Gamecocks’ basketball boom

South Carolina leads the nation in attendance for women’s basketball with 12,177 fans per game, and is averaging 14,448 fans for SEC games. Paul Zoeller/Staff

He’s been a college coach for nearly three decades, he’s led two programs to the Final Four, he’s won a national championship and he has a squad currently ranked in the Top 25. Gary Blair, the head coach of Texas A&M’s women’s basketball team, has seen, done, and won it all. And yet even he couldn’t stop gushing about what he experienced when his Aggies played at South Carolina last month.

“Great crowd, great atmosphere,” he said after his team lost by 18 points. “Aren’t y’all proud about how far y’all have come? Think about it. Think about how far y’all have come. It’s a tribute to Dawn and this administration for how y’all have built this thing.”

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley has built a women’s basketball team that spent a dozen weeks at No. 1, is currently ranked second, and is poised to make a run at the program’s first Final Four.

But as impressive as what’s happening on the floor is what’s unfolding around it, the form of a groundswell of support that has defied declining college basketball attendance trends and established Colonial Life Arena as a benchmark — not to mention one of the toughest home courts — in the women’s game.

That night against then-No. 12 Texas A&M, the listed attendance — which includes all tickets sold — was 13,546. For the previous home game against then-No. 10 Kentucky, it was 17,156. The Gamecocks have drawn five-figure crowds with regularity since late last season, and lead the nation in average attendance entering Monday’s SEC showdown with No. 6 Tennessee. USC has two home games remaining, both against opponents ranked in the top 15, and the hope is to sell them out.

“Gamecock nation, they’ve done a tremendous job of filling Colonial Life Arena. I think they want it, and it’s only going to help our players perform at a high level if we’re able to continue to create a home-court advantage,” Staley said. “You know, 18,000 sounds nice.”

Just a few seasons ago, such a notion would have seemed ridiculous. College basketball attendance has suffered a decline on many fronts, perhaps due in part to conference expansion and the dilution of geographic rivalries. While the women’s game has never enjoyed more exposure on television, many of those games are played in arenas which are half empty, or worse. There are good crowds at traditional powers like Connecticut and at traditional hotbeds like Iowa State, and then there’s everyone else.

Only 14 NCAA Division I women’s programs average more than 5,000 spectators per game, and USC fell below that line as recently as two seasons ago.

“When I first got here, it was hard to get 5,000 people,” said senior forward Aleighsa Welch, a Goose Creek native. Which makes what’s happening now all the more remarkable. The Gamecocks’ average attendance for women’s games is 12,177, a number that as of late last week was 1,324 better than second-place Tennessee. USC’s average crowd for SEC games is a staggering 14,448. By comparison, the men’s team averages 12,528 per SEC game at Colonial Life Arena.

No question, the winning has played a part. USC’s rise in attendance began last season, as the Gamecocks marched toward the program’s first SEC title and No. 1 NCAA tournament seed. South Carolina drew a crowd of 10,547 for a home game against Florida on Feb. 23, 2014, and hasn’t drawn less than that for an SEC contest since. The Gamecocks have won 30 straight at Colonial Life Arena, where their smallest crowd this season was 8,823 against North Carolina Central on Dec. 1.

“We’ve created something that’s intimidating, that gives our team a home-court advantage,” Staley said. And she would know, given that she’s the architect of it all.

The largest crowd to see a women’s basketball game at South Carolina was 17,712, against Clemson in 2002. But there was an asterisk. There was always an asterisk. That game was the inaugural event at Colonial Life Arena, and tickets were given away for free. There was a crowd of 8,118 for a game against No. 1 Stanford in 2012, but that was part of a doubleheader with a men’s game.

“There was always a qualifier,” said Eric Nichols, chief marketing officer for USC’s athletics department. “You’re like, ‘OK, so that’s how we got the big crowd.’”

There are no more qualifiers — only results of an effort by Staley and USC’s marketing department to get spectators in the building for women’s basketball games, and keep them coming back. USC has overhauled the game-day experience to add more giveaways, promotions and even a DJ, enhanced incentives to encourage more student turnout, and implemented outreach programs that reward kids with vouchers for reading or physical activity.

But the university’s best asset from a marketing perspective is unquestionably its head coach, whose willingness to bang the promotional drum hasn’t just resulted in better attendance, but has built a bond between her and her team’s fan base. The drive for 5,000 season tickets — taken from the No. 5 Staley wore in WNBA and international play — prior to this season? Staley’s idea. The introduction of an apparel line branded specifically with women’s basketball? Staley’s idea. The addition of bus trips to facilitate fan support at away games? Staley’s idea.

“She says, ‘We’re going to do a bus trip, and it’s this game,’” Nichols said with a laugh.

Staley hasn’t always been as active from a promotional standpoint as she is now, even though her name recognition — thanks to three Olympic gold medals and a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame — is almost unparalleled in the women’s game.

“Dawn Staley is a rock star,” Nichols said. To USC, there was no better advocate for the women’s program than its head coach. But initially, she was hesitant. She had enjoyed her time in the spotlight, and she wanted it to be about her team.

“I get her perspective,” Nichols said. “And I think she understood the other perspective, which is, she can shine a light on her team through her. So she got much more active promotionally, much more active in social media, her community outreach efforts were significantly improved. Those are things that were in her all the time, but she just put more of her time and energy into them. And personally, I think these are the fruits of her efforts.”

The results are clear. Staley is relentless on social media, using Twitter to urge fans to pack the arena for big home games. The bus trips, once a tough sell, have sold out for games at Duke and Georgia. After home games, Staley mingles with the crowd and shakes more hands than a politician in a re-election campaign. She’s not just visible, she’s accessible, and she does it all with a personal touch that makes fans feel connected to the program.

