Sunday, June 5, 2011

Oma-huh? How college basketball and The Pope can help make the College World Series better

We all have that friend.

We all have that friend from high school who seemed way more talented than he ever let on. We all know that he could have gone on to do bigger and better things. After high school, everyone went on to college or simply moved out to experience new life in a new place.

But not that friend. That friend stayed at home, took a job in his hometown, and never left. He married his high school sweetheart, had a couple of kids and seems pretty happy with his lot in life. He never once questioned why he needed to leave, never bothered to really grow beyond the town he lived in.

Everyone knew that friend could have done more and had greater success in life. Everyone except that friend.

College baseball, sadly, is that friend and Omaha, Nebraska is its hometown.

Omaha is actually a really nice city, and I don't just say that because the picture is pretty. It's a charming Midwestern city with a killer downtown lined with cobblestone streets and parks lining the Platte River. Exceptional microbrews can be quaffed at the Uptown Brewing Company while you shoot billiards upstairs. The city is littered with some of the world's greatest steakhouses and it also boasts an absurdly underrated live music scene. Rock/reggae stars 311 are probably Omaha's most famous musical alum. The city also boasts one of America's best jazz scenes.

Furthermore, Omaha is a major financial sector, perhaps one of America's most noteworthy. Warren Buffett still makes him home there as does TD Ameritrade. It's noteworthy that the latter has the sponsorship deal for the new baseball stadium in Omaha that houses both the Kansas City Royals triple-A minor league affiliate and the College World Series.

But none of this really matters. Simply put, Omaha does not have the national cache that other cities possess. In Midwestern terms, it lacks the major metropolitan quality of Chicago, the history of St. Louis or the quirkiness of Minneapolis. Omaha is basically the Midwest's equivalent to Albuquerque. Sure, it may be vastly underrated but when was the last time you heard of anyone aspiring to travel or move there? Ask yourself this question: With the exception of the College World Series, when was the last time you heard anyone get excited about going to Omaha?

Unless they have friends or family in the area, the answer is "probably never."

When people think of Omaha, they probably think of three things: Insurance, steak and college baseball. Omaha isn't a glamorous place, and it doesn't aspire to be. That doesn't make Omaha a bad place at all, not by a long shot. But if college baseball wants to be a little more glamorous, a little bit more like their money-making college football and basketball friends, it needs to leave the smallish city behind and think big.

Real big. College baseball can totally reinvent itself as a major player in the sports world if it follows the following steps.

1. Infect people with the June Bug

College basketball has the insanity called March Madness. College baseball could have something similar called the June Bug. It starts with making sure their conference tournaments are televised on visible networks like ESPN. Not ESPNU, not Vs., not the regional Fox Sports broadcasts. College baseball, especially tournament play, needs to make sure that they are more visible on ESPN and ESPN2.

March Madness doesn't start with the NCAA tournament, of course. It starts with the conference tournaments that are televised ubiquitously starting in March. The major upsets, the buzzer-beaters and the improbable story lines in conference play are all just appetizers to the NCAA tournament, an event that has improbably become the second biggest sporting event in America, next to only the Super Bowl in terms of overall coverage and national interest.

Furthermore, has college baseball ever televised the live announcement of their bracket? Why not? What's the harm in a partnership with ESPN where they announce the College World Series bracket in an hour-long special before the Sunday night baseball game? Has the NCAA even considered doing something like that? If it's a matter of money or even prior contractual obligations that the folks in Bristol may have, that's one thing. But it's not clear that the NCAA has even considered marketing their sport in the same manner that March Madness is currently packaged. If this has never been considered, simply put, that's completely inexcusable by the NCAA. Considering the fact that we may not see the NBA and NFL play their next respective seasons, it is unfathomable to think that the NCAA wouldn't want to have as many captive sports fans tuning into their product as possible.

2. Restructure where the games are played

One of the great appeals of March Madness is that it truly feels like a national event. The regions are divided into four distinct quadrants and action is happening all across the country. No matter where you are in America, it feels as if you're not that distant from the action.

But for the first round of the College World Series, known as the "super regional," these games are played on college campuses. These games are rarely televised, and even less publicized. Again, why?

The College World Series could market the June Bug by selling the venues they play at as a part of the event itself. This is, frankly, nothing new and has been common practice in the world of sports, entertainment and even religion.

Consider this. When Pope Benedict XVI came to America in April 2008, he celebrated Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. He also celebrated Mass at Nationals Stadium in Washington DC. But nothing compared to the national attention he received when he celebrated Mass at Yankee Stadium. This Mass was televised worldwide on CNN and much ado was made about where the Pope was going to conduct Mass (right around second base as it turns out). Was the Mass inherently different or somehow unorthodox than the Masses he celebrated elsewhere. Probably not.

