On their College World Series run last year, the Wolverines defined themselves by having played in the cold. Michigan Athletics’ social media released hype videos of the team practicing in a snowy outfield, of players who could see their breath. It was a point of pride.
Despite this pride, playing in the cold isn’t the best for the program’s bottom line, and northern programs struggle to catch up to their southern counterparts. Michigan baseball head coach Erik Bakich is leading a group of coaches trying to fix that.
The plan, as reported by D1Baseball.com, is simple: move the date of the first game back by four weeks so college baseball has a mid-March opening day and a late July championship series. The plan maintains the current early January first practice, allowing teams significantly more ramp-up time. The goal would be to implement this schedule shift for the 2022 season. The twin goals: financial stability across college baseball and improved student-athlete welfare.
In the past 10 years, just four schools from primarily northern conferences have reached the College World Series: Michigan in 2019, Indiana and the Big East version of Louisville in 2013, and Stony Brook in 2012. (Oregon State qualified three times in that span and Washington once, but they play in a warm weather conference). That’s half a percent of the 80 teams that qualified in that decade.
With the season starting in mid-February, Michigan is forced to spend the first month of every season on the road. For the vast majority of the non-conference season, they bat first in an unfamiliar park. While Michigan specifically has weathered that storm very well of late, typically having a winning non-conference record, it can leave good teams starting conference play with an uphill battle from an RPI perspective.
The differing ability to host non-conference games means the warm-weather teams have a revenue source northern teams simply do not. It’s often still cold in late March and early April when the conference season opens, depressing attendance and sinking revenue further. That revenue gap is compounded by increased travel costs northern teams incur having to constantly ferry back and forth from the south and west throughout February and March. With fewer home games and drivable road games, northern teams operate at a larger loss than their southern counterparts.
While it may be an advantage they can host games at all, so-called warm weather teams also face attendance challenges in the early season. Vanderbilt, Michigan’s College World Series opponent, hosted 11 games prior to the cancellation of the season. Just three of them were played at a temperature above 55, and six were played at 50 or below. Per Bakich’s report, 100 percent of D1 teams experience attendance bumps after March. Payouts to away teams are also on the rise, as northern teams ask for steep guarantees to cover travel costs.
The arrangement isn’t working for the haves or have-nots, and Bakich’s proposal to move back the season changes the paradigm. While certainly it’s still cold in mid-March in Ann Arbor, Michigan already schedules home games during the weekend of the proposed season opener. A later season would significantly expand opportunities for Michigan and other cold-weather teams to host non-conference games, allowing them to generate revenue earlier in the season and play host to a more diverse array of teams.
It would also allow them to schedule more convenient road games, saving on travel costs. Instead of four weeks of far flung trips to Texas, Florida and California, Michigan could do one big trip to an event like the MLB4 Tournament, a home series, a cheap trip to South Bend and another home series before Big Ten play starts. (My non-conference scheduling suggestion in every sport is “play Notre Dame more”.)
Warm-weather teams could also host primarily regional non-conference games, allowing them to have smaller payouts because their opponents are spending less on travel. Warm-weather teams already see their attendance go up throughout the season. Even in the south, it can still be cold early in the year, and playing more of the season when the weather is perfect should correlate to increased revenue.
Bakich’s report notes there is a big spike in injuries early in any given MLB season, while once the players stretch out, injuries stabilize. With only five weeks of practice before the college opening day, and only three weeks of full team practices, the report suggests there is a strong correlation between improper ramp-up time and college baseball injuries. Adding four more weeks of practice would allow more time for players to get in game shape and ideally decrease early-season injuries.
The other major area of student-athlete welfare the plan addresses is academics. Northern players spend the heart of the winter semester constantly travelling, doing homework on airplanes. By pushing back the season, Bakich believes it is possible to design a schedule with just four missed class days. These student-athlete welfare concerns certainly aren’t a specifically northern concern, and are one way this proposal addresses the needs of all of college baseball, not just the northern teams.
One potential benefit of a calendar shift is an increased spotlight on college baseball. College baseball’s competition isn’t really the majors and minors, its other college sports. Too much of the season happens during basketball season, when fans aren’t just watching their team, they’re watching as much of the tournament as possible. Pushing the season back could give baseball its own spotlight. And by aligning better with the MLB calendar, fans are more focused on baseball in general. Bakich hopes some of that focus might rub off on the college game.
There are, of course, drawbacks. By being the last team on campus, the school would need to feed players and continue housing the ones who live on-campus. This could be a significant cost, especially at smaller schools less likely to get the revenue bump of hosting non-conference games.
There are also concerns about how it affects other baseball. Summer leagues stock their rosters with college players and typically start during what would now be the NCAA Tournament. They would likely have to start their seasons before the tournament ended, allowing players from tournament teams to join later.
Bakich came from big-time college baseball, and awoke a sleeping giant. He knows northern baseball has no ceiling and Michigan isn’t the only team with the resources to compete. His proposal levels the playing field, while providing benefits to cold- and warm-weather teams alike. While it might be a long way from passage, it’s a huge first step to helping college baseball reach its potential.