Q&A with Michigan's Erik Bakich on the New College Baseball Model
Last week, coaches in college baseball, led by Michigan's Erik Bakich, unveiled a proposal to alter college baseball's calendar for the betterment of the sport financially and for the betterment of the student-athlete health-wise and academically.
Bakich joined the Baseball America College Podcast to discuss the plan in more detail. This Q&A of the discussion has been edited for length and clarity, but you can hear it in full in the episode.
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Teddy Cahill: It’s an incredibly detailed presentation. You have a 35-page document that is loaded up with numbers, be that revenue and expenses, travel costs and attendance and all the rest of that. So there’s a lot to digest in the plan. But the way I see it, the biggest change for college baseball fans would be that the season would start about a month later, but also, what that overall encompasses for the players is that they have a longer preseason and then it also kind of lightens the load in fall practice by kind of moving practices time around throughout the calendar. Is that a decent summary of it or are there important points there that I may have missed?
Erik Bakich: Everything you're saying is a valid point and is certainly a detail in this proposal. The student welfare and academic piece should be able to stand alone on their own, and would be reason enough for change, but it hasn’t been. It hasn’t created the traction. Once you add the financial component, which has been a missing component to this model for warm weather schools in the past, now it’s a game-changer, especially at this time and where we are in the world, with athletic departments and institutions and schools just really taking a hard look at their budgets. And so, the finances, for a northern team, it’s very simple. Moving the season four weeks saves money on your travel budget. You don't have to get on airplanes and incur these high travel costs. I put the numbers in for the University of Michigan, we averaged, the last five years, over $232,000. Now, not everybody will be that high. We don’t travel excessive. It’s commercial flights, but we take the whole team, and we take our coaches, and we take our support staff, but there are other teams that may not take four flights like we do, and we understand that.
One important point before I really get talking here is clarifying that everybody needs to run their own numbers, and run their own data, whether that’s looking at what they spend early in the year on travel, what they spend early in the year on guarantees, what it would cost them to keep their players on campus an additional four weeks, in how many players stay in the dorms. What’s the per diem? What are their operating costs of a home game? How much are the umpires? How much are the baseballs? How much are the pre- and post-game meals? And do those calculations themselves and figure out the individual finances.
Getting back to the teams, so the cold weather teams, there’s a huge savings there. The warm weather teams, what we saw in just going through the attendance figures, is that playing baseball around Valentine’s Day into early March just doesn't financially make sense. More fans show up for college baseball in April and May than they do in February and March. And that's the paid attendance numbers. We’re not even talking about actual attendance. The actual attendance we know is lower than the paid attendance because we use our eyeballs and we can see that there’s not thousands of fans in the stands in late February, but that has implications with concession and merchandise revenue. Those are revenue streams that are real that are missed opportunities. And so you have a lot of teams in warmer climates that, you know, the typical collegiate fan can only spread their energy so many ways, and it’s basketball season, and it’s conference tournament time, and it’s March Madness, and every institution has a marketing department, and it can only spread its energy so many ways, and they’re, rightfully so, focused on basketball. And even in warm weather parts of the country, it’s still colder in February and early March. So you have all these components that are the reasons why the data says that the fans show up more in April and May than they do in February and March, and for the typical fan, baseball season doesn’t start until the major league season starts. Baseball season is April, and that’s when they turn their attention to baseball. So if we can put our starting date as close to that as possible, that’s what we’re trying to do.
Now the benefits to the student athlete is where, we feel like, this proposal just really stands tall and has a ton of traction, because of the academic piece to it. You allow the least amount of missed days of class, you don’t have to stuff all your midweek (games) in the month of March. Doing the calculations and looking at when a lot of the warm weather teams play their games, they play over half their home games in the months of February and March. That’s a lot of midweeks, that’s a lot of games being played throughout the week, when they're not the most attended, but that’s also right in the middle of the academic year. Coaches would be able to spread their midweeks out throughout the year, not having to play two midweeks a week, not having to miss so much class on these early-season trips, and with the four weeks extended season, everybody isn’t missing as much class, because there’s more games outside of that academic calendar window. More teams are playing when school is out (in this proposal), which is a huge benefit to kids.
And then the fall (practice season) being lessened, if you think about it, you give the kids four weeks back in the fall, so they can have more personal time, but more time to focus on their studies. And to think our model right now, we have this really long segment in the fall, and a really short segment in the preseason leading up to opening day. I mean, counterintuitive isn’t even the word. That’s just dumb. That is the wrong thing to do for ramp time. We’re only three weeks of official team practice before opening day and two reduced-hour weeks of eight hours per week. So this new model takes it from five weeks of ramp time to nine weeks of ramp time.
We didn’t want to give our opinions, we wanted a medical expert, so we talked with the foremost authority on throwing arm injuries in Dr. James Andrews, who has been a proponent of increased ramp time and just the overall safety, health and welfare of the baseball player. He’s made a career out of this, and he’s regarded as the best, and for him to say this is a no-brainer and he doesn’t see how anyone would argue not to be for this new proposal, gives it a ton of weight as well.
Joe Healy: Public feedback on this proposal has been overwhelmingly positive. Has that matched the private feedback you have received?
EB: I would say three out of four coaches are in favor of it, is what I would guess, and that's a pretty high number. And it’s not just coaches in the Power Five, or coaches in one region or the other, it’s a cross section of everyone, from all parts of the country. Power Five, Group of Five, mid-majors, small schools. I was talking to a coach in south Florida and he said something very impactful. He said ‘you know, where we’re located in south Florida, we actually do better in March than we do in May, so this proposal doesn’t necessarily help us, but this is what’s best for the game, so I’m for it.’
