Coaching Confidential: Would You Prefer The NCAA Tournament Use A 32-Host Format?
Baseball America this spring surveyed 90 head coaches on a wide-ranging list of topics to get the pulse of the profession. Throughout the spring, we’re posting the results of that survey.
The NCAA Tournament was scheduled to begin this week, first with a Sunday evening announcement of the 16 regional host sites, leading into Selection Monday when the Field of 64 would be revealed and reaching a fever pitch Friday when play began around the country. It is a familiar annual cycle interrupted this year only by the coronavirus pandemic, which led to the season’s cancellation in mid-March.
There are, however, many in college baseball who would like to bring a new format to the NCAA Tournament. Instead of holding 16, four-team, double-elimination regionals as has been the case since 1999, this plan would instead call for the first round of the tournament to be best-of-three series held at 32 different sites around the country.
The plan has never been formally proposed but is often talked about among coaches. Now is the time to see more firm data about how many coaches support the idea of the first round of 32 hosts and a best-of-three format for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
So, we asked our panel: Would you prefer keeping the current NCAA Tournament format or changing to a 32-host, best-of-three format?
|Current format||42 percent|
|32 hosts, best-of-three||58 percent|
Previous Coaching Confidential questions
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- Which assistant coach will make the best head coach?
- What should the next proposal for a third full-time assistant coach entail?
- What program has the best player development facilities?
- What's the most important quality for an assistant coach?
- What's your favorite restaurant to eat at on the road?
In a relatively close vote, 58 percent of the panel voted in favor of the 32-host, best-of-three format, giving it a 15-vote cushion over the current format. While it doesn’t make for an overwhelming majority, it is notable that more than half of the coaches surveyed are ready to do away with the NCAA Tournament format that college baseball has used for 45 years.
The 32-host format is a reimagination of the NCAA Tournament format. The selection committee would pick a 64-team field as it does now and instead of creating 16 four-team regionals, it would create 32 head-to-head matchups for best-of-three series.
Exactly how the selection committee would go about creating those matchups is still open for debate, due to the lack of a formal proposal. Some coaches would like to see the full field seeded, 1-64, and the bracket laid out accordingly. Some would prefer a plan that is more similar to the current model, with the committee still seeding the top 16 teams and then placing teams in pods based loosely on geography and level of play. A middle ground might see the committee seed the top 32 teams and then pick their opponents using those same factors.
Regardless of the selection process, the advantages of a 32-host format lie primarily with a format that matches the regular season and its potential to grow and expand the game.
The double-elimination format regionals use has largely been unchanged since 1975. Regionals have sometimes consisted of four or six teams but have always been double-elimination, the same format used in the College World Series.
But in the 45 years since, much has changed about college baseball. Today, conferences play their regular season schedules with three-game weekend series and teams are built accordingly. The NCAA Tournament has also built some best-of-three series into its format—first in 1999 with the creation of super regionals and again in 2003, when the CWS championship was changed from a one-game, winter-take-all format to a best-of-three series.
“It’s in line with what you’re typically doing throughout rest of season,” one coach said. “The best team that weekend will still a lot of times show up. A three-game series is what everyone recruits to.”
Proponents of the 32-host model note that the double-elimination regional format puts players and coaches in difficult situations when managing pitching staffs. Too often, they argue, pitchers on teams in the losers’ bracket, who must play five games in four days to advance, are used on short rest and throw too much in a weekend. That invites criticism, especially from professional baseball.
A move to a best-of-three format wouldn’t necessarily eliminate the problem, but ensuring no team played more than three games in three days would generally promote better arm care.
“The biggest thing is the pitching,” another coach said. “That No. 1 guy, if you get to Monday, it’s so hard if you have that guy with so much talent that wants the ball and there’s so much at stake. In a three-game set, you’re less likely to see teams bring that guy back.
“It’s such a hard position to be in.”
