Resources, revenue on deck for college baseball
The University of Florida two months ago committed $65 million to build a new baseball stadium that will open in 2021. Oklahoma State will debut its own $60 million ballpark in 2020. And on Feb. 26 Kentucky will play the first game in its sparkling new $50 million stadium.
That represents only the latest round of massive spending in college baseball, which opens its season this week.
Look no further than those examples to see how college baseball’s profile has changed in the last decade, and the financial commitment schools are making to be competitive, both on the field and in the facility arms race. It’s no longer accurate to refer to baseball as one of the non-revenue sports in college athletics. Schools are making money and spending it on baseball like never before.
“I always thought baseball made a ton of sense,” said Scott Stricklin, Florida’s athletic director. “It’s a sport everybody knows with brands everybody knows, so it just seems like a natural for this kind of growth.”
■ Season begins: Feb. 15
■ Preseason No. 1: Vanderbilt (Baseball America)
■ College World Series: June 15-26 in Omaha
No leader in college athletics has been more bullish on baseball’s potential than Stricklin. And he’s one of a growing number of ADs who has backed up his words with his actions.
One of Stricklin’s last duties as AD at Mississippi State before taking the Florida job in 2016 was to work on the design for the $64 million renovation of Dudy Noble Field, the nation’s largest on-campus baseball stadium, which is capable of holding more than 15,000 fans.
Now in his third year as chief Gator, Stricklin is at it again, working with Populous to design a state-of-the-art stadium for Florida’s program, which has been to four straight College World Series and won the 2017 national title. It’ll be smaller than Dudy Noble but with a capacity of 7,000 it is an increase over the current stadium and will feature at least four varieties of premium seating, indoor-outdoor access and mostly covered seating to give fans a break from the Gainesville sun.
Stricklin projects that ticketing revenue in the new stadium will triple from the current $500,000 a year.
“We’ve seen this kind of arms race in football and basketball before,” said Jason Ford, senior architect at Kansas City-based Populous. “Now, with the additional TV revenue that’s been coming in, we’re seeing some real significant investment in baseball. We’re at the point now where the line is blurred between these top college baseball stadiums and a double-A stadium, even triple-A.”
Ford, who worked with Stricklin on the Mississippi State and Florida projects, said the newer college baseball stadiums have most of the fan amenities as the Atlanta Braves’ new SunTrust Park — suites, club seats, loge seating, picnic terraces, multiple price points — they’re just not as big.
It’s also becoming more common for the top schools to follow the same revenue model in baseball that they do in football and basketball, meaning most of the seats require a donation on top of the ticket price.
Kentucky’s former home in Cliff Hagan Stadium had no premium seating. In the Wildcats’ new Kentucky Proud Park, which opens later this month, season-ticket prices on club seats are $133 each and the corresponding per-seat donation is $375 for a total investment of $508 per seat. All 140 club seats are sold out, not bad for a nontraditional but improving baseball program in one of the SEC’s northernmost states.
While most of the top programs still don’t turn a profit in baseball, many of them in the baseball-crazed SEC are making enough to cover the growing costs of coaches’ salaries, chartered flights and the debt on these newer facilities.
“I can remember not too long ago when baseball was not a priority,” said Ray Tanner, the former South Carolina baseball coach who transitioned into the Gamecocks’ AD chair in 2012 after leading them to back-to-back CWS titles in 2010 and ’11. “As a young coach who was just hoping the sport would grow, I would have never guessed it’d be where it is now. It really has gone through an evolution.”
John Cohen, like Tanner, was a successful baseball coach at Mississippi State before becoming the school’s AD after Stricklin left. He pegs the game’s growth to several factors, starting with the proliferation of games on TV, including both ESPN and conference-branded channels. ESPN says it will broadcast more than 800 games this season across its channels and streaming platforms.
The quality of play also has spiked, Cohen said.
“Fans know so much more now,” Cohen said. “They know that major league players are coming from college baseball at a higher rate than ever before. They know they’re going to see big-time amateur baseball. You go to a game in the SEC, you’re going to see the average fastball over 90. And you’re going to see 27 kids sharing 11.7 scholarships, and some of them gave up a lot of money from a signing bonus to be here. Those kids are here because they want to be. All of that makes a really compelling case for college baseball.”
There remain challenges. Coaches lament the limit of 11.7 scholarships, most of which are sliced and diced to spread across multiple players. And some of the game’s stakeholders would like to see the season move back a month or so, a way to possibly level the playing field for cold-weather schools like those in the Big Ten.
That, however, wasn’t a deterrent for Boise State, which added baseball for the 2020 season with a budget of $600,000 that will grow to $1 million over a to-be-determined number of years, based on how the program progresses. That sits in stark contrast to the national trend of cutting sports to save money.
“We’re a baseball town,” Broncos AD Curt Apsey said.