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Legends On Deck

Is the College World Series the Most Underrated Spectacle in Sports?

The College Baseball World Series kicked off Saturday June 16 at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska.  Schools getting bids in this year’s tournament: #1 Oregon State, #3 Florida, #4 LSU, #6 TCU, #7 Louisville, Cal State Fullerton, Florida State and Texas A&M.  While several clubs have already been eliminated (Cal State Fullerton, Florida State, Texas A&M), the best of three Championship Series will begin on Monday June 26.   

Since 1950, Omaha has been the home of the College World Series.  Similar to the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the baseball tournament begins with 64 teams, playing in 16 Regionals and 8 Super Regionals; narrowing it down to 8 teams prior to arrival in Omaha.  These eight teams play in two, double elimination brackets.  The winner of each bracket meets in a best of three Championship Series.

Throughout the week, fans, students and alumni of their respective schools host tailgates and attend games cheering on their ball clubs — emphasis on the tailgating.  While tailgating is a way of life on Fall Saturdays, baseball tailgating is also a vibrant pastime on campuses, primarily in warm weather states.  Major events have taken place for Texas A&M, LSU and Cal State Fullerton throughout the week.  

Despite plenty of coverage on the ESPN networks, College Baseball as a sport, does not receive the hype that other major college sports do.  While, NCAA Football and College Hoops rival their professional counterparts (NFL and NBA), there is not as clear of a connection between College Baseball and MLB.  One of the primary reasons for the lack of attention given to college baseball, is that many of the top high school players forgo college and opt for the MLB Draft.  This makes recruiting at the college level particularly challenging.

Many of MLB’s current stars like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw and Anthony Rizzo are prime examples.    These players spent their post-high school careers working their way up through their team’s farm system, preparing them for a debut in the Majors. And, even when players are drafted out of college, they typically spend some time earning their stripes in the Minors.

College Baseball is also more of a regional game.  Starting the season in mid to late February does not make for a very enjoyable fan experience at college ballparks in the Northeast and Midwest.  MLB parks in northern cities typically open around the beginning of April, as clubs spend their late February and March in Florida or Arizona for Spring Training.  Despite runs by cold weather schools in year’s past, the conditions are much more favorable to teams in warm weather states; largely making up the Pac-12, SEC, ACC and Big 12 conferences.

 SEC clubs are notorious for large and vibrant crowds; LSU draws (on average) over 10,000 attendees per game.  Arkansas, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and South Carolina round out the Top 5 in attendance, for all of College Baseball (Texas A&M and Florida are also in Top 10).  It is fair to say, weather is a determining factor in College Baseball; warmer weather teams helps recruiting and drives attendance, ultimately producing better programs.

One of the greatest things about NCAA Basketball’s March Madness, is the ability of mid-major schools to make a run into the Sweet 16, and beyond.  Unlike College Football, where the “Power Five” conferences are the only programs in the playoff discussion; the College World Series often includes mid-major programs.  Most notably, 2016 Champions Coastal Carolina, who set a new standard for mid-majors building their program to compete in the CWS.  

There are a few differences between the college and professional game, most notably the use of metal versus wood bats.  College Baseball also evokes the “Mercy Rule,” whereas if a team is up by 10 runs by the seventh inning, the game is considered won.  The college season also lasts on average 56 games, compared with the 135 games in the Florida State League or 162 games in the Majors.  Yet, the fundamentals of the game remain the same.  

The timing of the MLB Draft, which took place June 12-14, adds another dynamic to the CWS.  Several teams competing in the World Series had players selected in the first round, including:  Brendan McKay 1B – Louisville (Tampa Bay), Alex Faedo RHP – Florida (Detroit) and Alex Lange RHP – LSU (Chicago Cubs).  Fans of these MLB franchises have had the opportunity to watch these players, potentially for the first time.  As a Detroit Tigers fan, I was quite pleased with Alex Faedo’s 11 strikeout, seven inning shutout against TCU.  

As the College World Series heads into the weekend, the #4 Florida Gators and #1 Oregon State Beavers are the hottest teams.  Oregon State only lost four regular season games and the Gators have only given up one run in their two games in Omaha.  The crowds of over 24,000 at TD Ameritrade Park have been lively and the games are fun to watch.  While tournament format rivals the excitement of College Basketball, the double elimination rule offers a unique opportunity for redemption. Perhaps over time the college game will attract a broader audience, but in the meantime for those who have become College Baseball fans, we will continue to enjoy what they call in Omaha, “The Greatest Show on Dirt.”  

Brian Koss

Brian Koss

Brian grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, MI where he spent his childhood playing organized baseball, pick-up games, collecting baseball cards, listening to his grandfather's stories about the 1930s Pittsburgh Pirates, drafting fantasy baseball teams and attending Tigers games. His dad, who coached his teams, weaved family trips around ballpark visits. A diehard Detroit Tigers (and Lions) fan, Brian and his wife (a Real Estate team) are raising their two children near Orlando. Brian helps coach his daughter's tee-ball team, working to pass along his love of the game.
Brian Koss