Growing Northern College Baseball

I spent last week discussing the proposed April to August season in Division I, focusing on the drawbacks of something I think would be a net negative for the game. Today, I’ll take a slightly different approach, asking: how can we grow college baseball in the North, specifically in New England? A summer season is one idea, but I’ll offer some others as well. As always, feel free to respond below in the comments, on twitter (@NECollegeBsbl), or via email (necollegebsbl@aol.com), and let me know what you think.

The scene is Yale Field in New Haven. A throng of 14,000 fans crowds around the baseball diamond for the biggest game of the year, Harvard vs. Yale. The spectacle attracts so much attention that a presidential candidate is in attendance to garner headlines for his campaign. The Nashua Telegraph’s correspondent gushes about the atmosphere, anticipating “the greatest game of baseball ever played in New Haven.”  “The grand stands,” he reports, “cannot begin to hold the purchasers of tickets.” Nearly every student at the university, along with thousands of alumni and fans, pack the stands, heckling the rival Crimson. Yale, reeling from a 5-1 loss in Cambridge the week before, pulls out an upset 3-0 victory behind a shutout from ace Charles Van Vleck, a top recruit from New Jersey. Settling a winner of the season series is so important that the two teams play a rubber match in New York City, which Harvard wins 9-5. Everyone agrees the games were the high point of the season in college baseball.

Sound too good to be true? Welcome to New England college baseball in 1908. The sport’s surging popularity, combined with the Ivy League’s prominence, made the Harvard-Yale games the biggest days on the calendar. The presidential candidate was Yale alumnus William Howard Taft, elected president that fall. Van Vleck never went on to play in the majors, but former Bulldog Queenie O’Rourke would debut for the New York Highlanders (soon to become the Yankees) later that summer. Harvard, for its part, had sent four players to the majors since the turn of the century. And did I mention that 14,000 people attended this game? A hundred-odd years ago, New England was a college baseball hotbed.

Today, not even the SEC dreams of attendance numbers that big, but there’s another story that hits closer to home. Fast forward a hundred years and head up 1-95 to Norwich. After a 43-11 regular season and four wins in the 2010 Big East Tournament, the selection committee rewarded UConn with a home regional at Dodd Stadium. A whopping 5,684 fans turned out for the Huskies’ Friday night opener against Oregon, packing a Double-A Stadium. Even at the Sunday afternoon game I went to, an atmosphere of “only” 2,291 people felt electric. The obvious question is, how can we make this kind of fan interest less of an anomaly? How can we grow Northern college baseball? I’ve offered my thoughts on several different ideas below.

A summer season.

I might not support the idea, but I’m not going to sit here and deny it’d have some benefits. All the money that programs pour into road trips during the first month could be spent elsewhere. It’d also be easier to recruit if you didn’t have to sell guys on playing so many games on the road or in the cold. There’d also be fewer games in the 30s where only a handful of diehards come out.

That said, I don’t think this is the cure-all for Northern baseball that some are making it out to be. Even on beautiful May afternoons, we aren’t exactly packing our stadiums. Early-season weather isn’t the biggest reason people don’t come out.

On top of that, by doing away with summer ball and the summer, we’d be taking away a lot of things that benefit our sport. The chance for guys to work on their skills in an environment where winning matters a little less. The chance for D2 and D3 guys to show that they can hang with the sport’s best, by far their best shot at a professional contract. The chance to give the best high school athletes a real alternative to the year-round work under the same coaches that they’d find if they turned pro right away. The chance to expand the game’s presence to markets Division I doesn’t reach. In all, I think we’d be giving up a lot more than we’d be gaining. So the question then is: what else can we do?

Sell tickets.

Of all the ideas I’ll put forward, this is the one I feel most strongly about. Every Division I program should be selling tickets. Right now, only a handful do: Bryant, Maine, and Hartford. You don’t have to charge more than a few bucks, and you can even make students and kids free.

It’s not about making money. It’s about the perception of the sport. We need to stop sending the message that Division I baseball isn’t worth paying to see. Because if it isn’t worth even a $3 ticket, why, people ask, should I go see it in the first place? We don’t have to answer this question for parents or students— they’re going for different reasons. But we do have to give the local family of four reason to buy into our 18 Division I programs. These are the same people paying by the thousands to see the Lowell Spinners play, and the level of competition in short-season A-ball isn’t worlds away from D1. More to the point, these are the same people buying tickets (or dropping a few bucks in the helmet) by the hundreds during the summer to watch baseball on the Cape and in the NECBL and Futures League. Charging a few bucks for tickets won’t break anyone’s wallet, and it’ll do a lot to improve the perception of our brand of baseball.

