No university has more alumni in the Nashville area than Middle Tennessee State.
The university’s athletic department leaders would love to get them down to Murfreesboro more often.
With 60 percent of more than 100,000 alumni within an hour’s drive from campus, MTSU wants to expand its following at games. Last week, athletic director Chris Massaro and several coaches were in Franklin to mingle with alumni and fans and promote the school’s recent move to Conference USA.
“That MT on our football helmet stands for Middle Tennessee. It doesn’t stand for Murfreesboro’s team,” he said. “We’re proud to have all the support we do from Murfreesboro. But, man oh man, this is where we can really grow our product. I think C-USA will help us to make those games compelling enough for the surrounding counties, both north and south of Rutherford County, to come watch us play.”
Reaching into Williamson County and Davidson County is a point of emphasis for Massaro, who said the counties are behind only Rutherford County in Blue Raider Athletic Association membership.
The Blue Raiders just finished a five-year series in men’s basketball with Vanderbilt, capped by a game in downtown Nashville at Bridgestone Arena last December. Massaro said there was a verbal agreement to play Georgia Tech at Bridgestone this upcoming season but the Yellow Jackets backed out last month. MTSU has also had home-and-home series with Belmont and Tennessee State in men’s basketball.
Women’s basketball hopes to draw mix of Tennessee and MTSU alumni who live in Nashville to Murfreesboro on Nov. 8 when the Lady Vols come to the Murphy Center for the season opener for both teams. Middle also hosts Kentucky on Nov. 24.
Starting in 2015, Vanderbilt and MTSU meet on the football field for four straight seasons. In 2015 and 2017, the Commodores travel down I-24 to Murfreesboro. In 2016 and 2018, the Blue Raiders head to Nashville.
“Some of it is are we compelling enough?” Massaro said. “We’re trying to raise our games and our events up on people’s priority pole. In Alabama, that would be nothing coming from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa. It’s people’s priority. So what we have to do is make compelling cases to move it up people’s priority pole. It doesn’t mean if they don’t come they are any less of a loyal alum. We just got to make it a bigger priority.”
Massaro said a perfect storm of successful men’s and women’s basketball seasons — both programs made the NCAA Tournament — and an eight-win football campaign along with the move to C-USA has generated excitement among the fan base. The Blue Raiders joined C-USA on July 1 after 13 years in the Sun Belt Conference.
Higher conference brand recognition should aid MTSU, Massaro believes. He says fans know Randy Moss went to Marshall and that UAB’s school color is green. They understand the men’s basketball and football tradition of Southern Miss. The Blue Raiders defeated Southern Miss in the New Orleans Bowl in 2009.
“I understand how good Sun Belt basketball was,” men’s basketball coach Kermit Davis said. “But for the regular fan, the C-USA home schedule is going to bring a lot more value to the season tickets for us.”
For those on the fence about making the trek, Massaro uses the selling points of free parking, traffic heading the opposite direction and the recently finished State Route 840 extension from Williamson County.
“I don’t think that it is that hard [to sell the program],” he said. “It is just a matter of us offering compelling teams and making sure when they get to the game they are entertained. … For us to really grow, and I say this all the time, we have to be stronger outside of Murfreesboro. Be truly Middle Tennessee’s team.”
Massaro has seen higher turnout at local events with alumni lately, including the current “Blue Raiders on the Move” tour. The fourth and final leg is at Academy Sports in Smyrna on Saturday (11 a.m. — 1 p.m.).
The athletic department’s annual fundraising drive closed the fiscal year with an increase in donations. Corporate sponsorship sales are ahead of last year’s pace. So are ticket sales for football — by 10 percent.
MTSU’s average attendance was 17,738 at five home football games in 2012. That was the fifth-lowest mark in the Sun Belt out of 10 teams. Arkansas State paced the league with 26,398 a game.
Only two C-USA schools (out of 12) averaged less than 20,000 a game last year. East Carolina drew a conference-best average attendance of 47,013.
“We got to get them to come. If they are a Middle Tennessee fan they got to come,” football coach Rick Stockstill said. “It is a better league, a better received league nationally [than the Sun Belt] and we have to step up our game also. I’ve heard all the reasons why we haven’t sold out every game. To me there is no reason why we can’t sell it out. We have 28,000 students and 100,000 people in Murfreesboro. We ought to be able to get 30,000 in there every week. That’s my goal. I’m going to keep pushing.”