Football is all that matters in SEC country. Truth? Perhaps at times, but not in 2017 in Columbia.
The University of South Carolina changed all that, as the women’s basketball team, a national power since the arrival of Coach Dawn Staley, claimed their first national championship while the men made an improbable run to the Final Four.
Columbia embraced both teams, with many fans making trips to California, New York City, Phoenix and Dallas to support the teams. Those who stayed at home created a basketball-loving community to draw the envy of Lexington or Durham.
Bars and restaurants were packed. Business owners in the city’s hospitality districts rushed to offer specials, improve game-watching experiences, and welcome the crowds eager to embrace March (and early April) madness.
“It’s like St. Patrick’s Day,” said Amy Beth Franks, executive director of the Five Points Association. “St. Pat’s is great for the businesses because it gives them that economic punch they need to propel them through the slow summer. Basketball is just doing that again for them. We’re having record sales of food, beer, wine. It’s been really good.”
“We couldn’t get to the games in person, but watching here in a crowd of Gamecock fans was better anyway,” said Emily Purcell as she watched the women’s championship game Sunday at the Village Idiot, the Five Points restaurant where she and a group of friends had also watched the men’s loss to Gonzaga as well as several other games.
Is Columbia a basketball town? Time will tell the answer. But in March and April of 2017, as fountains filled with celebrating students and restaurants and homes alike echoed with screams of excited fans, the answer was clearly yes.
The economic impact will take time to calculate, but it will be significant. Long after the effects of those dollars fade, however, the memories will remain. Two teams in the Final Four. Cinderella. And most of all, a national championship.