There’s no doubt in my mind that we can sell people on college baseball when they’re so willing to see minor-league teams and summer-league teams. We can offer high-level baseball that’s played with emotion, intensity, desire to win, true upsets, tradition, and scintillating, win-or-go-home playoffs. Not to mention a lot of professional draftees. Our sport’s worth paying a few bucks to go see, and we need to make that clear to people.

Market. Aggressively.

The best thing about tickets? You can give them away. (Remember, the point isn’t to make boatloads of money, at least not yet.) In between periods at basketball and hockey games. At schools, churches, and senior centers. To campers at youth clinics. To every single Little League team you can find. Do promotions: Enter to win a pair of season tickets. Get in free if you wear school gear. Get a dollar off for every canned good you bring for the local shelter. Whatever. Tickets put muscle behind your marketing in a way a ticketless, “Come out and see the boys play!” just doesn’t.

And that’s not all you can do. Social media has opened up a world of marketing opportunities unimaginable even a decade ago. Every school has talented, hard-working SIDs who can use this platform to get people out to the park. Use your game day experience, too. Those kids you gave tickets to? Have them take the field with the team for the national anthem. Pick a couple to be batboys for the day. Let them run the bases after the game finishes up. Do whatever you need to do to give everyone who comes out a great day at the game that makes them want to come back.

Facilities.

If you’re looking to get people out to a game, it helps to play somewhere nice. It gives the games legitimacy, and it boosts people’s game day experience. A few schools play at parks designed for minor-league baseball (Sacred Heart, Holy Cross, UMass Lowell, Yale). These can feel a bit too big at times, but they’re not lacking for quality, and three of the four have the virtue of being on campus. The model, though, is Dartmouth. A glittering, on-campus, classic-style park that seats 1500. Big enough to feel legit, small enough not to swallow a good turnout in a few thousand other empty seats. Even on the cold, non-conference Wednesday in March when I was up there a couple years ago, this was the type of park that attracted the mix we’re looking for: retirees, families, and a couple hundred students, all enjoying the game in chairbacked, amenitied comfort.

The good news? A lot of programs are in a good place already. Besides the ones I’ve mentioned, Hartford, Maine, Bryant, CCSU, and others are all in really good shape park-wise. At places that have lagged, like UConn and BC, upgrades are in the works, hopefully just a generous alum or a high-profile season away from coming to fruition. Whether or not you’re a fan of these programs, this is good news for everyone. They’ve got the budgets, brands, and conference affiliations to lead the charge for New England if they’re playing in the right facility.

Play around with game times.

Regardless of how nice your yard is, it’s tough to get a lot of people out when you’re playing on weekdays at 3 PM. Even on weekends, when you expect a better draw, playing some night games to work around youth baseball schedules and everything else people have going during the day wouldn’t be the worst idea. I’m not saying you’ve got to play under the lights in mid-March (though some schools do), but take a page out of Franklin Pierce’s book. Stay under the sun early in the year, then start playing midweekers under the lights around mid-April. Students are out of class, people are out of work, youth teams are done with practices and games, and you should be able to get a much better turnout.

Yeah, this’d mean some schools shelling out for lights if they don’t have them already. But they add a lot to the value of a facility. They expand your scheduling and practice options, giving you better ways to work around your fans’ work schedules and players’ class schedules. They also make your field more lucrative to rent out to travel teams and amateur tournaments who are dying for the extra field time during the summer. All in all, not a bad investment.

Get students involved.

If there’s anything that can separate us from the minor league team down the road (besides better playoffs, a higher-energy game, true upsets, teams that are actually trying to win, and, ya know, other stuff like that), it’s the students. Get enough of them out, and you’ve got a boisterous, entertaining addition to your gameday experience. Much as I love minor league baseball, the artificial noise just wears on you after a while.

So do things that’ll get students to come out. Have berm-style seating or an outfield hill that’s designed just for them. Give away merchandise. Put on tailgates. Get the word out on social media. Do whatever you can, because they add something to our game that baseball fans don’t get anywhere else.

