HOOVER, Ala. — There are a number of RVs that have birthed a number of tents. Both are adorned with a number of flags, which are blue and maroon and garnet, but dominated by a swath of purple. The lack of humidity in the air creates the feel of requisite conditions for October football. Outside the gates, a pair of almost-octogenarian Auburn and Alabama fans exchange profanities in lieu of formal greetings, just like autumn dictates. It is sunny and cheerful in the very heart of God's big, dumb, college football country.
But the punchline is that while everyone came to tailgate in late May, a baseball game broke out. The joke might be, "How do you make an SEC tailgater self-conscious?" Amidst a commune of LSU RVs, a Tigers fan introduces himself as Joe from Vicksburg, Miss., boasting that he and his wife are attending all six days and 17 games of the 12-team, single/double elimination SEC baseball tournament. When it's offered that such enthusiasm for a "niche sport" might seem peculiar in other parts of the country, Joe suddenly seems bashful.
"I don't see it that way at all. If other fans in other places don't want to support college baseball, it's their business. This is a great sport. We've always known that. This is a great event."
It may have just dawned on Joe that unlike mighty football, there's no coast-to-coast population of like-minded fans to taunt with chants of superiority. There's damn sure pride in Hoover, but there's little else. Only hardcores inhabit the sea of parking lots that blanket the patchwork multi-purpose stadium at the top of the hill. And it's the parking lots (as well as the short drive from the league office) that keep this popular event out here in suburbia annually. The caravan of fans demand it, and they show up year in and year out. And despite slow midweek attendance, the 2013 installment ends up setting an attendance record of 134,496 total fans.
(Photo via PodKATT)
There are certainly arguments to be made on behalf of the ACC and Pac-12, but recent history says the SEC is driving the sport: It's won three of the last four national titles, and in 2011, South Carolina beat Florida in an all-SEC title game. The league is responsible for 22 of the 80 total CWS participants in the last 10 seasons, the most of any conference in that time span. On Friday afternoon, nine league teams will begin play in the field of 64, the most of any conference.
The SEC and ESPN want you to watch baseball today. They're invested, heavily, in the idea that all of America's college sports fans could use a Hoover in every home -- that college baseball is fast on its way to becoming the next big time televised college sport. For the first time ever, ESPN will offer coverage of every single game in the 64-team NCAA baseball tournament, an event broken down into 16 four-team Regionals, eight Super Regionals (in which two teams play a best-of-three series) and eventually the College World Series tournament of eight teams in Omaha's TD Ameritrade Park.
"We don't go in assuming that our viewers know much about college baseball," ESPN senior coordinating producer Mike Moore said. "We make that assumption and then we try to show the national picture and give context to each regional. I tell all our crews, 'be sure to step back and make sure to headline in the openers and throughout the games to give new viewers big things to latch onto.'"
ESPN is excited about the growth of the sport. Over the last three years, College World Series games broadcast on ESPN have pulled in around 1.3 million viewers per telecast, while six Super Regional telecasts on ESPN in 2011 peaked with an average of 644,000 viewers. Last season, a record 15 Super Regional games were broadcast on ESPN and ESPN2. But with 112 potential games at 16 different sites and only one network, ESPNU, scheduled to broadcast games, ESPN is relying on its streaming services as well as the launch of "Bases Loaded," a whip-around coverage program similar to its "Goal Line" platform for college football.
But with progress comes a certain amount of pain for established fan bases like the Tigers. When ESPN announced that today's rotation of games on ESPNU wouldn't include either game in the Baton Rogue Regional, LSU fans -- already accustomed to watching more than half of regular-season Tigers baseball games on TV -- flooded the school with complaints over having to use ESPN's streaming services. In a statement released by the school on Thursday, LSU attempted to pacify angry fans, or at least blame shift, ending with a rather abrupt clarification: "LSU played no role in the decision not to provide an over-the-air broadcast."
That might be the norm as The SEC Network endures growing pains in 2014. Schools like LSU (Cox Cable) and Florida (Sun Sports / FOX) have -- or had, rather -- broadcast rights agreements for home baseball games, but the advent of the SEC Network nullifies all non-ESPN broadcast deals for any sport. That means that even third-party and school-produced live video steams (like LSU's TigerVision) are going away. Speaking at the SEC meetings in Destin, Fla., LSU A.D. Joe Alleva told the Baton Rogue Advocate he's concerned the school could take a step back in the exposure of baseball. Keep in mind, that's after the SEC Network debut promised an unprecedented amount of baseball coverage -- at least 75 games a season -- for a single network.
"Obviously we can't cover all 16 sites with the same level of production, so we'll have different tiers of coverage," Moore said. "We'll look at the sites and games and rank them accordingly. The two most compelling regionals will go to ESPNU, but we have the flexibility to possibly replace a loser's bracket game from one regional with another game from ESPN3," Moore said.
