Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich, with input from prominent coaches around the country, has produced a 35-page proposal that, if adopted, would reshape the college baseball schedule while substantially reducing operating costs of individual programs.
The ambitious plan, called the “New Baseball Model,” was unveiled Thursday and conceivably could be in place by 2022 once it goes through layers of legislation on the NCAA level.
In this plan, the season would start third Friday in March — it began in mid-February this year — and end the third weekend in June. The College World Series would be held in July.
Knowing what likely lies ahead for baseball programs and funding in large part a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Bakich began the conversation and found baseball coaches across the country echoing and supporting his sentiments. They agreed they need to be pro-active.
“We know we're going to have a short-term impact with decreased budgets, but we may not like some of the long-term impact if we don't do something to get ahead of this,” Bakich said Friday during a video conference with a small group of reporters.
Bakich, who last summer during the Wolverines’ World Series run sparked national headlines when he spoke to the diversity of his team, and that the roster “should look like the United States of America,” said he has been thinking awhile about a number of changes to improve the game in terms of financial viability and stability.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which suspended all college athletics just as Michigan was about to open its baseball and softball home seasons in mid-March, Bakich said there is an even greater need to make baseball less of a financial drain on athletic departments. And just in the last week, Bowling Green and Furman have cut their baseball programs to quell some of the financial bleeding in those athletic departments because of the pandemic.
“The impetus of this proposal, it's a combination of having the time to do it with coaches from around the country, and it's also adjusting to what life after this pandemic is going to be,” Bakich said. “And everybody is doing a self-audit right now from professional teams to companies and corporations, athletic departments, and certainly individual programs.
“College baseball, as a whole, operates at such a significant financial net loss, that we felt like this adjustment was absolutely necessary. Creating a new model is something that needed to be done in our sport in order just to be financially sustainable, as athletic departments are looking for ways to be more financially sustainable themselves with the unknowns of what football season is going to look like, and what type of attendance are we going to have, and so on and so on.”
Bakich, a former college baseball player, became Michigan head coach in June 2012. He took a “cold weather” team to a World Series runner-up finish to Vanderbilt last summer, but unlike other competitive-equity proposals that have made weather the main issue, this focuses on three points — finances, academics and student welfare.
“Exercising my common sense I said, ‘This is so stupid. Why are we playing college baseball on Valentine's Day in the dead of winter?’" Bakich said. “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.”
He started to compile data and recorded the attendance from every box score from every home game for the last five years.
“And I suck at typing, so you can imagine how long that took to input every stupid attendance number in there, but it was very necessary and very important because it's factual data and it allowed us to draw these conclusions and sorted by month,” he said.
It was important because baseball coaches only see an average attendance for the year. This way he was able to show trends — people aren’t rushing to college baseball games anywhere in March, he concluded, in large part because of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, not to mention the weather. And while students attend games, their biggest pool of spectators is families.
“Here's what the data says,” Bakich shared with coaches. “If you don't want to get behind it, don't get behind it, but this is the data.”
Using Michigan baseball as an example for finances, Bakich calculated his program spent an average $232,000 in the last five years for the first four weeks of each baseball season.
Because the season starts so early and it’s impossible to play here in February and early March, the team must travel to Florida or other warm-weather destinations to play, and the host schools pay large financial guarantees for the visiting schools. With this proposal, Bakich said $60,000 to $75,000 could be shaved from expenses.
“The data and the information says that college baseball attendance is better in April and May than it is in February and March,” Bakich said. "February and March just do not make sense to play college baseball games. A collegiate fan can only invest their energy so many ways, and it's basketball season.
"Conference tournaments are heating up and March Madness is heating up. And you have these marketing departments at these schools that can only be stretched in so many directions and they're marketing basketball as they should, not baseball.
“Yet the general fan doesn't associate baseball season until the major league season starts, which is April. That's when it's baseball season. So if we can make our season start as close to that model as possible, that's what the data says when the fans show up. In showing some of the warm weather teams, their attendance data, it increases in some cases by a lot, even a triple-digit margin. But everybody on average, is seeing an increase, a really nice increase as the season goes on.”
Bakich said athletic directors have been discussing altering schedules across all sports to more regional competition to save travel costs.
For Michigan baseball next season, Bakich already has made one significant change. Instead of flying to Florida, the team will take a 10-hour bus ride to and from Clemson for a series.
“It's not going to be fun, but it's something that we feel like from a cost-saving standpoint we can do,” Bakich said. “And that's an exception we can make for a year. That's not something you can do every year from here on out. But this new model does allow you that flexibility to play more home games early in the year. And if you wanted to take some regional trips and get on a bus and go down to Kentucky or Tennessee or Ohio or something like that, you certainly could.”
He said his players have rallied around the proposal. Although the season is extended four weeks into the summer, they see they can have more home games, between eight to 12, each season. They also get four weeks back in the fall, which gives them more of a true offseason.
“It allows more time for personal time, more of a scholastic focus not rushing into athletic activity,” Bakich said. “They were very excited about it, as they should because, as a cold-weather team, not that we need the season moved back to have any type of success, but the idea of packing Ray Fisher stadium with a game in June, are you kidding me? That would be so awesome. They’re excited about that. And the feedback from the coaches of talking to their own players has been super positive, as well.”
Bakich knows there are many hoops to go through before this plan can be implemented, but the financial impact of this pandemic is hitting every athletic department, and that could enhance the possibilities of this moving forward.
He also knows this has to be a joint initiative and not just a Big Ten proposal because then it will look like a competitive-equity/weather proposal, and it can’t be from the SEC, he said, “where people perceive the rich conference just keeps getting richer.”
"This has to be college coaches coming together for the betterment of our sport in the long-term sustainability and growth of our sport,” Bakich said. “And that's what we've been doing. We've been rallying the coaches, trying to get the coaches from not only the Power Five but from the mid-majors and people from all parts of the country to weigh in and get behind this.
“Right now, it seems like the majority is in favor of it. We knew we wouldn't get everybody. It's not a one-size-fits-all-type of a model, but it is a one size fits most.”