Thursday, December 2, 2010

SEC title game could cost S.C. high schools money

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina football fans can watch their Gamecocks try to win the Southeastern Conference championship this weekend, or they can go watch their local high school team go after a state title. It's a dilemma that could impact the bottom line of the governning body for prep sports.

SCHSL commissioner Jerome Singleton hopes there are enough fans out there who won't mind missing South Carolina's try for an SEC title on Saturday to watch this year's prep championships. But as kickoff approaches, he's not sure.

"That's hard to tell," he said.

Singleton says the state's governing body for public school sports depends on a healthy gate from its four state title games at Williams-Brice Stadium, home of South Carolina's SEC Eastern Division champs, to support its activities for the year. However, this year's championships on Friday and Saturday compete with the Gamecocks attempt to win the league crown.

"I think those that are true community supporters are going to be at the games," Singleton said this week. "The casual fans, we've been blessed to have a lot of casual fans, it may impact them."

The weekend features matchups in the SCHSL's four largest classifications. On Friday night, a Class 4A Division II contest features Northwestern against Greenwood at 8 p.m. On Saturday, there's Dorman vs. Byrnes for the Class 4A Division I title at noon, Pageland Central vs. Dillon for the Class 2A title at 3 p.m. and Myrtle Beach vs. South Pointe for the Class 3A title at 6 p.m.

The final two games will be played as No. 18 South Carolina faces No. 2 Auburn. That game begins at 4 p.m. at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. South Carolina has also opened its 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena for supporters who wish to watch the SEC championship on the video scoreboard.

Singleton is worried that the league will sell fewer $10 tickets because of the conflict and hurt the league's financial situation.

"Certainly we depend heavily on the gate," Singleton said. "It's a million-dollar operation," he said.
If the drop is too much, Singleton says he might have to look at cost-cutting measures.

"Hopefully, we won't have to eliminate services," he said.

It's not the first time the organization has dealt with attendance issues.

The crowds had mostly held steady since the SCHSL packaged its title games as the "Weekend of Champions," moving from on-campus sites to a central location at Williams-Brice in 1997. More than 43,000 fans showed up in 2001 for the state's five title games, the high-water mark for the SCHSL. The six games three years ago the league split Class A into separate divisions and moved those games to South Carolina State's stadium in Orangeburg attracted 37,487 people.

However, a one-year move to Clemson's Memorial Stadium in 2008 seriously impacted the crowd with attendance dipping to 19,897, the smallest weekend crowd in the past 12 years.

Singleton said Clemson was a wonderful host, but the location kept many fans away, as did a lack of nearby teams playing in the title games that year. That year's champions in Class 3A and Class 2A, Myrtle Beach and Dillon, each had trips of about 240 miles to reach Clemson.

The return to Williams-Brice Stadium in 2009 brought out 22,978 fans for the four games.

The league invites interested organizations to bid on hosting championships each year, Singleton said. South Carolina charges the league $64,000 for the weekend, the majority of funds going for security and personnel to run the stadium. Rental of the field is a minimal amount, he said.

Each school is reimbursed at a rate of $1 per mile for its trip.

Shell Dula, former Greenwood High football coach and executive director of the South Carolina Athletic Coaches Association, says it's hard to factor potential college success into planning for the high school title games. South Carolina's success is something most football fans in the state can enjoy, he said. However, there's enough interest for high school games to thrive, too.

"Probably will see in the middle of the day not as many people who love football there," Dula said. "But I think the passion with the (high) schools will win out. We're going to have great crowds."

-- Associated Press