College Baseball Should Thrive In Autonomy Era

It's an uncertain time for college athletics. The five football power conferences are on the verge of greater autonomy, and the ramifications could be sweeping but remain unknown for now. A court's ruling against the NCAA in the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit opens the door for athletes to receive additional payment for the use of their names, images and likenesses, which generate billions of dollars for NCAA member schools and their partners.

Football is driving the college sports economic machine, with basketball sitting in the passenger seat and all the rest of the sports crammed in the back seat, or the trunk. But earlier this week, Mississippi State unveiled plans for a $40 million baseball stadium project, reminding us that baseball does really matter to the Southeastern Conference, the most powerful of all collegiate leagues. And as long as baseball is important to the SEC, its future will be safeguarded, to some degree.

A rendering of Mississippi State's master plan for Dudy Noble Field

A rendering of Mississippi State’s master plan for Dudy Noble Field.

The Dudy Noble Field Master Plan calls for a double-tiered grandstand with chairback seating, an elevated concourse that encircles the playing field and allows a constant view of the game action, impressive entry plazas, and 50 skyboxes—25 in the main grandstand, and 25 more in the outfield that will feature two bedrooms, a bath, kitchen and living space in each.

It is the most expensive and ambitious construction project in the history of college baseball, and Mississippi State has the fan support to justify it. The Bulldogs own the top 10 on-campus crowds in NCAA baseball history, including the single-game record of 15,586 for a game against Mississippi this year. MSU has a long history of drawing huge crowds to Dudy Noble, dating back to the program's heyday in the 1980s. The timeframe for the project is dependent upon the Bulldog Club's ability to meet its $20 million private fundraising goal.

"This is a monumental day for our baseball program, and something every Bulldog player and fan deserves," MSU coach John Cohen said in a release. "As a former player and now coach, I know the greatest fans in college baseball will take action to ensure our players and coaching staff have the necessary amenities and resources to recruit and compete at the highest level."

On the one hand, MSU's grand plan is a wonderful sign for the future of college baseball. But on another hand, it highlights the disparity between the haves and the have-nots in the sport, which could continue to widen in the era of increased autonomy for the power conferences.

Last week, the NCAA Division I board of directors voted to allow the top five conferences (the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten) to write many of their own rules. Scholarship limits will not fall under the autonomy umbrella, which means the power conferences will not have the authority to award more than 11.7 baseball scholarships. But they could decide to offer cost-of-attendance stipends and insurance benefits for players in some sports, which could make it difficult for other conferences to keep up. It is unclear, at this point, whether those changes would only affect football and basketball or would also impact non-revenue sports. The power conferences have until Oct. 1 to submit their first round of proposals, which will then be voted upon by the larger body at the NCAA convention in January.

"One of the questions is will that cost-of-attendance (stipend) only apply to full-scholarship students, or will it apply to students on a partial grant? I imagine those things are being discussed by those five conferences," said the NCAA's top baseball official, Damani Leech, managing director for championships and alliances. "If you look at those autonomy areas, it's things like nutrition, insurance—some things that really won't have a sport-specific impact. The bigger question will be if they do pursue something within those autonomy areas, will it be for all sports or only a certain group of sports? They have the discretion to decide that. 'Do we want to do something differently? If we do, what sports do we want to do something in? Every sport, or just some?' Really, we just created a framework for them to operate."

Ultimately, Leech said he expects the new governance model to be "closer to impact-neutral" for baseball than to have a sweeping impact on the sport, and that's a good thing. He also said that the power conferences could decide to loosen rules that restrict interactions between players and agents, a change that is long overdue and would benefit everyone in baseball.

The NCAA is waiting anxiously to see what the power conferences will propose, just like the rest of us. But don't expect anything that will dramatically affect the balance of power in baseball in the short term. The SEC, Pac-12, ACC, and Big 12 will continue to be baseball's power brokers, but mid-major conferences should still be able to compete—on the field, at least. When it comes to the arms race to improve facilities, the SEC will remain in a league of its own.