Patrick Magee

College baseball just means more in Mississippi and the numbers back it up

Southern Miss and Mississippi State players hug after playing two games at the Hattiesburg Regional Tournament on June 5 in Hattiesburg. MSU won both games to advance to the Super Regional at LSU.
Southern Miss and Mississippi State players hug after playing two games at the Hattiesburg Regional Tournament on June 5 in Hattiesburg. MSU won both games to advance to the Super Regional at LSU. Sun Herald file

When it comes to college baseball, no state is more passionate about its programs than the state of Mississippi.

Southern Miss baseball coach Scott Berry made a strong argument this week to back that statement up.

“You take the three big programs — us, Mississippi State and Ole Miss — and look at the total attendance for the year,” Berry said Thursday in Hattiesburg. “You compare it to the big three programs in all other states and it’s not even close. You’re talking about a state with a little less than 3 million people (2.989) that outdraws anybody else — Texas, Florida, it doesn’t matter. You can do the research. I have. That says volumes about our state and what we think about baseball.”

Scott, I decided to follow your suggestion and delve into the numbers.

LSU looms large as the nation’s preeminent college baseball power, but even its nation-leading average of 10,725 fans a game doesn’t allow Louisiana to eclipse Mississippi’s big three in attendance.

Mississippi’s big three of USM, Ole Miss and MSU combined to average 19,876 fans a year ago. The Rebels ranked No. 2 in the nation with average of 8,545 fans, MSU stood at No. 4 at 7,962 and USM checked in at 16th overall with an average of 3,369 fans.

LSU was joined in Louisiana’s top three by No. 9 Louisiana-Lafayette (4,917) and No. 35 Tulane (2,003) for a combined average of 17,645.

Texas’ big three of Texas A&M (5,152), Texas (5,053) and TCU (4,786) added up to an average of 14,991 fans a year ago for the third-largest attendance.

Baseball is king

Baseball has become the No. 2 college sport in the state of Mississippi while much of the nation continues to make basketball second fiddle to football.

Baseball outdrew basketball 8,545 to 7,396 during the 2016-17 school year at Ole Miss.

At Mississippi State, baseball beat basketball 7,962 to 7,314.

Southern Miss baseball easily topped a basketball program still dealing with NCAA sanctions, 3,369 to 1,993.

When MSU and USM meet on Feb. 16-18 in Hattiesburg to open the 2018 baseball campaign, it’s a fair assumption that Pete Taylor Park will be packed for each game. There will be more gold than maroon, but Bulldog fans will find a way into the park.

Athletic officials at Mississippi’s largest three schools realized long ago that a modest investment can go a long way in baseball.

While some C-USA programs like Marshall and UTSA are working with the bare minimum in terms of baseball facilities, USM continues to make upgrades to its stadium with each season.

Mississippi State is in the process of a $55 million renovation of Dudy Noble Field that should even further elevate a proud Bulldog program.

Nice crowds aren’t exclusive to Mississippi’s Division I programs. Delta State was second in all of Division II with an average of 613 fans last year.

MSU set the bar

It was Ron Polk’s Mississippi State team in the 1980’s that put college baseball on a new level in the Magnolia State and across the country.

The NCAA record book goes back to only 1985 for average attendance and MSU was the leader that year at 3,894. No other program topped the Bulldogs’ average attendance until 1991, when Fresno State packed in 4,171 fans a game. LSU has led the way in that category every year since 1996 — except for 2007 when Arkansas (8,089) topped the list.

To remain competitive with their in-state rival, Ole Miss and USM gradually began to make significant investments in their own stadiums.

Ole Miss has a gleaming Swayze Field that has a capacity of 8,500 fans.

USM’s Pete Taylor Park holds 4,400 and is considered one of the better ballparks outside of a major conference.

It’s only fitting that the largest crowd ever for an on-campus baseball game is 15,586 for the Ole Miss-Mississippi State game in Starkville on April 12, 2014.

To understand the passion of the Mississippi college baseball fan, all you have to do is watch a game in “The Roost” in Hattiesburg, in the “Left Field Lounge” in Starkville or hang out with the “Swayze Crazies” in Oxford.

Patrick Magee: 228-896-2333, @Patrick_Magee