The other benefit of a 32-host format its proponents point to is that giving more programs the opportunity to host postseason baseball would help to grow and expand the game. Regionals, primarily, are being played at major conference schools in the South, with the West Coast still a factor as well. Over the last five years, the ACC and SEC combined to host 46 of the 80 regionals. The Big 12 and Pac-12 combined for 19 more, meaning college baseball’s four biggest conferences accounted for 81.25 percent of all regional hosts.
While those schools earned that right on the field and have also heavily invested in baseball, having such a limited scope fore regional hosts can be limiting. One coach who has made a career out of program building said nothing resonates with a fan base and administration like hosting a regional.
“The No. 1 thing that changes a program as a tipping point is the first time you host a regional,” he said. “It gives more people an opportunity to do that and grows the sport.”
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The 32-host format is not without drawbacks, however. It adds a week to the NCAA Tournament, which would require starting the season a week earlier, pushing the end of the CWS a week later or taking a week away from the regular season.
Perhaps the biggest question to be answered is, are teams Nos. 17-32 annually equipped to host? The stadium requirements for a two-team series would likely be less than a four-team setup. But it would be paramount that every team in position to host in such a format be able to because the penalty for going on the road would be greater. Advocates of the plan might say that if a team can’t host a NCAA Tournament series because its stadium isn’t good enough, it doesn’t deserve it. But if the goal is to grow the game, then the NCAA Tournament would have to go wherever the 32 best teams were in a given year.
There is also the question of cost. The NCAA would still have to send 56 teams on the road leading up to Omaha, but an extra weekend would mean more hotel nights. Travel could end up being more costly, depending on whether the selection committee leaned on geography or true seeding to put the field together. The NCAA Tournament is currently profitable and in an era of financial austerity, as college athletics may be entering, that is not insignificant.
ESPN, the tournament’s broadcast partner, would also need to be on board with the plan. It would create additional expenses for the network, as it would need to double the broadcast crews for the first round. It would also create more programming, but if most of that programming went to its streaming services, would that offset the additional costs?
“That was ESPN’s worry, ‘How can we cover that?’ ” one coach said. “I think the answer is the top 16 get true coverage and the other 16 is more streaming and maybe conference networks have to pick it up. That could create more excitement and ultimately more money.”
There is no consensus among coaches as to what schools would get an advantage in the 32-host format. Some believe underdogs would have a better chance because nearly every NCAA Tournament team has at least one or two star pitchers. Win just one of the first two games, and you set up a winner-take-all Game 3, when anything can happen. Some believe the current format is more advantageous to underdogs because you can win a regional without having to beat the host twice if you get help from another team.
Overall, the polling data showed the 32-host format is especially popular among coaches who would be in the mix to host regionals. Two-thirds of coaches in baseball’s seven major conferences (ACC, American, Big 12, Big Ten, Big West, Pac-12 and SEC), which have hosted all but six regionals in the last five years, voted in favor of the 32-host proposal. But among the major conference coaches who preferred the 16-host model were several whose programs have hosted regionals and super regionals in the last two years.
As much as major conference coaches favor it, it is unsurprisingly particularly popular among coaches in conferences where teams often find themselves on the wrong side of the hosting bubble or out of the mix altogether, but would be ready to host if there were twice as many tournament sites.
“A program like ours, we’d have the potential of hosting at least a first-round regional matchup and then potentially one more round of hosting,” one coach said. “Whereas now we have to be one of the best 16-20 teams to have a chance.
“That’s hard to do. You have to have a great year, but you also have to be willing to spend money and put in type of bid that will sway away a Power Five team that has the stadium.”
Whether a 32-host NCAA Tournament ever comes to fruition remains to be seen. It is specifically excluded from the “New College Baseball Model” that would transform the calendar and push the season back a month. With so much focus currently on that proposal, any other significant changes will likely have to wait.
But, for now, it’s fun to imagine what a 32-host NCAA Tournament would look like. Would a simpler format drive more interest? More brackets (and betting)? More engaged fan bases? In a year without the NCAA Tournament, any format would be welcome.