Columbia is a football town, right? Sure, 80,000-plus fans head to Williams-Brice Stadium on fall Saturdays to watch the University of South Carolina Gamecocks.
But consider this: USC’s football team drew 538,441 fans to home games in 2016. But the Columbia area’s three main baseball teams – the USC baseball squad, the Class A Columbia Fireflies minor league team and the nearby Lexington County Blowfish wood-bat collegiate summer team – combined to draw 604,811 fans last year.
There are a number of reasons why the Midlands finds itself so enamored with baseball.
Part of the local love for the game also likely comes from the long history of great players who have starred in the area, from native sons of the Midlands — like Lower Richland High alum Pokey Reese and Chapin High graduate DeWayne Wise, each of whom had lengthy major league careers— to players who made their names at USC before moving on to big league glory — like Boston Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.
Another factor that brings Columbians to area ballparks is the stadiums themselves. The three main ballparks — USC’s Founders Park, the Blowfish’s Lexington County Stadium and the Fireflies’ Spirit Communications Park — have all been built in the last eight years and are each highly regarded at their respective levels of play.
Khalid Ballouli, a sports and entertainment management professor at USC and a former baseball player who pitched at Texas A&M and spent five years in the minor leagues, said one factor he thinks fuels interest in Columbia-area baseball is the lack of a nearby major league club. The Atlanta Braves are the closest at about three hours away.
“I’m not sure that there’s more baseball fans here than there are in other types of cities,” Ballouli says. “But the fact that we don’t have a (major league) franchise in this state really lends baseball fandom."
As he stood on a concourse at USC's Founders Park watching the Gamecocks play Charleston Southern last month, Will Ferguson said winning is important in getting him to buy season tickets, but it goes deeper than that.
“It’s just a tradition,” the railroad worker said of the team team that has appeared in 11 College World Series and won titles in 2010 and 2011. “It’s a chance for everybody to come together. You know everybody around you. You always root for a win, but win or lose you still come to the ballpark. It’s like a second family.”
It’s a pretty large big second family. USC finished third nationally in total attendance last year at 293,677 and averaged 7,163 fans per game.
At Columbia’s Spirit Communications Park, the Columbia Firelfies are abuzz awaiting their newest outfielder, Heisman Trophy winner and former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow.
The Fireflies’ first season in Columbia in 2016 was an uneven affair, in a certain sense. On one hand, Spirit Communications Park – the 10,000-capacity , $37 million ballpark at the BullStreet development, the former S.C. mental hospital site –was named the best minor league park in America last year by Ballpark Digest.
But while the team’s total attendance of about 261,000 (an average of 3,785 per game) shattered the record for pro baseball in Columbia, it was good for only sixth in the 14-team South Atlantic League. The Greenville Drive ranked third in SAL attendance at 331,911 (4,810 per game) and the Charleston RiverDogs were fourth at 293,161 (4,311).
The Myrtle Beach Pelicans, who play in the Class A Advanced Carolina League, drew 227,491 fans (3,500) last season.
Ticket sales are up so far this year in Columbia, but the team is in a waiting game. Greenville developer Bob Hughes, a key player in the revitalization of downtown Greenville that eventually attracted the Class A Greenville Drive, has promised there will be shops, restaurants, residential housing, a movie theater, a hotel and more on the Bull Street site over the next two decades, but little of that has come to pass so far.
The Lexington County Blowfish is composed of college players from across the region (current USC starting pitcher Wil Crowe is an alum) competing in the Coastal Plain League.
The upcoming season will be the 12th overall for the Blowfish, and the third since moving to Lexington from their old digs at Capital City Stadium in Columbia. Team owner Bill Shanahan said the the team drew 50,000 fans to the 2,500-seat Lexington stadium last year.
Shanahan notes that part of the reason he decided to move the Blowfish to Lexington — and one of the key reasons the Midlands is so baseball crazy — is because of the rich youth baseball culture in Lexington. The county has hosted the Dixie Youth World Series on four occasions. Two members of 2016’s national champion Coastal Carolina squad are alums of Lexington County’s Gilbert High School.