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Premier Power Five Coaches Unveil ‘New College Baseball Model’

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A College World Series in mid-July. An NCAA tournament beginning in early July. A college baseball season beginning the third weekend of March.

Those are all things that will happen beginning with the 2022 season if a set of recommendations assembled by a five-coach panel of Power Five coaches gets approval from other Division I coaches and passes at the highest levels of the NCAA in the coming months. The panel who put together the proposed “New Baseball Model” includes Michigan head coach Erik Bakich as the headliner and a host of other Power Five head coaches. There also have been Zoom discussions with plenty of other coaches, including Big Ten coaches, Virginia’s Brian O’Connor, Ole Miss’ Mike Bianco, Cal Poly’s Larry Lee, East Carolina’s Cliff Godwin, Oklahoma State’s Josh Holliday, UC Irvine’s Ben Orloff and Sacramento State’s Reggie Christiansen. The group also has included world-renowned orthopedic surgeon, Dr. James Andrews, on some of their calls.

“This isn’t the competitive equity proposal we have seen in previous years, and the coaches who have been working on this proposal do not need changes in order to have successful programs,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “This is about the sustainability and growth of college baseball for the 2022 season and beyond. Universities and athletic departments across the country are facing a financial crisis, and our sport operates at a significant financial net loss amongst teams. That’s not a good combination.

Erik Bakich and Tim Corbin are both in support of this proposal.

“Regardless of geography, playing college baseball in February and early March does not make sense financially, academically and certainly not medically speaking,” he continued. “If college baseball realistically wants to increase scholarships or add another full-time coach at some point in the future, improving our fiscal bottom line is the next step. If we do nothing, we may not like the decisions that will be made for us.”

Some college baseball programs could be at a crossroads with administrations all over the country looking to trim costs. In some cases, there will be program cuts, such as what we saw with Bowling Green and Furman over the past week, while in other instances, travel budgets could be slashed, and schedule regionalization is being actively promoted.

Something will need to be done sooner rather than later for college baseball to continue the upward trajectory it has been on for the last decade. With plenty of time to brainstorm innovative ideas during the pandemic, these coaches joined forces to put together this proposal. But the idea of moving the season back is not a new one.

Minnesota long-time head coach John Anderson has long been a vocal proponent of moving the season back to aid programs in the northern half of the country, while West Virginia’s Randy Mazey has been vocal about his aggressive scheduling approach over the past few seasons. Mazey’s proposal, though it made some good points, was met with significant resistance from the coaching community and went by the wayside the past few seasons. Now, some of the ideas from his proposal are being used in this ‘New Baseball Model’, that is now gaining traction on the national stage. Even legendary LSU head coach Skip Bertman, according to Southeastern Louisiana athletic director and former head coach Jay Artigues, had discussed and proposed starting the season later in the spring back in the 1990s. These ideas are nothing new … they just now make more sense.

“Since I’ve been involved in college baseball for the last 35 years, scholarships have been cut from 13 to 11.7, games have been cut down to 56, rosters have been limited and proposals to get more coaches have been denied,” Mazey said. “It’s all due to so many programs operating at a huge financial deficit. If this new scheduling model were to pass, I believe it would be the most influential step toward progressing our sport that we have ever seen. I also really believe that in due time college baseball could become a revenue sport and we could eventually get the extra coaches and scholarships that our sport desperately needs and deserves. I’m thankful for all the coaches out there trying to push this and improve college baseball.”

These recommendations to move the season back and provide a more stable long-term financial outlook for college baseball won’t have unanimous support. Bakich said that while most of the coaches he has come in contact with about the proposal are in favor, there are certainly a minority that are detractors.

That’s just natural.

The most important things to remember about this proposal is that it shifts the season back. The season would start the third weekend of March, and the College World Series would begin the third weekend of July. Currently, programs have five weeks of ramp up time before the season begins. Under this proposal, there would be nine weeks of ramp up time leading up to Opening Day. That’s just the tip of the iceberg to this proposal.

