When South Carolina’s athletic department unveiled its “Welcome Home” marketing campaign Monday, reducing the cost of season tickets for the 2021 football season, it came with a tantalizing suggestion — the possibility of a full Williams-Brice Stadium.
“While football 2021 measures to fight COVID-19 have yet to be established, we are hopeful to return to a full stadium,” the department wrote in the campaign FAQ section.
A day later, though, the department reaffirmed that attendance at spring sports would continue to be restricted to around 25% of venues’ capacities, a reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing.
So how likely is it that the Gamecocks will welcome a full stadium of 80,000 fans come Sept. 4 when they open the season against Northern Illinois?
“In the next few weeks, we’re going to give that more conversation as we continue to monitor what’s going on with COVID and the (virus) variants,” athletic director Ray Tanner said in his monthly radio interview on 107.5 FM. “I mean, we’re here in early March, and March was predicted all along, at least in the last few months, when we could see a surge in the variants. So we’ll see if that if that’s the case, or we have enough immunity, or the vaccinations are at the level that we can hold that off a little bit. So, still a lot to be determined, but let’s stay optimistic that we can get back to capacity crowds.”
As Tanner and his staff continue to monitor the state of the pandemic in South Carolina, they’ll eventually have to make a call on when they think it is safe enough to host a full stadium. That’s a call fellow SEC programs Alabama and Texas A&M have already made, announcing they are planning on returning to capacity crowds come the fall.
But Tanner said Wednesday that he didn’t have a particular date in mind as to when USC will have to make a decision, though he did hint the department would err on the side of optimism for planning purposes.
“I think that we probably would go forward if we are completely optimistic and feel good and all the data that we have and all the recommendations that we have from the authorities to move forward in terms of that are in a better place,” Tanner said. “But if it’s still somewhat tenuous, we will probably be aggressive in at least preparing to go full capacity. And again, we can always go back to a situation with limited capacity. So I would tell you that we’re probably leaning toward an opportunity to be ready to move forward, and then again if we have to limit it, we can handle it. We did it before.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said back in December that it was “possible” NFL stadiums could be full again in September depending on the state of the nation’s COVID vaccine rollout. Other health experts have echoed that timeline, though things could change if enough of the population isn’t vaccinated or the variants Tanner mentioned spread more quickly.
But as to a specific standard he wants to see before returning to normal, whether it be percentage of South Carolina residents vaccinated or a daily case average, Tanner admitted he still doesn’t know.
“I’m not sure if we’ll get a number like that. At the end of the day, will the CDC or DHEC or the state come out with any type of particular numbers that tell you you can do capacity or not? I don’t know that that will happen. Let’s just keep our fingers crossed that we will get to that place. But we don’t know yet.”
DHEC has said it anticipates it will be summer before enough of South Carolina’s population is vaccinated and safety and health protocols can be lifted. DHEC also estimated that Phase 2 of its vaccination campaign, when every resident who wants one will be able to get one, will begin approximately May 3, 2021.
SOUTH CAROLINA FOOTBALL 2021 SCHEDULE
Sept. 4 - vs. Eastern Illinois
Sept. 11 - at East Carolina
Sept. 18 - at Georgia
Sept. 25 - vs. Kentucky
Oct. 2 - vs. Troy
Oct. 9 - at Tennessee
Oct. 16 - vs. Vanderbilt
Oct. 23 - at Texas A&M
Oct. 30 - BYE
Nov. 6 - vs. Florida
Nov. 13 - at Missouri
Nov. 20 - vs. Auburn
Nov. 27 - vs. Clemson