Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Best of the 2000s: Top 10 Off-the-Field Issues


RT Staff Note: This article is from College Baseball Today.

Biggest Off-Field Issues of 2000s


Our sport of college baseball has changed a good bit since 1999. And I have to admit, most of the off-the-field changes in the past 10 years have been good. At least to me they have been. Our sport has never been more popular, the talent level seems to be rising and it hasn’t been ruined by money and greed - at least not yet.

So what’s to complain about? Well, there IS still some things, but I’ll save them for another place and another time. For now, let’s put on a happy face and take a look back at the first decade of the new millennium. Here are the 10 biggest off-field developments that took place.

Other than Oregon State, no other program in the country has improved more in the past decade than Nebraska, taking advantage of its new stadium, the back up of the season and the common start date to become a national power.

Here’s the 10-through-1 for the best off-the-field news in the 2000s.
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10- THE NCAA TOURNAMENT BECAME A MONEY MAKER
Not that college baseball should be all about money or anything, but still…

In 1998, the final year of the 48-team field, the NCAA says it lost $226,000 on the tournament. That all changed after the field was increased to 64 teams. Despite cries from coaches and administrators everywhere that an increased field would lose even more money, June Madness began to turn profits. Meager at first, but then it became a big cash cow. The 1999 tournament pulled in just over $900,000. The 2001 tournament profited $1.3 million. The 2004 tourney raked in $1.7 million. And the 2008 tourney brought in $2.8 million. Behind the March Madness basketball tournament, the 2000s saw the baseball tournament has become the NCAA’s second-biggest money-maker.

9- THE COMMON START DATE

Finally, everybody begins at the sound of the same starter’s pistol.

I’ve said it a million times, so here’s a million and one… I don’t like anything that makes our sport look freakish. And when I discovered that college baseball was the ONLY sport in the NCAA that didn’t have a common start date, I knew that had to change. Especially when you had one team begin practice on January 3rd and another team started on February 23rd. And yet those teams would meet on February 24th and that game would count in the RPI. That’s crap. You know it. I know it. Again, imagine Texas football starting practice on August 28th and Ohio State starting on July 25th. Then UT has to play in the Horseshoe on Sept 1st. You think the sport of football would allow this?

And by the way, in 2004, the ABCA surveyed college baseball coaches and 84% of them said they favored a common start date.

8- FACILITY UPGRADES
Better stadiums countrywide lead to higher attendance, more revenue and more emphasis.

It’s been an epidemic, in a good way. Beginning mostly in the SEC, stadiums got a lot of makeovers, or in the case of South Carolina and LSU, all-new shrines to the sport. But it goes way beyond that. During the 2000s, posh new stadiums showed up in such far-flung locales like Nebraska, Penn State, BYU, Missouri State, Stetson, TCU, North Dakota State, Baylor, UNC Greensboro, Miami (Ohio) and Santa Clara. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Then there are the upgraded and expanded joints like at Michigan, Stanford, Auburn, Oregon State, Miami, Georgia Tech, Maine, Virginia, Texas and of course, the grand refacing at Ole Miss.

How popular is this trend? The best news of all may be the re-emphasis of the sport throughout the Big 10 as nearly every program has either built or is building a new stadium or renovating an existing site.

7- THE NEW TRANSFER RULE

The days of free-for-all, serial school hopping come to an end.

Unlike football and basketball, baseball never required players who wanted to transfer to another school to sit out a season, until the summer of 2008. That’s when the NCAA decided to pull a 180 on that policy. There are heated arguments on both sides of the issue, such as coach Ron Polk vehemently arguing that baseball is a partial scholarship school. It doesn’t have the power to tell players what they can do since they don’t get compensated like football and basketball players do.

On the other side, most coaches do seem happy to put an end to the “feeder school” dilemma. That being where a kid at a mid-major could have a breakout season, then go to play summer ball and get “recruited” pell-mell by a major school and subsequently transfer to a major school, in a whisker of a moment. Yeah, nobody says it happens, but it does.

