Sunday, August 14, 2022

Baseball or football? Posing a difficult question to Ole Miss, Oklahoma fans at Men’s College World Series

OMAHA, Nebraska — The popularity of college baseball is a reliable source of dismay among fans and observers of the sport. The reality is that, while college baseball has risen above the niche status of not so long ago, it’s not close to as lucrative or sought-after as football or basketball, the two flagship men’s sports at the collegiate level. 

In a vacuum, this wouldn’t be especially notable, but the relatively laggard standing of college baseball is in contrast to the strong and steady draw of Major League Baseball. While the National Football League is in its own stratosphere, MLB has claim to being the No. 2 team sport in the United States in terms of total revenues (and occasional claim on that same spot when it comes to favored status among the American populace). While the popularity of college football and college basketball roughly tracks that of the professional variants, that’s not the case with baseball. 

There are a number of possible reasons for this. One that stands out is the strongly regional nature of college baseball. Because the season begins in February, teams in northern climes almost uniformly play the early weeks on the road. By the time outdoor temps can be characterized as “baseball-worthy,” schools in, say, the Big Ten are close to emptying their campuses for summer break. This is much less of an issue in the south, but it no doubt dampens the popularity of college baseball outside the SEC and certain corners of the Big 12 and ACC. 

That said, things are trending in a more positive direction. ESPN has invested in more frequent regular-season telecasts of college baseball, and a number of name programs have invested in upgraded facilities in recent years. Also, the emergence of NIL (name, image and likeness) revenue streams for players could help college baseball better cope with the reality that Division I teams get a measly 11.7 scholarships with which to fill out their entire rosters. 

All of that brings us to the 2022 Men’s College World Series in Omaha and our forthcoming journey into the anecdotal. The Men’s CWS final between Ole Miss and Oklahoma began with Game 1 on Saturday. It’s a match-up of two pronounced football schools, which isn’t all that unusual in Omaha. Ole Miss is a denizen of the mighty SEC West and has re-emerged as a national semi-power under good-for-business coach Lane Kiffin. On the other side, Oklahoma is a college football blue-blood that’s regularly in the mix for one of the sport’s four (for the time being) playoff spots. Also, Sooner enthusiasm is brimming anew since erstwhile coach Lincoln Riley’s stunning departure for Southern Cal. 

So with that football foundation squarely acknowledged, CBS Sports posed a simple hypothetical question to fans of both teams, some tailgating in Lot D outside Omaha’s Charles Schwab Field and some waiting in line to enter for Game 1. The question was this: If you can pick only one, do you choose for your team to win the College World Series that you’re attending or win the college football national championship in the fall?

This of course lacks the rigor of scientific polling. The sample size is not pure, in that these are fans who went to the trouble of attending the Men’s College World Series and paying something of a premium for the privilege. That is, they’re probably inclined to like college baseball quite a bit, even if there’s a preternatural pull toward football if you’re an Ole Miss or OU fan. Even so, it says here that there’s illumination in the casual — at least enough to justify these words and this endeavor. Something like that. 

“I’m going to take baseball,” said T.J., an OU fan from Arkansas, when asked to pick one national title or the other. “We’ve had some success in football. Baseball — I mean, they’ve been all right, but I think this would carry the baseball team further than it would the football team.”

Said OU fan Scott: “Football. We expect to win everything in football. We’re also big OU softball fans, and so to get the ‘double diamond’ win would be monstrous, but we’re always going to be football.”

Scott referred to the fact that Oklahoma softball won the Women’s College World Series this year, which means the Sooners have a strong chance at becoming the first school ever to win the softball and baseball national championships in the same year. 

“I’m more football,” said Wes, a Sooner backer hanging out with Scott. “I think it would be awesome to win this [the CWS], I really do. But to win it all? Football.”

“Both,” Brian attempted to answer in violation of the stated rules while working the grill in Lot D. But then, after a pause. “I’ll take baseball. So we could have back-to-back — the softball team and then the baseball team. No one’s done it.”

“Baseball,” OU fans and spouses Rodney and Carolyn answered almost in unison. 

As for the why: “Because we do it all the time in football,” Rodney said. “Baseball is not supported as much at the university as football. OU women won, and if OU men won it would be awesome.”

“In baseball, no one thought they would be here. They’ve earned it,” said Carolyn, who adds that she’s a lifetime resident of Norman, Okla., where OU is located, and an alum. “They have only one senior to go with four freshmen and three sophomores [in the lineup], and they’re working hard to do it. 

“I think it’s time for a rally in our baseball program. Football has energy, a lot of support, a lot of money, a lot of donors, big stadium. Baseball needs a push, and this is it.”

For those counting that’s four of six OU fans choosing to prevail in Omaha over winning it all in football in a few months. Now for the loyal opposition from deep in the heart of SEC-controlled realms. 

“Ole Miss baseball,” Leigh Ann Haley said. “I just love baseball.”

It must be noted that there is perhaps some predisposition with Ms. Haley, as her son Harrison pitches for Delta State

“Football,” Ole Miss fan Gene Gray said. “Let’s beat the hell out of Alabama.” 

“I’m going to have to go football,” said one nearby Ole Miss fan, name withheld, who pre-gamed with Leigh Ann and Gene. “I don’t know, I’m just football. Played it all my life. One reason, you know, is Mississippi State won the natty last year, but they’ve never won it in football. That’s bragging rights if we won it in football.”

“I’m going to say because we’re here, we want to win right now — baseball,” said Mandy, an Ole Miss fan from Hattiesburg, Miss. (home of Southern Miss, whom Ole Miss swept in the super regionals). 

“I’d say I’d rather win the football national championship,” said Mandy’s husband, Brad, who approached the question pragmatically. “That’s because I think we’ll be back here. Our chances of winning a football national championship are much slimmer than getting back to Omaha and getting another shot at this one.”

Of the five Ole Miss fans polled, two chose utmost baseball glory, and three went with football. Combine both sample populations, and six of 11 — 54.5 percent — went with baseball. Promising? Maybe. To be sure, if you presented a similar question to fans attending the college football championship game, then football would almost certainly be the unanimous answer. That said, this isn’t a canvassing of the rare “baseball uber alles” schools like Vanderbilt and Oregon State. OU and Ole Miss are indisputably football-driven sports institutions, but prior to the opener of Men’s CWS final their partisans leaned toward baseball, albeit barely and perhaps temporarily.

If you’re college baseball, the neglected middle child among men’s amateur sports, you’ll take enthusiasm in all its forms.

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