How the Big Ten can keep moving baseball forward

In the coming days, a few articles will recall the 2009 and how that season can be looked back as the dawn of the current Big Ten baseball landscape.

A predetermined site for the conference tournament, three teams in the NCAA Tournament, the awakening of the Indiana baseball program, a snubbing of a potential fourth regional team, a signature moment for BTN, the 2009 season helped bring Big Ten baseball into the national conversation.

Now, 10 years later, from top to bottom, Big Ten baseball can be viewed as being as as strong as its ever been. It certainly is in the current NCAA Tournament format, and comparing the prior regional-centric structure is apples to oranges. With facilities still in their infancy, renowned coaches, rosters littered with some of the country’s top prospects, there are many signs to show baseball in the Big Ten is thriving.

But as great as recent times have been, there can be ever better times on the horizon, now isn’t the time to rest.

Here’s a rundown of potential ways Big Ten baseball can get even better.

Protect the rivalries

I understand the thought of having a scheduling philosophy that’s consistent to all 13 teams. With no disrespect intended, a schedule that would have had a team face Minnesota over the last three years, with all else equal, isn’t as favorable of a schedule where a series with Rutgers was guaranteed. There will always be some teams that are stronger than others, but by having a format where every school has a home series, an away series, and a season where they don’t play each other over a three-year cycle, it prevents any systemic advantages or disadvantage.

To the heck with that.

In a sport where a game played in front of 2,000 is a superb showing, every potential avenue that can increase the attendance, gets the community behind a team, and makes for a more enjoyable experience should be pursued. People may not know who Tommy Henry and Seth Lonsway are, even though that’s one dynamite lefty-on-lefty pairing to watch, but they know Michigan and Ohio State, and whether in Ann Arbor or Columbus, it’s a draw.

With the growth of the Big Ten over the last decade and the introduction of three new programs, worthwhile series on the diamond that previously might not have drawn too much attention are now popping up throughout the conference. Iowa and Nebraska should play every year, no doubt about it. There isn’t any love lost between Indiana and Purdue and there shouldn’t be a year where three-games are played between the Hoosier State programs. Penn State deserves to fight for East Coast supremacy between Maryland or Rutgers. Or both. There is an understanding that with an odd number of programs, anchoring a rival for every school wouldn’t make for the easiest of scheduling, thanks Wisconsin, and some schools like Michigan may be torn on designating a rival between Michigan State and Ohio State, but it’s something that should be considered for the betterment of the fan, which leads to long-term interest and support.

Or schools take it into your own hands. Recently Indiana and Purdue have gone the route of scheduling non-conference series if they schools don’t play, as Michigan and Michigan State have done. There should also be the Missouri River battle, Michigan-Ohio State, Northwestern-Illinois, as well. From a spectator interest, and RPI wise, it would surely beat those Wednesday afternoon meetings against Mid-American Conference schools.

Expand the conference season

One way of getting that rivalry contest in is to expand the conference season.  I know it would change the current scheduling format, forcing the cycle to change from a three-year rotation to four, if you play nine of 12 opponents, but I think it’s worth it.

First, more and more Big Ten teams are having RPIs within the top 100. I know it takes away a weekend to work out a potential home-and-home series, and this year the finally non-conference weekend does have good series like Minnesota at Long Beach, MSU vs. Connecticut, and Maryland vs. East Carolina, but there’s an increasing chance an additional in-conference series will be a strong one, and it would help the conference’s collective RPI.

Second, it helps identify a truer conference champion. I know teams start the season wanting to get to Omaha, in mid-June, not late-May, but winning the Big Ten should and I believe is still a highly sought goal. I don’t think anyone would question the quality of champions over the last six seasons, but it’s hard to without doubt state feel a champion is a champion when they don’t play one-third of the teams. And perhaps more importantly, more conference games would help to have a standings where the eight best teams are reflected and get a spot in the Big Ten Tournament.

As a potential hindrance, weather certainly would be brought up. But looking at the 2019 schedules, in the last weekend before the conference season, March 15-17, hosting home series are: Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State. Northwestern has a road series to Kent State. Nine of 13 programs are playing at home or in the region, not deterred by weather. Also, more in-conference games can provide BTN with more opportunities to showcase the conference.

