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MSU football stadium expansion plans moving forward

 

David Miller

 

STARKVILLE -- If the release of future renderings of Davis Wade Stadium expansion seems like a tease, have patience.  

 

Mississippi State''s "Today. Tomorrow. Forever" fundraising initiative has given fans an idea of where athletic director Scott Stricklin and football coach Dan Mullen envision taking the program. 

 

When it will happen is still unknown.  

 

The announcement of plans to build a football practice facility, which has more than $18 million of the projected $20-25 million -- all privately funded -- needed to break ground, has been a major step for MSU''s athletic department. 

 

Stadium expansion is a different beast; MSU will have to borrow most of the estimated $80 million to fund the project through bonding. And while the athletic department has released renderings of what the stadium could look like in five to 10 years, it also has released projections of a fully-enclosed stadium that likely will seat more than 80,000 fans in the next 20-25 years.  

 

Stadium expansion, buoyed by a 9-4 season and a 52-14 win against the University of Michigan in the Gator Bowl, has been a topic for months. For most of that time, Stricklin has been cautious on projecting a timeframe for when the north end zone will have approximately 7,000 seats built and the outside of the west stands will receive a brick face-lift. 

 

Now, at least from a planning standpoint, the ball appears to be rolling. 

 

"I think our momentum is such that we need to, in the next six months or so, we need to start making some decisions on timeline," Stricklin said. "I just don''t have all the information we need to make that decision." 

 

Ideally, by the end of the year, MSU should be settled on a final design and how much money it will borrow for expansion. The initial funding raised through "Today. Tomorrow. Forever." would go toward the football practice facility, while additional money raised would go toward stadium expansion.  

 

However, if the demand for tickets is such that stadium expansion needs to happen sooner than the projected timeframe, financing the entire stadium project through bonds is an option. 

 

"I don''t think it''s inconceivable that we can borrow $80 million dollars," Stricklin said. "I know it''s crazy to say; I''d rather borrow less. But the more we raise and the smarter we are at designing what we want to do from an efficiency standpoint, the less we''ll have to borrow. We can still move forward and raise money through private support." 

 

The end-of-the-year target also will give Stricklin a sense of MSU''s momentum in season ticket sales, which as of Wednesday had more than 3,000 season ticket requests on the waiting list. That includes season ticket holders who have requested additional tickets and non-season ticket holders who have inquired -- but haven''t requested a number of tickets -- about season packages.  

 

That''s uncharted territory for the football program, though it''s broken season attendance records in each of the past two seasons and recorded six of the top 10 single-game attendance records in that span.  

 

In 2009, Mullen''s first season, MSU''s attendance was up 10,339 fans per game, even thought it won one more game than the previous season -- the highest attendance increase in the country.  

 

Last season, the Bulldogs averaged 54,999 fans per game, which ranked 11th in the Southeastern Conference.  

 

MSU''s official stadium capacity is 55,082; Vanderbilt (39,790) is the only Southeastern Conference school with a football stadium seating capacity less than MSU. 

 

Clearly, there''s a demand for more seating. Whether that demand will continue to grow depends on the football team having sustained success, which it''s failed to do for longer than a 10-year span. 

 

"I don''t think there''s a sure-fire way of knowing where (demand) is going," Stricklin said. "I think you''ve got to go with your instincts based on the data to see where we''ve grown. I think we''re gonna need it sooner rather than later. When we expand, I feel confident we''ll have the demand to fill it." 

 

While it might seem like a leap of faith to think the program will long-term success, the Bulldog Club, MSU athletics'' private fundraising arm, has experienced tremendous growth in the past year. In 2010, the Bulldog Club added 1,800 new members. Since the beginning of the year, 851 new members have been added. As of Wednesday, the Bulldog Club had 8,422 members. 

 

Senior Associate AD for Development Bo Hemphill said the Bulldog Club hopes to "reach 10,000 members as soon as possible." 

 

The increase in members has led to record giving, too, as the Bulldog Club raised more than $17.6 million last season, more than $4 million from the previous season. 

 

The momentum hasn''t stalled: 1,446 Bulldog Club members increased their donations from last year to this year. In the past month, the Bulldog Club has raised more than $1 million toward the football practice facility. 

 

"We''re on pace to break last year''s record year," Hemphill said. "The excitement and the momentum is keeping us at a level where we can continue to raise major gifts. It''s been a great year, and it''s continuing to trend that way." 

 

Though raising funds for the football practice facility and projects for track, tennis, softball, and soccer, can seem daunting with a smaller-than-ideal staff, Hemphill is encouraged by the number of statewide volunteers who help during Road Dawgs events and other fundraising projects.  

 

"We want to see as many people as we can every week," Hemphill said, "talk to them about our plans for the future. Even when things are going well, you can look at ways to enhance what you''re doing." 

 

The additional seating that will come with expansion will be revenue-generating opportunities, which makes the continued ticket demands and increase in Bulldog Club memberships vital to projecting a timeline.  

 

Stricklin said there''ll be premium seat and skybox opportunities with expansion, but student ticket seating will remain at its 11,000 mark, which according to Stricklin is in the top three in the league in percentage of capacity devoted to students and percent of student body compared to the number of tickets set aside. 

 

In the meantime, $1.4 million LED ribbon boards will be installed in June on the upper decks of each side of the stadium. Another $1 million will be devoted to a TV broadcast compound located behind Barnes & Noble. Currently, broadcast trucks, as many as three at some games, park underneath the west stands. The new project, which Stricklin hopes to have completed before the start of the season, will run all wiring underground and allow MSU the chance to increase traffic flow and add more amenities.  

 

"Your facilities say a lot about you and how important those student-athletes are," Stricklin said. "We have 350 student-athletes in 16 sports, and our goal is to create great experiences for every one of them and put them in a program that makes them successful. That''s what wins championships."

 

 

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