Prominent Coaches Debut Plan For A 'New Model' For College Baseball
A group of prominent coaches, led by Michigan’s Erik Bakich, has developed a detailed proposal to alter college baseball’s calendar in an effort to make the sport more financially stable. At the crux of the plan is a proposal to push the season back about a month, moving Opening Day from mid-February to the third weekend of March and the start of the NCAA Tournament to the end of June.
Similar plans to push the season back have been made over the years. This proposal is different, however, both in its scope – it makes a case from a financial, academic and student welfare standpoint – and in its support. Whereas previous proposals were typically led by one coach or one conference, the latest proposal – dubbed the New Baseball Model and first reported by Kendall Rogers of D1Baseball.com – already has broad reaching support, involving many of the game’s most prominent coaches from across the country.
The proposal is in part a reaction to the financial crisis in college sports that has followed the coronavirus pandemic. In the last week, two baseball programs were eliminated (Bowling Green and Furman) and a third (Chicago State) awaits word of its fate from the school’s Board of Regents. With all but about half a dozen baseball programs losing money, the coaches are concerned about the future of the sport and are looking for ways to bring it more stability and turn it into a revenue producer.
“The Covid-19 pandemic and resultant economic turmoil has created a financial crisis for higher education,” the proposal states. “The landscape of college athletics has changed. Implementing modernized business models has never been more important than today.
“In order for college baseball to survive, grow and thrive in uncertain times, we must make these necessary adjustments.”
Those adjustments are
- Pushing the season back four weeks
- Expanded preseason
- Shortened fall ball
- Moving fall scrimmages to the preseason
Opening Day in March? Selection Monday in late June? The College World Series in July? They would all be the new reality under this proposal.
A later start date to the season has long been debated in college baseball. Proponents note that while baseball is technically a spring sport, the current mid-February Opening Day (this year’s was Feb. 14) occurs during the thick of winter. This reality forces many teams to play on the road for the first several weeks of the season, piling up travel costs and missed class time, while they wait for better weather at their home ballparks.
Even for schools that can play at home early in the season, the weather is still not optimal for fans who want to watch a three-hour baseball game outdoors. Programs tend to schedule more day games early in the season, even on Friday series openers, which hurts attendance, which means they aren’t maximizing their revenue potential.
According to the coaches’ proposal, a Big Ten or “competitive northern team” spent an average of $233,728 over the last five years on travel in the first four weeks of the season. In that same time period, the last four weeks of the regular season, when teams are in conference play and playing a more regional schedule, travel costs were an average of $88,864.
Meanwhile, schools in better weather in the south and west typically saw their attendance increase in April and May vs. February and March. The comparison isn’t perfect, as fans may simply be more interested in conference games than in less competitive nonconference series. But college baseball attendance figures are almost always taken off of “paid attendance,” which isn’t a true reflection of how many fans are actually in the stands, and, anecdotally, attendance can tick up in the second half of the season.
For every school, a February start date also places the first-half of the season in a crowded sports calendar. College basketball is reaching its fever pitch by mid-February and, as it stands, the start of conference play in baseball, which should be a big event, overlaps with conference basketball tournaments and the start of the NCAA Tournament. The result is college baseball gets lost in the shuffle, even on conference TV networks and social media channels.
Pushing the season back isn’t without complications, however. The season already lasts well past the end of the spring semester (at schools on semester schedules) and keeping players on campus while school is out of session is a significant expense. This plan would keep players on campus four extra weeks. Northern schools would also get more home games in this arrangement, which also adds expenses like umpires and game-day staff to their budgets.
The draft must also be accounted for in any proposal looking at pushing the season back. But with MLB already talking about moving the draft from June to July, in accordance with its plan to scale back the minor leagues, that becomes much less of a problem for college baseball.
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The proposal has some significant academic merits – less travel time means more time players are in class. Reduced fall ball would give players more time to focus on their studies and an extended preseason would lighten the load at the start of the spring semester.
Michigan righthander Isaiah Paige supports the academic benefits.
“This proposal grants the opportunity for collegiate baseball programs to reach new heights on the field and allows the athletes to maximize all the resources of their university off the field,” he said.
But pushing the season back a month also reduces academic opportunities for players who are mostly on partial scholarships. Already, players on teams that advance to the NCAA Tournament cannot start an internship until June, about a month after their classmates who aren’t playing baseball. While every Division I player may harbor ambitions to play professional baseball, the reality is most will not and are pursuing other professions, which may require work in the summer.
What will happen to summer leagues is also a question that is always raised during any debate about pushing the season back. Many leagues were set to this season begin their season in the last week of May, though Opening Day in the Cape Cod League, the premier summer league, wasn’t until June 13. Summer leagues that could push their start date back to the end of June would have as many players as usual to pick from. But the reality is that a player on a team that regularly made the NCAA Tournament may never play in a summer league.
As the coaches lay out in the proposal, that may simply be a necessary tradeoff to maximize college baseball’s potential.
“The Covid-19 pandemic and changing landscape of college athletics has created the need for the game of college baseball to self-audit and make adjustments,” it states. “Almost all schools operate at a significant financial net loss because we start our season in February. The attendance data and inflated travel budgets prove that. College baseball is also losing valuable developmental time during one of the peak weather months for our sport.
“Our student-athletes should be developing on our campuses in June, especially with the amount of resources many institutions have invested into our programs. Our fans should be watching our student-athletes in our stadiums, and those revenue dollars should go to our athletic departments.
“We need to do what is best for the long-term health and growth of college baseball.”
That argument is what the new model comes down to. There are still many details to be hammered out and the coaches will have to get their athletic directors on board with the idea to get it passed through the NCAA legislative process.
What’s clear is that this proposal has momentum where others have floundered and that its supporters are determined to advance it. This week’s proposal is just the start.