Time to shine: Landing Premier League match is big deal for Columbia. How will city roll out red carpet?

Expect to see the streets filled with people, football kits (that’s soccer speak for team jerseys) as far as the eye can see. Heavy traffic. New faces at your favorite restaurants. Menu specials and more.

Columbia will give the Manchester United and Liverpool soccer teams, and their fans, a very warm welcome when they come for the friendly match as part of their U.S. “Rivals in Red” tour at Williams-Brice Stadium Aug. 3.

“We’re going to dress the town in red,” said Scott Powers, executive director of Experience Columbia’s sports tourism arm.

When another major sporting event landed in the city, officials put up 128 street pole banners to celebrate hosting the opening rounds of the NCAA March Madness tournament in 2019, plus large welcome signs and balloon arches, while also enlisting dozens of businesses to host their own special events themed for the tournament — anything to make the teams and their fans feel at home in South Carolina’s capital city.

And Columbia will put its best foot forward again for the Premier League European football clubs’ special match here in August, meant to promote soccer fandom in the U.S. and to give existing fans something to get excited about.

Hosting two of the biggest names in international sports is a big deal to the athletics community in the Southeast, but Powers and other Midlands leaders say it’s so much more than that for Columbia and the region.

Time for the Midlands to shine

Fans waited in online queues by the thousands to buy tickets when they went on pre-sale at the start of this week, and within just a few hours of the general sale opening a day later, all 76,000-plus tickets to the match were sold out.

“This was their Taylor Swift,” said Tomasz Kluszczynski of the soccer fans who waited for tickets. Kluszczynski is the director of girls’ soccer for the South Carolina United Football Club, and he said he never imagined a match with two of the biggest teams in England would come to Columbia.

“Charlotte? Yes. Atlanta? Yes. But Columbia? Zero chance,” he said.

Columbia, in fact, is in the company of Los Angeles and Philadelphia as hosts for the three-game “Rivals in Red” tour, which also features the Premier League’s Arsenal club. Those two cities have populations roughly 27 times and 11 times the size of Columbia, respectively.

The University of South Carolina and Southeastern Conference’s “rabid fan base” and loyal alumni, plus the atmosphere of USC’s Williams-Brice football stadium are a few reasons Columbia was a contender to host the match, Hugh Nicholson, one of the event organizers, previously told The State. So far, that bet is paying off.

“Taking it somewhere where people are going to be proud of it,” Nicholson said. “To show off what they have. To show off their community. To show off their building… that’s what we look for.”

Indeed, Columbia will be glad to show off its goods for the nearly 80,000 fans who will come for the game.

“It puts us on the map for a whole different population,” said Aditi Bussells, an at-large Columbia City Council member.

Kluszczynski said he thinks locals will be surprised by how much of a soccer fanbase already exists in Columbia and the Southeast.

“I think it’s going to open quite a few eyes,” he said.

Columbia has successfully put on large-scale events in the past. Hosting games for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 2019 was a historic victory for the city, which hadn’t hosted a March Madness tournament game in 49 years before that. Beyoncé and Jay-Z came to town the year prior for a blockbuster concert at Williams-Brice Stadium.

And at least seven times a year, Carolina football fans come to Williams-Brice by the tens of thousands.

The Premier League match “can certainly be a catalyst (for more exposure), but I would actually argue that the momentum has already started,” Bussells said. “This is just an example of what happens when we’re making a conscious effort to put Columbia’s story out there.”

Putting its story out there is something Columbia leaders agree the city has struggled with in the past. Some have called it a self-esteem issue. Columbia is always being compared to Greenville and Charleston. It lags those cities in new development, and locals could debate for hours about where this city ranks for entertainment, shopping, dining and more.

But Columbia leaders have worked hard to change that tune.

“We’ve had a little bit of a pride issue, where people would undersell their own hometown — maybe because we may take it for granted or maybe because it’s kind of that old mentality of ‘this is all we can be,’ and I think that’s changing,” Bussells said.

The city has revived its Main Street, more and more housing is being built downtown, the city hosts James Beard-nominated restaurateurs, and efforts are underway to further capitalize on the region’s three rivers.

“They’re talking about Columbia 10 years ago” when people make critical comparisons to other parts of the state, said Britt Poole, executive director of the Central Midlands Council of Governments.

In Columbia — but also nearby Lexington, Cayce, Forest Acres, West Columbia — “there’s all these great spaces for coming together as a group or having a night out,” Poole said. “I’ve seen over the last decade a significant investment by a lot of jurisdictions … and it’s really resulted in something special” in the Midlands.

Poole himself is a soccer fan and has traveled to Atlanta for matches. People expect major cities to have what it takes to host an event like this. But he said it will be fun to see people from Atlanta coming to the Midlands for a change to see what Columbia has to offer.

Economic impact

The 2019 NCAA tournament games brought in $11.3 million in direct economic impact between Richland and Lexington counties, Powers said.

Gamecocks athletics have an annual economic impact of at least $200 million in Columbia.

The annual Masters golf tournament in Augusta creates one of the best weeks of the year for hoteliers in the Midlands.

Leaders expect the upcoming soccer match to make a similar splash.

“This is a big deal,” said Carl Blackstone, president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a huge bonus to bring this type of exposure to Columbia. … It’s an international sporting event being played in the Deep South in the middle summer when we don’t usually get international sporting events.”

A normal Gamecocks football game will draw fans mostly from within 100 miles, Blackstone said. But this match will draw spectators from across the Southeast and likely even beyond because it’s so rare for these internationally-known teams to play state-side.

“And let’s be honest, it’s not an inexpensive endeavor,” Blackstone said. “A lot of folks that can afford to come will come and spend more when they get here as well.”

The international appeal of the soccer match means a lot more people than Gamecock football fans will be paying attention to Columbia and the Midlands. It also means that a lot of the people coming for the match will almost certainly be out-of-towners who will need a place to stay overnight.

That creates a huge ripple effect for hotels, restaurants, retail shops, rental car providers and more.

On average, more than 15 million people visit Columbia every year, according to the tourism bureau. In 2022, that resulted in an extra $130 million in state and local tax dollars and an overall economic impact of $2.6 billion.

But the problem has been that most of those visitors don’t stay overnight.

Bussells said she hopes the soccer match will be an opportunity to market Columbia as a getaway destination and will entice fans to stay a day or two before or after the match.

Powers is counting on it.

Organizers for the 2019 March Madness games had special activities lined up for fans to keep them occupied and to show off Columbia before and after games. He anticipates doing something similar in August.

“We want (fans) to be able to have an opportunity to see what Columbia has to offer, on Thursday, Friday, Sunday — however long they stay” before or after the match, Powers said.

Beyond the immediate economic impact, leaders think the more people that get their feet on the ground in Columbia, the better the changes for other big-ticket events, or even future developments.

Could Taylor Swift make a tour stop in Columbia one day? Could a professional organization with a conference of 100,000+ attendees find room in Columbia?

Bussells thinks yes, and believes more and bigger events like this soccer match will help make the case, and not only to organizers but to developers and other city leaders.

If someone has a good experience in Columbia or in Lexington, Cayce or beyond, they’ll probably want to come back. And then maybe they’ll want to move here, or they’ll want to move their business here.

“It just is a domino effect,” Blackstone said.