TC: When people have talked about pushing the season back in the past, I’ve been a little concerned about how smaller schools handle the extra expense of players being on campus after graduation. Am I making too much of that, or does the math still work for some of the smaller schools that maybe aren’t seeing significant attendance at baseball to begin with?
EB: That is a valid concern for a mid-major, warm weather school that does not get attendance. We’ve had that feedback as well, they just don’t think they’ll ever get attendance. (If) it’s just one of those places that is kind of stuck (and) they may get a few hundred people, and it doesn’t matter when they play the season, they just operate under that assumption, then you’re looking at an additional cost, and that additional cost is keeping your players on campus for four extra weeks. And I’d say that group is certainly the minority, but that's a real concern, and again, this isn’t the one-size-fits-all model, it’s one-size-fits-most. Most people can see the value, either offsetting their travel costs to cover the cost of keeping kids on campus or they can see the potential revenue from attendance and having more fans at home games and the revenue streams that creates to offset keeping kids.
JH: Would you characterize the MLB draft being moved to July as a necessity for this plan to move forward successfully?
EB: I don’t want to speak for MLB, but the conversations that we’ve had, there has been that insinuation of the desire to move the draft now that short-season (minor league) baseball is being looked at as being eliminated. The draft was strategically held in June because that’s when the high school and college seasons ended, and you had short-season leagues as a landing spot for a lot of college kids to go, and now with short-season leagues and some rookie leagues going away, (in) Major League Baseball, there’s been discussions of the draft moving back. So this model would certainly line up with those desires, and seems to fit in concert with what we would like to do with our calendar and what they would like to do with the draft. Again, I don't want to speak for MLB, but that's the gist of what I’ve heard.
TC: With less travel and more time in a classroom, it’s easy to see how this model would be beneficial academically, and how a different fall would be beneficial as well, but playing into July or the end of June would also take away the summer for an internship or some other academic opportunity. Is that something that you have talked about?
EB: I can’t speak for all coaches, (but) the summer conflict most people bring up is summer baseball, not summer internships. I think that’s why the fall is so critical as being treated as an offseason. Now, we still have some baseball activity in there, but as coaches, we’re prioritizing the preseason and the season as our most important time. Not that the fall is not important, because it is, but the fall shifts more to a player development model instead of a player evaluation model. The players will have more time. They’ll have more of an academic, scholastic focus, and for the player that does express interest in an internship, that would be a perfect opportunity to do so.
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JH: What has allowed this proposal to gather so much early momentum when previous proposals have failed to do so?
EB: Every college baseball coach has known that we’ve had a finances problem for a long time. You just look at everything that we try to get passed that gets shut down. We can’t get a third coach passed. We can’t get more scholarships. All the things that we want to do but (they) never happen, and why should they? Why would any athletic director think it’s a good idea to spend more money on something that loses so much money, with the exception of a few schools? So this is the next step if we want to grow the game and we want to advance to the next level of having more scholarships and having that third paid assistant coach. We need to show better financial sustainability and growth and improve our fiscal bottom lines before there’s any discussions about spending more money. Now, you get to the post-COVID era, where everybody’s finances are so important because we don't know what's happening with college football, we don’t know what’s happening with enrollment, we don’t know what classes are going to look like in the fall. There's a lot of question marks, but we do know that we need to be more fiscally responsible and improve our bottom lines, because it is not a good combination when you have higher education in a financial crisis and we are a sport as a whole that operates at such a significant financial net loss. So yeah, they do go hand-in-hand, but this has been a problem that existed before COVID-19.
TC: Where does the proposal go from here? Of course, someone has to sponsor it before it can be turned into NCAA legislation. Is that the next step, finding a conference or institution to sponsor it? What are the next steps?
EB: That’s how proposals usually get done, a school or a conference has put it forth, and that just can’t happen with this one. This can’t be the Big Ten sponsoring this because (the perception is) it’s the northern schools complaining about weather and competitive equity. It can’t be just the SEC putting this forward because then people think ‘well the rich are trying to get richer.’ This has to be a joint initiative among multiple coaches from multiple conferences in a joint initiative of coaches coming together for the betterment of the sport. So that’s the position we’re in right now. We’re getting the word out, we’re talking to coaches, we are just trying to generate interest. From there, we’ll move to get some athletic directors to champion it. From there, it will be faculty athletic reps and university presidents. It’ll be a legislative process before it gets to the Division I Council. We are moving in that direction, but right now, getting the coaches on board is the number one priority, and most of the coaches are in favor.
TC: Everything you have on the calendar in the document is for the 2022 season. Is that realistic? What would have to happen to turn this over that quickly?
EB: Ideally, this fits best for next season, but that’s like the one percent chance-type scenario. Getting this implemented in 2022 is super aggressive in itself. There is a moratorium on new legislation for next year unless it’s related to COVID-19, so that’s what our hope is, is this model has such a financial and academic and welfare impact that we can get this implemented as quickly as we can. Right now, the feedback we’ve gotten is it’s good to get the coaches on board, get some of the ADs on board, but a lot of these ADs are investing all of their time right now on what’s happening with football, and in concert with their university presidents, what’s happening with fall classes. We understand there's bigger, more important things to tackle, but we are still moving forward and we’re being as responsible, but yet as aggressive, as we can with it, getting coaches the information.