It is an underappreciated stepchild lost amongst professional sports of the spring, this college baseball. Competing against everything from MLB, the Stanley Cup Finals, and the NBA Playoffs to spring football in some places, the competitive games, and potential future MLB stars, get lost in the mix. The sport on the collegiate level also suffers from the ills of weather, especially in the Northeast, that make promotion of the game an afterthought.
However this week, at 16 regional sites, the NCAA Baseball Tournament begins. The double elimination first rounds provide as much excitement, drama and even upsets as March Madness with not even a blip of the notoriety outside of the host markets in many cases. Yet it can easily be argued that there will be as many, if not more, elite professional athletes playing in this year’s NCAA Tournament than at any point during the men’s hoops field. Yet on a quiet Memorial Day weekend ESPN’s airwaves were full of World’s Strongest Man and pool and dance competitions and even NCAA softball, with some college baseball (which was having its post-season conference tournaments) to be found.
So why doesn’t baseball’s elite college event get the recognition of hoops, or football or hockey or even lacrosse? Few reasons.
Timing: The NCAA baseball season runs right into so many other events on the spring calendar that it has trouble cutting through the clutter. Even the selection show for the tournament was held on Memorial Day, not exactly a prime time for gathering attention. The tournament then runs over a period of weeks, not days, after the first round, so fans wanting to follow lost the continuity of what is going on. There is also the not easy to follow format of super regionals and extra byes before one even gets to the college World Series (an extravaganza in Omaha worth attending and buying into by the way), making it very difficult for even a casual fan to keep up with. Even on college campuses, the post season falls after kids have gone home, not just fans by media relations staff, making it a chore to garner support and attention for teams that are very deserving.
Media Coverage: Again baseball falls into an abyss in many places. Regional networks have cut back on regular season and postseason baseball coverage because of finances, leaving media with a hard time to find compelling stories and then place them. While schools do a good job with website coverage, the use of social media to promote college baseball is growing, with many smaller schools deferring to coverage of other sports. Also because in the east much of the college baseball season is of the daytime variety, the lack of even radio coverage, online radio coverage, is almost non-existent.
Now this is different in college towns in the South and West where college baseball is treated as a revenue generator and has a tradition of coverage and a following, but for a large part of the country the media are left in the dark when it comes to the best college baseball stories.
Revenue: Because of all of the above, college baseball for a large part is not anywhere near a moneymaker for most schools. No gate receipts or TV money exist, and sponsorships, if they are sold, barely help to defray the cost of running a program, save for a few. Could that change with economies of scale? Perhaps. But it would take a commitment not seen outside of the South or West since the University of Maine devoted a large effort to grow its baseball program in the 1970’s and 1980’s (with great success for a while as well).
So with all that going against it, why is the NCAA Baseball Tournament, especially the Regionals, an interesting play for consumer brands.
Quality of Play: There are at least one upset per regional in the first two rounds of play. Fordham over Arkansas? Manhattan over Nebraska and Joba Chamberlain? Penn over Michigan? You bet. Also amongst those lower level qualifiers there is always bound to be a star that few had heard of yet who will emerge as a bone fide All-Star in the future. A Jeff Bagwell or a Craig Biggio. Also amongst the elite baseball programs the quality of play is of the high minor league variety, so you get quite a mix of talent. So why the upsets? A hot pitcher or maybe a dearth of scouting, can bring the Northeast qualifier a surprise win, something that in the over scouted, overanalyzed world of football and hoops, rarely happens. Yes March Madness is about Cinderella, but even Cinderella is not a real stranger to those who follow the brackets.
Attendance: Because each regional site is a hotbed of collegiate baseball, the crowds are usually strong with local support. Now while there can be neutral sites which may be able to support a regional from time to time (and it has happened in the past), the best atmosphere still occurs at the sites that properly manage and market the game of college baseball. Sometimes that is an unfair advantage for those in the Northeast, but it is for the most part smart business, and leads to a solid competitive atmosphere.
Affordability: Because the stadia are scaled small, the dates are set and the expectations are not overly high for brands coming in on a regional level, the ability to execute effectively is not that hard. You do need brands that are NCAA approved and are willing to invest at some financial level, but getting a fun promotion executed that assists a regional brand over a number of days can be very cost effective.
Ground Floor Access: College baseball is established as a sport. It does not have to be explained, and it provides a high level of play, with a host of stars in the making. There are few brands that have seen it yet as an effective platform, so the ability to tailor and capture start up ideas with a well understood event makes for a very interesting challenge.
So there you have it. Now make no mistake that college baseball will never be the huge media or consumer hit that other team sports are. Also its annual World Series in Omaha as mentioned, is a well funded, well executed event on its own. The Regionals however, remain an area of opportunity for brands looking to get in with baseball for a short stint and test their viability. You have a passionate and well attended event with personalities usually from across the country, and an ROI that can be easy to track. Is it for everyone? No. But for the right brand, especially one looking to connect with the sport of baseball, its traditions and its passions, the NCAA Tournament can still be a great untested platform.