The kickoff at Williams-Brice Stadium was buzzing more than usual this year. Garnet-clad partisans of University of South Carolina football have been congregating at the south end of the stadium to share their excitement and reminisce rather early on football weekends.
“I had tickets in high school, right up there on the first row,” says Allen Adkins, pointing toward a section in the end zone. A 1984 graduate of USC, she’s had season tickets for 39 straight years and been going to games longer than that.
When kickoff is set for Saturday, the Meredith Family 2001 Club has been filling up by the Friday prior to the game. What are Gamecock fans doing at the stadium more than a day early? It’s part of a long-term strategy to keep the venerable, 89-year-old facility relevant with today’s fans and lively for more than just a few Saturdays each fall.
“We know what we want to do,” says Wayne Hiott, a senior associate athletic director and chief executive of the Gamecock Club, the USC athletic booster organization. “We really want to transform Williams-Brice Stadium. We want to remove every barrier for people to stay home and sit on the couch — it’s so easy to do.”
The barriers began coming down just as a pandemic was putting new ones up. USC completed construction on several club areas just in time for the 2020 season, when COVID-19 restrictions drastically limited the number of attendees at the stadium. Since then, interest has grown as fans have gained knowledge of the amenities in each club.
“This is the first year where absolutely everything sold out,” Wayne says. The Traditions Club is below the upper deck concourse on the east or visitors’ side of the stadium. The Horseshoe Club services sections 101-109 on the stadium’s west side. The Cockaboose Club is in the south end zone, serving sections 11-13. The 2001 Club is in the southwest corner, featuring a view of the Gamecocks coming out of the locker room and heading onto the field during the team’s famous “2001” introduction.
The 2001 Club also plays host to the Gamecock Gastro Pub, which is what the Friday night gatherings are called. Fans can visit between 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. for what USC calls a “full-service, pub bar happy hour experience” managed by Southern Way Catering. One doesn’t have to be a club member to visit on Friday nights.
Visitors can order food and drink at the same concession counter used on game day. Restaurant-style seating is available in an area that is enclosed and air conditioned, with windows that open during Saturday pregames so fans can cheer the players as they walk past. Access to the club’s outdoor loge seats is provided with a place to take selfies a few yards away from the Williams-Brice end zone.
“The gastro pub concept was created because we had this nice product that we could use, and Southern Way wanted to do this,” Wayne says. The concept caught on with the numerous condominium owners within walking distance of the stadium. “By the end of the first year, it was packed.”
Allen is one of those condo owners. “I’ve been coming since they opened, and some nights the lines at the counter will be backed up to the tables,” she says. “This is good Gamecock hospitality and a good way to kick off a home game weekend.”
Chuck and Deb Khoury were visiting the pub for the first time. They are living downtown and immersing themselves in USC athletics, purchasing baseball, basketball, and football tickets as they await completion of their home in Chapin. The New York transplants strolled down to Williams-Brice for a stadium tour, where they heard about the pub.
“I love that you can go outside and check out the field,” Deb says. “I love all the festivities, so getting to do this the night before the game is really cool.” Chuck is a former college baseball player. “We went to lots of New York Yankees games and bought the 15-game club packages, and it really made a difference in the enjoyment,” he says.
The Yankees, as well as the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, are considered club seating trendsetters. Decades ago, college and pro stadiums began adding corporate skyboxes, large suites purchased for upward of six figures. More recently, however, teams are carving smaller clubs into their stadium footprints, a sporting version of business class between first class or skyboxes and coach or general admission seats.
“The Yankees did it at a level that everyone else could hope to be like,” says Dr. Tom Regan, an associate professor in the College of Hospitality, Retail, and Sport Management at USC. “The best premium seating in any stadium is in Yankee Stadium.”
The newest iteration of Yankee Stadium, which opened in 2009, has clubs with various levels of amenities scattered around the park. For example, the Delta SKY360 Suite, located on a middle level behind home plate, features cushioned seats, in-seat wait service, private restrooms, and access to a climate-controlled lounge with fine dining options, plus complimentary snacks and nonalcoholic beverages. A few days before a Sept. 21 contest against the Toronto Blue Jays, tickets were available through the team’s vendor starting at just under $420.
On the Cowboys website, the team promotes 10 clubs totaling 15,000 seats located throughout AT&T Stadium. They offer full-service bars, special concession stands, and merchandise shops. The Cowboys are credited with the idea of having the players enter the field by passing through fans in the Miller Lite Club, which is a $150 ticket add-on.
“Here, we have a partition and sliding glass windows,” Wayne says. “There, they literally walk through the middle of the club. At any stadium that’s being built today, almost every one creates a space that gives the fans an intimate experience with the team as they come out of the locker.”
