STARKVILLE — There was a moment, several actually, during Mississippi State’s rise to the top of the college football world last fall when MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin took a second to look around him and soak in everything that was happening.
“I think back to the Texas A&M game, in the second half when we had things in hand,” said Stricklin from his office at the Bryan Building on MSU’s campus. “Looking around at the expanded stadium and realizing what was happening with our football team, it was amazing. And then the next week, the Auburn game that shot us to No. 1. It was a magical moment.”
Such is life for Stricklin, who has led MSU’s athletic department for the past five years. And, thanks to moments like the aforementioned wins last October, not to mention the profitable position of being tied to the Southeastern Conference, life is good within the MSU Athletic Department.
MSU’s athletic department reported a record profit of $7.8 million for the academic school year, a sign of the times at a university that has increased revenue and branding across the board in recent years. But the profit is only a snapshot of the overall success at MSU, which has turned record-setting revenue from inside its program as well as from outside sources like the SEC into visible progress, on and off the field.
Fans step up
The never-ending cycle of building a consistent athletic program at the Division I level has many layers and sub-layers, factors that can make a difference financially and competitively. One constant, though, is fan support, which Stricklin says has been key for MSU’s recent surge.
“There are three primary ways we get revenue, and two of them are inter-connected,” said Stricklin. “One is through the SEC revenue, which comes from TV and postseason play. The second is ticket sales, and the third is through donations to the Bulldog Club. All three were at record highs this year. The SEC has obviously grown and they can provide a great deal for us. But our fans have stepped up as far as buying tickets. Our Bulldog Club membership in 2007 was 5,700. Today it’s 12,000. So it has doubled in eight years. So our fans have really stepped up and our fanbase has grown in numbers. It has allowed us to create some stability in our programs. It has allowed us to be more consistent in what we are providing our student-athletes, and even enhance what we are providing our student-athletes.”
Fans were responsible for $12.8 million in ticket sales across all sports for MSU this year, up $800K from last year’s previous record. The Bulldog Club, MSU’s fund-raising wing of its athletic department, also reported record-setting revenue.
MSU fans also played a key role in MSU’s TV rights and licensing profits, as the school brought in $28.1 million for such fees in 2014-15. A big part of that was MSU’s football team, which went to No. 1 for five weeks and played on national TV 10 times. That included the team’s first trip to the Orange Bowl in 73 years. The big season turned in by coach Dan Mullen’s team jump-started MSU financially in the fall of 2014, and that momentum continued through the academic year.
“Any time you have something magical like that, it’s very significant,” said Stricklin on MSU’s five-week stay at No. 1 in football. “Football is different because of how popular the sport is, especially in the South. When you have a football season like we had last year, with 10 wins, being No. 1 in the country, playing in the Orange Bowl, it’s really hard to quantify how significant that is, but it’s certainly a huge boost to any athletic program.”
There’s no denying the impact of MSU’s conference affiliation. Five years ago, when Stricklin took over MSU’s athletic department to replace outgoing Director of Athletics Greg Byrne, MSU had the benefit of a $9 million check from the SEC, which had generated $127.55 million as a league in 2009-10. Five years later, the SEC has become a financial juggernaut. Thanks to the advent of the SEC Network and the debut of the College Football Playoff, the league reported $455 million in revenue this year, and last week announced that each school would receive revenue sharing of $31.2 million. That number was up $9 million from 2013-14, the previous record.
“We’re obviously fortunate and blessed to be part of a league that has created a national brand,” said Stricklin. “A lot of the credit has to go to the league’s leadership. It started with Commissioner (Roy) Kramer, then Commissioner (Mike) Slive took it to another level. Now Commissioner (Greg) Sankey walks into a great situation and the future looks bright.”
A big part of the financial increase from the league happened thanks to the SEC Network, of which Stricklin said, ”
“I think it was more successful in year one than anyone would have guessed. I don’t know if anyone had any set expectations, but they say it’s the most successful launch of any cable network ever, sports or otherwise. That right there shows you how well it has done.”
Where it goes
So where does all the money go? Most of the $62,275,111, the revenue taken in by MSU from all avenues this year, goes right back into the university.
Stricklin paid out $20.1 million in coaching salaries across all sports in 2014-15, and roughly $10 million of MSU’s annual athletic budget cover scholarship money for student-athletes.
“We pay the university for every student-athlete,” said Stricklin. “Every football player that’s on full scholarship, it’s not just ‘Hey, come here for free,’ the athletic department is writing a check back to the university for that. Our scholarship budget this year, including the extra miscellaneous figure for cost of attendance, will be close to $10 million. So the new money from the SEC, that’s about equal to our scholarship bill is on an annual basis.”
In addition to scholarship money, Stricklin says the university invests in student-athletes in a number of ways.
“We probably spend about $1 million per year for academic support, things like tutors, counselors, study halls, that sort of thing,” said Stricklin. “We just hired a full-time nutritionist last year. This year, we are going to add a graduate assistant to that. We are hiring a full-time life skills coordinator. This is someone whose job is going to be making sure our students get equipped for transitioning from getting a degree to getting a job and moving on to life after here. There’s a lot of areas like that that aren’t readily visible, that you don’t read about in the paper, that is part of what we do.”
All of those costs, according to Stricklin, help MSU field a well-round, successful athletic program.
“Whether it’s Bulldog Club money or the SEC, it’s all part of improving thios program and this university,” said Stricklin. “The center of what we are trying to accomplish here is creating great experiences here at Mississippi State, and that starts with our student-athletes, making sure that we are providing for them to have success academically, athletically, socially. We are making sure that we have coaching staffs around them that are going to help them be successful, and that includes behind-the-scenes positions like academic counselors, strength coaches. If we are successful in creating great experiences for our staff and our student-athletes, then we are going to create great experiences for Mississippi State fans.
Next May, MSU will host the SEC Softball tournament for the first time, welcoming in the league’s other 12 teams to MSU’s brand new softball complex, a project that broke ground the second the final out was recorded last month. In addition to improvements in softball, MSU has also launched a historic campaign to renovate Dudy Noble Field, MSU’s baseball facility. That initiative was announced last July, and the $40 million announced project was designed to lean heavily on Bulldog Club gifts and other donations. Stricklin says “By the end of the calendar year, we will have a very good idea of where we stand as far as fund-raising and design goes.”
But those aren’t the only physical upgrades MSU has planned.
Stricklin says work on MSU’s soccer complex will come next, and plans are in the works for improvements in the concourse at Humphrey Coliseum, a new indoor tennis facility, and continued improvements to Davis Wade Stadium.
“Whether it’s BDC money or the SEC, it’s all part of improving this program and this university,” said Stricklin. “The center of what we are trying to accomplish here is creating great experiences here at Mississippi State, and that starts with our student-athletes, making sure that we are providing for them to have success academically, athletically, socially. We are making sure that we have coaching staffs around them that are going to help them be successful, and that includes behind-the-scenes positions like academic counselors, strength coaches. If we are successful in creating great experiences for our staff and our student-athletes, then we are going to create great experiences for Mississippi State fans.
“Facilities and having a quality staff and attracting the best students, all of those are connected. The stronger you get in all those areas, the stronger you’re going to be from a program standpoint.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat