Here’s a statement that will surprise nobody: Americans LOVE college athletics. Surprisingly, we here in the U.S. are one of the few countries that actually care at all about college sports, but the passion for these programs in this country is unmatched. Yes, if you think about it, men in their mid-40’s painting their faces and yelling the names of players who were at high school prom only six months earlier is kind of crazy, but also kind of cool. Nonetheless, it is apart of the American culture, and given the current TV deals and talent level, that passion is only going to grow. Quite possibly, the strangest part of college athletics in the United States is the precedent we put on which ones we actually care about. Football is religious and the most lucrative, basketball provides the most exciting three weeks of the year and gives notoriety to hundreds of schools, but baseball is largely ignored. If baseball is truly America’s pastime, and college sports are as American as apple pie, why aren’t we all filling out College World Series brackets?
If you believe in the “Big 4” of American professional sports, the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, then you are aware of what sports people in this country care about. The MLS (Major League Soccer) is trying to make that number grow by one, but it has a ways to go despite some growing attendance numbers in some newer MLS cities. Overall, the popularity of professional sports leagues has kind of shifted throughout history, but baseball has always found itself in the top three, and it has spent significant time as the nation’s most popular sport. The reason that professional baseball’s collegiate counterpart is largely ignored by American sports fans is rather puzzling, but there is also an understanding of why the subdued fandom makes sense in our current sports culture.
If baseball is America’s pastime, then college baseball is it’s redheaded stepchild. Sometimes the sport seems colloquial in nature, where we know it exists but we take for granted the actual on-field product. Maybe it’s the aluminum bats, maybe it’s the smaller stadiums or maybe it’s the lack of general fan support that turns potential fans off from what is actually a very high-level of play. By no means is this an indictment on the young athletes that play collegiate baseball, but more of an examination as to why there isn’t the level of hype that surrounds both college football and basketball. For starters, it isn’t exactly easy to find a college baseball game on television. The lack of media exposure essentially snowballs the sport into general irrelevance, where the sports biggest stars are usually not household names and the best teams are normally not given any clout until the College World Series actually takes place. If you consider the six most popular sporting leagues in the United States (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and college football and basketball) these sports all grab the top sports headline at least a dozen times throughout a year. Whether it’s a free agent signing, a primetime game or a toothless hockey player parading around with the Stanley Cup, all of these sports garner national news at one point or another. The NFL and NBA have a story everyday, Major League Baseball has the most grappling free agency period when the sport is not in season, and hockey has the Stanley Cup playoffs for a month. College football has bowl season, college basketball has March Madness, but college baseball simply does not have a market niche.
The slowest sports period is usually the summer months, and whether intentional or not, sports fans seem to be fine with the lull. Outside of the 30 MLB cities who eagerly await the trade deadline in late July, the majority of America is looking for the nearest body of water to enjoy some sunshine. In the beginning of those summer months is when college baseball is peaking, where the top teams do their best to punch their tickets to Omaha to compete for the sports ultimate prize. It almost seems that at this time America is recovering from a sports hangover, where the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup champions have already been decided, and where the NFL Draft has concluded and the MLB enters it’s “dog days.”
Of all the potential reasons as to why college baseball struggles to gain notoriety, the biggest reason is due to a lack of star power. While the college game is flooded with future MLB prospects, a large group of the top young baseball players never don a collegiate uniform. Major League Baseball is a different animal in terms of the developmental process, where virtually every single player spends at least a few years in the minor leagues. This elongated process extracts a lot of the potential college talent, and even the top players in the college game aren’t really heard from until they reach the major leagues years later. Again, this is not the fault of college baseball itself, but it does give the sport’s popularity a ceiling that prevents it from grabbing headlines and establishing a nationwide following.
College baseball is sitting at the poker table with pocket jacks while the rest of the table has a royal flush. They have a lot going for them, but probably not enough to make a lot of noise. With that being said, the places that do embrace college baseball as “big time” certainly give the sport the tradition and enthusiasm it deserves. Most notably the SEC treats collegiate baseball as a primetime event, and if you need proof I would encourage Googling the “Ball 5” chant that Texas A&M does. Seriously, check it out, it is one of the coolest traditions in all of college sports. These types of traditions are dotted throughout the country, and they give a collegiate spin to America’s pastime.
There is no need to change college baseball or attempt to add anything for the sake of encouraging more viewership. The sport is what it is, and there is a good portion of fans who look forward to the season every spring. Some of the top MLB players spent their days in college stadiums throughout the country, and just like it’s fellow collegiate counterparts, college baseball has helped mold young players into polished professionals. When the season reaches it’s finish in Omaha, it will be a national story, and if even just for a moment the sport will get to shine. Good on you college baseball, keep doing your thing.