The proliferation of club seating resides at the intersection of teams’ desire to generate more revenue and an aging population with disposable income. “Grandma, especially, wants a nice bathroom,” Tom says. Also some fans desire climate-controlled relief on scorching days or freezing nights at prices that are more accessible than a 50-ticket suite. “The revenue coming out of those areas is better than general admission revenues.”
When USC was planning its renovations, athletic department officials studied other venues. The Gamecocks visited Kroger Field, which the University of Kentucky renovated in 2015. The $126 million facelift added two clubs that combine outdoor seating with access to climate-controlled lounges with upgraded food, serving approximately 2,000 guests total. The former press box was also converted to club space to accommodate another 360 fans.
“We did what South Carolina did — we went around and talked to people. We asked questions and looked at what they were doing,” says Marc Hill, deputy athletic director at UK. “You want to bring something to the fan that they can’t already get, and for the consumers that can afford it, it’s the enhanced food and drink.”
Marc admits UK was fortunate in that the football program improved just as the clubs were added, but based on demand, they found they could have built more club seating, which they may do in the future. “We found that even in baseball and softball the corporate suites are nice, but what people really want are the club spaces.”
Working with a $20 million budget, Wayne says USC looked at possible renovation and expansion to their skyboxes but went in the direction of club areas. “We made a calculated decision to benefit the maximum number of people,” he says. “We wanted to effect as many seats as possible with a premium experience.”
The Traditions Club alone serves 3,000 fans. The price for a midfield seat in that club includes $395 for a season ticket, which includes seven home games; a $750 seat donation; plus an additional $1,000 donation to a stadium enhancement fund.
“You have so many people who want to have a different type of experience,” says Tana Lee, who was hanging out with Allen at the pub. She jokes that she’s “spoiled” because she has access to club seats through work connections. “There are the die-hard fans who have to be out there. Then there are the people who don’t want to be in the elements. They want to follow the game the way they feel comfortable.”
Alexander Aivazis and Chris Metcalfe were among the first to purchase seats in the Traditions Club. “For the amount the university spent compared to what we got, it was a really great value,” Chris says.
Alexander says, “You want to make sure you’re accommodating your best fans and the ones that are going to invest in the program.” Describing the experience as elevated, they say they’d get more Traditions Club seats now if they could. “I think it’s the best bang for your buck of any club we have,” Chris says.
The fact that Alexander and Chris and others were enjoying themselves in the 2001 Club on a Friday night highlights the possibilities for stadium clubs to draw event rentals — and thus additional revenue — when football is not being played. “They can use those facilities for weddings, for receptions, for parties,” Tom says. “You have good parking; you have security. It’s just smart. Everybody who can afford it is doing it.”
Wayne says Southern Way, the catering company that handles the event rentals, has it down to a science. With the capability of hosting anything from business meetings to wedding receptions, Wayne says the stadium has spaces that can accommodate groups from 40 to 400.
“Proof of concept has worked out really well,” he says. “We need to find ways to leverage club areas for year-round revenue generation and year-round exposure to our product and the Gamecock brand.”
Marc says the Kroger Field clubs are available year-round. “Most weekends, there are two or three events,” he says, plus businesses that rent meeting space during the week. “We’re not at the point of turning people away, but we’re close.”
When the Atlanta Braves moved from downtown and not-that-old Turner Field to the suburbs in 2017, Truist Park wasn’t just a brand-new stadium sitting next to an interstate interchange. The Braves teamed with developers to build a year-round economic ecosystem around the ballpark with hotel rooms, office space, retail, and restaurants. Called The Battery Atlanta, it is also home to foot-traffic-generating businesses that range from a cinema to a distillery to a yoga studio.
“With The Battery Atlanta, what the Braves did broke the model,” Tom says. “When they built that, it wasn’t a baseball stadium, it was a real estate development.”
That point leads to the future of Williams-Brice Stadium and the idea USC has floated of finding a development partner for property it owns near the stadium and near Colonial Life Arena downtown. The athletic department says any revenue from the real estate projects would be funneled into additional renovations to the football stadium, including efforts to increase its year-round usage.
“We know our best asset is the land that we own,” Wayne says. “How can we leverage that to get to our grand vision?”
For now, on a Friday night, fans are just happy to plunk down a few bucks for a seltzer and a fun environment. “I love that you don’t have to have a ton of money to do this,” says Courtney Dotherow, a Friday pub regular and loyal football game attendee. “You can have an upscale experience and enjoy food and drink that’s really good at a reasonable price.”