Photos by David Welch, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 4.29
Colonial Life Arena 801 Lincoln St Columbia, SC 29208
Year Opened: 2002
Colonial Life Arena – South Carolina Gamecocks
The Southeastern Conference has long been home to several of the most decorated college basketball programs – Florida and Kentucky have both won multiple national championships, and Arkansas has added a championship of their own. In all, the SEC has made a total of 44 Final Four appearances.
While a national championship has been elusive, the Gamecocks have experienced their own postseason glory with consecutive NIT titles (2005-2006) and an unforgettable run to the 2019 Final Four, the first in program history.
USC made a major investment in basketball in 2002, opening the doors to the 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena, following 34 years at the Carolina Coliseum. This move signaled a commitment to competing at the highest level of not just the SEC, but nationally.
Food & Beverage 5
The food options at Colonial Life Arena are as plentiful as a mall food court. Fans can choose everything ranging from stadium favorites such as hot dogs, burgers, nachos, and chicken tenders, to a wide selection of more regional offerings including Mexican at Salsarita’s, craft burgers at Burgerim, Thai Kingdom, and even a taste of the ocean from Mr. Seafood. Many carts are also situated around the concourse offering everything from ice cream to donuts and gourmet popcorn to smoothies.
Colonia Life Arena sells both craft and domestic beer, wine, and seltzers. Craft beers include selections from Terrapin, Columbia Craft Brewing Company, Wild Leap, and Peak Drift Brewing Company, while soft drink choices include Coca-Cola products.
Fans fill the plaza at the entrance to Colonial Life Arena in anticipation of the doors opening. The plaza, at the corner of Lincoln and Greene Streets, is lined with South Carolina palmettos and is fronted with a circular fountain that beautifully frames the entryway. A 15-foot statue of Gamecock women’s basketball hero A’ja Wilson also welcomes fans upon their arrival.
The entry point to Colonial Life Arena is framed by large support columns backed by a full bank of windows. As fans pass through the doors into the grand foyer, an intricate mosaic of the gamecock mascot is front and center on the floor of the entry. Fans ascend staircases on either side of the entrance, the actual center courts from both national championships won by the women’s program hang overhead. The staircases lead to the main concourse, as well as an area dedicated to the retired jerseys and championships won by the Gamecocks. The concourse that wraps completely around the arena is a virtual walking tribute to the icons of South Carolina Gamecock basketball.
Pregame entertainment might be more accurately described as a pre-game extravaganza – as the house lights dim and cell phone flashlights illuminate, the energy in the air is palpable. The South Carolina cheer squad, alongside Cocky the mascot, leads the team onto the court, with flags spelling out C-A-R-O-L-I-N-A.
As the festivities move to player introductions, flames and sparks shoot from boxes set up around the center circle as Cocky waves a Gamecock-logoed flag about. The highlight of pre-game, though, is in the moments leading up to tip off; in what has become one of the great traditions in all college athletics, the techno beats of Darude’s “Sandstorm” get the arena rocking. The song also plays during a handful of late game situations to fire up the crowd coming out of a timeout.
Carolina power companies might want to tap into Colonial Life Arena as a source of energy – from the pre-game "Sandstorm" to the final buzzer, excitement is woven into the Gamecock basketball experience. This electric atmosphere is undoubtedly a highlight of the overall game day experience.
The biggest obstacle facing South Carolina basketball might simply be consistency. Despite flashes of brilliance, maintaining consistent success has been elusive. Over the past 40 seasons, the Gamecocks have only managed three consecutive winning seasons on four occasions, often stumbling just as they start building momentum. This lack of consistency can be frustrating for fans who want to go all in with their support of the program.
Sometimes for colleges and universities in downtown areas, it can be difficult to tell where the campus ends and the city begins. Owned and operated by the University of South Carolina, Colonial Life Arena is located about a block off the main section of USC’s campus.
The surrounding neighborhood provides fans with several options in terms of eateries and points of interest to visit as part of their experience. The student housing building at 650 Lincoln has several choices for a quick bite, including Jersey Mike’s, Urban Wok, and Tropical Smoothie Cafe. Also, student housing at 750 Lincoln includes a more upscale taste with offerings from Angell Bros. 1801 Grille. However, one of the more popular pregame spots is Thirsty Fellow Pizzeria and Pub, where fans are lined up prior to opening at 11 am for a 1 pm tip off.
