STARKVILLE — Charlie Winfield knows that in baseball, no amount of starting pitching is ever enough.
It’s a lesson the founder of The Bulldog Initiative — the name, image and likeness collective affiliated with Mississippi State athletics — can apply to his work as well.
“That’s much the way it is in collectives — whatever money you raise, however many members you generate, you always need more,” Winfield said.
That remains true even amid a spike in membership and donations to the initiative in recent weeks.
That spike began Oct. 31, the same day athletic director John Cohen left Mississippi State for the same position at Auburn.
“There’s no question (Cohen’s departure) had an impact,” Winfield said, but it isn’t the only reason for the recent NIL growth at MSU.
“I think the other part is once we were able to explain to people the true situation of where we are, they realized that we really weren’t in as negative a spot as people like to think or perhaps was portrayed,” Winfield said.
“If nothing else, it got people a little bit competitive. It got attention for it, and that’s the biggest thing — it got people just spreading the word.”
Consider the word spread.
Marketing plays a role
Shortly after 7 p.m. Nov. 5, during MSU’s home football game against Georgia, a message on the JumboTron at Davis Wade Stadium announced The Bulldog Initiative had 820 new members since noon Oct. 31 — just 32 minutes after Cohen announced his resignation. He was hired by Auburn later that day.
Fifty-three minutes later, the message showed up on the scoreboard again — featuring 12 additional new members.
Winfield told The Dispatch on Nov. 10 the collective had more than 1,000 new members and more than 3,000 total contributors between online members — who can choose to donate monthly, quarterly or annually — and one-time donors.
“I would say over the past 10 days, the excitement, the reception has just exploded,” he said. “I’m not sure where to gauge it in terms of an expectation, but I’m really happy with the progress that we’ve all of a sudden been able to get.”
Part of that is marketing.
Ads with former quarterback Dak Prescott touting The Bulldog Initiative air during football games and appear on social media.
MSU promoted football coach Mike Leach’s Nov. 7 comments praising the job Winfield has done.
And on Nov. 2, Mississippi State issued a statement from interim athletics director Bracky Brett urging fans to support MSU’s collective.
Winfield said Brett’s statement set off a nationwide wave of ADs promoting NIL. Those who don’t, according to Winfield, risk frustration from their fan bases as well as falling behind in the NIL realm.
“I have seen it suggested that it’s basically malpractice for an athletic director not to be out in front of the issue,” Winfield said. “I don’t know that I’d go that far, but I do think it’s extremely important.”
Where does MSU stand?
Even with the growth of The Bulldog Initiative, it remains to be seen how well Mississippi State is competing with the rest of the Southeastern Conference.
In August at a Starkville Rotary Club meeting, Cohen said he had heard three SEC baseball teams had more NIL money at their disposal than all of Mississippi State’s athletics programs combined.
A report by Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger on the day Cohen left for The Plains noted Auburn’s collective had $12 million to work with while MSU was “nowhere near” the multimillion-dollar level of many of its conference counterparts.
That has surely changed with the takeoff of The Bulldog Initiative, but with collectives’ financial information private, it’s hard to tell where MSU stands conference wide.
“It’s really hard to make an educated comparison because most people seem to be puffing their chest anyway,” Winfield said.
Winfield says it’s in his best interest to shoot straight rather than overestimate — or, alternatively, undersell — what Mississippi State is working with.
“We’ve seen other NIL entities not work and actually not be able to follow through on the promises they made,” he said. “We’re not spending any money we don’t have. We’re not counting anything that’s not in the bank.”
A lesson in NIL
That bank continues to grow, but there are still obstacles.
Many people don’t understand “the how or the why” when it comes to NIL; others are opposed to the concept in general, thinking it only serves to deliver huge paydays to elite athletes.
To those doubters, Winfield touts a favorite example: The average baseball player at Mississippi State has just a 42 percent scholarship due to the NCAA’s cap of 11.7 scholarships per team.
“At some level, it’s not an issue where, like a lot of the legends that you read, people are getting rich,” Winfield said. “In many cases, it’s just trying to pave the way for somebody to get an education.”
Winfield and his staff have to deliver a different type of education in order to assuage doubts of potential donors.
They explain how NIL works as well as how the collective operates, including its partnership with 17 current MSU student-athletes, among them quarterback Will Rogers and basketball star Tolu Smith.
Typically, that helps make Bulldogs fans more receptive to making a donation or signing up for a membership.
It’s going well so far. But, as ever, Winfield could always use more.
“The key for us is just to continue reaching more people,” he said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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