Southern Miss

Record-breaking week proves Biloxi can be long-term home of C-USA tourney

Southern Miss junior Mason Irby hits a single against Rice during the seventh inning of the C-USA tournament championship game at MGM Park in Biloxi on Sunday. The game set a new C-USA attendance record.
Southern Miss junior Mason Irby hits a single against Rice during the seventh inning of the C-USA tournament championship game at MGM Park in Biloxi on Sunday. The game set a new C-USA attendance record. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com File

A rough 2016-17 season for Conference USA ended on a positive note Sunday in Biloxi.

It’s been a year of dropping revenue and concern about the future of C-USA, but last week’s baseball tournament in Biloxi can stand out as a success story.

A total of 21,267 showed up over five days of baseball at MGM Park. The original figures added up to 18,992, but technical difficulties during the first four days of the event didn’t allow tournament organizers to finalize numbers until Tuesday.

“It exceeded my expectations,” said Tim Bennett, president of Overtime Sports, which ran the event. “I certainly hoped we could come close to or exceed 20,000, but that was wishful thinking two weeks ago. I think there were a lot of things that factored into it, one of which is the community supported it and that put us over the top.”

A big boost to the tournament was the fact that Southern Miss, which is located 75 miles from downtown Biloxi, played six games over five days. The Eagles had to fight their way back to reach Sunday’s title game after losing 9-2 to Texas-San Antonio in the tournament opener.

The biggest crowd of the tournament was for Rice’s 5-4 win over Southern Miss in the title game — 5,216. That number set a new C-USA baseball tournament record, eclipsing the previous mark of 3,810 at the 2007 title game at East Carolina.

The largest crowd for the 2016 C-USA tournament in Hattiesburg was for the title game — 3,593.

This year’s C-USA tournament in Biloxi surpassed that mark on four different days.

Southern Miss beat UTSA 7-1 to advance to C-USA semifinals.

Tops in C-USA

You can make the case that the C-USA baseball title game was better attended than either of the conference’s title games for men’s basketball and football during the 2016-17 season.

The crowd for Birmingham’s basketball title game, which featured Middle Tennessee and Marshall, was 3,956. Considering UAB wasn’t in the title game, that’s a respectable number.

For the Dec. 3 football championship game at Western Kentucky, an embarrassingly small crowd of 13,213 was announced. If you look at pictures of the crowd at kickoff, it’s obvious that the actual number was much smaller than that and possibly south of 5,000.

Regardless of the actual attendance for the football title game, the C-USA baseball tournament stands tall among the conference’s championship events for 2016-17.

Legendary Rice coach Wayne Graham was among the coaches who offered praise for the tournament.

“I thought it was great,” Graham said. “We were in a suite hotel. We had a lot of room. It was quick to the ballpark. The ballpark is wonderful. I hope they keep doing it.”

Southern Miss beat Charlotte 6-5 Saturday to stay alive in the C-USA tournament in Biloxi.

The future

Bennett said that the economic impact on the Coast was at least $3.5 million, but he hoped to get a more accurate number. A year ago, Hattiesburg saw an economic impact somewhere between $3 and 4 million according to Bennett.

He spoke this weekend with Gov. Phil Bryant, a USM graduate, about putting in a larger effort for future events to attract more fans to Biloxi from markets like Houston, San Antonio and Charlotte.

“It’s a tourist destination,” Bennett said. “The city knows how to treat people when they come.”

C-USA has a contract to hold its tournament in Biloxi for at least the next two seasons and Bennett believes conference officials left town convinced that Biloxi should be the home of the tournament going forward.

Also, Bennett said he’s even more committed to the C-USA tournament despite his dispute with Biloxi Shuckers majority owner Ken Young. Bennett recently filed a lawsuit against Young and Biloxi Baseball LLC alleging, among other things, that they have interfered with negotiations with potential clients to plan events at MGM Park, including C-USA.

“It’s been a tough year for Overtime Sports,” Bennett said. “Everybody can read between the lines on that with some of the things we’ve dealt with. When you see the community come out and support the event, that’s a breath of fresh air.

“It makes you realize that when you put your head down and stay positive, good things happen.”

Hattiesburg Regional

Friday, June 2

Game 1 – No. 1 Southern Miss (48-14) vs. No. 4 UIC (39-15), 1 p.m. (ESPN 3)

Game 2 – No. 2 Mississippi State (36-24) vs. No. 3 South Alabama (39-19), 6 p.m. (ESPN 3)

Saturday, June 3

Game 3 – Loser of Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, TBD (ESPN 3)

Game 4 – Winner of Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, TBD (ESPN 3)

Sunday, June 4

Game 5 – Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, TBD (ESPN 3)

Game 6 – Winner Game 4 vs. Winner Game 5, TBD (ESPN 3)

Monday, June 5

Game 7 – If necessary, TBD (ESPN 3)

For ticket information, visit SouthernMiss.com or call 1-800-844-TICK.

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