Oh, the other twist to the transfer rules is the elimination of mid-term transfers. Because baseball now requires players to be enrolled in the fall semester before the next season, the days of J.C. transfers and mercenaries that enroll in January to play that spring are done as well. Be that good or bad.

6- THE APR HANDCUFFS COLLEGE BASEBALL

The coaches say it’s a huge hurdle, a threat to our sport and, ultimately, a mistake.

As best as I can tell, the Academic Progress Rate is a measure of how well student-athletes are progressing toward a degree. That’s it in a nutshell. A couple years back the NCAA discovered that college baseball players were earning fewer credit hours per year than athletes in any other sport across the board. So they stipulated some conditions that will indicate better progress for baseball players. Now, if a team doesn’t show across-the-board satisfactory progress, they could lose scholarships, get a cut in practice time or even have their amount of games cut during the season.

One of the big problems is that football and basketball players routinely make up their course hours in summer school, but with summer leagues being so predominant, college baseball players in the past don’t usually go to summer school.Therein lies one of the bigger problems.

5- RON POLK’S LETTER TO COLLEGE BASEBALL

The Punk Rock coach of college baseball’s 18-page soliloquy opened some eyes.

In the summer of 2007, Mississippi State coach Ron Polk, long a burr in the saddle of the NCAA, sat down and wrote a “state of the nation” letter to everyone in our sport, laying down the law on stupid rules and issues. It was, in essence, what EVERY coach in the country was thinking but afraid to talk about. It was a beauty.

There were far too many highlights to mention, but here are a few high notes:
- The NCAA tournament was the second-biggest money making event in the NCAA, but baseball as a whole saw very little of that money. Instead, our sport dealt with 11.7 measly scholarships, cuts in coaching staffs and restrictions across the board.
- The APR was a mistake and should be renounced for baseball.
- The NCAA put ridiculous rules on baseball, like being the only sport to make players be eligible in the fall, before the spring season started and also cutting the size of rosters to 35 players, making our sport the only one with a roster cap.
- The NCAA’s new stipulations that 27 players could get some kind of partial scholarship and those must get at least 25% of a full scholarship. (As coach Polk said, “First they’re going to only give us 11.7 scholarships and now they have the nerve to tell us how to spend them?”).

Coach Polk ended his letter by writing, “It is a true fact: for some reason college baseball has been slighted for so many years in so many ways. Our defenders (the NCAA) became our prosecutors.”

Interestingly, coach Polk mailed out 1,421 letters at a cost of $2,500 of his own money and wrote the letter in one single afternoon - Polk being famous for eschewing computers.

Also, his Athletic Director at the time, Larry Templeton, who was also the NCAA baseball committee chairman, allegedly didn’t read the letter and didn’t comment on it. The 2008 season was, not so ironically, coach Polk’s final season at MSU.

4- ESPN TAKES OVER THE FULL TELEVISING OF THE CWS

The ramifications of the sports giant taking over full time in 2003 is far-reaching.

Here’s a quick check list of the dominoes that fell when ESPN began televising the full series.

- CBS, and its ambivalence toward college baseball, would no longer carpetbag the championship game. (The CWS was force-fed on CBS by the NCAA to begin with as a package deal when CBS bought the NCAA basketball tournament in 1989.)
- There would be no more one-shot, winner-take-all title game that started at 11 freakin’ a.m. And I say, “good riddance!” with a middle finger extended.
- The CWS title round became a more logical best-of-three series between the bracket winners.
- The CWS title round also became a prime-time event, earning greater viewership.
- The series would get spread out even longer, starting on a Saturday and ending two Wednesdays later. That’s a little on the too-long side of things, agree?
- The success of ESPN’s coverage of the CWS would lead to their televising all of the Super Regionals and a couple of the Regionals.
- Two more words: Erin Andrews.

