, which are also enjoying increases in season ticket sales. South Carolina baseball season ticket sales increased to 6,075 this year and the Gamecocks are averaging 7,156 fans for its home games so far in 2015. Carolina Softball Stadium at Beckham Field has a seating capacity of 1,305, and 922 season tickets were sold for the 2015 season. Near the midpoint of the 2015 season, South Carolina has averaged 1,156 tickets sold per home game.
"Sometimes when you have great attendance or you sell a lot of tickets, it doesn't necessarily create a home court or home field advantage, but in our case, I think it does." Tanner said. "It's not just people in the seats. It's the passion and the enthusiasm that they bring. Going back to when I was in the dugout, there were a number of games where I would tell myself that I don't know if we're as good as we need to be today, but our fans aren't going to let us lose. They just instill that type of energy and emotion into that game that puts the players in a different place, and it puts the opposition in place where they realize it's a monumental task to beat us on our home field and home court. There's no question you can create a home field or home court advantage if your fans are like ours."