Why isn’t college baseball a bigger deal?
With the MLB in a self-inflicted meltdown, baseball fans have little option but to tune in to the NCAA’s version of the game. So why don’t they?
Americans love, and I do mean LOVE, college sports. That may not come as a surprise to you, but I live in Europe and when I tell people that stadiums are filled with die-hard fans, paying good money to watch students play sports, I am met with blank stares. It usually starts with someone asking about my favorite football team, which leads to me explaining that I prefer American football (‘cause soccer, ya know) and I am a dyed-in-the-wool Saints fan, but if I am honest, I actually prefer the LSU Tigers.
Do you hear that? All that wind and tumbleweed? Yeah, me too.
For most Americans, my response to that question makes perfect sense, even if they might disagree with my choice of school. In the national imagination, a Fall Saturday, particularly in the South or the Midwest, is impossible to picture without college football. You’ve surely seen all those statistics that show how 60% of Americans list football (the pigskin variety) as their favorite sport. But what goes unstated, though it is certainly understood, is that for around 30% of the respondents polled, what they actually meant was college football, not the NFL.
And this phenomenon isn’t only true for football. March means college basketball and March Madness, and people go wild, absolutely insane, for the Final Four. So why are MLB fans so subdued when it comes to college baseball? 30 million Americans will watch the Show and annual events like the College World Series will average over 22,000 spectators per game. Baseball is, famously, America’s pastime. So why are we less than enthusiastic about college baseball than other sports?
Once you break down all the bluster and bluff about aluminum bats, there are essentially three stumbling blocks keeping our love of baseball and our love of college sports dining at separate tables. The first one is so simple as to come off as trite. The weather. In order to be able to fit a full baseball season into a scholastic year, it is necessary to start playing games in February. You know that time of the year when all of the MLB teams are down in Florida, escaping the snow in their northern cities? Now imagine having to play right field in that snow.
Little wonder, then, that the beating heart of college baseball is the south. The SEC and the Big 12 make up the majority of schools who have a loyal fanbase. Throw in southern California and you have nearly all of the collegiate baseball programs of any note, leaving out huge swathes of the country.
One of the driving forces, perhaps even the driving force, behind the popularity of college athletics in the US is, quite simply, that it is local. With only 32 NFL teams and 30 teams in both MLB and NBA, it is very common for your nearest professional franchise to be in the next state over. Perhaps even two or three states away. But your nearest college is rarely more than an hour’s drive down the road. What’s more, the players on that college team are more likely to be known to the local population than a pro who was bought in from the other side of the continent.
With a vast portion of America unable to play baseball in February, the very thing that draws fans in to college sports works to keep them uninterested. They would prefer to stay warm, like being inside a gym watching a basketball game, than sitting on damp bleachers watching freezing kids play sleet-ball. And I can’t blame them for that.
Many schools who excel in either football or basketball don’t even have a baseball team. If you are a local supporter of Boise State, Colorado, DePaul, Howard, Idaho, Iowa State, SMU, South Dakota, Temple, Tulsa, UTEP, or Wyoming, you will have to look elsewhere for a college baseball team.
And the schools that are powerhouses in other sports are not necessarily any good at baseball, even if they do have a team. Alabama baseball is dismal. Ohio State are lucky to break the Top 50, and most of that is given on their football reputation. These schools devote so much of their resources to their dominant football programs that their baseball program is swimming against a very strong tide.
The second major barrier to fan involvement is rooted in a deeply held conviction that the best players are already drafted and in the minor league system rather than at university. There is a certain amount of logic to it. The reasoning goes that since the NFL can’t recruit directly from high school and has no lower league within their organization, then the training camp for tomorrow’s stars is the nation's colleges. But baseball can, and does, recruit directly from high school. And baseball has a very extensive minor league system where those draftees go to hone their skills. So then the players in the colleges must be second rate. Right?
Many of the players in college baseball were drafted by Major League teams and chose to attend university instead. When you take into account the extremely high attrition rate in Minor League baseball, where there is no guarantee that you will ever get the call to join the Show, you see the college game not so much as also-rans but as an alternative minor league system.
Philosophical points of view aside, the idea that the NCAA is unnecessary for baseball because of the existence of the minor league system has been demonstrated to be false. A wonderful Bleacher Report document published two years ago shows that, while numbers differ slightly for pitchers and hitters, the training ground for 47% of MLB players is actually the nation's colleges. Only 34.5% are drafted from high school. So if watching tomorrow’s great talent is your thing, then you should be watching the college game.
Made famous by the book and later film Moneyball, Oakland A’s manager and former standout draftee Billy Beane called his decision to forgo Stanford University when he was drafted by the Mets out of high school “the only decision I ever made in my life just for money.”
“I don’t look at it as a regret now,” he says. “I’d say missed opportunity is probably a better way to put it. The people you’re going to school with, what you’re exposed to in future world leaders, senators - I missed that opportunity, and I don’t think you can really put a price tag on that. But it was a great life lesson.”
The third, and perhaps most significant, of the factors that have kept college baseball out of the fan’s radar is simply television access. Before this year’s self-immolating MLB lockout, when ESPN announced that they would televise over 2000 college baseball games, it was nigh on impossible to actually find a college game on television.
One of the few exceptions has been the annual College World Series, when tv networks would use the underwhelming viewing figures and low crowd turnout as proof positive that there was no market for college baseball. But, in all honesty, how could viewers be expected to feel the passion for the teams when, in many cases, this was the first time they had clapped eyes on many of these schools?
College baseball doesn’t need to change in any ill-conceived attempt to encourage more viewership. The sport is healthy and thriving, if perhaps under appreciated. But it wouldn’t hurt to get rid of those aluminum bats, just for good measure.