Under Dawn Staley, popularity of women’s basketball at South Carolina has soared
The top-ranked Gamecocks (33-2) will meet Louisville (29-4) at 6 p.m. Friday in the first semifinal at the Women’s Final Four at the Target Center
The routine for Bobby Bryant with his Bible study group each Friday night is to have dinner and then watch Christian-themed videos. That will change this Friday.
Bryant, a star cornerback with the Vikings from 1968-80, lives in Columbia, S.C., not far from the University of South Carolina, his alma mater. In recent years, he has become a big fan of the Gamecocks women’s basketball team.
The top-ranked Gamecocks (33-2) will meet Louisville (29-4) at 6 p.m. Friday in the first semifinal at the Women’s Final Four at the Target Center. Defending champion Stanford (32-3) will face 11-time champion Connecticut (29-5) in the second semifinal at 8:30 p.m.
“We’ve got five couples and we get together every Friday for Bible study at one of the homes,” Bryant said from Columbia. “We usually start at 6:30 and we eat and then watch videos. But the Gamecocks are playing at 7 (Eastern Time), so we’re going to have to eat earlier. But the woman’s home that we are at Friday, she doesn’t have cable. So after we eat, everybody’s going to come over to my place and we’ll watch the basketball game (on ESPN) instead of videos. Everybody wants to watch. They have a big following down here.”
Indeed they do. After Tennessee led the nation in women’s basketball attendance for 18 of 20 years, the Gamecocks have led in each of the past eight seasons at 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena. That included a school record average attendance of 14,364 in 2015-16 and 12,268 this season, when the coronavirus pandemic still was an issue. They regularly draw more fans than the South Carolina men’s basketball team.
The primary reason for all of this has been Dawn Staley, a former University of Virginia and WNBA star who was named South Carolina’s head coach in 2008. In 14 seasons, she has led the Gamecocks to the 2017 national championship, four Final Fours and six regular-season and six tournament titles in the Southeastern Conference. Staley has compiled a 364-105 record, and her Gamecocks have been ranked No. 1 throughout this season.
Before Staley’s arrival, South Carolina, a school that previously had never been to an NCAA Final Four, averaged just a few hundred fans a game. Bryant, 78, said he never followed the program until Staley arrived and the Gamecocks “began to win most of their games and the fans really took a liking to them.”
Staley, though, said the fan support the Gamecocks have is more than just about winning.
“We took matters into our own hands,” she said Thursday. “We invited our fans into our offices. We create opportunities for them to get to know us as people, and then in return, word of mouth, they bring friends. They buy season tickets just to have, just to invite people to our games. And once you come into our environment, it looks like no other. It looks like no other sporting event on our campus, and that’s a mixture of all kinds of races and ethnicities.”
Now, South Carolina women’s basketball players are recognized throughout the area.
“It’s kind of crazy because you really feel the love in the community,” junior guard Brea Beal said. “You can go to the store and run into somebody and they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ just freaking out. It’s like a family. That’s the most important thing. You’re playing in front of people that support you 100 percent.”
While winning attendance titles is impressive, for the Gamecocks to truly be considered one of the most storied programs in women’s college basketball, they perhaps need to add some more titles. After all, they are in a Final Four that includes Connecticut, which has won a record 11 championships, and Stanford, which has three.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to be judged by championships,” Staley said. “That’s the thing that most people remember. Do we feel pressure to win? Yeah, because we’re a pretty good basketball team. We’re here. Will us not winning define who we are and what we’re able to accomplish? No.”
Staley is being paid with the hope she can deliver more national titles. Before the season, she signed a lucrative seven-year contract that is paying her $2.9 million this season. That’s more than any other coach in the women’s game, and more than any coach at her school. South Carolina football coach Shane Beamer is making $2.75 million in the 2021-22 academic year, and new men’s basketball coach Lamont Paris signed on for $2.2 million a year.
With Staley getting such a big salary, the South Carolina women’s basketball program is not a money maker. It doesn’t help the budget that ticket prices have been very low, but that perhaps has helped the Gamecocks regularly lead the nation in attendance.
The school has announced that season-ticket prices will increase next season but they will remain economical. For instance, a general admission season ticket will rise from $45 to $55, but that’s still less than $4 a game.
Bryant said he watches all the games but mostly on television since he doesn’t like to battle the traffic. But another former Vikings player and South Carolina graduate said he attends just about every home game, and that will continue.
Corey Miller was a well-regarded linebacker with the New York Giants from 1991-98 before finishing his career with the Vikings in 1999. Miller, an ordained minister, was a television and radio broadcaster in Columbia after his playing days before leaving the business in 2019 to devote more time to his Giants4Christ ministry.
“(Staley has) turned the program around,” Miller said. “I know her personally, and what she’s done with the program has been excellent. There’s (championship) banners hanging in that gym (at Colonial Life). And the competition and the skill of the players is great. I’m a huge fan of women’s basketball now, and it’s all because of Dawn Staley. They’ve got great support. The fans come to the games (in Columbia), and they’ll be coming to Minneapolis.”