More people are apt to know who won the Little League World Series rather than its NCAA counterpart. That might function as more of a commentary on over-investment in the outcome of youth sports, but the fact is that Josh The Pilot has more than once flown clients to college football games for a $30,000 single day. (That’s just for the airplane, not the tickets or the ground transport or the tip for the poor sports marketing intern dispatched to personally deliver Insert Local College Restaurant Food Here to the sky box.)

If we are a nation of baseball– and for quite a long time, that’s exactly what we were–then why do we associate pigskin instead of cowhide for the local alma mater?

Just Shinier? 

Given media emphasis on the seeming  indestructibility of baseball, as well as its early appearance in America, it’s understandable to assume that football is simply newer and therefore shinier to the young, with higher payouts. But– wanna know when the first college football game took place? In 1869, between Princeton and Rutgers. That’s the same year the Reds were founded.

Organized baseball was well in place by the 1840s, but in the Ivy League, at least, they were already well on their way to College GameDay. By the 1890s college teams were pulling five figure crowds in the South,  all of them cheering coaches swiped from Northern campuses– most of whom were well aware that their baseball counterparts, without students even on campus to attract attention in the spring and summer, had largely ceded the literal field.

A college campus is a culture. A small stadium shared with eight other motley teams is not.

Money for the Marching Band

The obvious reason  why baseball never quite took root on campus while football shuts down entire towns seems obvious: College teams are the de facto minor league of the NFL, and low-pro baseball teams are left to cobble together promos like Nobody Night  to keep pace.

One could also argue that the competition of baseball is spread too thin. While the larger percentage of MLB players are plucked from the college system rather than the farm, the hyper-local nature of A-AAA teams– an asset in terms of emotional attachment, which can quickly turn to a detriment when it comes to constantly changing parent teams– means that it’s difficult to sustain the sort of wide fanbase necessary to fund a true Big 12 machine.

Packers Fans in the Pubs

Absolutely none of this happens in Europe (they’re too busy with soccer) and it makes sense that football’s distinctly American flavor helps to concentrate its talent on one continent– a continent in which the sport is even more popular in Latin America.

And in addition to our friends in Cuba and the Dominican, baseball must share its on-base percentage kings with Asia. Despite the NFL’s insistence upon barging into England once a year, they’re not exactly waving Packers flags in Gloucestershire.

That’s because it’s ours.

And they know it.

What We Watch

So if you’re running an athletic department, you are going to add another flat screen TV to the locker of each individual player, not invest in a pitching clinic run by Corbin Burnes and Sonny Gray with a special appearance by Shohei Ohtani. The money follows.

And that is why you have never just stumbled upon a televised college baseball game on a Saturday afternoon. If you do, it’s probably because ESPN has exhausted its supply of cornhole championships and weekly World’s Strongest Man competitions.

Given what’s become of the recruiting-riddled core of college ball, perhaps that’s for the best. Those boys might not play for the biggest crowds, but they’re far closer to the origins of the sport than their brothers down the quad and on the gridiron.


14 Responses

  1. LDS

    Football & basketball dominated the sports mind during my campus days (Big Ten). I wouldn’t have thought of baseball had my dorm neighbor not been the starting CF and wouldn’t let any of us ignore baseball. But I don’t think any of us on the floor ever went to a baseball game. Never missed the football games. As for $30K/day for plane rides? Must be nice to have that kind of money to throw around recreationally. Shame the pilot didn’t get to pocket most of that.

  2. Rednat

    excellent thought provoking article Mary Beth.
    i think it comes down to quality of play.
    some of these college football teams could compete in the nfl right now, And in fact with pay for play policies the ncaa is allowing will ncaa football become a competing league to the nfl? it is certainly possible. same with ncaa basketball and the nba. with all the loopholes these players can now stay in “college” for 6-7 years. that is above the average career span of an nfl/nba player.

    college baseball has really nothing to do with the major leagues. they don’t even use the same bats . lol. therefore i don’t think the interest is really there

  3. Jim Walker

    I think there has been a youth migration from baseball to football over the last 40-50 years in the US because football is the shortest and quickest path to big checks for many of the skilled guys who would have excelled in baseball.

    Look no further than CJ Stroud, former Ohio State and now Texans QB. 5-6 years ago he was looking at a midmajor scholarship to play either basketball or football. Many thought he was actually a better basketball player than a footballer. But he kept going to the various DeFacto football tryout camps around LA as a walk on.

    At one of the local camps, Stroud finally broke through to get an invite to a national camp. At the national camp, an OSU committed wide receiver saw him and texted the OSU coaches that they needed to take a serious look at Stroud. They did and the rest is history, #2 overall draft choice, $36m guaranteed contract at age 21.

    • Rednat

      good points Jim. this needs to be explored more i think. this migration to football (and soccer I think) is finally starting to effect mlb. especially the smaller market teams like the reds.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Money, yes. Another aspect of it is that a BA/BS is so common now that it’s no longer a guarantee to a white-collar life.

  4. Mark Moore

    Good stuff as always, MBE. I immediately conjured up an image of Nippert Stadium from my work on campus during the Summer of 2006. Looked so “cozy” and seeing it even now on TV evokes those memories.

    Similar thing for my First Wife and DD#1 last July when we visited the ND campus in South Bend and they peered into the stadium through the locked gates.

    While I can easily recall the various pro baseball stadiums I’ve visited, I couldn’t ven tell you where the UofC or ND baseball stadiums are. Or if they exist independent of some shared facility. So your point is well taken.

    • Jim Walker

      My alma mater, Wright State, was going to be the next big basketball school in SW/ WC Ohio. They won the D2 National Championship in 1983 when a number of now prominent D1 schools were also still in D2 (Butler most notably in this area).

      Now 30+ years after making the jump to D1, the roundball Raiders have been in the Big Dance either 2 or 3 times, won a single last 4 play in round game, and draw maybe 5K on a decent night to their 10K+ seat basketball venue built in the early 1990s.

      Meanwhile, the baseball team whose ~1500 seat “stadium” sits in the shadow of the basketball venue has become something of a fixture as a mid-major qualifier for the NCAA D1 Baseball tournament.

      • Daytonnati

        Go Raiders!

        Jim – I think if Tanner Holden had stayed this past season rather than portaling to Ohio State (for which I could not blame him), they would have had a really solid team. And wouldn’t you know, Tanner portals back for the coming season??

        One of my top 5 sports memories is watching the Raiders take down the Flyers at UD Arena in January, 1990 in person. I have never heard 13,400 more quiet people.

      • Jim Walker


        Yes on the 1990 game. Those guys down by the river trying to make the 5-3 series record to their favor after they won 3 straight on an upswing sound like a non-competitive series was (at the time at least) a real joke.

        I’ve never understood why Wright State didn’t call their bluff and take them up on the offer of an annual game down by the river with WSU receiving a payout.

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        Simultaneously depressing and instructive. There’s got to be a school somewhere at which the baseball team gets some props.