Baseball is a notoriously regional college sport, but it still does big business for the NCAA.
It’s a top-five revenue-generating sport in Division I and is the third-most sponsored sport across all divisions. Game two of the 2018 College World Series Final only trailed the College Football Playoff Final and the NCAA National Championship game in men’s basketball in viewership. The nation’s appetite for college baseball is clear.
And still, powerful members of NCAA Division 1 want to treat their programs like ones in Class S high schools.
The NCAA submitted a proposal to the conferences late in fall 2018 that would allow schools to convert one of their volunteer coaches to a paid assistant role. Currently, college baseball is allowed a head coach and two paid assistants for their 35-man rosters, a 12:1 player-coach ratio that is the worst in NCAA sports. A third paid assistant would make the ratio 8.75:1 — still the worst, but much closer to men’s and women’s soccer, the second-highest ratio at 8:1.
It seems like a no-brainer. Schools would be able to invest more heavily in their programs, producing higher-quality baseball across the board.
Adding a third paid assistant would help programs with recruiting (where volunteers are currently not allowed to participate), increase the quality of coaching across the board, and provide more inroads for aspiring coaches in a profession where it’s tough to break through, which would increase diversity in its ranks. Similar to unpaid internships, it’s tough for people without a support structure to give their time to advance their career without compensation.
This proposal hit home for UConn head coach Jim Penders especially, who got his start as a graduate assistant at UConn in 1997.
“Now we don’t have enough entry-level positions that pay something at least — health benefits or a stipend — at least to get started and I really regret that, because you want to make it better for the people that come after you,” Penders said. “When you climb the ladder you don’t pull the ladder up after you’re done with it.”
Not all schools see it that way, however. Big Ten athletic directors voted against this proposal 13-1. Their vote doesn’t sink the proposal entirely, but it counts for more as a Power Five conference and other small conferences could follow suit.
It’s true that Big Ten schools are at an inherent disadvantage in the sport already due to geography. Like UConn, Big Ten schools start out the season for almost a month on the road in warmer climates, and don’t get the benefit of practicing outside until nearly March.
College baseball isn’t a profitable sport for these schools, so it’s entirely possible that these athletic departments don’t want to sink more money into these programs, but their athletic budgets are massive — each school received over $50 million in TV revenue last year.
If they wanted to reap the benefits of a third assistant, the cost would be inconsequential and would help lessen the gap with some southern schools that can’t afford to commit the extra investment.
But since they overwhelmingly shot down the third assistant proposal, not only does the Big Ten not want to commit the smallest bit financially to college baseball, they have historically wanted the entire sport to bend around them as well.
In 2012, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney proposed a split season for college baseball, allowing schools to play 16 conference games in the fall. It was an uphill battle, of course, as this would cut significantly into the prime recruiting time for baseball programs and would only benefit half the league.
It’s a fair proposal with pros and cons, but comes off as sour grapes to fans of a program like UConn’s, which has experienced just as many weather-related hardships as any Big Ten school with a fraction of the athletics budget, and has experienced arguably more success than any of them in recent years.
This feeling is magnified when the Big Ten won’t vote for proposals like the third assistant which would only benefit the sport.
“I know the Big Ten coaches wanted it, so I have no idea, I can’t get inside their heads. I’ve got a tough enough job figuring out when to bunt or hit and run, I don’t ever want to put myself in an athletic director’s shoes,” Penders said. “They certainly have the resources in the Big Ten to afford that and I think they’re doing the game a real disservice.”
If Big Ten programs aren’t willing to pass a rule that would benefit the entire sport because they aren’t willing to make a small financial commitment, they should evaluate whether they really want to support baseball programs to begin with.
Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.