But the major difference was the venue itself. Honestly, it just sounded incredibly important. Pope Benedict XVI at Yankee Stadium sounds quite a bit better than Pope Benedict XVI at Nationals Stadium. It sounds like an event.

Since that Mass, the NHL has begun televising a New Years Day game from football and baseball stadiums outdoors. The NHL recognized what the Pope understood. A Bruins-Flyers game live from Fenway Park on New Years Day just sounds like something you need to see. It sounds special. The action and proceedings may not be any different, but it feels like it should be.

College football has adopted this mentality as well. Illinois played Northwestern last season from Wrigley Field. No one aside from Illinois and Northwestern grads would have cared even one iota about this match-up had it been played in Champaign or Evanston. But because Illinois and Northwestern were playing at Wrigley Field, somehow it felt much more important even if both squads were afterthoughts in the Big 10 conference.

The College World Series live from UFCU Disch-Falk Field in Austin or TD Ameritrade Stadium in Omaha does not sound like an event. It sounds like an ordeal. To that end, the College World Series needs to restructure these games in a three-tiered format.

A: Move the "super regional" games off the college campuses and into minor league stadiums. Bill these games as "The Beginning," not unlike "the beginning" for most Major League Baseball players. It is the starting point in the journey, not the final destination. College basketball does this very well. The opening rounds usually give lesser-known cities like Tulsa, Boise and Greensboro a chance in the spotlight before moving on to the next rounds of play.

High-tech minor league stadiums in cities like Austin, Memphis and Albuquerque have developed and would make fantastic choices for opening round games.

B: Move the traditional rounds that take place in Omaha to major league stadiums. This could be dubbed "The Big Time," similar to how a player feels when he gets called up to the Majors.

Traditionally, in Omaha, eight schools are split into two, four-team, double-elimination brackets, with the winner of each bracket playing in the best-of-three championship series. Why not divide the two brackets into a North and South or East and West regional taking place in major league stadiums?

What sounds better to you? Texas and LSU live from Coors Field in Denver? Or Texas and LSU live from TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha? What sounds more important? It's the same product but what sounds a bigger deal?

Furthermore, it wouldn't be that difficult to schedule either. All the NCAA needs to do is find out when the respective major leagues won't be in town and schedule games accordingly. These games could be rotated throughout various stadiums over the years. Unless they are one of the Final Four, if you will.

C. The final two schools in the College World Series meet at one of baseball's four greatest stadiums. Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium would be on rotation yearly for the College World Series not unlike how the BCS currently structures the national championship game for football between the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange Bowls. The College World Series would play out in a best-of-three format in baseball's most important, most cherished venues.

Again, what sounds better? Texas and LSU live from Yankee Stadium for a deciding Game 3 of the College World Series? Or Texas and LSU live from TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha for a deciding Game 3 of the College World Series? What sounds like it should be more important? And which would you rather watch?

Our friend, college baseball, has great potential. On May 31, 2009, our friend showed perhaps its greatest potential to date. Texas and Boston College played an unthinkable twenty-five inning game. Texas reliever Austin Wood pitched an absurd 12 1/3 innings of no-hit ball and delivered the Longhorns a 3-2 victory over the Eagles at right around the same time the bars were beginning to close on 6th Street.

This game should be the stuff of legend and lore. When people talk about the greatest games of all-time of any sport, this game should be near the top of every sports fans list. It is the longest game in college baseball history, and it featured one of the greatest pitching performances the game has ever seen or will ever seen again.

But it will never be mentioned. The game was never televised. The audio was never preserved or if it was, it certainly hasn't seen the light of day by way of a Google search. The game was played in front of about 7500 people in Austin. Consider for a moment how awesome it would have been for every sports fan in America to tune in on ESPN, realize what was happening and call everyone they know that they have to watch this game.

A 25-inning game that features over 12 innings of no-hit baseball isn't a game. It's an event. It's a heart-rendering event that should have defined guts, grit and glory. It should have defined every possible reason America loves sports and loves baseball. But our friend, college baseball, stayed tucked away in the spotlight, not caring to publicize itself and losing potentially millions of fans in the process.

But college baseball doesn't seem to care. It seems pretty content with its new digs in Omaha. And it seems pretty happy with the crowds they get.

But college baseball could be doing better. Way better, in fact.

They'll never know until they leave home.

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