For a school established relatively recently, Coastal Carolina has a very successful mid-major program. Coastal benefits from being located nine miles from South Carolina's tourist capital in Myrtle Beach, and is the only college basketball team in the fast-growing Myrtle Beach metro area. The Chanticleers went to the NCAA Tournament in 1991 and 1993, and have won the last two Big South regular season titles. While not the premier sporting option in the area, Coastal basketball is the biggest thing going during most of the winter in Horry County. Coastal has established itself as one of the most successful athletic programs in the Big South, with nationally ranked baseball and soccer teams, and the football and basketball teams usually in the chase for the conference title. One would expect the basketball team would, as a result, play in some of the best facilities around.
But upon walking into Kimbel Arena, the seating capacity can be found posted on the wall. It reads like a Herman Cain tax plan: 999. Kimbel can hold about 100 more with standing room, but the truth is that the school with the fourth-largest athletic budget in South Carolina (2nd of 10 mid-majors in the state) has the second-smallest arena in all of Division I. This can be a problem for Coastal in selling themselves to recruits. Most Division I prospects would not want to play in an arena most likely smaller than their high school gym.
And area basketball fans also lose out with the size of Kimbel Arena. Coastal has about 500 season ticket holders, and new season tickets are not easy to get. To get a season ticket, you must have priority and have requested seats for multiple years, and it also helps to have football season tickets. At a school that cares more about football, loyalty to get the tougher basketball tickets are earned through football. After the season-ticket holders, students get about 300 tickets and the pass list is about 100. The few remaining tickets are usually snapped up quickly, meaning for virtually every game, Kimbel is sold out. This means that when High Point plays here in February, I will not be able to attend. I have been lucky the past few years since graduating from HPU. Three years ago, Cliff Ellis had not fully turned the program around, and there were always a few tickets at the door for each game. Two years ago, I was able to get my ticket just before Coastal sold out for conference play. And last year, High Point played at Kimbel when students were over break, which is when Coastal opens about 200 additional seats to the public. But that is not the case this year, so I will be able to see High Point play at Charleston Southern, Winthrop, and Presbyterian, as well as a few games at the Millis Center, but not at Coastal. But tonight school was out at CCU, so I was able to reserve my ticket a few days earlier and headed to Kimbel to see the Chants face Division III foe Lynchburg College.
The size of Kimbel has created a few problems for Coastal over the years. When the Big South announced it would use campus sites for the tournament, fans began to worry about what would happen if one of the weaker facilities' teams won the right to host. And Coastal has won that right the last two years, as well as UNC Asheville in 2008 in their newly vacated facility, the 1,100-seat Justice Center. Fans of the competing teams are often shut out looking for tickets for their teams' biggest games. While this happens above the Red Line somewhat often, part of the advantage of attending mid-major basketball games is the accessibility it has over the power-conference teams. But that is not the case at Coastal. LSU came here expecting to be opening a new arena, but instead got to play at Kimbel. The only alternative would be to play at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, which seats several thousand and hosts some of the nation's premier high school tournaments. But the Convention Center is usually booked, and its basketball venue is usually constructed on a temporary basis each December. As a result, the Chanticleers are only able on rare occasions able to utilize the facility.
So why does a decent mid-major like Coastal Carolina have such a tiny arena? Back when it was built in 1972, it was never foreseen at Coastal that Kimbel Arena might see Division I basketball. At that time, Coastal Carolina was a member of the University of South Carolina and transitioning from a two-year community college to a four-year university. The Chants would stay in the NAIA until the early 1980s, and not join Division I until the late 1980s. Coastal would have early success in the Big South before scandals and NCAA probation hit them hard, enabling schools with better facilities like Liberty and Winthrop to dominate the conference while Coastal fell behind. But the university has grown with its surrounding area, and Coastal Carolina is finally starting to become a well-respected school that is strong academically and athletically as students from around the country wish to attend a school nine miles from the beach.
But throughout this time period, Kimbel has never been replaced. Coastal officials do see the problem with keeping Kimbel, and have made an effort to replace it. The first serious plan was the YRT2 Arena. This proposed facility was to open four years ago and house both Coastal basketball and a minor-league hockey team and serve as an entertainment center for Horry County. But contract negotiating and funding fell through, and the 7,000-seat arena was never built. With bond money from the state, Coastal then looked to build a new student wellness center with a 3,600-seat convocation center to house the basketball team. This new arena was to open this season, but construction delays are keeping the Chants grounded in Kimbel. Coastal still hopes to open the facility this coming Spring, but it remains to be seen if that will actually happen.
