There was a time when USC did their own thing every spring. While Ohio State would sellout the Horseshoe in Columbus for their annual spring game, fans in Los Angeles would attend ‘The Trojan Huddle’. Complementary In’N'Out would be consumed and player-worn gear would be made available for fans. It was intimate, unique and very Californian.
Somewhere along the line that changed, as USC tried to boost attendance by conforming to the standard across the nation. The ‘Trojan Huddle’ moniker was dropped in 2010 and a true spring game was born. The date was pushed back to avoid local athletic conflicts like the Santa Anita Derby and even the Dodgers’ first weekend homestand. Fans were supposed to come and flood the Coliseum just like they did in other parts of the country.
Only, that didn’t happen.
Last year, USC announced a spring game attendance of just 15,515. While that number matches a sellout of the Forum for a Lakers game back in the Showtime era, at the Coliseum, 15 thousand looks more like 15 dozen.
Plus, with a strong close of the 2011 season and Matt Barkley’s return, attendance should have been peaking for the Trojans last year. Yet it wasn’t, which doesn’t bode well for the 2013 Spring Game, which was announced to take place on April 13th.
We reached out to the USC Athletic Department for comment on the lackluster attendance and there was an air of content to be had.
“While USC is always trying to maximize attendance at all of its events through various promotional and marketing avenues, we realize there are many factors that go into fans’ decisions to attend,” said USC Sports Information Director Tim Tessalone.
And fundamentally, he’s right. There certainly are a million factors that play into the game.
But, the flip side of coin is that those factors don’t exactly mean a scarcely attended spring game is the only option for USC. Those factors, including a venue that is too large for its intended audience, could be tweaked to help the product, rather than limit its potential.
While playing at the Coliseum is a treat for the players, many of whom have never suited up for live action in a meaningful game, there may be more to gain from moving the spring game elsewhere.
Perhaps USC can take another clue from Ohio State. The Buckeyes will play their 2013 affair at Paul Brown Stadium, the home of the Cincinnati Bengals. The move coincides with renovations back at the Horseshoe, but Urban Meyer has indicated a desire to play games in Cincinnati, Cleveland and even perhaps Canton, as way of catering to both recruits and their large region fan base. For USC, that model could be successful, especially when you consider the capacity of local venues.
While Qualcomm Stadium would be an interesting venue for a spring game and tap into the San Diego alumni base, it’s not like the Trojans are going to pack 50,000 into the Q.
So, why not look closer and add intrigue by playing the game at The Home Depot Center in Carson? Other schools have played at smaller venues with success, including Army and Pittsburgh.
The venue holds just 27,000 spectators, making it incredibly more intimate than the Coliseum and eliminating the eyesore of tens of thousands of empty seats. Instead, there would be shade, state-of-the-art concessions and a stadium club restaurant for fans to take in plays run by a fourth string quarterback.
Plus, let’s be honest, it would cater well to boosters and the ‘factors’ that cause weakened attendance. The game’s audience is season ticket holders, not students. Per USC, season ticket holders generally get two free tickets.
Considering that season ticket holders tend to be boosters and a big portion of USC’s donors and alumni live in Orange County or the South Bay, a move to a somewhat closer venue reduces drive times.
Is driving to the Coliseum on a Saturday afternoon in mid-April that big of a deal? No. But when the Trojans are scrounging for attendance and saddled with enough empty seats to seat the entire city of Lakewood, any incentive matters and is worth exploring.
Then there’s recruiting and the three traditional USC pipelines: Mater Dei, Long Beach Poly and Serra. Again, all significantly closer and used to playing in the venue that hosts the CIF Championships every December.
Also, take into account that the game is aimed at being family friendly and built on the premise of access to the players. At the Coliseum, getting onto the field for autographs is the main draw, but at the Home Depot Center, there’s ample facilities to house more festivities. A tennis stadium is attached to the soccer stadium that could hold kid-oriented events, while large concourses provide amble room for autograph sessions, Song Girl performances or public speaking events. The opportunities are nearly endless.
The bottom line is that change needs to happen, and energy needs to be pumped into the game.
Don’t expect USC to immediately go out and move their spring game to Carson. For one, there’s scheduling conflicts as the facility houses two MLS teams. Then there’s the money issue, as playing at HDC would require a rental fee.
But all things considered, until a soccer-specific stadium gets built on the site of the Sports Arena, it’s the best suited venue for the Trojans’ annual April game.
There’s nothing encouraging about the state of USC football when it is on display in a stadium that is 85 percent empty, so why not think outside of the box.