Hundreds of tents currently occupy the Junction at Mississippi State University as fans prepare for the return of college football.
After a year of limited fan capacities and no tailgating, MSU is returning to its traditional ways of cheering on the Bulldogs. MSU will challenge Louisiana Tech University at 3 p.m. Saturday, but the festivities begin early that morning.
Recent MSU graduate Christian Bailey said he and his friends have been patiently waiting for tailgating to return after a year off due to COVID-19. He said tailgating creates the football atmosphere, and no one does tailgating like Mississippi State fans.
“I’m just ready to be out there again and yell, ‘Go Mississippi State!’” Bailey said. “I think tailgating is a large part of college football. Part of the actual fun is getting together with all of your friends. It just makes the fans more spirited and excited about MSU football.”
Longtime fan Sara Brown echoed this excitement. A large group of her friends have tailgated before MSU football games for several years, and she said it was strange not being able to last year.
Through Southern Tradition Tailgating, her tailgating group of 30 families sets up every home game beside the MSU Amphitheater. They divide each game among four or five families who are in charge of food and decorations that particular week. She said they are all ready to ring their cowbells in The Junction again because tailgating is “just part of the process.”
“We missed tailgating so much last year,” Brown said. “It was so different. The game is fun — I know that’s the reason we’re there — but tailgating is the time where you can visit with people and see people you haven’t seen in a long time. It’s a whole day’s experience.”
Davis Wade Stadium will have full capacity this year compared to last year’s 25 percent. Greater Starkville Development Partnership Director of Membership Development Hunter Harrington said with “normal” MSU football back, she is thrilled for fans to visit Starkville and support local businesses.
“You can drive down Highway 12 right now and already see how many people are in town,” Harrington said.
Property developer Mark Castleberry, who owns Courtyard by Marriott Starkville MSU at The Mill Conference Center in Starkville and Comfort Inn and Suites and Courtyard by Marriott in Columbus, said his staff is preparing for the influx of visitors to the area. The Golden Triangle “comes alive” during football season, he said.
With only a few open rooms, he said his Starkville hotel is nearly booked with the Columbus hotels decently reserved as well. Many fans have already rented rooms for the entire season.
“We’re preparing coming out of COVID from where we had nowhere near the occupancy we’re having now,” Castleberry said. “We’re extremely excited — probably more excited than any other season due to watching us turn the corner from COVID to seeing some more normality compared to last year.”
Scott Sledge, vice president of operations for Hilton Garden Inn Starkville and Hyatt Place Columbus, said his hotels are also preparing for visitors by cleaning rooms and making sure everything is in place for football fans from out of town.
He said reservation numbers are much higher compared to last year with his hotels fully booked for this first football weekend. With no capacity limitations and the return of tailgating, he said he believes the entire season will reflect these numbers.
“Certainly after the past year we had, we’re starting to see a return to normalcy from the demand of people who want to come from out of town to the ballgame and be able to partake in those festivities,” Sledge said. “We’re seeing that in our advanced reservation numbers for the fall season.”