‘Southern Ground’ takes timeout for football

The Zac Brown Band performs during the fourth annual Southern Ground Music & Food Festival at MUSC Health Stadium last year.

Since it was first held on Daniel Island in October 2011, the Southern Ground Music & Food Festival has become a signature event of Charleston’s social calendar each fall.

But the weekend-long celebration of Southern cuisine and rock music produced by the Zac Brown Band won’t be back next month for its fifth year at MUSC Health Stadium, formerly known as Blackbaud Stadium. Instead, organizers hope to move the event to the spring.

It seems football season was intercepting some of its would-be festivalgoers, according to Will Ward, a founding partner of ROAR, the entertainment company that manages the Zac Brown Band.

“Last year was our fourth year, and we kind of hit a bit of a plateau with ticket sales,” he said. “A lot of people had said to us, ‘You know, Charleston just doesn’t have the economy to support a big music festival,’ and that we just need to think about going to a bigger market. And I just don’t believe that.”

He explained that with Charleston’s surging tourism industry, it shouldn’t be too difficult to attract music fans and foodies from all over the region for the extravaganza.

Take Michael Pritchard, for example. The former Charlestonian now lives in Charlotte, but he said making the three-hour drive with his wife for last year’s festival was well worth it.

“We loved it,” he said, adding that headliners Zac Brown and Blues Traveler were the main reasons they came. “I don’t care when it is, we would come again. ... We’ve talked about it so much with our friends and neighbors, we’ll have a carpool coming down for sure.”

Still, as a Carolina Panthers fan, he said it’d be a tough decision to leave town the same weekend as a home game, even if it was for one of his favorite cities to see some of his favorite musicians.

Ward attended the College of Charleston and he vacations in the Holy City every year with his family, so he knows as well as anybody what the Lowcountry has to offer. But he said he also realized how much football season dominates pretty much every fall weekend in the South.

“Whether it’s at a restaurant or on a couch, people are watching football,” he said. “We set up TVs in the VIP areas (at Southern Ground) for people to be able watch football. But at the end of the day, there’s only so much disposable income that somebody is going to allocate per certain time of year, and when they’ve spent a lot of that driving to Tuscaloosa, or Athens, Ga., or Columbia, and going to these games, then when you get the one weekend off, you may not want to leave your house.”

The organizers are still working out a date in the spring, but Ward said he’s positive the festival will happen again, unless there’s “an act of God or some major logistical issue.”

They intend to keep it at the MUSC Health Stadium as long as they can come to an agreement with city officials and venue managers. That also will depend on the spring season of the Charleston Battery soccer team, which uses the stadium as its home base.

Andrew Bell, president of the team, said he’d “love to see it return.”

“It was definitely a good event for us,” he said. “We enjoyed hosting it, and I always felt that it was very successful.”

The Southern Ground Music & Food Festival is one of the state’s largest multiday music festivals that has hosted top touring acts in the music industry, including My Morning Jacket, Fitz and the Tantrums, The Avett Brothers and dozens of others.

Each year, the Zac Brown Band produces and headlines the festival and coordinates food offerings with Southern Ground executive chef Rusty Hamlin, who often partners with top chefs in Charleston.

“Zac loves Charleston and he thinks it’s a beautiful, special place,” Ward said. “We all believe in Charleston and want to stick with leaving the festival there. We just think the move to spring may be more suitable to what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail

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