Is College Baseball Heading Toward A Precarious Position?


Image credit: 30 JUNE 2016: The Coastal Carolina Chanticleers pose for a group photo after their victory over the University of Arizona during Game 3 of the Division I Men's Baseball Championship held at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, NE. Coastal Carolina University defeated the University of Arizona 4-3 and win their first National Title in school history. Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Last year was a perfect example of how great college baseball can be.

The 2023 season was loaded with generational talent and an LSU super team that managed to live up to almost impossible expectations.

It had an all-time classic game in Omaha. LSU edged Wake Forest in extra innings thanks to an all-time classic College World Series play by Tigers first baseman Tre’ Morgan and a walk-off home run from Tommy White. LSU ace Paul Skenes battling Wake’s Rhett Lowder lived up to any and all expectations.

Television ratings—if you care—were up as well.

This year has multiple loaded teams, led by Wake Forest. There are big-time stars, including Southeastern Conference standouts White and Florida’s Jac Caglianone. LSU also has a shot to become the rare repeat champion.

2024 Draft Rankings

See where college baseball’s best rank in our updated MLB Draft Top 200 draft rankings.

College baseball appears to be in a very good place. So why do I feel so worried about its future?

Because we have no idea what college baseball is going to look like in the next five to 10 years.

Change can be scary. And college baseball is going through a lot of changes. But if change is scary, it’s far more worrisome when it’s clear that there is no one in control of what’s coming next.

We have just gone through a decade in which it became clear that college football was driving the collegiate athletics bus. Now, we’ve come to the point where college football doesn’t get to drive either. The bus is now driver-less.

Welcome to the era of chaos.

The changes so far have had pluses and minuses, but overall college baseball has thrived through many transformations. It’s a highly resilient sport that has endured through numerous changes.

The name image and likeness (NIL) rules combined with liberalized transfer rules are transforming the game, and they seem to be creating a two-tiered system in which many schools are either preparing players to transfer or getting ready to receive the kickbacks from higher-profile programs.

I worry about whether smaller schools’ administrators will start to wonder “What’s the point?” if a trip to Omaha seems much less possible now than it did when Coastal Carolina won a title in 2016.

The sales pitch of funding a program at relatively low cost to potentially produce a once-in-a-generation moment is alluring, especially if schools feel they can be the next Coastal Carolina or Oral Roberts.

But that has to be possible.

Still, it’s hard to get too upset over a system that is now allowing some players to supplement their (usually partial) scholarships with NIL money that in some cases covers the rest of their education expenses. Or one that gives a few players a chance to make money as a college baseball star.

The dominance of the Southeastern Conference also can be viewed as troubling. It’s probably not great for the long-term national health of college baseball that we seem to be in an era in which the SEC has pulled away from the pack. The conference has won five of the past six and nine of the past 14 national championships.

But it’s also hard to complain too much about schools that have figured out how to turn college baseball into a destination sport for fans. Eight teams averaged more than 5,500 fans per game in 2023. Seven of them are from the SEC, and the eighth, Texas, joins the conference in 2025.

The recent reorganization of multiple conferences, including the end of the Pac-12 as we know it, is a transformation that seems to cause more problems than benefits. Like volleyball, basketball and other sports that play multiple games a week, college baseball is not a sport well-suited for making cross-country trips. Having East Coast teams and Midwest teams travel to the West Coast, and vice versa, for conference games makes zero sense.

What comes next is where it may get really worrisome. The NCAA has effectively admitted that without legislation that grants it an antitrust exemption, its ability to govern intercollegiate athletics has been neutered.

This leaves college sports, baseball included, in a tenuous spot. Relying on congressional action puts the future of college sports in the hands of a group of legislators who don’t have much knowledge or expertise when it comes to trying to sort out a wide array of competing interests.

That’s only part of the chaos. We also are seeing the ever-growing Big Ten and SEC moving further and further away from the other “power” conferences thanks to revenue disparities. Beyond them, every other conference outside the Power Four—that also includes the Atlantic Coast and Big 12 after the Pac-12 effectively dissolves—is in a different area code in terms of revenue.

Will it lead to a couple of super leagues splitting off from everyone else? Who knows?

There are supporters of such a transformation, but I personally fear such a move. It would completely disrupt what has been part of the allure of Omaha and put the future of college baseball in danger at dozens of the more than 150 Division I programs that play the sport but aren’t part of those super conferences.

College baseball is in a very good spot, but I am worried it won’t be able to stay there for long.

Download our app

Read the newest magazine issue right on your phone