Colonial Life Arena – South Carolina Gamecocks
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Rockin’ in the CLA
In 2002, the University of South Carolina opened a sparkling new arena in the heart of the Vista district on the western edge of campus. Complete with a giant fountain, beautiful concourses and comfortable seating, it’s unquestionably a beautiful basketball venue.
However, the Gamecocks have had another problem. With only one NCAA Tournament appearance since the arena opened, USC has been playing in front of a half-full venue for over a decade. Empty upper decks, scattered fans in the seats and an inconsistent student support were the order of the day at a school where football and baseball are considered first and second.
In March of 2012, Frank Martin took over the program in desperate need of a rebuild. Fast forward a few years, and momentum is starting to grow around Gamecocks basketball. Coupled with the tremendous success of the women’s team under Dawn Staley, the Gamecocks fans have started to show at the Colonial Life Arena and are redefining the game day experience there.
Food & Beverage 5
When you go to a college basketball game at even some of the most well-known venues in the country, food is not a priority. That is not the case at the CLA.
A huge variety of concessions options will greet you around the open concourse. The Carolina Marketplace offers items like a grilled chicken wrap ($6), Kayem brats ($4.75), Carolina slaw dogs ($4.50), barbecue nachos ($7) and more, as well as an assortment of snacks including some delicious kettle corn ($4.75). The Flat Iron Grill sells burger, Philly cheesesteak and chicken tender baskets with fries for $7.50. Thai Kingdom offers specialty items like Teriyaki Wings ($7), Chicken on a Stick ($7) and Egg Rolls ($2.50). Marco’s Pizza stands sell pizza by the slice ($4) or whole pizzas ($24). If those concession stand options aren’t enough, there are some incredibly unique items all around the concourse, too. Along with things like Rita’s Italian Ice and Dippin’ Dots, there’s even a local bakery serving a wide selection of homemade cakes and pies. That’s something I’ve never seen at a college basketball game before.
Coke products are available throughout the arena for $3 for a small up to $5.50 for a souvenir, with the option of $12 for bottomless drinks (a feature you’ll also find with popcorn). Bottled water ($3.75) and coffee/hot chocolate ($2.50) are also available. There is also a small smoothie stand in the concourse for some delicious frozen options. Beer and wine appear on the menu, but are not sold at USC athletic events.
There are so many options on the menu that you couldn’t be faulted for making any choices here. Grab whatever your favorite is, but leave room for one of the many readily available desserts.
Carolina game day is an evolving thing at this point, but paired with the great venue, it’s got limitless potential.
The stadium itself is absolutely beautiful. From the walk up the front steps around the massive fountain in front of the large glass doors to the garnet-colored lobby with the tile Gamecock mosaic on the floor and SEC banners hanging, it leaves one of the best first impressions in college basketball. The concourses are bright, wide and adorned with Gamecocks history and colors. The stadium is so clean that you’ll swear it opened yesterday. Once you exit the concourse into the main arena, you might be surprised at just how big it is for a team with a less than stellar recent history. 18,000 garnet-colored seats circle two decks around the court with “South Carolina” written across it in large garnet letters. In the rafters, banners hang recognizing past accolades and players, although close inspection will tell you that NIT championships and NCAA tournament appearances make up the highlights of the men’s banners.
Once the game starts, all of the normal South Carolina theatrics will be there. Sandstorm will blare through the speakers as Cocky puts on a show for the crowd. As mascots go, Cocky is incredibly engaged with the fans and can often be seen dancing whatever the popular dance is with the college kids. A large pep band is constantly playing and cheerleaders and dancers line either end of the court. The in-game announcer is consistently energetic and there are numerous, unique in-game promotions (twerking ping pong balls out of a belt?) during breaks in the action.
While lower-level seats are always recommended, there’s really not a bad seat here. Sight lines are great all around the arena. Even at the very top of the upper deck, you won’t be obstructed by banners or rafters.
As far as Columbia goes, the venue couldn’t be located in a better location for food and drinks. It’s just a couple short blocks from the Vista, the premier eating and dining location in the downtown area. There are plenty of restaurants and hotels within incredibly easy walking distance.
While most of the food options are just to the north, the closest option stands by itself a block south of the stadium along some of the parking options. The Thirsty Fellow offers up delicious pizza and a wide variety of beer on tap. As you walk north of the stadium into the Vista, the first option you’ll come to is likely the Hickory Tavern. Fairly new, this restaurant features an upstairs deck and is often home to the Gamecocks pre and post-game shows. Also in the same general area you can find Flying Saucer Draught Emporium, World Of Beers, Liberty Taproom, Mellow Mushroom and many more options in the heart of Columbia’s nightlife scene.