“She wants to bring them into our family, and make them a part of our family,” Welch said. “And I think a big thing is just making them feel a part of it.”

That’s important in women’s basketball, where fan bases are often community-driven.

“Women’s basketball is a groundswell effort,” said Debbie Antonelli, a Mount Pleasant resident and national television basketball analyst. Antonelli called Staley “an exception” in an era when most women’s coaching staffs are as specialized as those on men’s teams, and head coaches typically leave promotional duties to others. But this phenomenon unfolding at South Carolina?

“It’s all Dawn,” she said.

“I think people just appreciate it. They appreciate what Dawn has put into it,” Antonelli added. “They appreciate what Dawn stands for and who she is. She’s let people get to know her, and that’s what’s made it even more genuine. ... There are a lot of head coaches that do get out somewhat in the community, might do a speaking engagement, might help with a season ticket campaign. But not the investment Dawn has made.”

It’s created an environment that’s a long way from Staley’s first home game, against Clemson in 2008, which drew 2,300 people. It’s far outdistanced last season, when the Gamecocks averaged 6,371 spectators on their way to the Sweet 16. To be certain, none of this would be happening without the winning — but there are many women’s programs that win, yet still struggle to get fans through the gate. USC went to the Elite Eight in 2002, but averaged just 2,476 fans at home games that season.

Now, Staley’s role in promoting her team has supplied a missing link.

“Winning is a big part of it,” Welch said. “Everybody loves to be a part of a winning program. And I think the support she’s gained by being able to build this program has really made a connection with the community.”

Even in a banner season, the women’s basketball program doesn’t make money for USC. Following a 2013-14 campaign in which the Gamecocks won the SEC title, earned a No. 1 tournament seed and made a run to the Sweet 16, USC reported the program earned $939,479 in revenue, against $4.47 million in expenses. That gap is in line with most major programs, and it doesn’t promise to close much this season, not even if South Carolina marches all the way to the Final Four.

Which is perhaps why USC has kept women’s basketball tickets at such an affordable level throughout Staley’s tenure. General admission tickets for USC women’s games are $7, a steal compared to men’s tickets which are $20 for the lower level and $14 for the upper deck, or even tickets at other prominent women’s programs — Connecticut’s are $26, Tennessee’s are $10 for general admission and $15 to $20 for a reserved seat, and Notre Dame’s vary from $9 to $15 depending on the opponent.

“The value of women’s basketball is off the charts,” said Nichols, who added that ticket prices for USC women’s games have remained fairly steady since Staley’s arrival. Antonelli believes that price point plays into the larger picture that has drawn such strong crowds to Colonial Life Arena.

“I look at it like basic economic theory, and the four Ps of marketing — product, price, promotion and place,” she said. “Dawn has put an incredible product together, and the South Carolina fan base ... they love their Gamecocks. Dawn has put an incredible product on the floor that’s successful, and it’s creating quite a buzz.”

Asked if the attendance boom would lead USC to rethink its ticket structure for women’s basketball, Nichols said the athletic department is evaluating the matter. From a budgetary perspective, he said USC isn’t spending any more to market women’s basketball than it was in Staley’s first season. The group working to promote women’s basketball consists of roughly 10 people, including those in the ticket and sports information departments.

So much of it still goes back to Staley. “They have a connection with Dawn,” Nichols said of USC fans. “I think the things she does on social media are different from any other coach except maybe (Kentucky men’s coach) John Calipari. She’s very active.”

To Staley, there’s a very practical end to all this — she’s trying to foster a home-court atmosphere that can help her team win games, host the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, and compete for the national title. While her personal involvement has clearly resonated with fans, Staley’s involvement on the promotional side is all done with the bigger picture — and the ultimate prize — in mind.

“As a coach you have the experience of going on the road and playing at Tennessee, and they have 18,000. You look on TV and see UConn and Notre Dame. These are programs that have won national championships, and that’s what a national champion looks like — playing in front of a big crowd, going on win streaks,” she said. “I don’t know what they’ve done to do that besides win. But I know what we have to do in Columbia. We have to win, and we have to make them feel a part of it. So everybody has to do their part in it.”

And it’s no longer limited to Colonial Life Arena. For Welch, the ah-ha moment was a Dec. 7 road game at Duke, where “basically the whole lower bowl of Cameron Indoor Stadium was Gamecocks fans,” she said. That was but a snapshot of what’s happening on a larger scale in Columbia, and a drastic change from the average of 3,952 who turned out for games just two seasons ago.

“It’s a complete turnaround,” Welch said. “Now you look up and you see people in the upper deck, and you’re not used to seeing that. You’re not used to scanning the room and not seeing many open seats. It’s a great feeling, man. It’s a fabulous feeling.”

And it’s proven enough even to impress accomplished visiting coaches like Texas A&M’s Blair — who didn’t know the crowd of over 13,000 on hand that night was a little smaller than USC had hoped for. Staley had been pushing for a sellout of the 18,000-seat building. That’s how far South Carolina has come.

“When I came down here, I just really envisioned us winning the national championship. And I did not include what it looked like from the fans’ standpoint. I only looked at what it looked like from executing out there on the floor and getting the talent in here that we need to do that,” Staley said. “But our fans have painted an incredible, beautiful picture that I don’t think I could have ever imagined would have turned out this way. I’m forever amazed how many people show up night in and night out for our program. I’m just glad we’re giving them something to cheer loudly for.”