The proposal is broken up into three distinct parts — Financial Sustainability, Academics and Student-Athlete Welfare. Clearly, the most detailed aspect of the proposal focuses on financial sustainability for every program, but there also are some academic and student welfare aspects to consider.

“Everyone on these calls is really intrigued by this proposal. One thing that comes to mind right now is that you have to be open to pretty much anything. We’re in uncharted waters. I think as college baseball coaches we need to look at every angle or everything in our sport, just like football and basketball coaches,” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. “At the end of the day, who are more flexible than college baseball coaches? We deal with scholarship limitations; roster caps and we have some challenging weather in most parts of the country the first couple of months of the season.

“I think I really like the idea of pushing the season back, whether it’s one week, two weeks, three weeks or four weeks. Let’s face it, this is a winter sport right now, and making it a spring sport that essentially starts after basketball has its advantages,” McDonnell continued. “Nothing is 100 percent for everyone, and nothing works for everyone, but I’m in a basketball-driven league and I don’t like competing with hoops for fans for two months of the season. I’m going to lose that battle every night for the right reasons.

“If you take two of the weekends in February and move that to, let’s say, May, or something, how is that not a financial win for those programs?” he added. “We’re kidding ourselves if we say there aren’t some serious challenges from a weather standpoint. We want to play in better weather, and we want more ramp up time for our players. At the end of the day, I feel like we need to be creative. This is the time for creativity. Let’s prepare for the future. College baseball has grown immensely over the last 25 years, and if we have to make some changes to keep it going, we have to make some changes.”

 

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Financial Sustainability

 

As college athletics administrators look to trim costs and try to find ways to make money in sports not named football and men’s basketball, anything and everything is on the table.

“I think this proposal is definitely interesting,” one Power Five administrator said. “What might not have seemed so viable a few months ago suddenly is because anything and everything is on the table. There are many aspects of this proposal that I really like, and I’m sure others will, too.”

There are plenty of ways to pitch this proposal as a financial plus for college baseball and for athletic departments across the country.

What some have viewed as a northern issue only in the past, others are now seeing the light that finances can be improved in other regions as well.

But let’s start with the North on this issue.

As part of this proposal, the architects took some competitive programs in the Big Ten Conference and estimated what their travel costs were the typical first four weeks of the season under the current scheduling format. Almost every Big Ten program, for instance, spends the first four weeks of the season on the road.

For this exercise, the architects took a five-year budget comparison from a few Big Ten programs to illustrate their points. In 2015-16, they estimated $221,720 in travel costs the first four weeks versus $41,360 in costs the final four weeks of the season — conference play with regionalized scheduling. In 2016-17, the travel costs were $221,665 with a last-four weeks budget sitting at $75,335 — $146,330 in savings difference. In 2017-18, costs were $266,370 (first four weeks), costs were $120,170 (last four weeks). And furthermore, 2018-19 were $231,165 (first four weeks) and $133,390 (last four weeks). Lastly, the expected costs in 2020 were $222,720 (first four weeks) and $74,076 (last four weeks), which would be a savings difference of $148,644. The travel costs outside of the Big Ten are a little smaller. Kent State, the most successful Mid-American Conference program, spent $62K in travel costs the first four weeks of the season in 2019, with the most expensive trip being a series at Dallas Baptist with a price tag of $20,500. The trip to DBU also was its only commercial airline trip, with the others being via bus. Kent’s figures have guarantees deducted from the overall trip costs.

On average, the architects estimated that the five-year average of costs the first four weeks of the season would be $232,728 (all four weeks including mostly commercial airline travel), while the average costs the final four weeks of the season (more regionalized scheduling/conference play), would be $88,864. It’s worth noting that southern programs, who often pay handsome guarantees to get teams to come South, would no longer be as likely to have to pay $10-20K on a given weekend. However, there are costs associated with having more home weekend series in the northern half of the country because of this proposal. For instance, we spoke with two administrators at prominent Power Five institutions who estimated their costs just to host a weekend series were $45,000 and $75,000, respectively, and those were conservatives estimates without looking at the hard data. Those figures include anything from concession stand workers to ticket takers and other essential stadium personnel. In this proposal, the coaches estimated a normal weekend’s operating costs to be around $15,240, much lower than the estimated figures from the above administrators. So, while there would be some obvious savings at some schools, it might not be an attention-getting number at some places.

