One of the more common reactions to the idea of a summer season goes something like this: “Well, yeah, it’s really cold now. But it’ll be way too hot for baseball in July and August.”
From what I’ve seen, the supporters of an April to August calendar laugh this one off. Why? There’s a seemingly obvious solution. Play night games. For eighty-odd years, this has been baseball’s trademark method of beating the heat. Major League Baseball does it. The minor leagues do it. Summer leagues do it. Play at night, the reasoning goes, and you keep the fans cool, happy, and coming to the park in droves. Problem solved.
But things aren’t that simple. An all-night-games-all-the-time utopia is at odds with one of the biggest reasons the sport would make this change in the first place. Television.
For the past few years, TV money has been a boon for college baseball. In the 21st century, DVR-proof, Netflix-proof sports have become even more important for every major media company’s business plan. They’re shelling out ever-larger sums for broadcast rights. Even sports like college baseball that up until recently could barely get a game on edgewise end up seeing the benefits. It makes all the sense in the world to keep on pursuing this new revenue stream. The thought about a summer season, for college baseball people, is “Just imagine if we could move completely out of the shadow of March Madness. Play from April to August, when ESPN and the conference networks are dying for live games to show. We’ll have the NCAA market to ourselves to show capacity crowds watching exciting baseball, and the sport’s profile will go through the roof.”
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot I like about this scenario, but it doesn’t jive with the night-game solution to searing summer heat. For obvious reasons, a TV company that buys the rights to, say, SEC baseball would never, ever sign off on a full slate of 7:00 PM games every Friday and Saturday. (Take this coming May 2, for example. ESPN2, ESPNU, and the SEC Network are showing games at 12:00, 1:00, 3:30, 4:00, and 7:00.) Whether it’s the regular season, conference tournaments, or the NCAA’s, they’ll want to pack the day with as many game slots as possible to maximize the advertising-dollar return on their investment. This means games from 9:00 AM on the West Coast to 1:00 AM in the East. This is tough enough for schedulers now, when college baseball’s essentially just shown on a handful of networks, mostly in the ESPN family. What happens if more conferences add cable networks? If FS1, CBS Sports, and NBCSN decide to jump into the game, like they have in other college sports? We’ll see a scramble to jam as many TV slots into the calendar as possible, not unlike the ones happening around the sports world right now, from college hoops to English soccer, and from the NFL to our very own super regionals. Speaking of them, there’s only one reason Arizona had to play its 2012 Super Regional games in 100+ degree afternoon heat. Television. And the ratings-driven incentives that lead TV execs to make these kinds of calls aren’t going away.
The end result? A heck of a lot of day games. Even without TV, we’d have afternoon games on getaway Sundays. When you mix a summer season with a television exec’s penchant for noon-to-midnight scheduling, the number of June and July day games goes through the roof. And it’s not the couple hundred fans at games in Savannah, Georgia, or Bakersfield, California who have to worry. TV doesn’t want the MEAC or the WAC, so if the weather heats up, they can play under the lights. No, TV wants power-conference programs to net them ratings in those noontime and 3:30 PM slots before the primetime matchup in the evening. In the end, it’s fans in college baseball hotspots (no pun intended) like Austin, Baton Rouge, Tempe, and Tallahassee who’ll have to suffer through the most 100-degree heat.
This is why college baseball in the summer really would be too hot. The reply that the MLB, Southern minor leagues, and summer leagues are doing fine with things just doesn’t cut it. Rob Manfred has 30 different networks to show 30 different teams, and he doesn’t have to expand a sport that up until a few years ago felt lucky to have a dozen games a year on national television. The Mississippi Braves don’t have to worry about accommodating wall-to-wall programming demands from ESPN. The Forest City Owls don’t have to squeeze four games into one day at a single-site conference tournament. Division I baseball faces unique challenges that these other brands of baseball don’t. Thinking that everyone will play games after the sun goes down, no questions asked, just isn’t realistic.
Ultimately, here’s what college baseball needs to do. Focus on its crown jewel in Omaha. Don’t agonize over how to get a few hundred more people to come out in week two to see an SEC power beat up on some SWAC school. Pour all your energy into maximizing returns from the electrifying, win-or-go-home playoffs that make our sport great. Host conference tournaments and regionals on gorgeous May afternoons, not in the middle of July. And for goodness’ sake, let the most storied championship atmosphere in college sports shine— keep playing it in a month where Omaha’s enjoying low 80s, not one where average temperatures approach 90 and no one’s surprised when the thermometer breaks 100. Keep the long-term interests of the game in mind. Don’t lose sight of the forest over a couple of snow-covered February trees.