STARKVILLE — It was just a typical Friday night in Starkville, but the stands and the berm at the Mississippi State Soccer Field were filled to near capacity.
Granted the football team was hosting Louisiana Tech the next day in a homecoming clash, but fans of the Bulldog soccer team were in full force. A record crowd of 1,327 fans saw MSU lose 2-1 to Florida Oct. 16, 2015. It was a disappointing loss, but the crowd support was the focal point.
The support is a byproduct of the relationship between MSU and the City of Starkville.
“The athletic department’s focus on facilities and fan experience has really increased interest in those smaller sports,” Greater Starkville Development Partnership Chief Executive Officer Jennifer Gregory said. “They’ve done a great job with soccer and softball to get younger girls in the community involved through inviting local softball and soccer teams to come out.”
Sometimes there is animosity between a university and the city it calls home. With young students pouring in for nine months of the year, there can be a culture clash. But the people of Starkville support MSU. That’s evident with athletics. The 2015-16 year was very beneficial for MSU from an attendance standpoint. Attendance records fell in five sports — soccer, football, women’s basketball, softball and baseball — and the citizens of Starkville were on hand for many of the thrilling victories the Bulldog teams had.
A graduate of MSU, Gregory feels like there is an appreciation between MSU and Starkville and vice versa. MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin, also a graduate of MSU, agrees, even pointing out there is a crossover.
“Some of the people that make up the Starkville community are part of Mississippi State University, whether they’re on staff or a faculty member,” Stricklin said. “They’re intertwined. And it’s vice versa. We have people on our campus who are involved in the city in some way, whether it’s the Chamber of Commerce, city government or the school board. It’s one in the same.”
Under second-year coach Aaron Gordon, soccer totaled a record 7,940 fans in nine matches (a record 882 average). With a new ballpark in Nusz Park and the energy of coach Vann Stuedemann, softball saw a record 19,302 fans watch 31 games for a record average of 665. Under coach Vic Schaefer, women’s basketball has been rejuvenated and the former Texas A&M assistant coach has his loyal following. During a season that produced a Sweet Sixteen berth, a record 92,914 fans watched 18 home games for a record average of 5,162. The Bulldogs hosted the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
MSU student-athletes are active in the community, showing their faces at schools and at charitable organizations. The soccer team even went to schools in Starkville early in the morning while students were being dropped off to pass out stickers advertising a game that night.
“When they get home they’ve got the sticker and they say, ‘I met a soccer player today and I want to go play,'” said MSU Senior Associate Athletic Director Scott Wetherbee, who is involved with marketing.
For bigger sports like football and baseball, MSU fans from all over make the trip to Starkville. Coach Dan Mullen has been a big reason for the rise of football attendance. The success he has enjoyed and the passion he brings has won over the MSU fanbase. A record 432,490 fans watched seven home games last season for a record average of 61,784. Baseball has always been a sport Bulldog fans follow closely. But with one of the best teams in the country, MSU set the record with an average of 8,189 fans duing 38 games (278,450 total). The Bulldogs hosted a regional and a super regional, with the Starkville economy reaping the benefits.
“The community has seen the real benefit of the team succeeding and new investment dollars coming into the community,” Gregory said. “The athletic department has been very gracious to the community and has made a definite effort to work with us at the Partnership and the city of Starkville so that we’re really approaching all this as a team. I think that’s trickled down to the community members as well.”
Wetherbee, who worked at East Carolina in Greenville, North Carolina, likes to walk around Starkville and see the support for the Bulldogs and the university as a whole.
“Everywhere you go, there’s a sense of pride,” Wetherbee said. “People have their flags and you see maroon and white in places you go in. It kind of becomes contagious.”
The leadership of both MSU and Starkville have worked hand in hand in the last decade. It is shown all over town as businesses support MSU and MSU supports different businesses.
Gregory believes there was a shift when Parker Wiseman was elected mayor of Starkville and Dr. Mark Keenum took over as president at MSU in 2009. Along with Stricklin and others, the duo have worked hard to make MSU and Starkville have the same goals.
Wiseman has a round table every month for those in the Starkville community and MSU.
“We get together every month with no agenda just to talk about what the opportunities are to work together, what projects we’re all on and communicating those projects. That’s been very helpful,” Gregory said.
Community support isn’t the only factor in the rise of attendance. There is the fact that most MSU teams are successful, a talented marketing department that comes up with exciting ways to watch and a commitment to building some of the best facilities in the Southeastern Conference. But community support is key in the non revenue sports.
For sports like soccer, softball and volleyball, fans from out of state or even the Jackson metro area are not going to travel for a random Friday night or Sunday afternoon game/match. Admission is free to all three, giving families and others in the Starkville community an inexpensive way to spend a Friday night or a Sunday afternoon.
“Having the opportunity to go to an SEC sporting event, usually for free, is really enticing to the community,” Gregory said.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Ben Wait on Twitter @bcwait
Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.
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