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Leistikow: The case is convincing for a major change in college baseball

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central
A view of Banks Field at an Iowa-Nebraska series in late April of 2019.

In today’s increasingly complex world, sensible solutions that meet nearly everyone’s desires are difficult to find.

Maybe that’s why a newly proposed Division I college baseball model jumps off the pages (35 of them in all) as so simple and obvious.

“If it ever goes through,” Iowa baseball coach Rick Heller said, “I just think you’re going to see college baseball blow up.”

(In a good way.)

Although some of these concepts have been suggested for years, more than a dozen Division I coaches — led by Michigan’s Erik Bakich — have used down time created by the cancellation of college baseball's 2020 season to research, formulate and publicize a 35-page document as a solution to improve and sustain their game.

And it pretty much involves one simple step: Move the college season back 4 weeks.

Under a new proposal, the majority of the Big Ten Conference season would be played in May and June, which in Iowa and many northern states are excellent weather months for baseball.

Instead of a traditional mid-February start for games, the proposal states, “shift the regular season to a national start date beginning the third Friday in March through the third Friday in June.”

That’s basically it. Such a move, though, has opposition and stokes old wars of words between cold-weather teams and warm-weather teams, the latter largely being the “haves” of college baseball. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the already-beginning financial crisis for college athletics budgets, the timing seems right for big change.

“We’re trying to (turn) a crisis into a positive for our sport,” said Heller, a college head coach in northern climates for the past 33 years who was among the coaches who met weekly in assembling this proposal.  “We’re trying to be proactive so that college baseball can not only be around, but thrive.”

What are the primary issues at stake, as well as the benefits and drawbacks?

A closer look shows why this new model makes a lot of sense for Division I baseball.

A timely benefit: Reduced travel costs for most teams.

Only a handful of the 299 D-I baseball programs currently make money as it is, and the budget crunches are going to get worse with drastically reduced athletics revenue expected in the coming year.

Under the current model, a mid-February start leaves cold-weather programs little choice but to travel via commercial airlines to secure games for at least the first four weeks of the season. For example, Iowa’s 2020 baseball schedule had the team going to Port Charlotte, Florida, in the opening weekend; San Diego the next; then Minneapolis (indoors); then back to Port Charlotte; and finally to Northridge, California.

All in a month.

According to the proposal, a five-year average of travel expenses for a Big Ten or competitive northern team was $232,728 for the first four weeks of the season vs. $88,864 in the final four regular-season weeks, when little to no air travel is required. Thus, a later start to the season could produce a travel savings of $143,861 annually. (Iowa’s travel expenses for fiscal year 2019 were $476,452, according to information reported to the Internal Revenue Service. The later start could translate to a potential 30% savings.)

Athlete well-being benefits: Lower injury risk, more time for academics.

Renowned surgeon James Andrews is quoted as a proponent of this model, calling it a “no-brainer” because of the extra ramp-up time that a later start to the college season would mean for student-athletes.

Data in the report shows that there is a sharp spike in early-season injuries in both the college game (in which two reduced-activity weeks plus three weeks of practice are allowed before the season) and Major League Baseball (which gets 6-7 weeks) before seeing a plateau of injuries 2-3 weeks into each season.

Currently, Iowa baseball players return to campus in mid-January from the university's winter break and play meaningful games a month later. The new D-I model would provide nine weeks of ramp-up time.

"Even the current MLB ramp time isn’t enough," Heller said. "Experts and medical people say a nine-week ramp time would be optimal, which is exactly what this proposal gives us."

The proposal also shows a way that 14 days of missed class in the spring can be reduced to four, with cost-conscious, regionalized scheduling more feasible as temperatures warm.

Whether four days of missed class is actually more like six or eight, fewer Thursday cross-country flights (that return at 11 p.m. Sunday or later) would seem to promote academic success.

Even when games can be played at Banks Field in the first 50% of the regular season, the weather is often cold or rainy, as evidenced in this photo of Iowa coach Rick Heller in a March 17, 2019, game.

More warm-weather games, more paying fans.