Trimming travel and operating costs even a fraction is a big deal in today’s college athletics climate. But the most important prong to the financial stability model of this proposal is the ability to increase attendance college baseball-wide in the early months of the season.

Currently, few college baseball programs make money. In a study just two years ago, only four SEC programs were making money — Arkansas, LSU, Texas A&M and Ole Miss. Vanderbilt was break even. It’s worth noting that Arkansas’ numbers have surged with the construction of several new suites and club seating options, almost reaching the $1 million mark for the 2018-2019 fiscal year. Texas is another program that makes money.

But those programs are the outliers and likely would benefit from having a few weekends of home games that did not also include having poor weather. Attendance would increase in most cases, and more revenue would be the result.

In 2019, teams that were postseason hosts averaged a 10 percent increase in attendance for each month of the season, starting with February. Clearly, the most fans walked through the turnstiles when they hosted a postseason event, but even if your increase from February to May was around 30%, that’s not an insignificant number. That’s real money.

For this exercise, let’s use Arkansas as the example from an attendance standpoint. The Hogs deal with some brutally cold weather early in the season, thus average 7,737 fans in the month of March. But as the weather heats up and schedule improves, so do the crowds. Last year, the average home crowd at Arkansas in March was 8,321 (8% increase), 9,234 in April (11% increase), 10,502 in May (14% increase) and 11,008 (5% increase in June). More people in the stands equals more beer, concession and merchandise sales.

Arkansas fans are one of the more rabid fan bases in college baseball, so some will say they are a poor example because of that. They’d support their program no matter what. But the trend at other regional hosts from the 2019 season was almost the same from a percentage standpoint outside of Georgia Tech, which actually dropped in attendance from April to May. The Jackets are the definite outlier in that regard.

The larger programs in the SEC, ACC and Big 12, and even the more prominent Big Ten and Pac 12 programs, aren’t the only ones that should see an increase in attendance. Look for that thought to permeate to the mid-major programs as well.

Put Southeastern Louisiana athletic director Jay Artigues — a former baseball coach — on team ‘New Baseball Model’, with attendance being his number one reason.

“You know, back in the day, Skip Bertman had kind of the same idea, and I love it. I think it would be tremendous and I think it would create a lot of job opportunities in our profession. I’m one of those people when I look at something like this, I try to find things to nitpick about. And I don’t really have much,” Artigues said. “If you play baseball in Michigan and Ohio, you can’t play there in January, February or even March in some cases. You can only do it in April, May, June and July. That turns into a tremendous opportunity for a lot of people.

“I’ll say this, even as a southern school, it would definitely help us with attendance,” Artigues continued. “We usually lead the conference in attendance, and our attendance later in the year when it warms up is always much better than it was early on when it’s cold outside. If we’re playing a 7 PM game in May and June, that’s going to be a really good crowd for us. We’re going to come out well ahead financially in that situation. With that said, we also have a very good game day atmosphere and setup here.”

There are some interesting attendance figures derived from the proposal. Of the 299 teams in Division I Baseball, only 36 averaged 2,000 or more fans in 2019. Additionally, only 14 of those 299 teams averaged 4,000 or more fans per game. By comparison, out of the 160 Minor League teams, 122 averaged 2,000 or more fans in 2019, with 65 teams averaging 4,000 or more fans. It’s worth noting that 32 of those 65 teams are in warm-weather regions.

There are two things to consider when comparing college baseball to Minor League attendance — one good and one potentially bad. On the good side, with the number of MiLB organizations expected to be trimmed over the next year or two, college baseball programs in some of these regions could help fill an important void from a baseball standpoint. However, on the skeptical side, it must be stated that many of these MiLB organizations hire large marketing teams whose sole purpose is to generate attendance and a family-friendly atmosphere. College baseball will be limited in that regard with most marketing budgets limited in funds and scope. That does not mean that college baseball cannot generate the same attendance, but it does make it less likely in some areas of the country. There also are cultural limitations to consider in each region.