A new NCAA Tournament format.

This isn’t my idea (@Mike_Rooney is one of its notable supporters), but it’s one I really like. Split the current opening round of four-team regionals into three-game series. The tournament then consists of three weekends of three-game series, going from 64 teams to 32 to 16, and finally to the eight that make it to Omaha.

I think this’d have benefits for New England and the game in general. First, you’d have an opening round with 32 hosts. Right now, it’s near-impossible for a New England club to host a regional. (Even in 2010, UConn had to have a historic season just to host as a two seed.) It’s just really tough to crack the top 16 of a 301-team sport. The top 32, though? Much more realistic. Even if you’re only on the cusp (like, say, Bryant and BC in recent years), the NCAA could have a couple hosting three-seeds to help the game’s profile up north.

If they have a realistic shot at hosting, you’d better believe schools will get down to business on those facility upgrades. As we saw in Norwich in 2010, there’s nothing like hosting NCAA Tournament games to boost fan interest. Imagine if this were something we had a regular shot at, rather than just a one-off novelty. Back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, home regionals were one of the biggest reasons New England had success. This idea is the closest we’ll get to bringing them back.

And these aren’t the only benefits. Attendance would shoot up around the game. Unlike the current format, where half the games in a regional are played in front of half-empty parks, every game up till Omaha would involve the hosting team. You could have a real bracket for people to fill out, something that’s done wonders for college hoops. And on the field, it’d be better baseball. Right now, we ask most coaches to build teams to win three-game regular season weekends, then ask them to play five in the national tournament? The result is too many stories like UNC’s Kent Emanuel coming in on one day’s rest after a 124-pitch start, and that’s just not good for anyone involved. Shift to three-game series, and you have teams playing the same format they have all year.

Now there’s a big part of me that’d hate to see double-elimination go, but it’ll always have a place in the game, between conference tournaments and Omaha. Three weekends of three-game series benefit both New England and the game as a whole, and I’d love to see us make the switch.

Work with summer leagues and minor leagues.

It’s not as if baseball can’t get a foot in the door in New England sports. There are summer-league and minor-league teams that have had immense success. Capitalize on this. Market with the high minors teams whose seasons start when you’re still playing. See if you can play a doubleheader, something like UConn-Hartford before a Rock Cats game (okay, sore subject), or a game in the new ballpark in Hartford. With summer ball, the seasons don’t match up, but do more things like BC-Maine at Sanford’s Goodall Park last year (one of the nicest parks in New England, by the way). How about a URI game at Cardines Field? Or a couple of teams heading down the Cape for a game? A lot of summer teams have done a great job of building up fanbases for their brand of amateur baseball, and they should be one of the first places we look to grow our own.

Win.

Ultimately, this is what it down to. If you’ve got a program that’s consistently relevant on the national stage, people are going to come out and watch. That’s easily the biggest reason UConn could get 6,000 people out to Storrs in 2010. The games, and the team, were competing at the highest level of play. The biggest thing we can do to grow our game is to make this sort of relevance less of an anomaly, less of a novelty that people can get into for a week or two, then forget about. If we can do this (and I’m not saying it’s easy), people will come to watch. It’s been 25 years since a team did this, and even today, Maine’s following up in Orono shows the knock-on effects of those College World Series runs, home regionals, and big-league alumni.

Think about the comparison between college baseball and college hockey. Both sports have their diehards and detractors in New England, and both have plenty of tradition. It’s their comparative relevance on the national stage that explains the gulf in fan interest. Teams in Hockey East and the ECAC compete at the highest levels of college hockey, year-in and year-out. This has given them the money and the profile to build gorgeous facilities and carve out a place in New England sports. Could college baseball in New England ever match these heights? Probably not. But pushing the season back to get a hundred more fans out for early-season games isn’t the way to try and get there. It’s UConn staking out a consistent presence in the top 25. It’s BC stringing together some NCAA Tournament trips. It’s a mid-major like Bryant making noise on the national stage.

College hockey standards might still be out of our reach, but how about New England college hoops? One elite program, some others with national relevance, and a shot for everyone else to make a conference tournament run to an exciting, high-profile postseason that showcases what’s best about the game. All this means fans across the region buying into teams that are relevant on a national stage. It won’t be an easy mountain to climb, but it’s the single best way to grow our sport.

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