‘It didn’t always used to be this way’
Interest leads to growth -- and TV viewership -- for baseball
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Dave Van Horn takes the time to remind his players every few weeks about just how good they have it.
It's not that the Arkansas coach revels in telling today's youth just how difficult the older generations had it; he's simply in awe of how far college baseball has come during his 25-year coaching career.
Armed with new stadiums, packed houses and a growing fan base, college baseball has seen a surge in interest during the past decade. The result has been better travel, equipment, facilities and exposure for a sport once relegated to a spring-time afterthought.
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Spring might still be about college football in many parts of the country, but the gap between the gridiron's offseason and the diamond is closing in others.
"They know [how good they have it]," Van Horn said. "We are all lucky to have what we have, and it didn't always used to be this way."
The latest sign of the burgeoning interest in the college game will happen this weekend, when for the first time all 16 of the NCAA tournament regionals will be televised by ESPN. The network showed just six of the regional sites last season, four the year before, but it's committed to showing every pitch from every game this season on its various outlets.
"That shows you our investment in college baseball and how we feel about it," said Mike Moore, a senior coordinator producer at ESPN. "They've got something going."
ESPN has a long-standing history with college baseball, with this year marking the 34th consecutive season the network has shown the College World Series. However, showing regular season and conference tournament games only became more of an option as the network looked to fill programming voids created by the lost 2004-05 NHL season, said programming and acquisitions director Brent Colborne.
The end result was that nearly 1.4 million viewers on average tuned in to watch College World Series games on ESPN last year, with a peak of more than 1.9 million in 2009. The steady viewership was enough after last season for the network to look into showing all of the regionals -- which it will do when the tournament begins across the country on Friday.
"We've never done it before, so we don't know what the results will be, but we do know there's an audience out there," Colborne said. "There's obviously a very, very passionate audience that really enjoys college baseball."
Larry Templeton, a former Mississippi State athletic director who now serves as a consultant for the Southeastern Conference, credited ESPN taking college baseball "to another level." It's a surge he hopes to improve upon when the SEC Network is unveiled sometime next year.
Templeton, who also served as the chair of the NCAA tournament selection committee from 2007-09, also credited the 20-second pitch clock for speeding up games and better facilities as reasons for turning the game into a fan-interest sport.
As a result, Templeton believes more top players today are choosing to play college baseball rather than signing with major league teams out of high school and spending years in the minor leagues.
"There are some quality student-athletes playing baseball at the collegiate level now," Templeton said.
One example of Templeton's belief is Arkansas infielder Dominic Ficociello, who was drafted in the 23rd round of the 2010 draft by Detroit before choosing to attend college rather than sign with the Tigers. Ficociello said he set his bonus demand incredibly high before the draft -- $1 million take-home pay after taxes -- because he wanted to experience the college environment.
"I knew that was the price that teams would have to pay to get me away from all this," Ficociello said. "I knew this was going to be a pretty crazy thing, and it was going to be awesome and nothing I had ever experienced before."
The decision to attend college has paid off in exactly the kind of experiences Ficociello had hoped for, including playing in front of thousands of fans per game with the Razorbacks and a trip to the College World Series last year.
Arkansas' Baum Stadium, as well as the interest across the SEC, also played significant roles in Ficociello's decision to bypass the professional ranks. The facility opened in 1996, has been expanded several times since, and an average of 8,335 fans paid to see the Razorbacks play this season.
That's a far cry from the average of 1,399 fans who attended Arkansas games in 2002 -- the season before Van Horn was hired away from Nebraska.
When Van Horn was hired, he struggled at first with the long road trips across the SEC, all of which were taken by bus. After a few years, and as attendance began to rise, Van Horn approached then-Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles about the travel -- focusing on the competitive disadvantage to driving as well as the classroom time players were missing.
The last bullet point hit home with Broyles, and since the Razorbacks have flown to most of their away games, including charter flights when possible.
Van Horn said the increased television exposure and attendance played a role in the better travel arrangements, and he said the quality of the product has led to the overall growth in the game.
It's a modern success story that he hopes doesn't end any time soon.
"It all helps, with travel, coaches' pay, the whole budget," Van Horn said. "If we were getting 2,000 a game, things might be different. That's just the way it is now, and it's nice."