Still, plenty of prominent head coaches have made it abundantly clear: They are in favor of these recommendations.

“The biggest thing when I looked at this proposal, I wanted to know if it would benefit our game and if it would be sustainable?” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “I had to remember to remove Vandy from the equation and think about this as to how it could help the majority of college baseball programs. I think about what we can always be doing to help our game improve. Do we have a good product? Yes. Do we have a chance to be a lot more inclusive as a sport? Yes.

“If this proposal is something, if passed, puts us in a better situation and it increases consumer (fans) involvement, that is something that allows us to cut costs and potentially make more money,” Corbin continued. “I try to look at things pragmatically, and there are a lot of good things about this proposal. Anytime you can modify the sport and make it better, that’s a good thing. Additionally, we continue to be the only sport that doesn’t mirror its brother. College football and basketball mimic their professional brothers, and we don’t, plus we get a month or two of college basketball intertwined with our schedule. I’m 170 pounds before a game starts, and 190 pounds when the game starts early in the season. If we’re feeling like that, maybe we should think about how the participant feels, too. The timing right now is essentially for the few, certainly not for the many.”

TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle echoed Corbin’s sentiments as the Big 12 rep on the makeshift committee for the ‘New Baseball Model’.

“I’m for it because I think it has a chance to grow our sport, and it makes it more financially viable for an athletic department to support baseball,” Schlossnagle said. “You can look at it from a weather standpoint. Unless you’re in Miami or San Diego, I guess, baseball is a cold-weather sport. Those weeks we play at home in February and March, it could be 65, or it could be 35. You never know. We know the success that Minor League Baseball has from an attendance standpoint, so for us to grow as a sport, we have to give all programs an opportunity to get more fans at games, and thus, create a great game experience.

“To give you a good example, when I took the job at TCU, the Independent League team here at that time, the Fort Worth Cats, averaged 4-5K fans a night to watch players no one had any identity with. Imagine if you are a TCU fan and you have good weather and players you have an identity with. I think things like that would help grow this sport immensely.”

There are more figures worth diving into as well.

For instance, the proposal did a cost analysis of the extra four weeks of games, and at the high end, listed the cost of pre and post-game meals and per diem, along with housing as $36K on the high side. However, those figures are going to fluctuate in different areas of the country. We spoke with two Power Five administrators who suggested their figures were much higher, $75K at one place, and approximately $93K at another. Those figures don’t include umpire costs and game balls for the extra four weeks — both figures that will be in the thousands. The proposal estimated that the net positive financial gain would be between $60-75K. That might be the case for a lot of programs, but there are others where the gains will be trimmed to a much smaller number because of the cost of adding four weeks to the season.

That’s not to suggest the proposal doesn’t make sense or has no merit but is at least one way some administrators — which is what matters most — will look at it.

“These costs for the additional four weeks of the season will vary vastly across the country,” one Big 12 administrator said. “There is real potential that the expenses could offset the additional revenue generated at several institutions.”

 

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Student Welfare And The Next Step

 

“This [proposal] is a no-brainer,” renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews said. “I can’t see anyone who would argue not to follow this proposal.”

As one shuffles through the 35-page proposal that this committee has put together for the 2022 season, this is a quote that stands out, and it has everything to do with student welfare.

In college baseball, we’ve done a lot to overcome serious arm injuries. It used to be the norm that some guys would be overthrown in almost criminal fashion. Not anymore. Coaching has improved and awareness of pitch counts has become the norm, not the exception. But many coaches have wanted even more safeguards in the past.

Over a year ago, I sat on the phone with a prominent Big 12 coach who argued that the ramp-up time to the current season should be longer for pitchers. Major League Baseball has a lengthy ramp-up time, but college baseball, for now, allows just three weeks of ramp-up time for everyone, including pitchers. The coach argued that pitchers should be able to work out with coaches/the programs in early January, well before the position players. I whole-heartedly agree with his approach. Those thoughts have not turned into proposed legislation just yet, but I liked where he was going.

