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Hitting paydirt: Steve Spurrier's football program helps spark investment in USC, community

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The success of head football coach Steve Spurrier’s winning program towers over the University of South Carolina and the neighborhood surrounding Williams-Brice Stadium. (Photo/Chuck Crumbo)

By Chris Cox
ccox@scbiznews.com
Published Sept. 2, 2015 (From Aug. 31 issue of the Columbia Regional Business Report)

Steve Spurrier just can’t seem to help himself.

Even when the topic is potential student interest in the University of South Carolina, the Head Ball Coach still manages to find a way to poke a little fun at the expense of his Upstate neighbors.

“Somebody said every time we beat Clemson, the applications for admission double or triple,” he said. “We’ve beaten them five in a row, so that’s a lot of doublin’ and triplin’.”

In reality, Spurrier’s quip may not be too far from the truth. Though he is mostly credited for resuscitating a USC program long on life support, a team which kicks off the 2015 season Thursday against North Carolina, many feel his success has also helped galvanize the Columbia area.

“The old ball coach is the most recognized football coach maybe in America, not just college football,” Mayor Steve Benjamin said. “He’s an institution. He’s universally respected whether people like him or not. I think he’s been great for South Carolina, not just football but our reputation.

“I spend a lot of time advancing the city’s interests outside of town. If I had to think of one person that comes up more in conversation than anything else, it’s coach Spurrier.”

His actual economic impact on South Carolina and the Midlands is nearly impossible to quantify, said USC sports and entertainment professor Tom Regan, as the coach is but one asset in the university’s total athletics department. But his significant value to that financial driver cannot be undersold.

“Spurrier is a piece of the success,” Regan said. “Is he the porch to the university, the front door? When you take a look at athletics, football is the one that makes the money. The kicker to the thing is that the overall success of the athletic department and that Gamecock brand has been pretty darn good lately.”

NEW-LOOK OFFENSE

Spurrier really just wanted to spruce up his turf.

Image by Travis Bell/SIDELINE CAROLINA 
©COPYRIGHT 2012
“The stadium was just all concrete. I said, ‘Well, why don’t we just paint a little garnet in here.’” USC coach Steve Spurrier.  (Photo/South Carolina Athletics)
“The stadium was just all concrete,” he said. “I said, ‘Well, why don’t we just paint a little garnet in here?’

“Of course, we don’t have many championships. We have the ’69 ACC Championship and now we’ve got one division (title). So we put up our all-time leading statistic players that have done the most in school history. So we’ve got the stadium looking pretty nice now, I think.”

The area is more than pretty nice. Long an eyesore in the heart of Columbia’s industrial and warehouse neighborhood, Williams-Brice Stadium was never going to win many beauty contests. But in the decade since Spurrier’s arrival, the area south of downtown has undergone quite the transformation.

The former site of the South Carolina Farmer’s Market has been home since 2012 to the 50-acre, $30 million Gamecock Park tailgate hub, complete with grassy promenade and brick entranceway. Behind it rests a behemoth $17 million indoor practice facility which is now receiving its finishing touches.

A massive 36-foot high scoreboard was also added in 2012, and three years earlier, the S.C. State Fair underwent a $5 million upgrade to its 40-acre parking lot which changed it from a dirt lot to a green space complete with underground drainage system. And a recent $14.5 million project to surround the stadium with tree-lined walkways instead of the old asphalt will be completed before this season begins.

“I think we were near the bottom probably in the SEC facility-wise 10 years ago,” Spurrier said. “And now I think we’re right there amongst the best.”

Of course, commercial development has also vastly changed the landscape surrounding the football epicenter. Carolina Walk Condominiums, The Spur at Williams-Brice, Stadium Village Lofts and The Gates at Williams-Brice all sprang up between 2005 and 2007.

“Between the private investment and public investment that has occurred, they’ve taken this area and made it a very appealing, fan-friendly tailgating atmosphere that would rival any school in the country,” Regan said. “That is partly because of the success that they’ve had in football. Would that occur if they were back in the days of a Clemson coach now? No, that would not occur.”

When Regan arrived at USC in 1991, the athletics department had a budget of $19 million. Now it’s around $105 million, thanks to an additional $31 million annually as part of the Southeastern Conference’s TV rights deal. Between the SEC Network, bowl game payouts and other contributors, the league as a whole generated a record $455.8 million this past year.

And the school’s apparel contract with Under Armour – the sports clothing company agreed in 2011 to pay USC $6.2 million over six years – also adds a nice lump of cash to the athletics department budget.

Does Spurrier have an effect on all this? It’s hard to say, Regan said. His high-profile presence and team’s recent success certainly don’t hurt.

“Spending has occurred, the season ticket base has gone up,” he noted. “You’ve seen the media rights go up for not only radio and TV but in all the other aspects of it. It’s a good time to be a Gamecock and I think the assessed valuation around that stadium is all the property taxes and (other) taxes that are occurring are significant to the city and Richland County.”

NICKEL AND DIME DEFENSES

The Under Armour deal is helping out more than just USC. Just ask Kevin Lucas and his colleagues at Garnet and Black Traditions.

