Football lovers filled Charlotte’s streets early Saturday morning for FanFest, the official pre-game celebration for the Gamecocks vs. Cavaliers face-off in the Belk Bowl.
Bill McMurry, an alumnus of the University of South Carolina, was among the Gamecocks fans who took over a parking lot a few blocks from Bank of America Stadium.
His trunk was stocked with tailgating essentials: snacks, bloody mary makings and a Gamecocks sock monkey named Jadeveon Clowney, outside linebacker for the Houston Texans who played college football at South Carolina and is a Rock Hill, S.C., native.
Other fans flocked to the streets outside of the stadium for live music by the Next Level Band of Charlotte and the Carolina Panthers Drumline Purrcussion. Local vendors and sponsors lined South Mint Street offering food, drinks and games.
“It’s a good day for the city,” said Will Webb, executive director of the Charlotte Sports Foundation, which owns the Belk Bowl and Belk College Kickoff games.
Hotels and restaurants see a boost from the game and thousands of others make temporary income around the stadium, including ticket takers, security, concessions and police, he said.
The 2017 Belk Bowl brought in $10.8 million for the city, according to Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority data. Nearly $6 million resulted from direct visitor spending.
More than 22,000 visitors traveled to Charlotte for the game last year, when Wake Forest played Texas A&M, according to the CRVA. Visiting fans booked more than 7,000 hotel rooms.
Randall Woodford, a Cavaliers fan who stayed in a hotel uptown after driving from Roanoke, Va., said he was excited when he found out his team was playing in Charlotte.
“I’ve always had a fun time here,” Woodford said. “We were about to play in the Motor City Bowl in Detroit. Charlotte was obviously the better choice.”
He also cheered on Virginia during their last two appearances in the Belk Bowl — although it was called the Continental Tire Bowl at the time — in 2002 and 2003.
The city expected a bigger crowd this year than in recent years, Webb said. Only 32,784 people bought tickets to the 2017 Belk Bowl, filling less than half of the 74,000-seat stadium and marking the worst turnout in the bowl’s history.
“Both teams are very close to Charlotte,” he said, adding the teams also have loyal fan bases.
The timing of a noon game Saturday also helps, giving fans the option to arrive Friday night or Saturday morning, he said.
“There’s a lot of die-hard fans,” said Teeya Scheer, a South Carolina fan from Whiteville, N.C. “There’s a competitive spirit, but it’s still friendly.”
Scheer has rooted for the Gamecocks since her brother, Joe Reeves, played college football there. She drove up on Friday with her husband and daughter for the Belk Bowl Pep Rally and official fan party. But the outdoor fan events were canceled when a storm moved in overnight, prompting a flash flood warning throughout the day.
The Charlotte Business Journal reported earlier this month that ticket sales for the game already surpassed last year’s numbers. As of Saturday morning, single tickets were still available starting at $35, but VIP and group tickets were sold out.
In the sea of red and orange at FanFest, some fans walked around with signs in a last-ditch effort to get cheap tickets before the kickoff.