Byrne: Keep Push On For Record Ticket Sales

Greg Byrne is cheered by the obvious enthusiasm displayed in Bulldog Country these days, from folk seen wearing maroon-and-white garb to those who greet him with declarations of devotion. Which the athletic director gently turns in a more fundamental Dog-direction. "In the course of the conversation I'll ask, did you buy season tickets? Are you in the Bulldog Club?"

To the credit of Mississippi State's fan base the answer more often than in past years is yes, they do and are. Or even better, affirmatives to both. As of June 2009, membership in the Bulldog Club is "over 8,000" according to director Mike Richey, an all-time high. And here at the traditional priority deadline for ordering football season ducats, sales have surpassed 22,000…also an unprecedented springtime pace. At this rate, and factoring in the 10,000 tickets—"going off historic numbers," the A.D. notes--set aside for student purchase in August, the record of 38,000 is within reach.

If, Byrne adds, those who haven't done so reach for their credit card and order one or more of the $240 tickets to Davis Wade Stadium this fall. The trend is certainly encouraging, and especially under the greater economic circumstances.

"We've been fortunate on the economy that our fans have stepped-up in the manner they have," Byrne said Tuesday. "To be where we are with season tickets is a very good sign. Now, we have a long way to go between now and the finish line and we need to keep hitting that every day."

Even if this means confronting—politely of course—those who proclaim themselves die-hard Dogs yet have not backed it up with an actual purchase and/or membership. Because there are plenty more season ducats available for public purchase. Without having the actual numbers at fingertip, Byrne says State's agreements with their SEC guests this season leaves around 47,500 total seats for sale at DWS.

"Right in that ballpark," Byrne agrees, no pun intended, about the contracts. "In that seven- to eight-thousand range is my understanding." Which means making sure the uncommitted Bulldog fan makes a, well, a commitment. The fiscal kind, not just with talk or wardrobe.

"We're glad they have passion for the school, we need that. But we also need them to be involved."

Selling 2009 tickets is admittedly an easier task than most years. Most obviously because Dan Mullen, hired by Byrne in December, has done some very impressive MSU-marketing of his own with an astute mix of old-school intensity and modern college gameplans. A record spring game crowd signaled just how much MSU folk welcome the new coach and approach alike and unquestionably contributed to moving tickets.

But so does the schedule itself. 2009 is the ‘good' year for State's slate with home games against three traditional rivals LSU, Alabama, and Ole Miss. These odd-year schedules guarantee steady sales, where even-years with only Auburn and Arkansas among the annual Division foes coming to town doesn't offer the same attraction. Though, it is worth noting, '08 saw superlative ticket sales despite a low-profile schedule, largely due to enthusiasm after the successes of 2007 and the Liberty Bowl win.

Still Byrne is very aware that this schedule has a built-in marketing advantage, that State's administration cannot take for granted. "That's where it is critical for our fan base to come see us and not who we're playing. Hey, we're all excited when playing teams in this league. But we don't want to be dependent on visitors to sell the tickets, we want to be depending on Mississippi State to sell tickets."

Thus Byrne's ambition to keep upgrading annual sales until State can work off a stable 46-47,000 baseline and not rely on the name on the other side of the ‘vs.' to coax an extra order or two.

"And we've talked about is there any way where we don't have those three rivalry games in the same year. I've thought about that, and we've talked about it as a staff. Unless you just went somewhere two years in a row or they came here two years in a row, I don't know how it's possible."

What might conceivably make it possible, though only in theory at this point, is the about-to-begin league deal with CBS and ESPN to telecast every conference game, as well as most non-SEC matchups. Interestingly, the SEC Office has not provided league schedules beyond 2011 to State, nor does the 2008 conference football guide show the current 5-1-2 rotation matchups after that year either. A very good reason is that with more TV exposure naturally comes much more network involvement in scheduling.

"Oh, absolutely," Byrne says. "It's going to affect game times and it's going to affect what time of year. They're going to make sure some of the classic rivalry games be the exact same date and time, so they'll dictate when those things happen." If ‘dictate' sounds somewhat strong, remember that the SEC's new media contract—in which former MSU athletic director Larry Templeton, now officially on the league's staff, played a leading role negotiating—is expected to provide beaucoup bucks to every school. How much is not actually set, though various media outlets have projected $15-16 million apiece. Byrne prefers to stay discreet on that monetary matter.

More immediately Byrne is not wasting worry about getting some SEC-slate help in that area. Instead he has non-conference holes to fill in the 2010 and '11 schedules. For '10 he reports State needs a I-AA (or in the awkward new nomenclature ‘championship subdivision') opponent for completion. The Bulldogs do host lower-division member Jackson State this September. Then there are two blank slots in the '11 schedule, both non-conference games.