Coastal is not the only school in the country to have this problem, and small arenas have been common in the Big South. Charleston Southern has an arena that seats 100 less than Kimbel, but with a smaller school and a more saturated market with two bigger mid-majors nearby, CSU does not sellout on a frequent basis. UNC Asheville often packed their gym just barely bigger than Kimbel back when the 7-foot-7 Kenny George played there, and UNCA this season was able to come through and replace the Justice Center with a new 3,000-seat arena. And my school, High Point, has a small arena as well, and one that is oddly laid out leaving most fans in the balcony behind the basket. High Point tickets are usually not available twice during conference play as well, during family weekend and prospective student weekend, when the balcony is reserved for those with those groups. As previously said, the appeal of mid-major basketball is more affordable and accessible tickets. When this is not met, our schools lose fans, especially when the major-conference schools can be seen on television every game.
The truth is that the quality of your facilities is something that needs to be evaluated at the stage when you are planning to join Division I. Once you join Division I, you must be able to handle the large crowds that will make your basketball program profitable. The arena should be designed to accommodate the needs of your fanbase. If you sellout every game, then perhaps it is time for an upgrade, and hopefully the costs of the arena will be covered by having thousands of fans fill the bigger facility. I wrote earlier this week about the struggles of transitioning to Division I, and facilities should be a big consideration in this process.
But tonight, Coastal tickets were more accessible to the public, who could come out and see the Chants host their own guarantee game against Division III Lynchburg. Despite many season-ticket holders and students away for the holidays, Kimbel was full once again, but only once day-of-the-game tickets were sold. Early in the game, CCU was hot from outside and the Chants appeared to be heading for an easy victory. But the Division III Hornets also played some pretty good offense, and shot the ball well to close the gap to five at halftime.
The fans were then entertained by a diaper race, as babies who had not yet taken their first steps raced each other 30 feet down the court. The only problem with this is that babies do not know what a race is. Half of the babies when they were released just sat there without a concept of what they were supposed to do, with some of them crying in fright of sitting on a floor with 1,000 people watching them. Eventually, one 11-month-old baby did crawl the right way, and with encouragement from his parents crossed the finish line and got to play with the trophy afterwards.
Coastal got back and traded baskets with Lynchburg to start the second half. A few fans became worried, and it looked like the Hornets might have a chance to do what UVA Wise came up just short of at Wofford and Winthrop last weekend and get the Black Line Upset. But Anthony Raffa did everything for Coastal to show the wide talent gap between the two teams. Coastal scored 11 straight points to extend their lead to 16 points with 13 minutes to go. While Lynchburg could shoot well, so could Coastal who had a big edge in size and athleticism as well. Coastal would wind up with an easy win as expected by a final of 86-61.
Hopefully the new convocation center will be open soon. With more seats will come more fans, and more people in the Grand Strand can become fans of mid-major basketball. When that happens, I will be able to visit Coastal more often and see some of the best in the Big South play in Conway. As it stands, this will almost certainly be the only time I can get to Kimbel this year, and hopefully it will be the last as progress is made across campus on the new facility.
at COASTAL CAROLINA 86, LYNCHBURG 61 12/16/2011
COASTAL CAROLINA 9-1 (2-0) -- C. Gradnigo 6-13 4-6 18; K. Greenwood 2-5 3-5 8; W. Gillis 4-5 0-0 8; A. Raffa 11-17 1-1 26; S. McLaurin 5-5 3-4 13; J. Pack 0-4 0-2 0; D. Moore 2-5 0-0 5; D. Nieman 2-2 0-0 4; B. Crawford 0-0 2-2 2; B. Addey 1-2 0-0 2; C. Ashford 0-0 0-0 0; J. Griffin 0-1 0-0 0; R. Berry 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 33-59 13-20 86.
Three-point goals: - , CCU 7-18 (C. Gradnigo 2-6; A. Raffa 3-5; D. Moore 1-4; J. Griffin 0-1; K. Greenwood 1-2); Rebounds: , CCU 39 (C. Gradnigo 9); Assists: , CCU 22 (K. Greenwood 8); Total Fouls -- , CCU 13; Fouled Out: -; CCU-None.