Regional rivalries are what makes the college sports world go ’round.
The Ohio State and Michigan game in November each year is a tradition college football fans hold dear. Similarly, college basketball season just wouldn’t be the same without Duke and North Carolina going at it a couple of times per season.
But in college baseball, it had gone a little too far.
You see, to this point, the NCAA Division I Baseball Committee, whether in an attempt to save money in a sport that is decidedly a non-revenue sport for most schools, or to try to provide the juiciest potential super regional matchups, or both, often placed regionals hosted by teams from similar geographic areas across from each other in the bracket. This means that those teams from the same geographic area would have to go through each other in a super regional in order to advance to the College World Series.
Texas A&M and TCU faced off for a spot in Omaha in 2015 and 2016. Florida State and Florida did the same in 2015 and 2016. And the biggest gripe comes from the west coast, where the best teams are more often than not pitted against each other for the chance to play in the CWS.
Not only does it get a bit repetitive to see these same matchups time and again in the postseason, but these teams often play each other in the regular season as well, sapping the series from some of the novelty that would come from a series between teams from opposite corners of the country.
If the committee falling back on these types of regional rivalries is the symptom, the illness was that the committee was only required to seed the first eight teams in the field every year. That meant that those top eight teams were guaranteed to avoid each other prior to the College World Series, but then those eight remaining hosts could be placed wherever the committee saw fit.
Thankfully, that’s now a thing of the past. News came down this past Friday that, beginning in 2018, the baseball committee will be seeding regional hosts 1-16 in the postseason.
It’s a move that has been a long time coming. Over the last several years, with the repeat super regional matchups mounting, the presence of 1-16 seeding in the Division I softball tournament, and public pushes for seeding 1-16 from media members and administrators alike, the issue was pushed to the forefront.
This is huge news for the sport, and an obvious next step in its path to growing beyond the niche status it holds now.
Not so long ago, just simply getting a good portion of the “Power Five” schools to fully commit to baseball was a challenge, but when you have the likes of Virginia Tech and Kentucky, two schools without the historical baseball clout of programs like Florida State, Arizona State, and LSU, ponying up for new facilities that could fairly be described as “palaces,” you can’t really say that so much anymore. Not coincidentally, those two schools also recently made inspired head coaching hires that bode well for their futures.
In the past, there were also broadcast concerns. A time when it was difficult to even find video of regional games isn’t exactly ancient history. But now, thanks in large part to ESPN’s online streaming offerings and conference-specific streaming, there are a ton of college baseball games available for viewing just about every day of the season, and coverage of the postseason, from regionals all the way through the CWS, has never been more comprehensive. It’s tough to really become a diehard fan when you can’t find the product, and now that’s simply not a problem.
Now, with the 1-16 seeding, another hurdle has been jumped. Fair or not, it was easy to perceive the geographically advantageous super regional matchups as being born out of frugality or a lack of imagination, rather than the more likely scenario, that the committee really just wanted to create the most intriguing, revenue-boosting series possible by pairing up natural rivals. If that’s the way you saw things, it was easy to see college baseball as a small time operation, but that won’t be a valid gripe starting in 2018.
So, what’s next?
For one, how about a third full-time assistant coach? For the number of players each team has, particularly in the fall and early spring before rosters get trimmed a little bit, it seems like asking a lot to have two-full time coaches, plus a volunteer assistant, cover every position group. For that matter, it’s asking a lot of someone to have them work full-time hours, and then some, for no set salary. Sure, volunteer assistants make some cash on things like summer camps and such, and while these coaches (most often younger coaches first breaking into the profession) certainly appreciate the opportunity, it doesn’t seem like a particularly easy way to make a living.
Or if we’re really talking pie in the sky ideas, what about an increase to the scholarship limit? This one is a little tougher because there are things like Title IX compliance issues involved, of course, but the current 11.7 scholarship limit really makes things tough for everyone. Coaches have to be amateur accountants when putting together recruiting classes to make sure the numbers work. In that way, having a drafted player decide to return to school, for example, while a good problem to have, does create a very real problem in trying to make sure the team stays under 11.7 on the books if the returning player wasn’t something they were accounting for beforehand.
The current limit might serve to widen the gap between the haves and have nots in some strange way as well. On its face, you would think that a scholarship limit like that would serve to promote parity. After all, every program has to work under the same scholarship limit and no one has enough athletic scholarships to go around.
What serves to make the difference, though, is availability of alternate forms of aid the schools can find. Some have friendly in-state academic scholarship programs they can use for in-state players to save the athletic scholarship dollars for out-of-state talent. Others are able to call on need-based aid to supplement their allotted 11.7 scholarships. And if yours is a program that doesn’t have those types of resources, or just aren’t taking full advantage of them, you’re going to fall behind those that do.
College baseball still has a long way to go to become a national phenomenon, but it has come a long way, and Friday’s news was just another step in that direction.