Kush Patel showed up at Minute Maid Park wearing the No. 43 jersey of Houston Astros ace Lance McCullers Jr. and hankering for some baseball.
This time, instead of watching his favorite team, Patel was there to see the Tennessee Volunteers play the Texas Longhorns in a battle of college baseball heavyweights.
“I’m a diehard Astros fan so it’s just good to be back in this building, watching some baseball,” Patel said. “I’m more of an MLB guy, but I started watching college baseball last year for the College World Series. In college, it seems like the players are allowed to have more passion, so that definitely makes the game a little more interesting and fun to watch.”
The college game might turn out to be an attractive alternative for Patel and other fans if the Major League Baseball lockout extends deep into the spring.
College baseball has experienced unprecedented growth over the past decade with schools spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build new stadiums and facilities and increase coaching salaries. The level of play is at an all-time high and will get even better, people in the game say, because the reduction of rounds in the MLB draft means more elite players will go to school, or stay in school, rather than head to the pros.
Those factors, plus the lockout, give the college an opportunity to expand its fan base.
“For someone that doesn’t know much about the college game, once they see it, they may not want to go back to watching the pro game as much as the college game,” American Baseball Coaches Association executive director Craig Keilitz said. “The passion in the college game and the love for the game itself, every game seems to be ‘the game.’ It’s a little bit different than a 162-game season. The passion, excitement, the collegiate feel can’t be matched.”
One of the college game’s premier events, the Shriners Children’s College Classic, was held over the weekend at Minute Maid Park. Houston is in between the campuses of Texas and LSU, and a game between those teams on Saturday attracted 24,787. Crowds of better than 16,000 turned out for other matchups.
Oklahoma coach Skip Johnson said the lively atmosphere differentiates college ball from MLB.
“You look at Major League Baseball and their playoffs — all our kids aspire to be major leaguers,” Johnson said. “But there’s something different about March Madness and the super regionals and (CWS in) Omaha, and you hear, ‘Boomer Sooner!’ Or the regional we played in at Florida State and they were doing, ‘K-Time, K-Time, K-Time!’
“That’s the spirit of the game, and it makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, and it makes you want to go out there and compete and get after it. It’s almost like a football game on a baseball field at times. So, I think that’s what’s been fun about it.”
Schools, especially in the Power 5 conferences, are showing more commitment to their baseball programs as the sport’s profile is rising nationally.
Sports Business Journal reported total spending on college baseball and softball stadiums went over $256 million in 2020, up from $100 million in 2019.
New stadiums have opened at Florida ($65 million), Oklahoma State ($60 million) and Connecticut ($40 million), among other places, and North Carolina State recently announced a $15 million baseball facilities upgrade to start after this season. Outside the Power 5, an anonymous donor fully funded a $60 million baseball facilities project at Binghamton in New York.
According to research by AthleticDirectorU.com and USA Today, the average salary among Power 5 head coaches in 2020 was $613,807. The Southeastern Conference had the highest average at just under $900,000.
There were 10 coaches in the country known to be earning at least $1 million per year in 2020, according to the USA Today salary database. There now are at least 11, with Tennessee’s Tony Vitello getting a raise to $1.5 million per year after leading the Volunteers to the 2021 College World Series.
Last year’s College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, drew a record 361,711, and more than 24,000 turned out for each of the three games of the finals.
College baseball has become a major part of television and streaming inventory in the spring. ESPN first broadcast College World Series games in the 1980s and has upped its coverage of NCAA regionals and super regionals.
This year more than 200 regular-season games will be televised on ESPN channels and another 2,200 on digital platforms. Five years ago, ESPN channels televised 135 games and the ACC Network and digital platform ESPN+ hadn’t launched yet.
Non-ESPN properties such as the Big Ten Network and Pac-12 Network also carry games.
Keilitz said college baseball is on the front end of its ascent. He said college baseball stands to gain because of the recent contraction of the minor-league system and the decrease in draft rounds from 40 to 20.
In the past, a high school player selected in the first 10 rounds almost certainly would go pro. Now that player seriously considers college and the opportunity to increase his value. He has access to strength and conditioning and nutrition programs that, Keilitz said, are generally far superior to those in the low levels of pro ball.
“Playing minor league and rookie ball or being in the SEC, ACC or Pac-12, the facilities are just not even close,” Keilitz said.
Keilitz said the pro game’s evolution — lots of strikeouts while waiting for the two-run homer — might turn off baseball purists. The college style is well-suited to them.
“It might be a little more of the baseball that most of us know and love — stealing bases, hit and run, more aggressive on the base paths, shortening up with two strikes to try to put the ball in play, hitting behind the runner,” Keilitz said. “It’s maybe not better, but it’s different than the pro game.”
By ERIC OLSON
AP freelance writer Jordan Godwin in Houston contributed to this report.