The average sports fan probably doesn't follow college baseball very closely (or at all) but it's a sport that, while growing, is still light years behind its more popular fellow NCAA sports. It's a bit strange that the MLB remains big, but the National Pastime's collegiate edition remains on the fringe of America's athletic attention (the existence of an expansive professional minor league system plays no small part, however).
So, knowing all of that, why bother tuning in while college baseball decides its national champion in Omaha?
1. College sports are just more fun
I don't necessarily buy into the whole "college sports are better because they're playing for the love of the game" bit -- after all, the top guys are very literally playing for dollars in the form of elevated draft stock -- but you can't deny that the amateurs seem to be a lot more emotionally-invested than the pros. At the very least, that emotion is worn more visibly on the sleeve ... which just makes it more fun to watch as a fan.
The pro-am emotional gulf is wider in baseball than in any other sport. Within the restraint-obsessed and decorum-defined subculture of the MLB, emotional outbursts are mostly seen as disrespectful to the opponent and the game. Read the preceding sentence and then remember how many times a pro slugger smashes a ball 400 feet and then stroll mundanely around the bases.
Comparatively, college ball is emotionally unchecked. Even meaningless home runs in mid-season are celebrated with jumps out of the batter's box or raised fists -- and they usually end with the entire team coming out on the field to greet their teammate. Mid-air chest bumps and high-fives close out even the most insignificant of innings. The dugout bench is for gear as entire teams lines the rail from first pitch to last. There's more goofing off, more joking and more laughing because it's just a bunch of college kids having fun playing baseball ... and it shows.
2. The sport is growing
In an article for SB Nation earlier this month, Steven Godfrey detailed the significant resources ESPN has invested in its coverage of the 2013 college baseball postseason. For the first time ever, every game of the tournament is being broadcast across the family of ESPN networks: from regionals all the way through the finals.The World Wide Leader even introduced a whip-around program called "Bases Loaded" similar to their college football "Goal Line."
That investment seems to be paying off, too, as coverage of the initial rounds are setting ratings records. According to Zap2its's Sara Bibel, nearly 30 million viewers tuned in for the tournament's first two rounds. Bibel reports that the 404,000 viewers across the ESPN networks during the super regional round represents a nine percent increase over last year's numbers.
Alongside an increase in attendance numbers, all of that increased coverage means a growing national interest in the game. While it will likely never match the popularity of college football and basketball, baseball may be approaching a day when it's a staple conversation on SportsCenter and around water coolers alike.
3. Everybody loves bracket formatting
Let's be real: 'murica loves itself some brackets. Printable brackets and office pools have almost single-handily made March Madness one of the premier events on the nation's sporting calendar because they give even the most amateur sports fans among us the opportunity to play the expert predictor while providing proof to back up "I told you so" banter with friends and coworkers.
Though they're nowhere close to the level of March Madness, college baseball bracket challenges have begun to pop up around the internet and the day when everyone fills out brackets in June may not be too far off. Increasing that probability is ESPN's aforementioned coverage expansion, which now makes it possible for fans to follow along with every game. The evolution of baseball brackets would in turn fuel the growth of viewership -- you'd find yourself tuning into games you otherwise wouldn't give a damn about just to make sure they didn't tank your picks.
Aside from being fun to predict, bracket tournaments provide a certain level of excitement that longer, series-based formats don't. The excitement of March Madness stems largely from the anything-can-happen state that comes with its single elimination rule. College baseball is double-elimination, but the results are still the same -- more upsets: Indiana is fresh off a shocker of perennial power and No. 5 national seed Florida State for their first-ever CWS appearance. Last year, Stony Brook reached Omaha as a four-seed (roughly equivalent to a 13-16 seed in basketball).
If the increased attention and growth of the 2013 tournament thus far is any indication, college baseball may be on the verge of becoming the next big sport so fans may as well get ahead of the times and tune in this weekend.
Mississippi State vs. Oregon State first pitch is at 3 p.m. on Saturday on ESPN2. Be there.