Mississippi State boasts perhaps the most rabid fan base in college baseball. For years, MSU fans have dutifully packed the Left Field Lounge (and the rest of Dudy-Noble Field at Polk-Dement Stadium, for that matter), putting them annually near the top of college baseball attendance leaderboards. Beyond that, this is a fanbase that travels famously well. Even if the game were on Mars, if the Bulldogs are playing, their fans will find a way to be there.
Southern Miss, meanwhile, might have the best following of any program not in a major conference. Their attendance figures are typically right up there with some of the powers of the sport. To wit, in last season’s attendance report, they came in 19th in the nation in average attendance, with 3,040 fans per game coming through the gates at Pete Taylor Park.
That put them directly behind three recent College World Series champions in Oregon State (18th), Virginia (17th), and Arizona (16th), and several spots ahead of perennial powers like Vanderbilt (24th) and Miami (25th). They’re behind only Louisiana-Lafayette among schools not in what we call Power Five conferences, and while the Cajuns always draw well, their attendance was helped by the fact that they opened a newly-renovated stadium in 2017.
So then it stands to reason that the atmosphere is going to be nothing short of bonkers over opening weekend, when the Bulldogs head down to Hattiesburg for a three-game series.
Southern Miss fans would have turned up for opening weekend regardless of the opponent, but with an in-state foe coming to town, fan interest will be on another level, and they’ll have an extra edge to them in wanting their team to take down the rival school from the bigger conference. And you know the series is going to draw out plenty of MSU alums living all around the southern part of the state.
Of course, we got a little preview of this in June when USM hosted a regional that included Mississippi State. For the weekend, games at the Hattiesburg Regional averaged 4,221 fans per game, even more impressive when you consider that was one of the regionals dealing with rain.
There’s a real shot that the series to kick off the 2018 season does better in terms of attendance. For one, it’s opening weekend and by that point, college baseball fans are jonesing for it. Opening weekend series are always well attended for that reason. There’s also the planning aspect. USM knew they had a chance to host a regional at the end of last season, but they didn’t know for sure until a little less than a week away. If you weren’t able to get away that quickly or already had plans, you weren’t at the regional. With this series, though, fans have had several months to make arrangements to get there.
Oh, and by the way, it looks like it’s going to be one heck of a series. As we touched on in the countdown piece on MSU ace Konnor Pilkington, the Bulldogs promise to be much healthier and deeper on the mound this season, giving them a chance to better their super regional appearance from a year ago.
USM suffered a few key departures after the season, but they tend to reload much like a power conference team, and with guys like Matt Wallner, Mason Irby, Hunter Slater, Daniel Keating, and Matthew Guidry back at the plate and Colt Smith and Nick Sandlin back on the mound, the Golden Eagles should be plenty competitive once again.
Two quality teams, two incredible fan bases, two schools just a few hours apart. That’s the recipe for a great lid-lifter on the 2018 season.