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May 29, 2020

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For decades the Gophers’ John Anderson has been advocating a later calendar start to college baseball’s season. Minnesota’s head baseball coach since 1981 thought a change might be coming about 20 years ago when Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany was taking up the cause.

Delany was about to meet with power brokers from other conferences in early September of 2001. Then the terrorism of September 11 rocked America and changed the direction of priorities in countless ways including a proposal that was to dramatically alter college baseball.

This winter the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and shuttered sports including college baseball. The Gophers stopped play in mid-March, finishing with an 8-10 record—all nonconference games. All of a sudden the Big Ten baseball coaches had time to think about the future of their sport.

Even before the pandemic most college sports, including baseball, had financial issues. Hardly any programs make money, and most operate at a large deficit. Anderson said he has a $1.8 million budget, with $200,000 in revenues. In the Big Ten, Wisconsin dropped its program years ago. This spring Bowling Green and Furman pulled the plug on baseball, and Anderson calls this “a scary time for mid-majors.”

The financial issues in most college sports, including scholarships, staff salaries, facilities, and travel weigh heavier than ever now, with the uncertainty of when and how the “cash cows” of college football and basketball will resume play and with what box office results. The University of Minnesota has 25 intercollegiate sports but historically only football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey have been money makers. Their revenues have long carried the total Athletic Department budget.

Because of the pandemic, the Gopher Athletic Department has been forecasting tens of millions of dollars in future losses, with a worst case number of $70 million. Everyone wonders at Minnesota and elsewhere what kinds of measures will be taken to deal with deficits including the most extreme of options—eliminating some nonrevenue sports.

Anderson told Sports Headliners this week “it will be interesting to see where this thing leads us.” He added, “I think more (baseball) programs are going to be in trouble…so we’ve got to get busy here and find ways to make our sport better from a financial standpoint.”

He and his Big Ten coaching colleagues have accepted the challenge this spring by talking about changing their sport’s annual calendar. With extra time available (no coaching or recruiting), they have been meeting weekly via Zoom calls. The result has been a 35-page proposal that remakes the Division 1 college baseball calendar with potential benefits not only to finances but also student academics and health.

The Gopher coach provided research for the “New Baseball Model” document written this spring, a collaborative effort involving many others, too, including Michigan coach Erik Bakich. The model suggests the college baseball season begin the third week of March, with the schedule continuing into late June. The first round of the NCAA Tournament would be played in early July and lead to determining a national champion later that month—a period when there is not a glut of TV sports programming and interest in spectator sports.

Contrast that schedule proposal with this year that had teams like the Gophers starting play in February and ending the regular season before Memorial Day. Even in February and March weather is a crapshoot for college baseball teams including in the south. Cold, wind and precipitation can keep fans away from games at Minnesota or other places in early spring.

What Anderson and others believe is better weather for more games will generate not only increased ticket sales, but also improved revenues such as concessions and parking. The later start to the season, it’s argued, will mean college baseball doesn’t have to compete with basketball’s “March Madness,” and college baseball will more directly align with spring interest in pro baseball. The timing of becoming a spring-summer sport, Anderson said, will also enhance programming for the Big Ten Network whose broadcast opportunities are normally more limited toward the end of the school year.

Promoting college baseball in the spring and summer could be coming at the right time with the predicted demise of minor league baseball franchises for financial reasons. If teams fold, that will leave a void for baseball in many markets, and one that college baseball will sometimes fill.

In a new college baseball world, Anderson and many other coaches across the country see not only revenues going up, but expenses being reduced. The Gophers and other northern teams annually travel south in March for games, hoping for warm weather. Anderson said four weekends can cost $200,000 or more in expenses.

John Anderson

But a later start to the season would put the focus on early regional nonconference games where Minnesota might travel no further than Nebraska for games against Nebraska-Omaha and Creighton. In a new schedule scenario the Gophers might not have any annual airplane travel, or just one trip, Anderson said.

Anderson talks about increasing revenues, reducing expenses and being what he terms less of a “burden” on the Minnesota Athletic Department. “That’s going to be critical going forward here because I don’t think it will ever be the same financially after this (period) is over with,” he said.

The “New Baseball Model” says the current college baseball calendar that has players juggling time early in the winter/spring semester “forces numerous days of missed classes.” The later start to the baseball schedule (winter/spring semesters typically end in May) will allow student-athletes to miss fewer classes and focus more on academics, according to the plan. It’s also emphasized that the new calendar will provide increased training and preparation time for the season that now starts more hurriedly. A reduction in injuries is hoped for.

While the “New Baseball Model” project started in the Big Ten and has received support from the league’s athletic directors, the approval of at least four of the five major college conferences will be needed to enact legislation by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The earliest approval could come from the NCAA would be in the fall and then the new model might be in place in 2022. “I think we’ve got a great chance to get the legislation passed,” Anderson said.

Hopefully, Anderson will still be coaching by then. He is revered by so many admirers in Minneapolis and other places. Sometimes affectionately referred to as “14” (his uniform number), he has won 11 Big Ten titles and more games than any baseball coach in conference history. He cares deeply about his sport and student-athletes. His sincerity and class speak louder than the thoughtful words he uses to express himself.

Anderson has another year remaining on a contract that ends in June of 2021. What happens then? “I’d like to (continue on), but obviously we’re in very difficult times right now,” he said. “I don’t think anybody is talking about any contracts. They’re just trying to figure out how to keep the ship afloat here, and find out if there is going to be football in the fall.”

Then Anderson switches topics to one more important to him now. He is looking forward to the time when he can work with his players again. “We’re going to be way behind in player development, so can’t wait to get them back on campus where we have an opportunity to get back to work. I hope it’s going to be in the fall.”

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

(1) Reader Comment

  1. avatar
    Ken Lien
    May 29, 2020 at 11:04 am

    Good column Dave....I’m a huge John Anderson fan. I like idea of college baseball (particularly northern teams) starting the season in late March or early April.

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