The broad idea is to create a sense of constant action and urgency, something that's a raging topic of debate within the sport. Starting with the 2011 season, college baseball moved away from its iconic use of aluminum bats in favor of BBCOR bats. BBCOR stands for Ball-Bat Coefficient of Restitution, or simply put, a measurement to determine how fast a ball leaves a bat. The bats are still metal, but they've been engineered to behave more like wood. In addition, college baseball has adopted softer baseballs that, by NCAA rule, must have a coefficient of restitution (COR) that's less than a normal ball used in the minor or major leagues. Again, simply put, it's looser. The combination of new bats and softer balls has slashed scoring dramatically, helping to shorten games but reduce power hitting, home runs and offense in general. NCAA midseason stats for 2013 showed a per-team scoring average of 5.25 runs, the lowest since before aluminum bats were introduced in '74.
(Photo via PodKATT)
On one hand, shorter games with closer scores could benefit a national viewing audience, but the lack of big hitting could hurt it. Either way, Moore insists ESPN is ready to adjust.
"We're hearing the same things, that there was overcompensation with bats and that the game is too small-ballish. We'll have a 'Sports Science' piece ready on the exact differences between the amateur and pro baseballs' differences. But we can't control [scoring]. I think our guys enjoy the closer games and strategy comes more into play, but we're just there to cover it and report on it," Moore said.
An MLB scout assigned to the southeast who requested anonymity said that he's in favor of a change of balls, not only to help interest in the game, but to better prepare college players before they're drafted.
"It's probably the single biggest difference for college players, hitters, in transition to pro ball. As soon as they get drafted and start out, the ball is harder and tighter. It leaves the bat in a different way and sometimes that will cause major adjustments for a young guy. So for us, a universal ball would certainly help. But I also think the college game is a great product, and it's suffered some lately."
There's another potential issue looming for the sport, especially if ESPN's investment turns profitable in the years to come: college baseball players don't receive fully-funded scholarships like basketball and football. While full cost debates rage among football coaches, a bizarre inequity plagues particular baseball coaches. NCAA teams are allowed a 35-man roster but given only 27 total scholarships with a mandate that each player receive at least 25 percent of a scholarship and that only 11.7 scholarships can be distributed each year. A variety of states have compensated to create pseudo-full rides by incorporating academic scholarships created by state lotteries. For instance, a baseball player from the state of Georgia with a 3.0 GPA who enrolls at UGA can be eligible for the HOPE scholarship, which covers over half of tuition costs.
Two states in the SEC footprint -- Mississippi and Alabama -- don't have state lotteries and lack the subsequent blanket-style tuition assistance. Or as Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco puts it, imagine a world where Alabama's football has more scholarships to offer than another team in the league.
"... [And] that would never happen, if this was football. But if college baseball is on the cusp of becoming a major, popular sport on a national level, not a lot of people understand the inside story on this," he says.
"It's not the baseball program's fault, it's the inequity of how it all works out with the equivalency sports. But we can't sit here and feel that we're one of the have-nots and we've never used it as an excuse. Is it fair? No. How do we fight against it? I don't know. I think now it's on a national level to fight, because we won't win it on an SEC level."
Baseball is a long way from joining football and basketball as a money-maker, though. Through varying sets of numbers, only a handful of Division I baseball programs break even or actually generate revenue. But if the game proves viable to a national TV audition, there are two potential paths: programs and leagues could either generate enough revenue to raise the scholarship max, or critics of big-money college sports could have a smoking gun in a revenue-generating sport with a labor force that's paying to work.
"It's amazing even today with the popularity of the game that people don’t realize that on a 35-man roster, a scholarship is around 33 percent. Parents are investing more than half the money for these kids to go to school and play," Bianco said.
Back in Hoover, old Joe might not seem any less peculiar to the denizens of Big Ten country (FYI: Zero teams in the CWS since 2003), but he sure wasn't alone. The sport is now the most popular inside the Finebaum footprint, thanks to a staggering amount of foot traffic. The top-five schools in the nation for average home-game attendance in the 2013 regular season were, in order; LSU, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and South Carolina, all of whom reported a total season attendance of over 230,000 fans. LSU's Alex Box Stadium claimed a staggering 413,638 -- for perspective, that's four-and-a-half sold-out football games in Tiger Stadium.
After his team was bounced out of Hoover with an 0-2 run, Gamecocks head coach Chad Holbrook delicately acknowledged that while conference tournaments serve a vital purpose for other conferences to advance tournament resumes, losing in the SEC Tournament is basically inconsequential. After all, one of South Carolina's back-to-back national championships (2010) came after an 0-2 run in the SEC Tournament, where so many good teams are simply biding their time until the big dance.
"We're hopeful that's the case," Holbrook admitted. "A lot of our guys in that dugout have seen us come here and not perform but still have the time of their lives in the College World Series."
If anything, Holbrook's admission sums up the state of the sport -- one really, really good group content to play amongst themselves until everyone else catches up.