The sportswear stores, a Gamecocks fans’ staple known for their “Beat” game day stickers since the mid-1980s, called the apparel addition a “shot in the arm” for the company when it first debuted on racks.

“You go to a game and three-quarters of the people are wearing Under Armour,” said Lucas, himself sporting the company’s USC gear. “It was definitely a major, major deal for us.”

Lucas has seen the USC brand explode since Spurrier first arrived. And in 2014 the school finished No. 14 on Collegiate Licensing Company’s list of collegiate merchandise royalty dollars collected for what Lucas believes was the first time.

In 2010, when the Gamecocks captured their only SEC Eastern Division championship, the store had its best year on record. Coupled with the school’s first baseball national championship, the company finished up 75% in sales from the previous year.

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Kevin Lucas at Garnet and Black Traditions says the store’s sales are strongly influenced by USC wins and losses. (Photo/Chris Cox)
And its website now reels in one-third of the company’s business – no small feat when consumers are spending top dollar on jewelry. And while it recently closed its Northeast Columbia location, Jewelry Warehouse and Garnet and Black Traditions have relocated and expanded at its other three stores, including moving from a 1,200 square feet store to more than 5,000 square feet at its primary Cayce shop.

“What Spurrier has really done is tap into a pipeline that was already there, but the name and face of Spurrier just brings attention to it,” Lucas said. “You look since 2005, there’s three big things that have changed the University of South Carolina – Spurrier, Under Armour and winning.”

Of course, that winning can also have a significant impact on the business when it isn’t happening as often. As the Gamecocks dipped to a 7-6 record in 2014, Garnet and Black Traditions had to cut between 60% and 75% of its fourth-quarter merchandise as fans slowed on shopping sprees.

“There’s nothing scarier than realizing that a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds can dictate so much,” Lucas said.

His store isn’t the only business reaping rewards of a quality football team.

Columbia’s nearly 100 hotels average a nightly stay in the mid-$200s during football season, said IMIC Hotels vice president of operations Tony Tam, which represents anywhere from a 30% to 35% premium over a typical night. He did note those numbers can often balance out considering the significant increase in staff a hotel must provide.

Before joining IMIC, Tam spent 13 years as the area director and general manager for the Hilton Columbia Center and Hampton Inn Vista. He’s seen firsthand how enticing it is for an opposing fan to come watch a game in Columbia now that it has a quality program.

“I just think it’s that perfect storm,” he said. “We’ve got an exciting team, a popular coach and the economy is pretty good, too. You can really tie it all in together.”

A recent athletics department study done by Regan showed direct spending by non-local fans over a recent season was around $119 million. That number represents all sports, though football is the primary driver, and local fans supporters are taken out due to displacement.

Big conference football matchups bring about 10,000 people to the city, most of who stay all weekend, Regan said. And the study estimates than an average SEC clash pumps $10 million into just the downtown Columbia area.

“They come for multiple days and they have no issues with spending, shopping, hotels, eating and drinking,” Regan said. “It’s a weekend event, it’s not just in for a game and out.”

HITTING PAYDIRT

Spurrier is adamant that he is merely a piece of the puzzle. Basketball coaches Dawn Staley and Frank Martin have also played their parts, as has an administration led by former baseball coach Ray Tanner and an ever-growing academic reputation.

But football will always be the straw that stirs the drink, at least athletically.

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What once was concrete and blacktop surrounding Williams-Brice Stadium is now landscaped and paved with bricks. (Photo/Chuck Crumbo)
“Without football, the viability of an athletic program at the University of South Carolina is not sustainable,” Regan said. “I’ve often said football is the golden goose, and it is. And it has to be taken care of.”

And taken care of it is, with expanded facilities, new apparel contracts and new residence developments like the recently completed 650 Lincoln all playing their parts in USC’s success. But the team must also win to earn all that, Regan said, which Spurrier has had little problem with. Entering his 10th year with the program, he is already the winningest coach in school history.

“All of the sudden you’re seeing a multi-million dollar investment into an athletic program that is based around football in the SEC,” Regan said. “Is that an asset worth taking care of and investing in? Yes. Without football, our athletics budget is not good.”

So much can be dependent on gridiron success, whether it’s the number of season-ticket holders or the retail income at Garnet and Black Traditions. And Spurrier, one of the game’s most revered coaches, has largely played his part in keeping that success sustainable.

“One thing I think is very misleading about the (collegiate retail) industry is how dependent it is on winning,” Lucas said. “Last year, there were several people even within the university that were surprised a lot of us local retailers were down so much in numbers.”

“I think it does translate to economic development,” USC president Harris Pastides added. “I think if people could go here or there for a game, they’d love to come and see the Gamecocks under Spurrier.”

It is still a true team effort, Spurrier maintains. But there is little denying the significant role his own Gamecocks have played. One needs to look no further than the night-and-day change on game days in his decade with the program.

“I think a whole bunch of us (contribute),” Spurrier said. “It might have a little bit to do with football success. But I’ve just done a small part in the big picture for everybody.”

Reach Chris Cox at 803-726-7545 or on Twitter @chrisbcox.

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