By Rebecca Johnson
March Madness brings many things with its insanity: busted brackets, war-painted fans, team rivalries and, for the cities hosting the games, buckets of money.
With its second-straight No. 1 bid, the USC women’s basketball team is hosting the first round of the NCAA postseason tournament for the first time since 2002.
The games begin Friday at Colonial Life Arena, with the Gamecocks playing 16-seed Savannah State at 5 p.m., and No. 8-seed Syracuse facing No. 9-seeded Nebraska at 7:30. The winners of the first two games will go head-to-head for a spot in the Sweet 16 Sunday at 7 p.m.
While the players prepare for the court, the rest of Columbia is gearing up for a flood of players and fans to hopefully fill beds, seats and barstools.
Columbia businesses could potentially pocket a little over $1.3 million from hosting the tournament, according to a report from the Columbia Regional Sports Council. The council, funded by industry and local government, works to make Columbia a destination for sporting events.
The cash influx is based on an estimated crowd of 12,000 guests, a figure based on USC’s average attendance and attendance at last season’s 16 first-round host cities.
The Gamecock women’s basketball team leads the nation in game attendance, with an average of over 12,000 fans a game, and over 14,000 for SEC games. Scott Powers, executive director of Columbia Regional Sports Council, has high hopes the trend will continue through the weekend to benefit Columbia’s economy.
“We have high expectations for this event because we haven’t hosted the tournament since 2002,” he said.
Powers said the council came up with the revenue projections by using a software program that factors in local metrics of jobs, wages, taxes and per diem costs to calculate how much an event would bring the city.
The largest chunks are predicted in retail and lodging, amounting to more than $575,000, and an estimated 2,029 hotel rooms will be booked through the weekend.
The report does what history can’t do. Despite their No. 1 pick last year, the Gamecocks couldn’t host after the NCAA banned tournament play in South Carolina because the Confederate flag remains on State House grounds. The prohibition was dropped last year.
Waco, Texas, home of the Baylor Bears, has hosted the Big 12 Conference tournament for the past five years, and the first-round games of the postseason tournament the past two years. Elizabeth Taylor, director of the Waco Convention Center, said the Gamecocks and Columbia are in an “ideal place,” both for the team in the tournament and for Columbia to benefit.
“You’ll enjoy it,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun to work with these young athletes and teams. Get the community involved, and it’s a lot of fun.”
Taylor said that a “fever” sets in with March Madness and that as Baylor’s reputation grows, so does community support, with welcome packages put together for visiting teams and local boosters buying into the action.
Chuck Belcher, one of three owners of Thirsty Fellow Pizzeria & Pub on Gadsden Street, is excited for this weekend’s events.
“For the university and the city, absolutely. It’s good for the team, it’ll bring people into the city, and that’s good for business and the economy,” he said.
Thirsty Fellow sits a short block away from Colonial Life Arena and sees a packed house before most Gamecock sporting events.
The arena is also a short walk to the heart of the Vista, just down the street from several restaurants, bars, hotels and shops that could see droves of basketball fans celebrating victory or nursing their wounds.
And for those worried about finding a parking spot for a 5 p.m. Friday game, $5 for parking and a free shuttle ride will take fans from Pendleton Street garage or from Capital City Stadium to the arena.