I've been having a dialogue with Texas blogger, Joanna, that began with my post about the uniform start date the NCAA recently agreed to. Our open chat has also veered off into the debate over athletics versus academics and the north vs. south dilemma college baseball has. As Joanna lobbed the last round, I guess it's my turn to reply.
We completely agree on the athletics versus academics issue. The NCAA and, more importantly, it's member institutions need to figure out where their responsibility to the "student/athlete" lies. Are colleges responsible to make sure their athletes graduate or just provide them with a training ground to become pro athletes? If their objective is solely to prepare people for the next phase of life then, perhaps, it's time to discuss things like stipends and making the athletes "representatives" of the schools not "students". Having said all this, do I believe any such decision is in the offing? Not a chance. (My problems with the NCAA are a different post entirely.)
As for college baseball's north/south inequity, Joanna correctly points out that northern schools should make more of a commitment to baseball. I couldn't agree more, but it's a chicken and egg problem. What comes first: fan interest or an institution's financial commitment? Is attendance sub-standard because of a lack of interest or because of less-than-ideal weather? Are athletes drawn to southern schools to play baseball because of poor facilities in the north or the lousy weather or both? As baseball isn't an inexpensive sport to play, it's a great leap of faith for athletic departments to commit to building new baseball stadiums when there are so many unknown factors.
Building an indoor facility might occur at a big revenue school, but can you see Maine building a dome for baseball? How many programs are really in a position to build an indoor baseball field? I would suspect very few. Doing so would only further the gap between baseball haves and have nots. Honestly, I'd also worry that the combination of metal bats and plastic grass might alienate old school baseball fans.
However, I think we are all about to get a better idea about the answer to the question "If they build it, will they come?". Penn State is in the process of building a new facility which they intend to share with a minor league team. Michigan State is increasing it's home dates at Oldsmobile Park, home of the Lansing Lugnuts. Minnesota plays a number of games at the Metrodome. There have been rumors for about two years in regards to a new baseball stadium being built in Ann Arbor and arch-rival Ohio State already plays in a great new facility, Bill Davis Stadium.
Within the next three or four years, we will see if better facilities will help generate interest, increase revenue and attract better recruiting classes. Regardless, the Big Ten can build all the shiny new diamonds they like, but it isn't going to stop the snow or cold. That's why the start date is so important. Even if Michigan, using Joanna's example, builds a new yard, they still probably can't play a home game much earlier than they do now. Yes, building a covered ballpark would solve that, but how many southern schools are going to volunteer to come north in February and March when they have a line of northern schools willing to visit them?
In drawing comparisons to other "northern" schools, Joanna accurately states that Nebraska has done well in baseball and Oregon State is fielding a very good squad currently. In Nebraska's case, they have a distinct advantage--Omaha. When your region hosts the game's annual championship series, interest is bound to be high. If Ann Arbor or Minneapolis hosted the College World Series, I suspect both local school's baseball programs would be more well received. (Not that Michigan and Minnesota don't have a solid base of fans, because they do. They just aren't as large as they could be. Remember, Big Ten kids, I'm on your side. No hate mail, please.)
I would classify Oregon State's current success as an anomaly. If the Beavers can maintain their current status in the ultra competitive Pac-10 for an extended period, then I'll re-consider my position. (I'm rooting for you, though, OSU.) About the only school I would really tab as a northern success might be Notre Dame. And for all their top 25 rankings and good recruiting classes, I doubt many would put the Irish on the same level as SEC, Big XII or Pac-10 programs.
In the end, Joanna, we actually agree on almost everything. In particular, I concur that there are simply no easy answers. Hopefully, northern schools will get the incentive to commit more resources to baseball so that fans up here can enjoy college baseball at the same level you do at Texas. I'm grateful that you stopped in and shared your thoughts. I hope you continue to do so.