Fast-forward to this proposal.

One of the most interesting indicators in this proposal are a pair of charts showing when major pitching injuries at the Major League level occur. In terms of elbow injuries, a vast majority of the setbacks occurred within the first 50 days of the preparation time. In terms of shoulder injuries, once again, they were much more prevalent in the first 100 days of workouts at the Big League level. The exact figures for college baseball are not available, but it’s a safe assumption that our sport follows pretty much the same trend.

To combat that issue, along with injuries to even normal, non-pitchers, the proposal calls for a total of nine weeks of ramp-up time for the college baseball season. The ramp up period would begin in mid-January and go to Opening Day in mid-March. There also would be the usual fall period. Currently, official fall team workouts consist of 14 countable days of practice during a 28-day window. The 14 mandatory off days currently required would stick under this proposal. Under these recommendations, the fall also would include four discretionary weeks of volunteer activity only. In theory, this sounds like a great idea, but at least some coaches and administrators have pointed out that there is wiggle room for abuse of this rule. In their words, “How many of these volunteer workouts will strictly be voluntary? Let’s get real”.

There’s also an academic component to these recommendations. Though college baseball historically has very strong APR numbers, the sport continually is looking to put its student athletes in a better position to succeed. This proposal, the framers believe, accomplishes that goal.

Under the current season and scheduling model, there are some negatives from a missed class standpoint, especially with the northern schools. On average, cold-weather schools miss up to eight class days traveling the first few weeks of the season and 14 overall. Under the new model, those players, in most instances, would only miss an average of four class days.

There are some other fine points the group pointed out. Starting the season later allows student athletes more time to get their academics in order early in the semester before the season starts, while the end of season schedule is beneficial as well with final exams occurring in early-to-mid May, and conference tournaments and other important baseball events occurring well after those final exams under the new model.

There are more items to consider with these set of recommendations. Some administrators and coaches we spoke with wonder when coaches will recruit if the season goes through the middle of July, while others who rely heavily on summer camps for their assistants’ income wonder when those youth camps will be held if their seasons aren’t over until the end of June or potentially well into July. There also are the summer leagues and MLB draft to consider.

Those are all pertinent questions without easy answers in some cases.

Bakich pointed out that under the ‘New Baseball Model’, 235 teams would be done with their seasons by the end of June, allowing more than sufficient time to recruit and host summer camps. He also added that only 16 teams will remain after July 4, allowing most coaches to already be out on the road recruiting, while also pointing out that the four discretionary weeks during the fall could be utilized as an extended recruiting opportunity. As for the collegiate summer leagues, Bakich said he certainly didn’t want to see them go by the wayside, pointing out, again, that 235 teams will be done by the end of June. And if need be, summer leagues can use players from non-D1 schools, junior colleges and even elite high school prospects to fill the void until the Division I season is completed for most players. That solution certainly seems viable on the surfaces. As for the draft, that likely wouldn’t be an issue as all signs point toward it moving to July at some point in the near future.

In the end, not everyone will view this proposal as picture perfect. It has legitimate question marks in some areas, and there’s also the question of asking a student athlete who might be getting 25% of a scholarship in some cases to spend almost 11 months committed to being in a college program and on campus. Of course, the alternative way of looking at that is if schools are making more money or limiting their robust costs, perhaps that’s the thing that gets the ball rolling on an eventual improved scholarship situation.

At the least, this will pique a lot of interest. Now we see if it goes somewhere.

“Anytime you’re close to 60 years old like me, you’re kind of resistant to change,” Corbin said. “You can look at this thing and go hmm or you can sit down and ask questions about it. You think about the small towns out there beyond just places like where my school is. It might not do much to a city like Nashville, but you think about these smaller college towns where there’s not a ton to do. Parents would no longer be faced with the decision of taking kids to games on a school night and things like that if the season is partly in the summer.

“We already have a pretty good product. But I think it can be a lot better.”

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