Sitting on the shelves in Barefoot Campus Outfitter are mugs commemorating the Gamecocks women’s basketball team for winning the NCAA championship in March. (Photos by Jade Crooks)
When some Columbia business owners hear “Saturdays in South Carolina,” they know what it means — football fans flooding their hotels and restaurants because the Gamecocks are playing in Williams-Brice Stadium.
But when the University of South Carolina’s nationally ranked women’s basketball team plays in Colonial Life Arena just a few miles away, businesses don’t see the same level of traffic from fans, some owners said.
There’s more than one reason for the disconnect. One is that football is king in the South. But another big one is that women’s basketball plays during the week, when it’s difficult to get out-of-towners to visit.
“Our experience — and we’ve been at the Devine Street location for 32 years — university sports make a big impact through the different seasons, but football is a completely different animal in all regards,” said Kelly Glynn, co-owner of Village Idiot Pizza. “It can’t be compared to other sports, or women’s basketball, with the attendance rates and travel rates.”
Other business managers echoed this.
Jesse Broome, the general manager of the Cambria Hotel Columbia Downtown the Vista, said while football brings “a lot of demand to the area,” women’s basketball only brings a 5% increase to their occupancy on the “right day” throughout the week.
“Football games and the demand that those generate is a big part of how we make our money on the weekends,” Broome said. “I think there was a time when women’s basketball didn’t really provide much of an increase at all. People from around the local area would go to the basketball games, but now I think we do see a little bit of an upturn, but still nothing like football.”
Even though the women’s basketball team won the NCAA championship last year and in 2017 under head coach Dawn Staley, out-of-town fans can’t make a game if it’s in the middle of the week, Broome said.
“Let’s say they’re playing on a Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday,” Broome said. “We don’t see many people from out of town those days, because those people can’t travel. They’re working.”
The general manager of the Aloft Columbia Downtown hotel, Jennifer Bolling, said she and her staff are able to provide an enhanced experience for guests coming in for the football games. But they can’t do the same for basketball fans because they “can’t really differentiate them from our business travelers.”
Glynn said she also thinks basketball games don’t have the same level of social interaction before and after the games compared to football, which is why Village Idiot Pizza doesn’t get the same amount of business during basketball season. Football games bring opportunities for people to interact through tailgating, too.
“It’s more of a habit to come to football games, to go to tailgates before the games, and even if people don’t have a ticket to the game, then they sit in the restaurant and watch it on our screens,” Glynn said. “And there’s so many games throughout the basketball season compared to football that there’s a different mentality. People come in, watch the basketball game and that’s it. The social piece is missing.”
The volume of people who come in for USC football games compared to basketball games might also have to do with the size of the venues. Williams-Brice Stadium can hold more than 75,000 people, according to gamecocksonline. Colonial Life Arena can only hold 18,000 people for a women’s basketball game.
Olivia Vetke, the assistant manager of Barefoot Campus Outfitter, said the USC women’s basketball team has a “very loyal fanbase,” though. The store is located across from the arena. And people were coming into the store to buy merchandise even before the exhibition match the women’s basketball team played against Benedict College on Oct. 31.
“The women’s team has always been good, so I think that definitely helps the fanbase, but we’ve always seen a rush of people before the basketball games,” Vetke said. “And people are still buying the championship stuff that we have from last March.”
A couple doors down from Barefoot is 1801 Grille, a restaurant that General Manager Aarion Wright said was packed throughout all of last year’s women’s basketball season.
“It was almost to the point we basically couldn’t handle it — the amount of people coming in,” Wright said. “We had to set our reservations to a lower standard to be able to take the walk-ins that were coming in. And we pretty much expect the same thing this year.”
Other businesses aren’t changing the way they operate during basketball season until they see how the women’s basketball team plays. The first season game for women’s basketball is a home game at 8:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7, against East Tennessee State.
“I think a lot of times with basketball, it takes a while to see how the team’s going to be and create some excitement around the team,” Broome said. “And about mid-season, maybe you’ll see more, and we’ll revisit our plans for the hotel.”