FLORENCE, S.C. – When it comes to spectator sports in the Florence area, there’s a new kid on the block.
The Carolina Havoc, the American Arena League team that now calls Florence Center its home, began its 10-game inaugural indoor football season in the Pee Dee on March 15 with a victory over Cape Fear.
“We’re really excited to finally be able to bring this brand of football back to Florence – especially in this building with the greatness of teams that have been here before us,” Havoc general manager Steve Smith said.
It’s the second time an arena league team has tried to find a permanent home in Florence, and this one has its sights set on becoming part of the larger sports landscape alongside a number of other teams and events that have become mainstays in the area.
The Florence Center has also been the host venue of the SCHSL lower-state basketball tournaments since 2012 and last year hosted the Pepsi Carolina Classic.
“We’re seeing more interest in sporting events lately through various coordinators and planners who have been reaching out to the venue for potential bookings,” Florence Center general manager Paul Beard said. “The move of the Carolina Pepsi Classic Tournament to the Florence Center is a mutually beneficial exchange, and the SCHSL basketball tournament is always a major attraction.”
Another sports fixture has been the Florence RedWolves, the collegiate summer baseball league team that begins its 22nd season on May 30 and shows no signs of slowing down.
“I think it’s the dedication of our team owners – Donna and Kevin Barth – and their commitment to the community to provide great, family fun entertainment at a reasonable price,” RedWolves general manager Barbara Osborne said of the team’s longevity.
Osborne said the team brings in right at 20,000 fans a year – from a number of perennial regulars to those who catch several games a year plus the number of out-of-town visitors who will come to Francis Marion University’s Sparrow Stadium as well.
“We have teams that travel and stay here in Florence in our hotels,” Osborne said. “We have families that come in to watch their sons play, and they stay in our hotels and eat in our restaurants. There’s a lot of economic impact.”
When it comes to longevity and impacting the local economy, however, nothing beats Darlington Raceway. The “Track Too Tough to Tame” will celebrate the 70th running of the Southern 500 at 6 p.m. on Sept. 1.
This year there also will be an added level of excitement and interest as Dale Earnhardt Jr. will compete in his only 2019 race at 4 p.m. on Aug. 31 in the Xfinity race at Darlington.
“I think our race weekend – you could call it one of the majors on the NASCAR schedule,” Darlington Raceway president Kerry Tharp said. “Golf has its majors and tennis has the Grand Slam, horse racing has the Triple Crown. I think certainly Darlington and our Labor Day weekend are one of the majors in the sport.
“People from all over come to Darlington. This is a race they want to check off as one that they’ve been to. That gives us an opportunity to reach as many fans as we can.”
And the impact on local businesses can’t be understated, either.
“We had a study revised about a year ago, and the economic impact both direct and indirect that our race weekend has on the state of South Carolina is in excess of $64 million annually,” Tharp said. “And of that, over $58 million stays right here within the Pee Dee. That’s very significant that the bulk of the impact stays right here in the surrounding areas and the surrounding counties. That’s very, very important to us, and we want to continue to grow that number. It brings jobs to the community, and it fills up hotels and it fills up restaurants.”
College sports fans also have several options for attending events at both Francis Marion University and Coker (soon-to-be) University. The Griffin Athletic Complex houses the FMU soccer, baseball and softball teams and the Smith University Center houses both Patriot basketball teams – including the men, who have made the NCAA Division II Tournament each of the past two years.
The Florence Wildcats, a semi-pro basketball team, play at the Pearl Moore Gymnasium on Barnes Street, while tennis fans can catch the USTA Pro Circuit’s McLeod for Health Florence Open in October at the Dr. Eddie Floyd Florence Tennis Center.