Long before inventing the minor leagues and signing Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in the majors, a young Branch Rickey spent four years at the University of Michigan. From 1910-13, he coached the baseball team and completed work toward his law degree.
That factoid came to mind this week after Erik Bakich, the Wolverines’ current baseball coach, displayed Rickey-like vision with the release of his so-called “New Baseball Model,” a 35-page document designed to level the national playing field between warm-weather and cold-weather schools and improve the solvency of a sport increasingly at risk amid the economic uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In recent days, athletic directors at Bowling Green State and Furman universities announced they were dropping their varsity baseball programs after 105 and 124 years, respectively. The Falcons, a Mid-American Conference member based in Ohio, sent the likes of Orel Hershiser and Roger McDowell to the majors, where both men became World Series winners in the 1980s and later successful pitching coaches.
Furman, a Southern Conference member based in Greenville, S.C., last reached the NCAA Tournament in 2005.
In Bowling Green’s case, dropping baseball will mean an annual savings of $500,000. For a university projecting an overall deficit of $29 million for the upcoming fiscal year, every potential dollar in cost cutting helps.
Bakich’s plan, hatched in conjunction with his counterparts at such college baseball powers as Vanderbilt, Louisville, UCLA and Texas Christian, calls for the start of the 2022 season to be pushed back more than a month to the third Friday in March.
In Michigan’s case, that could shave $140,000 in net travel costs by eliminating early-season trips to face warm-weather opponents. The College World Series wouldn’t end until late July under this plan, but there has already been talk in the professional game about pushing back the amateur draft from early June to around Aug. 1.
In 2021, instead of flying to Florida as per tradition, the Wolverines have already scheduled a 10-hour bus trip to Clemson for an early-season series.
“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 told reporters in a video news conference. “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.”
A later start to the season would give cold-weather programs an additional eight to 12 home games, according to Bakich’s plan, providing another way to bridge the financial gap. Average attendance in most locales, even those in the Sun Belt, tends to climb significantly as the weather improves around mid-March, according to a five-year study of attendance figures that Bakich conducted.
The plan also calls for four additional weeks off in the fall to help offset a longer run for the spring/summer schedule. The way Bakich and many of his college baseball counterparts see it, this proposal carries academic and logistical benefits as well as financial.
If that’s what it takes to maintain the integrity of the sport, even the warm-weather baseball powers figure to offer their backing. From here it will be up to the various conference commissioners and the NCAA to tweak Bakich’s proposal and carry it to fruition.
“College baseball, as a whole, operates at such a significant financial net loss that we felt like this adjustment was absolutely necessary,” said Bakich, hired in the summer of 2012 and fresh off a runner-up showing at the College World Series. “There’s a lot of teams that could get their programs cut. Everybody is reducing budgets. We knew we had to get something in front of administrators and athletic directors that shows there is an opportunity for growth.”
Source: Forbes Business