If looking for more entertainment to fill a visit to the South Carolina campus, early season tilts might be paired with a late season SEC match up at William-Bryce Stadium, while mid-February will see the start of the college baseball season at Founders Park, and softball at the Carolina Softball Stadium. Or, those looking for a bit of history of the area have just a short walk to the South Carolina state capital.
Gamecock fans are a passionate bunch who recognize good basketball as it is unfolding. Fans start clamoring merely at the sight of the ball moving toward an open shooter, or the ball being fed to the post against a mismatch.
Carolina fans show up in force, averaging a respectable 10,000-12,000 per game. But the uneven distribution of supporters seems to leave some unrealized potential of what could be, in terms of a full house on a night-to-night basis. While the lower bowl and sidelines are relatively full of excited fans, the upper baseline sections can sometimes appear a bit empty.
Enough cannot be said about the role the students play in the fan experience. Dubbed, “The Cockpit” the student section even has their own X account (@SC_COCKPIT), and has four rules: 1) On your feet, 2) Arrive Early, 3) Be Loud, and 4) Use Props. The Cockpit is a great student section that does not seem to get the credit they deserve when ranking the top student sections in the country.
The streets around Colonial Life Arena can seem like a bit of a maze trying to navigate. The intersections around the arena start to be blocked off about 2.5 hours before a game, creating what can be a two-block detour to get to a desired location.
There are plenty of parking garages and lots that are just a short walk from the arena.
The entrance at the corner of Greene and Lincoln Streets is the only one used to get fans into the arena – this does create some back-ups as fans pass through security checks before entering the foyer to have tickets scanned.
Stairs leading up to the outer concourse gives fans plenty of space to navigate, with the exception of the far end of the arena where the Frank McGwire Club juts out, creating a bit of a bottleneck there. Within the seating area, a narrow walkway passes completely around the upper level of the seating bowl.
With most parking concentrated on one side of the arena, it does create a great deal of congestion following the game on the secondary streets leading away from the arena, especially for those heading back toward the interstate.
Return on Investment 4
Tickets for conference match ups start at $15, before Ticketmaster add-on fees; it would be difficult to find a ticket at any of the Power Five conference teams that beat this. Prices do substantially increase for premium games against the top teams in the conference, in-state rival Clemson, or a premier non-conference foe. Given Colonial Life Arena’s size, games typically do not sell out, so decent deals can be found on the secondary market. Of course, there will be fees added.
Parking starts at $10 for lots and garages that are just a short walk to the arena, which seems to be in line with most other conferences like the SEC.
Not enough can be said about the frenzied pregame atmosphere that is carried on throughout the game.
The South Carolina mascot Cocky is an active participant in hyping up the crowd, especially the student section, who really get the rest of the arena going.
The concourse area of Colonial Life Arena is a virtual museum of Gamecock basketball. More than the impressive displays of the center courts from the women’s national championships, there are also displays of retired jerseys, trophy cases, recognition of those enshrined in the USC Basketball Hall of Fame, and the Walk of Fame are all a fantastic look at the history of basketball at the University of South Carolina.
In addition, an array of South Carolina’s basketball history is recognized above the center-hung scoreboard, where men's and women's championship banners mingle with retired jerseys honoring past Gamecock legends.
Following the game, players, coaches, staff, and cheerleaders gather in front of the pep band, raising their cupped hands in a unified "C" as the school's alma mater is played. This simple gesture speaks volumes, solidifying the bond between the program and its fans, and the university they all represent.
South Carolina Gamecock basketball is an incredible college basketball experience, but one issue might be that, at a capacity of 18,000, Colonial Life Arena may be a touch too big. While the passion of the crowd does not waver, it does seem like a smaller arena might magnify that excitement even more.
South Carolina basketball may be one of the best kept secrets when it comes to arena atmospheres in the country. It can be difficult for basketball programs to cut out their own niche in the football heavy SEC, but Gamecock basketball has done a wonderful job creating an electrifying college basketball atmosphere that many might simply not be aware of yet.