Now, if we can only get ESPN and ESPN.com to come on board the entire season

3- THE NEW DOWNTOWN OMAHA STADIUM
New digs assures the CWS stays in Omaha for another 25 years.

At first I was against getting rid of Rosenblatt Stadium, a place that I grew up spending all day watching college baseball, back when they used to play three and four games a day at the CWS (you know, before money started to ruin things). But as the months have ticked by, I’ve come to accept that Rosenblatt is kind of a pain in the ass to navigate every June and not as fan friendly. On top of that the new downtown stadium helped forge a deal with the NCAA that would lock up the College World Series with the city of Omaha at least until the day I die. So anything that keeps this great event in the O, a place that embraces college baseball like nobody else could, is fine by me.

Besides, in a year or two, when the new stadium is in full swing and we’re all enjoying another June day of college baseball action, we’ll probably be saying to each other, “What was all the fuss on this new stadium about again?”

That’s just how times change, people.

2- THE RISE OF MORE COLLEGE SPORTS NETWORKS
Most agree that TV is the key to getting our sport into a growth spurt.

This one is a personal favorite of mine. At the beginning of the decade, college baseball on TV was nearly dead. Only the CWS remained, of course, along with an occasional game on Fox Sports. The regular season contract with ESPN ran out in the late 80s when the Sunday college baseball game of the week was replaced by MLB baseball. College baseball on TV became nearly extinct.

But then a couple of cool things happened. Namely, the inception of CSTV (College Sports TeleVision) got things kicked off when it went on the air in 2003 and started televising games on a weekly basis. Then ESPN cranked up ESPNU in ‘05 (even though their penchant for showing six games in an entire regular season is pretty disheartening). Finally, in the latter parts of the decade, the HD-ready Big 10 Network gave exposure to a league that needed it, which could also be said for the Mountain West Conference in its new home, The Mtn. Their biggest contribution was putting Stephen Strasburg on display in a Friday night matchup with TCU last April.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the weekly games broadcast by Sports South and Sun Sports down South as well. Now, if only we could get networks to show more Friday night ace-vs.-ace showdowns instead of the usual Sunday rag-armfests that end up with double-digit Arenaball scores.

1- THE INCREASE IN COVERAGE OF OUR SPORT
You use to count the college baseball websites on one hand. Now, at least add your toes.

Okay, for those of you who have heard this before, bear with me. But back in 90s, there was Baseball America and Sports Weekly as periodicals. And that was it. Nothing daily. Nothing timely. By 2000, the only original content you could find on the web was from my esteemed cohort Mark Etheridge (with his first iteration of SECbaseball.com, through Rivals), the venerable Boyd Nation and my stuff I was doing with USA Today (at USAToday.com) at the time. In fact, that was half the reason I followed my bliss into this whole baseball writing foray, because I got tired of not finding jack-shit on the web for college baseball. Baseball America had some stuff, but it was mostly just what you found in their magazines. But then they began their weekly chats (or as I called them, the “required reading for any college baseball fan”) soon after that and started to expand their coverage on the web.

Then came the biggest news to hit our sport when, in 2003, Jeremy Mills, a Rice grad who is much smarter than you or I will ever be, started up his scoreboard site at NCAA-baseball.com, giving us all a way to stay updated on scores nearly as they happen. It continues today at D1baseball.com and still knocks my socks off on a daily basis.

Though many sites have come and gone in the last few years, there are certainly more sites out there devoted to our sport than there has ever been, along with web-worthy stuff from local newspapers that have expanded the coverage that used to just show up in print during the 90s and early 2000s.

Oh, silly me, I almost forgot this part… Things exploded for me when, in 2003, CSTV and CSTV.com brought me along and also expanded their coverage, while changing the way our sport was covered, with creativity, a personality and a system of contributors. When CBS decided to buy CSTV and do absolutely nothing for our sport, that of course led to my site that you’re reading here - and I do hope you dig what you see.

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