"We have two confirmed ('11) games and are working on another non-conference and a I-AA," he said. This is further complicated in that ‘11 is not setting up well for the Bulldogs. "We're trying to work on 2011 because right now we inherited four of our first five games on the road and that's not fair to our team," Byrne says. Especially as among those first-vie are road games at Auburn and Georgia with a home match against LSU in-between. Unfair, indeed, for the whole-season health of any SEC squad. Of course this presupposes no SEC changes encouraged by networks between now and then, as Mullen rebuilds Bulldog football to a more attractive product.

Of long-term interest to Bulldog fans, and related directly to ticket revenue, Byrne does plan ultimately to have annual seven-home-game slates. "2011 it will be almost impossible," he cautions. "But after that we have a good chance at three out of every four years having seven, and we're going to try to have it four-of-four." And in those six-home-game years, the deciding factor should be securing an attractive home-and-home series with a quality B.C.S. league opponent.

And the accompanying network contribution to bulging SEC coffers. Speaking of which, Byrne reports State will receive—by banker's draft—"just south of the $11.1 million average" from this year's, another record, league payout of $132 million-plus. "We went up from last year about 5%." Considering any increase in the current fiscal climate is remarkable, bumping up Bulldog budgeting by five points is good news indeed, though Byrne said State usually stays a bit conservative in such expectations."

"We always budget conservatively, say the league says you're going to average $11 million next year, we'll probably budget for $10 million just to be safe." Thus Byrne is, conservatively, projecting a $36 million athletic budget for 2009-10…though this isn't the complete accounting either. "We're going to put in $6 million from the Bulldog Club for scholarship costs, room-and-board, that counts towards that $36 million.

"Over and above that we'll spend about an additional $4.5 to $5 million from the Bulldog Club and from the Bulldog Foundation that does not count towards University dollars. That is private foundation dollars. So it will be about $40 million (total)." About, because State is just this month closing the books on 2008-09 with senior associate A.D. Duncan McKenzie finalizing 2009-10. "And early in the new year Duncan will start working on next year."

It's not only State fans who have read reports of these Dog-dollars and the increased budget. Byrne says his coaches have gotten wind of the windfall, too. "They're all lining up with their hands out; understandably so, and I'd be disappointed if they didn't!" At the same time the boss hopes to keep everyone fiscally realistic. It's not easy.

"When you go through all the coaching requests for facilities, for salaries, all those things, just this year their requests would have exceeded our operating budget! And we have tremendous needs, I mean tremendous needs on the facility side. Every one of them has serious needs and issues." Some of these will be addressed quickly and in-part. But there is a much bigger picture to put together, in the form of a pending ‘master plan' study for the entire University, not just athletics. Mississippi State is preparing to hire a firm to that will take more than a year, Byrne forecasts, to work out a complete master MSU plan.

Meanwhile the athletic department will work on it's own plan in the form of an in-depth research report on what the current and likely Mississippi State ‘market' can support in the way of maximum regular ticket, premium seating, and skybox sales. This will be at all three of the ‘revenue venues' and play a key part in what the athletic department proposes in the way of renovations and upgrades at DWS, Polk-Dement Stadium, and Humphrey Coliseum. As Byrne stresses, the idea is not so much adding sheer seating capacity; it is adding seating that pays for itself.

Also, Byrne hopes fans understand that the first benefits from the SEC's block-busting media deals won't arrive until June 30 of 2010. And even then it will be just a ‘keeping up' matter since every league member gets similar slices. By the way, Byrne says, "some portion of that will go to support a mission by the (University) president on campus. Every school in the league is going to give some of that money directly to the academic side, and that will vary with each school."

So the story comes around to where it began, with the young athletic director and his equally-energetic ‘headline sport' coaches talking back to the cheering spring and summer party crowds. Politely, of course, but clearly…though some fans might not like Byrne's comment about giving up on weekend fall hunting season to be at Scott Field. It all comes down to priorities, or to paraphrase a comment from a more mechanical sport: winning costs, what bowl do you want State to play in?

Byrne believes Bulldog fans will play their part. Maybe Mississippi State fans can't match the average individual contributions of, say, a Florida. "But there's no reason if we're organized that we can't have the same number of donors, and in time we'll work on what that average gift in," Byrne says. "I tell you, very sincerely, the people here are so good and care about the institution as much as any place out there. On our Road Dawgs tour Coach Mullen would ask the room ‘how many of you were at the spring game', when we by-far had a record ever for a spring game. Half the crowd would raise their hand, and he'd say ‘we had recruits there and your being in that seat makes an impact on the recruits for the future for us'. And if our fans can really see how much difference they can make in-force, see how it adds up if everybody is doing their part. Wear the colors. Wave the flag. It's a group effort."

"And if our fan base is involved at a higher percentage of our alumni base than our peers, then we can compete. If we're equal to our peers, because our alumni base is smaller we're going to be behind. So we've had so many new folks step up and buy-in and be a part of that, and we thank them so much, but by no means can we rest now for the summer. We have to go after it as hard every day and push."

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