Cool, crisp air, tents covering grass and pavement, excited people talking, music and radios playing, meat grilling and cups being drained of drink.
Nearly as exciting as football games themselves, tailgating in the fall is a southern tradition, and a thriving one at Mississippi State.
As both the popularity of tailgating and the excitement level for the actual team have grown, days spent on the grass under tents have grown more populous and not gone completely without incident at MSU the last few years.
One such point of conversation has been the growth of commercial tailgating companies, groups who provide both a valuable and important service, setting up tailgates for those who can’t or would prefer not to make it to campus on Friday afternoon to put their tents up.
The first company to do this at MSU started three years ago, which is where the conversation began.
Now, a small but not insignificant debate has grown about how to strike a balance between the needs of fans who set up their own tents and those who take the commercial route.
The idea of being able to have someone set everything up is both smart and convenient for those who are unable to leave work on Fridays or live too far out of town to make it in time themselves for the 4 p.m. setup time.
A commercialized version of having a student or local friend set tents up for you, it’s a unique service for those willing to pay.
However, as tailgating around MSU’s campus has become more popular, and as the employing of these companies has grown, disputes have arisen, two in particular.
The number of reports of tailgaters leaving their tent only to return and find it moved with a commercial tent in its place has grown over the last two seasons. Plenty more have found the ability of commercial companies to arrive at tailgating areas early in the morning both unfair and an infringement on spots they have used without incident for many seasons.
The companies were apologetic for the incidents, MSU coordinator of game management Bradley Douglas said, but the complaints continued.
“The commercial tent companies serve a great purpose,” Douglas said. “They give something to the fans that a lot of them want. The flipside is you still have people who want to come out here and put their own tent up and we were getting pushback from that side. They felt some of the commercial companies were pushing them out of spots that they had been in for years.”
Part of the solution, Douglas explained, were MSU’s new regulations on commercial tailgating companies beginning this fall, including the designation of areas for those tents to go.
“The Special Events and Game Day Committee has labored for many months with this issue and I’m proud of how hard all these stakeholders in the MSU family came together to craft recommendations that sought fairness for both commercial tailgaters and traditional tailgaters,” MSU Vice President for Campus Operations Amy Tuck said. “The policies adopted by the university are the growing pains of successful athletic programs and successful universities. I trust that our fans and friends will support the university as we adapt to our growth.”
“With the stadium construction underway and the corresponding loss of some parking spaces, the new commercial tailgating policy comes at a challenging but necessary time,” said Sid Salter, MSU’s director of University Relations. “But the stadium expansion and the growth in tailgating are all good problems to have for MSU. I think when people take a look at the overall game day experience, things have never been better in our MSU athletic program and never better in terms of the atmosphere we share on campus as we support the Bulldogs. The record growth in freshman enrollment this year speaks to the fact that young people really want to be a part of what we have going here.”
Companies have not had to pay MSU for the ability to do business on university property, and they won’t this season, but beginning in 2014 that is likely to change.
The standard model for businesses on university property – much like Barnes and Noble or Subway – is to pay for the right to profits from the university and its grounds.
It’s here the second issue merits clarification.
MSU’s Special Events and Game Day committee runs on a self-sustaining auxiliary budget. In other words, it can only spend what it makes, depending on parking fees and the like to cover the cost of attendants, shuttles, security, clean-up crews, equipment and all other needs.
With the rise in use of tailgating companies, committee members say MSU has and will continue to spend a “very, very significant amount” of their budget, doubling security to prevent the issues sparking the original complaints, funding the paint and manpower to set up the designated areas and list of other odds and ends.
“It’s not something the university has implemented to turn profit,” Douglas said. “All we’ve ever tried to do with this budget is break even. Every dollar in this budget is strictly used to enhance the fan experience.
“Basically, it’s just something to recoup the cost to the university of doing these things.”
Plenty of options to solve the issue have been bandied about by the committee including, Douglas said, the initial thought to perhaps set up a bid amongst interested companies, letting the winner be the sole provider of commercial tailgating at MSU, though that was ultimately shelved, at least for the time being.
The committee is made up those from all over campus, in athletics, academics, facilities, administration and nearly everything falling in between.
Even once the committee has made up its mind on something, the “rule” is advanced as a recommendation to the president and vice presidents for approval.
“This was not a lighthearted decision by the university, and it most certainly is a decision by the entire university,” Douglas said.
Most SEC schools either allow commercial tailgating or are strictly first-come first-served. Few, if any, are both, but the compromise is one MSU feels does the most good for the most people.
As mentioned, a part of the decision involves designated areas for commercial tents, including a large portion of the amphitheater, where the first company started setting up tents.
The Junction is the most popular place for tailgating, Douglas conceded, but pointed out that a significant percentage of the commercial areas are right next to The Junction, FanFare and/or Davis Wade Stadium, popular locales for the companies in addition to the original spot at the amphitheater.
Douglas and the committee accept they won’t please everyone, just as not everyone was pleased before, but feel they have reached a fair decision.
“A lot of people love to come set up, read their book, hang out with people and take off work that Friday because it’s part of their experience,” Douglas said. “They have to have a voice, too. And it’s a great service for a lot of our fans who need someone or something like this to be able to enjoy their gameday. I think this rule is the best way to divide it down the middle.”