On Wednesday, the University of South Carolina was compelled to issue a clarification regarding the tickets it was planning to give away for this Saturday’s home game against Akron at Williams-Brice Stadium. Yes, the upper level tickets were indeed free as reported but no, and this part was important, they were not free for everybody. Due to a technical error, the link for free tickets, which The State reported were “meant only for community groups and military personnel” was made available to the general public. The school, which is otherwise charging $45 for upper-level seats and $50 for ones in the lower tier, explained that it was giving away the seats in order to provide for a better experience for the team’s players in the Gamecocks’ final home game of 2018. “The athletics department hopes that our fans respect the intention of the offer of complimentary tickets to community groups and the military,” the statement said.
Ordinarily, South Carolina does not have to do things like this. Will Muschamp’s team is 6-5, bowl eligible and generally competitive, and a perfectly cromulent candidate to play in some December bowl game sponsored by a lawn-care brand or prescription cholesterol medication. Akron, at 4-7, is free to make whatever bowl-season plans it wishes, provided those plans do not involve playing in a bowl game. There is no rivalry between these two teams, and when they meet at noon on Saturday it will be the first time that the two programs have ever faced each other. What they have in common is that they have played one fewer game than their peer programs: Akron’s scheduled game against Nebraska on Sept. 1 was canceled due to lightning and South Carolina’s Sept. 15 game against Marshall was lost to the ravages of Hurricane Florence.
On an ordinary Saturday, there would be not really be any reason to pay attention to this game. Given that nearly every other game scheduled for Saturday is a conference championship, there’s even less reason to do so. And yet there’s an accidental and profoundly oafish poetry to the fact that this game exists at all. Whatever excuses once existed on its behalf when the teams set it up in early November no longer exist. Akron was 4-4 then, and played up flying its players to South Carolina as a bowl-eligibility gambit and, in the words of Akron coach Terry Bowden, “a great opportunity” overall. “We felt it was important,” Bowden said, “to give them a game in such a great venue.”
South Carolina, which refunded all the tickets sold for the canceled Marshall game, didn’t need a sixth win to become eligible for one of the (literally) 78 bowl slots, but it did stand to make a decent payday by hosting a game—any game—that day. Pre-empting the high school state championship games previously scheduled for the stadium on that day would not be a problem. “The Gamecocks were expected to make between $2 million and $2.5 million from hosting the game,” The State’s Josh Kendall* wrote back in September, “but as the 15th-most profitable football program in the country, they can absorb that loss if necessary.”
In a twist that will doubtless surprise even longtime college sports observers, South Carolina decided not to absorb that loss. In a further twist that ... honestly I’m not even going to do the sarcasm thing again, but unsurprisingly South Carolina is having a terrible time selling tickets for the game and may wind up taking a bath again. Akron, which is currently engaged in a legal dispute with Nebraska in an attempt to claim the $1.17 million fee that they had been promised for that canceled game in Lincoln, is contracted be paid $1.3 million, plus what now seems like a stingy guarantee of 2,000 seats, for traveling to South Carolina on Saturday. As of Wednesday, ticket sales at the 80,250-seat Williams-Brice had not yet reached 30,000, which in turn led to the modified-limited-not-really free seat attempt on South Carolina’s part; the school’s lowest official attendance this year came in its home game against against FCS program Chattanooga, which was announced at 72,832.
Whatever the reasons that have led and will lead people—tens of thousands of people, even in the worst-case ticket-sale scenario—to pay $50 to watch these two teams play in this particular game, they will certainly get what they pay for, which is a football experience that falls somewhere between “exclusive” and “basically secret.” (Gamecocks fans will be able to watch on SEC Network Alternate; Zips fans will be able to listen on local radio.) Gamecocks players will get one last home game before heading off to the Cellino & Barnes Bowl, the Zips will get to play in a much bigger stadium than usual, and everyone who stands to make a little money off all this—that is, everyone but the aforementioned players—will do just that.
It will be the most forgettable game of this Saturday, just by dint of how insignificant it is relative to the other games surrounding it on the schedule. But, in some ways that will sadly do nothing to make the game more memorable, South Carolina–Akron is already an exceptionally loaded college football game. It seems, in its cynicism and frank ham-headed avarice and in how casually and shamelessly it wears them, somehow to have too much college football in it. That might be reading too much into things, admittedly. This might just be a big program and a small program, both seizing their chances at one last check. There might not be a difference.
h/t Peter P.
Correction: I originally misidentified the author of this story. It was Josh Kendall, not Eric Garland, who produced a video on the page. Neither of those people is the Game Theory guy.