It seems that there are only a few weekends per baseball season that Banks Field in Iowa City enjoys glorious baseball weather. Cold snaps and rain in March and April limit attendance in northern climates and, frankly, make for a miserable experience at times for fans who do attend — not to mention the players.

When the weather is good in Iowa City and a Big Ten opponent is in town, Banks is stretched to its capacity of 3,000.

“We wouldn’t have a big enough stadium, honestly, if we were playing warm-weather games in late May and June consistently,” Heller said, knowing that would be a good problem to have.

Baseball is a family sport, and especially when children are out of school, a Friday night or Saturday afternoon at the ballpark in Iowa City sounds about perfect.

The proposal addresses a long-argued contention in the South that the weather gets too hot in June for baseball, to which Heller counters: The minor-league baseball team with the highest average attendance plays in a desert — the Triple-A Las Vegas Aviators.

The proposal contends that June attendance in hot-weather states would still outweigh February attendance, considering the overlap of college basketball season. Authors of the proposal believe that baseball revenues would increase significantly with more warm-weather games, giving more programs a chance to balance their budgets. Iowa's income from tickets and concessions in 2019 was $82,581, a drop in the bucket against the total operating expenses of $2,588,064 (salaries, travel and scholarships included); but increased interest and exposure could gradually close that gap.

Is keeping students on campus into (at least) late June fair or feasible?

I did a little asking around and got the sense that Iowa baseball players (as an example) would quickly sign up for four extra weeks of warm-weather baseball with no academic conflicts, and it would still offer most of them a chance to play in summer leagues. However, the reality cannot be ignored that most players are on partial scholarships (often in the 25% range); being tied to the program for at least 10 months a year is a significant commitment, particularly for a player paying out-of-state tuition.

Heller said four extra weeks of feeding and housing athletes would cost the university about $24,000. “Or about half of what we spend on our first trip to Florida,” he noted.

Only the 64 teams that qualify for the NCAA Tournament would play past the final week of June. If the proposal was enacted in 2022, for example, only the eight teams that reach the College World Series would play past July 10.

Vanderbilt won the 2019 College World Series final against Michigan.

Now for another big plus: Television.

“The first hurdle was ESPN,” Heller said of designing the proposal, “to make sure there was a window for the World Series that fit their schedule.”

The 2022 schedule under the new proposal would have the College World Series running from July 15-25 — after the MLB All-Star Game, Stanley Cup and NBA Finals and Wimbledon, but before the Little League World Series. It’s a sweet spot with less congested programming and would run more concurrently with the MLB season (without spilling into pennant races).

Beyond more July exposure for college baseball, Heller believes a full menu of May and June games would be a prime programming opportunity for conference television networks such as the Big Ten’s.

That makes sense. More exposure, more interest, more dollars.

Heller also noted that with the contraction of minor league teams and the MLB's desire to push back (and shorten) its draft, college baseball would be a more attractive destination for top young players. And TV networks could showcase them.

So what needs to happen for this proposal to become a reality?

Be it in the U.S. Congress or the NCAA, getting radical legislation passed is a long process involving committees, debates, lobbying and votes. The realistic hope among the proposal’s architects is for enactment ahead of the 2022 season, but there could be one path to speed things up.

Heller suggested a scenario that if college football gets moved from the fall of 2020 to the spring of 2021, there could be an opportunity for the NCAA to adopt a later-season start on a trial basis for 2021. (Imagine a university’s logistics in trying to host overlapping events in football, basketball, wrestling, hockey, softball and baseball.)

More practically, to get the ball rolling requires a conference or two (the Big Ten will gladly do so) to bring the proposal forward to the NCAA later this year or in January. It would then go through a series of committees (such as the Competition Oversight Committee) and perhaps be voted on in April 2021. If the proposal can get support from four of the five power conferences and at least 50% of others, there's a strong chance the legislation would pass.

As programs such as Bowling Green and Furman are being cut amid the COVID-19 panic, the short-term hope is to generate widespread momentum for change.

“For the majority of the country, to me, this is a no-brainer,” Heller said, “as far as taking our game to another level.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.