With the College World Series (CWS) brackets announced this week, much of the media attention will center on which teams made the field of 64 and projecting who will win the championship in Omaha, Nebraska. However, the real discussion should focus on recent indications that college baseball is on the rise.
College football and basketball are commonly referred to as the "revenue sports" for their potential to generate profits for their universities, while baseball and all other NCAA sports typically lose money. But that hasn't stopped major media companies from increasing their bets on college baseball.
This past season, ESPN set a record for airing 151 regular season games, meaning that more college baseball games were broadcast in 2013 than ever before.
This milestone comes in the wake of ESPN having committed $500 million in 2011 for the rights to broadcast the CWS (and other college sports championships) through the 2023-24 season.
Clearly, the "worldwide leader in sports" (ESPN) sees upside in college baseball and is actively expanding its distribution.
With wide-scale demand growing, college baseball is also bolstered by a strong talent pool.
High School Athletes Want to Play College Baseball
According to NCAA research, the total number college baseball players has risen every year but one over the past decade, even with a struggling economy and some college teams having been terminated.
Some attribute this strong interest to the alluring metrics of Major League Baseball (MLB), where most college baseball players aspire to advance.
- MLB has the largest draft, resulting in college baseball players being 10 times more likely to become professionals; the NCAA's 2011 report showed that 11.6 percent of college baseball players go pro compared to 1.7 percent of college football players to the NFL and 1.2 percent of college basketball players to the NBA.
- MLB players enjoy average careers of 5.6 years, compared to the NFL's 3.2 years and the NBA's 4.8 years.
- In 2012, the MLB's $3.2 million average annual salary was 68 percent higher than the NFL's $1.7 million, though smaller than the NBA's average.
From a macro perspective, the college baseball market is inherently valuable because it supplies human capital to the second highest grossing professional sports entity in America: MLB. Major League Baseball generated over $7.7 billion in 2012, topped only by the NFL's $9.5 billion.
Colleges are Taking Action
Recognizing college baseball's upside, universities are investing in the future.
The University of Oregon, one of the nation's most profitable athletic departments, added a baseball team in 2009. The program has quickly become a perennial championship contender and has even hosted televised CWS regional games.
Perhaps the gold standard in college baseball is Louisiana State University (LSU), which has yielded an estimated $2 million profit in some seasons. LSU's success has encouraged other college teams around the country to invest in their programs, often improving their facilities and providing a better fan experience.
For example, the University of Washington is among those programs making improvements, currently dedicating millions of dollars to upgrade its stadium.
While it's unlikely that college baseball will be able to contend with the dominance of football and basketball anytime soon, the market is growing steadily.
For viewers, wider distribution is helping them enjoy more games. Meanwhile, college baseball remains popular, and even more college teams may be able to generate income.
However, the biggest growth factor may stem from FOX Sports Media Group's (FSMG) recent announcement of FOX Sports 1 which launches in August to compete with ESPN. Being that there is a finite supply of college sports programming, there may one day be a bidding war for the rights to broadcast college baseball games, dramatically expanding the college baseball industry.