Frank Martin remembers it vividly. He walked onto the floor of Colonial Life Arena on Nov. 11, 2012, for his first game as South Carolina’s basketball coach and saw … not much.
“I was looking around, saying, ‘Where are the people?’” Martin said during the summer.
Listed attendance for that game, an 82-75 overtime win against Milwaukee, was 7,335 — not bad for a program that hadn’t had a winning season the previous three years. In many of the SEC’s arenas, that number wouldn’t have looked as shabby as it did in the cavernous 18,000 seat CLA.
Martin understood that the Gamecocks had not won for a while, and that it had created apathy around the program. He spoke several times during his first season about the necessity to re-connect with fans and repair the bridges burned by years of losing.
Wins will come, but Martin and USC’s marketing department are taking steps to increase enthusiasm and fan support now.
With a little more than three weeks until the Nov. 9 season-opener, USC has surpassed last year’s number of season tickets sold.
Officials attribute the increase to a combination of a revamped ticket policy and Martin’s enthusiasm for pushing the program. Martin has been a constant fixture at campus events, helping judge a USC talent show last week and also working a table with his team in front of the student union, trying to build excitement for his second season.
“Outside of winning, the participation of a head coach in a promotional program is the most effective strategy that there is,” said Eric Nichols, USC’s director of marketing. “We all support him or her, but when you have a coach that’s constantly promoting his or her program, there’s nothing else we can do as effective as that.”
Three losing seasons had sucked a lot of the life out of USC basketball, which was thought to have seen a rebirth during coach Darrin Horn’s first season. The Gamecocks won the SEC East championship and the next season topped No. 1 Kentucky in front of a sold-out crowd.
But crowds dwindled as the win total dropped. USC played home games in recent years when CLA was awash in the opponent’s colors. The size of the building and the spacing of the sections — too spread out for effective fan noise, too large to come close to selling out for a basketball game — was never more evident.
Martin, Nichols and others knew they couldn’t do anything about the building’s layout. So they came up with alternative solutions — changing the ticket plans and promoting the future of the program, while the wins were still in progress.
“Part of our review of last year was we noticed our pricing was out of whack,” Nichols said. “We knew we wanted to approach a partner and find a deal that’s almost so good, you can’t pass it up. We constructed this Coke Zero Family Plan, connected with Coke, and they loved it.”
Coke united with USC to push a reasonable pricing plan, selling four season tickets in Section 109 of the CLA, four T-shirts and four drinks per game for $600. Around 30 percent capacity last season, the section is at more than 80 percent this year. That feeds into the 6,300 season tickets sold, more than last year’s total of 6,100.
USC also has restructured baseline seating, removing the Gamecock Club membership restriction, and it is finalizing its ticket flex plans and mini-plans. For the student section, Martin helped promote a contest to vote for a new name, with the winner set to be announced Wednesday.
It’s only the beginning. USC will participate in a Tipoff Tailgate before USC’s football game at Missouri, roll out a “Hoops Takeover” promotion before the season-opener and has drawn raves for having basketball players call season-ticket buyers, thanking them for their patronage. The Gamecocks will also reach out to other cities around the state, focusing on community leaders, and begin talking about ways to bring outside-Columbia fans to games.
Wins will always get fans to come out in greater numbers. USC believes Martin will win. The promotions are about forgetting the past and making sure Martin never again has to wonder where the fans are.
“A season like we had, stringing seasons together like we had, to go forward in season tickets sales is a good sign that the fan base is getting re-energized and buying into coach Martin,” Nichols said. “The more involvement someone has, the more ownership they have in a program.”
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