Columbia’s attractions generally are based around South Carolina athletics, so you’re not going to find a lot here that’s must-see. Congaree National Park is short drive south of the city and offers forest scenery as you walk the boardwalk. Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens is a top-flight zoo that can hold its own with zoos in much bigger cities. The South Carolina State House is also just a short walk from the Vista and is worth seeing.
While not necessarily the cheapest, there are hotel options within blocks of the stadium that are excellent for parking and exploring the area. The Hilton Columbia Center Hotel is the closest option and is connected to one of the primary parking garages for the arena. It also has a Ruth’s Chris Steak House in the lobby. The Hampton Inn Columbia Downtown is across the street and opens to Gervais Street, the main strip of the Vista. The Courtyard Columbia Downtown is another option within easy walking distance.
It’s really tough to rate this one. As long as the Gamecocks continue their upwards trajectory under Frank Martin and Dawn Staley, the fans are top notch. But history says that basketball is a distant third in Columbia to outstanding football and baseball programs and fan support.
Attendance at the CLA for a men’s game has risen to over 12,000 a game and seems to be continuing to rise. In 2015 and before, the Gamecocks historically have only sold out one game a year if they’re lucky. Things have changed since that marker, can they sustain it? A true shining mark here goes to the fact that the women’s team has led the nation in attendance since 2015 and is an elite program with a massive fan base.
Gamecocks fans are loud and passionate at any sporting event. From Sandstorm to 2001 to singing the alma mater after the game, they love their teams. That being said, the basketball fans seem to be still learning how to be basketball fans. The student section turns the energy on and off during the game. When they’re going, it’s a sight to see. The rest of the fans largely follow suit. Showing up is definitely the first half of the battle, but once these fans truly embrace the team like they do baseball and football, the sky will be the limit.
Perhaps the downside of the increased fan base is the unpreparedness of the venue to handle the traffic consistently.
Columbia does not have a strong public transit system, so you’re best arriving early. The Columbia airport is about a 10-minute drive away, so getting into town is easy enough.
The problem comes with parking. There are two shared garages next to the stadium ($5 each on game day) and a few designated lots around the stadium to park in. Recent construction as the campus expands has taken some of those lots, and means it gets very congested when the arena sells out. Also in the mix is that the Vista itself is already known to have a bit of a parking problem. It’s a growing community of restaurants and nightlife and as of yet parking hasn’t expanded to meet those needs. On a weeknight, it should be manageable, but if it’s a Saturday evening game, plan to arrive early to eat before the crowds start to arrive.
There are four different gates at each corner of the stadium (with the northeastern corner being for students). The main gate is on the southeastern side and is also where tickets can be purchased in the lobby. I recommend using this gate for the spectacular entrance. I’d strongly recommend buying tickets in advance to avoid the crowds in the lobby.
The concourse is wide and built to accommodate capacity crowds. It still can get very busy, and the main concession lines can get long before the game and at halftime. The cart vendors are generally easy to access at all times. Restrooms are clean and seem to be sufficient to handle the masses. Once you pass into the arena areas, seating access is generally pretty easy. Ushers will be there to help you with any confusion.
Return on Investment 4
One of the great things about a team that’s just starting to achieve success is that prices haven’t risen to sustained demand.
If you buy in advance, you can still get Gamecocks tickets for $18 (sometimes less on resellers). With parking at $5 and food reasonably priced, it’s a solid price for top-flight SEC basketball. While that may change sometime in the future, it’s currently more than worth the trip.
Easily the venue itself earns points here, with the fountain and lobby being one of the best you’ll find. While everything else falls under the categories above, there’s more than enough over the top items to warrant some points. From Cocky dancing with the fans (including the famous “Baseline Jesus”) to Sandstorm blaring up until tipoff, it’s a venue full of character.
South Carolina basketball is rising to meet the venue and atmosphere created by its excellent venue. Often overlooked not just in the SEC but among South Carolina athletics fan, this venue has the potential to be a great one, should 18,000 consistently continue to show up.
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Hilton Columbia Center – Hotel
924 Senate St
Columbia, SC 29201
Hampton Inn by Hilton Columbia Downtown Historic District
822 Gervais St
Columbia, SC 29201
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