A couple of years ago, Mississippi State fans took to the road to watch the Bulldogs face Sun Belt foe, Troy, and Saturday, fans made the trek to Ladd-Peebles Stadium to watch the Bulldogs take on South Alabama in Mobile. Some grumbled about the idea of playing on the road against Sun Belt foes, but many recognized the economics of such a decision and embraced the opportunity to go to a new venue. On Saturday, Bulldog fans turned out in record numbers to Ladd-Peebles Stadium, and while the Bulldogs took care of business on the field, the same cannot be said for much of what happened in the terms of fan experience at the game leading many State fans to say they would never be back to venue. I'm afraid I've got some bad news Bulldog fans; as long as the finances are right, Mississippi State should keep their two-for-one deal with South Alabama for a long time.
First, I'll acknowledge the elephant in the room. For whatever reason, the crew that makes game day happen at Ladd-Peebles proved to be overmatched by the crowd and conditions at the game Saturday. One expects there to be glitches in a game that is the highest attended in a venue's history, but what happened Saturday was more than a glitch.
Much of the problem starts with the venue. While Ladd-Peebles hosts events such as the Senior Bowl and the GoDaddy.com Bowl in addition to South Alabama home games, the venue has become dated. The parking at the stadium is nearly non-existent for large crowds unless all of the tailgating areas around the stadium are removed. There are many who sell parking in their yards, but given stories told by many South Alabama fans, many refuse to park there because of the fear of crime, and even if everyone wanted to park there, they would not be able to do so.
With parking being so limited, the other option fans have to get to Ladd-Peebles is to board a shuttle bus at Bel-Air mall for five dollars round trip, and with parking being free at the mall, it is not a bad deal. The problem Saturday was that more fans than ever were using the service, forcing people to wait in line for over an hour to board the bus. Those waiting spent their time on asphalt in the sun-the high temperature on September 13 was 90 at 2:45 pm, moments before kickoff-causing a miserable experience for many trying to get to the game.
Once at the game, not much improved. Much of the stadium sits in the sun, except for the portion of the stadium shaded by the press box. People waiting in amazingly long lines or trying to escape the heat packed the concourses. AL.com and many of our readers reported that water was hard to come by and a large number of heat-related emergencies occurred at the game. Even worse were accusations of what was basically price gouging as the cost of water went up with demand during the game, and if those accusations are true, people were buying hot water for the price I bought cold beer during the game.
@mstatesports So, so bad. We got in line for the bus at the mall at 1:40, arrived at the game right as we scored our first TD.— Rob Hataway (@vhdawg) September 14, 2014
@mstatesports worst stadium, parking and concession at any venue ever in my life! Ran out of water in the 2nd qtr— brad calloway (@daddybradley) September 14, 2014
@mstatesports at least they aren't stuck at Bel Air mall— pessimisticlanga (@CoastalCowbell1) September 13, 2014
With all of that said, why in the world should Mississippi State fans ever want a return to South Alabama? The first answer is simple in that the game day operations should never again be that bad. Many South Alabama fans want an on campus stadium, and while that will not be built overnight, it is something that could be there several years down the road. The Bulldogs do not finish their current contract with South Alabama until 2016, and depending on how things are done, they may not be back in Mobile until 2018 or later. Even if the new stadium is not constructed by the next game, in no way will the venue fail to the extent it did over the weekend.
The bigger reason, however, is Mississippi State needs this game for the exposure in the area. If someone heads down to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, they would probably be shocked as to how many more LSU or Alabama shirts sell than Mississippi State (or Ole Miss) shirts. Just the other day, I went to by my four-year old a Mississippi State shirt. I checked at Wal-Mart in Ocean Springs and Hibbett Sports. Neither one had a shirt for him. There were plenty of Alabama and LSU shirts and jerseys, but nothing for Mississippi State. Even Ole Miss had shirts and jerseys for smaller kids, but little Bulldog fans would walk away empty handed. If Mississippi State does not need more exposure on the Coast, I do not need an extra million dollars.
In addition to helping attract fans from the Mississippi Coast, the entire Gulf region produces quality college talent. Mississippi State's roster proves this with Blaine Clausell being from Mobile, and Richie Brown and Nick James are from Long Beach. Joe Morrow played at Ocean Springs. Vick Ballard played high school ball at Pascagoula before going to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. The more exposure Bulldog football can get in this area, the more the team will wind up with a chance to snag top players from the Florida Panhandle, the southern portions of Mississippi, Alabama, and maybe the New Orleans area. If these games help grab a couple of talented players, then it would be worth it.
Mississippi State is far from a national brand, and possibly even a regional brand. The Bulldogs have to fight and market for all of the exposure the Mississippi State programs can get. Hitting the road to travel to South Alabama and Hattiesburg will help Mississippi State expand that brand into areas around Mississippi and develop it further in South Mississippi.
With some fine scheduling, the Bulldogs could make an impression in the Gulf region for the next several years. The Bulldogs travel to Hattiesburg in 2015. Should the Bulldogs and Golden Eagles renew this series long-term starting in 2016, which is something they should do, the assumption would be that the Bulldogs would host that game. That year could be a break in the action for the Bulldogs on the Gulf Coast, but in 2017, Mississippi State could return to Hattiesburg, look to play the away of a two-for-one with South Alabama in 2018, with a trip to Hattiesburg set again for 2019. Perhaps help from a third school-I'm looking at you Tulane-in the seasons Mississippi State does not play South Alabama could help put a Maroon and White presence in South Mississippi and the Gulf Coast region more often than not.
In the end, Mississippi State knows it must schedule a power-five conference foe each year starting in 2016, and most agree that scheduling an FCS school, which should always be an in-state program, should happen each year. Starting the season with Southern Mississippi provides a great bookend to with Ole Miss to the opening and closing of the season. Unless the Bulldogs have a big-time opener opportunity on tap beyond the power-five game already scheduled, Mississippi State should look to South Alabama and Tulane to keep a game in the Gulf Coast region more often than not.