In the most under-the-radar fashion, the 2019 NCAA baseball season began just a few weeks ago. A quiet opening weekend once again garnered very little national attention, although at this point, those within the NCAA baseball circle are used to it. But for a marquee sport such as baseball, it still surprises me that college teams get as little attention as they do.
ESPN is trying to help the cause and announced at the start of this year that it would be broadcasting more than 800 games this season — more than any other network.
It’s early in the season still, and viewership definitely picks up steam in the latter half of the season. Think, however, about the coverage that media giants such as ESPN produce in preparation for the kickoff of football season or even the tipoff of basketball season.
Meanwhile, with March Madness set to begin in about a week’s time, all eyes in the college sports realm will be on the tournament games — all of which will be televised in one way or another. During this time, baseball won’t be on pause. Games will still be played, but in reality, who is going to be watching?
Part of the disparity has to be due to the fact that baseball is lacking a face for its game. If you asked me to name one NCAA baseball superstar, I simply couldn’t. Last year, I only knew Oregon State pitcher Luke Heimlich, and it was not for good reason.
Football and basketball do tremendous jobs of branding their superstars to their advantage because, at the end of the day, it all comes down to money.
In fact, baseball actually does not produce any profit for the NCAA when you look at the numbers. Men’s football and basketball are the only NCAA sports that are profitable, and they earn enough money to make up for all the losses the other sports take — and then some. For context, the NCAA made more than $750 million from the NCAA basketball tournament in 2017.
By the time the College World Series rolls around in late June, fans finally begin to notice. In 2018, the College World Series averaged more than 1.1 million viewers, its highest total since 2012. Undoubtedly, it helped that many seeded and recognizable teams such as Florida, Texas, North Carolina and eventual champ Oregon State made it to Omaha.
For those who did tune in to the 2018 postseason (myself included), they were treated to some incredible games, so there’s no argument for claiming that the quality of play is subpar. ESPN surely could improve their ratings. Other collegiate events such as Women’s College World Series have seen large boosts in viewership in recent years.
While NCAA baseball has fallen behind some of its counterparts in terms of television viewership and coverage, when it comes to fan attendance, it isn’t doing so bad. Especially in the South, people are coming out in large numbers to the games. In 2017, LSU led the NCAA in average attendance, at more than 10,000 fans per game, which was more than the average crowd for an LSU home basketball game that season.
After all, baseball has widely been referred to as America’s favorite pastime. There’s something about the experience of actually going to the ballpark to watch the games that makes it special. It’s really no secret that watching baseball on TV can be, well, pretty boring.
To be honest, baseball will probably never reach the level of success and popularity that football and basketball have these days. But the players, coaches and everyone else who is peripherally involved deserve the chance to shine and prove their talents by consistently playing at high levels. We need to support the opportunities they are given to help grow the sport to prominence in the college world.
Charlie Griffen writes the Tuesday sports column about the evolution and current trends of college athletics. Contact him at [email protected].