ANN ARBOR — For each of the past five years, Michigan’s baseball team has spent more than $220,000 in travel costs during the first four weeks of the season.
With the college season beginning in February, cold-weather teams are forced to travel south or to the west coast for the first month to play, hampering those teams’ budgets for the rest of the year.
As athletic departments across the country frantically look for ways to mitigate costs in wake of the coronavirus pandemic, two NCAA Division I baseball programs — Bowling Green and Furman — already have been cut this spring, while more may soon follow.
In hopes of maintaining long-term sustainability in a sport where most programs operate at a significant financial net loss, Michigan head coach Erik Bakich and four other Power Five coaches have proposed a new college baseball model that would push the start of the season to March 18, with the College World Series beginning in mid-July instead of mid-June.
While the idea of moving the season back is not a new one, this is the first time the financial component has been attached.
According to data in a 35-page proposal compiled by Bakich, Michigan has spent between $41,000 and $134,000 during the final four weeks of the seasons each of the past five years compared to $220,000-plus during the first four weeks.
The change would allow cold-weather teams to regionalize their schedules in a cost-saving measure.
“There’s a lot of teams that could get their programs cut, but everybody is reducing budgets, and there’s a lot of talk of reduction of games and just ways to cut costs,” Bakich said on a video conference call with reporters Friday. “We knew we needed to put something in front of administrators and athletic directors that show that there is there is opportunity for growth for college baseball, and this is a great way to execute that.
“It can have a tremendous financial positive impact on every team — the northern teams spend a lot of money the first four weekends getting on airplanes and traveling their entire roster down to warm weather climates. Those warm-weather teams are paying large financial guarantees for those cold-weather teams to come down and play.”
Bakich also said the data shows attendance numbers in all parts of the country increase as the season progresses. If the season is moved back, cold-weather teams could have more home games, another opportunity to generate more revenue.
“February and March just do not make sense to play college baseball games,” Bakich said. “A collegiate fan can only invest their energy so many ways, and it’s basketball season. Conference tournaments are heating up, March Madness is heating up, and you have these marketing departments at these schools that can only be stretched in so many directions. They’re marketing basketball as they should, not baseball. You have the general fan that doesn’t associate baseball season until the major league season starts, which is April. That’s when it’s baseball season.”
Similar proposals have been floated around in the past but didn’t gain much steam, mainly because they were focused on competitive equity, with changes benefitting programs in the northern half of the country.
Bakich said this proposal derived from conversations with other Big Ten coaches, but the conversation has grown to included coaches from other regions. Bakich said his fellow head coaches at Vanderbilt, TCU, UCLA and Louisville support the plan.
While there have been some detractors of the proposal, Bakich said most coaches he has been in contact with have been receptive to the idea.
The next stage, Bakish said, is to propose legislation which would eventually have to be approved by the NCAA Division I Council. The goal is to have these changes take place by the 2022 season.
“We completely changed the point of view for this and we shifted the point of view to a warm-weather school,” Bakich said. “We knew the only way this would have traction and legs is if this was a proposal that benefitted everybody. We really needed to show the warm-weather schools why this benefited them and why this was important for them to consider. That really moved the needle more than anything when people saw.
“This isn’t the same old competitive equity proposal we’ve seen in the past. The only reason weather is mentioned is because it affects money for attendance and it affects travel budgets early in the season.”
The other two main pillars in the proposal are student welfare and academic success.
Under current rules, college teams only have a five-week ramp-up period to prepare for the season, with activity reduced to eight hours per week for two of those weeks.
The new calendar will provide nine weeks of ramp-up time with the hopes of reducing injuries, especially among pitchers.
On the academic side, players would be required to be on campus for nearly 11 months during the year, but they also would get more time off in the fall and not miss as much class time during the season. On average, cold-weather schools miss up to eight class days traveling the first few weeks of the season and 14 overall. Under the new model, those players, in most instances, would only miss an average of four class days.
Starting the season later allows student-athletes more time to get their academics in order early in the semester before the season starts.
Bakich said he shared the proposal to his upperclassmen, and the feedback was mostly positive.
“They were they were very excited about it, as they should be,” Bakich said. “As a cold-weather team, not that we need the season moved back to have any type of success, but the idea of Ray Fisher stadium, if it was a game in June. I mean, are you kidding me? That would be so awesome.
“So I think they’re excited about that. And the feedback from the coaches and talking to their own players has been super positive as well. Not everybody. Same with the coaches. Not everybody going to be all in for it. But again, this isn’t a one size fits all. This is a one size fits most.”
One potential hurdle to overcome is the recruiting impact of the new model. The new timeline could limit the window for coaches to recruit in the summer when the season runs through July.
However, Bakich, whose team reached the College World Series final in 2019, noted that 235 of 299 Division I teams would be done with their seasons by the end of June, still allowing ample time to recruit and host summer camps.
He also believes making a deep postseason run will remain an integral recruiting tool.
“As a coach who went through the postseason last year, I would take that trade off of having all the recruits watch us on TV in the postseason than (them) go and sit and watch some random tournament on some backfield in some complex any day,” Bakich said. “It’s a trade-off. There is a huge recruiting advantage to having everyone watch you on TV through the postseason, but for those teams that are making the postseason run, it does minimize their opportunities to be out recruiting.”
In the end, Bakich has long been a proponent of moving back the baseball season and believes it makes even more sense during the current climate of college athletics.
“Always in my head it made sense,” he said. “My opinion, exercising my common sense said, ‘This is so stupid. Why are we playing college baseball on Valentine’s Day in the dead of winter?’
“Thinking back to my time at Clemson and Vanderbilt and growing up in California, it’s cold everywhere in February, not just being in the Midwest. This has given me the opportunity and these coaches the opportunity to actually do the research.”