Get creative in exposing the Big Ten baseball

With that, be it the Big Ten or BTN, it would be awesome to see an all-in approach to social media and media platforms. A look back into time, during the 2009 season, the Big Ten had a pretty great, conference-ran Big Ten baseball blog. Unfortunately media contacts come and go, some are more passionate about the sport than others, duties and responsibilities change, but there is much more that the conference can do from its communication post to bring greater awareness and exposure to the sport.

But blogs are just the start of it. From utilizing Instagram stories with pre-created content, or allowing schools and players to take over and do live videos, coordinating weekly conference calls and coaches chats on Twitter, to a way out there possibility of working out a rights deal with Twitter to stream conference games (and other Olympic sports), or figuring out a model to work with someone as wrestling has with FloSports, down to just showing more personality, there are many ways a little life and color can be brought to Big Ten baseball through social media at the conference’s directive.

It’s 2019. It’s a social world. Our attention spans suck. Lets’s figure out a way to promote a good product, engage with an audience and find ways to continue to push the brand of Big Ten baseball forward.

And, please, let’s pay attention to the details on the website. Even though the stats are current, last year’s stats are under a 2017 header, and it’s really difficult to pull up prior year stats. Also, the record book still shows Iowa, not Nebraska as 2017 conference champions. Yikes.

Rotate the conference tournament…or make it spectacular in Omaha

I hope this doesn’t get me banned from Omaha, but after the current run is up in Omaha, I’d look into rotating the tournament, with having it in Omaha at least every third year, if not every other.

In the tournament’s first year in Omaha, everything came together to form the perfect storm. Nebraska was fighting for a regional berth and had the support of a revived fanbase. The Huskers and opened the tournament with a thrilling win to move into the primetime spot on Thursday. They won again, to be able to play on Saturday and had quite the showing. While the Huskers were doing there thing, Indiana, a team that played in TD Ameritrade Park the year prior as the first Big Ten team in 30 years to reach the College World Series, were on a tear and en route to a national seed in the NCAA Tournament. The two teams met for a championship game played in front of 19,965. It was spectacular and the Big Ten was justly left with a lasting impression.

Even in 2016, Iowa’s run to the title game helped the title game draw more than 10,000. Another great thing for Big Ten baseball.

But this past year, with an 0-2 showing by Iowa and a tournament field without Nebraska there would not be any great spectacle. The Wednesday and Thursday games played under the blazing a scorching, near-100 degree sun barely drew a crowd, and those that did were all huddle on the concourse out of the sun. With such sparse of a crowd in such a big stadium, the optics were the same, if not worse than the tournament’s run in 2009-2012 in Columbus at Huntington Park.

Nebraska will be in the tournament field more times than not, but the conference shouldn’t make decisions going forward knowing that’s a near pre-requisite for an outstanding showing. Is 2500 in a stadium of 20,000 better on TV than 600 in a stadium of 4,000? If the typical Big Ten Tournament for the next three years will be somewhere between the 2016 and 2018 tournaments, one shouldn’t be too upset with that, but it shouldn’t stop other cities or campuses from throwing their hat in the ring.

Indiana was a fine host in 2017. And, at least from a media standpoint, the operations were a bit more efficient. Could and would the Twin Cities do a better job if it was played in the home of the St. Paul Saints, not the Yellowstone-esque facility of Target Field? Would any of the seemingly dozen minor league parks throughout Iowa embrace it, with how Hawkeye Baseball Fever has swept the state? Could points in Fort Wayne, Lansing, Chicago, get crazy and say Brooklyn, do ok? Perhaps. Or maybe not. But the possibilities and discussions should be kept open as the conference looks to make in-road throughout the Midwest, continues to enhance the awareness of the product and work to create interested fans.

Now, if it is to permanently be at home in Omaha, it really needs to take on the Omaha experience. The MAC does a great job with having an awards banquet, fireworks show and celebration the night before. The Big Ten Tournament in Omaha, for every team up to this point, has been a team’s lone trip to the home of the College World Series. The conference tournament shouldn’t be trumpeted as college baseball’s ultimate destination, but do more to set up shop, keep doing the on-location studio set, have more in the parking lots and surrounding areas to engage fans. If there’s a decision made to bypass other potential host to go with Omaha, then really go with Omaha.

Avoid complacency

The Big Ten has produced 17 NCAA Tournament teams since 2015, a number few would have dared to thought possible a decade ago. The conference is deeper than ever, just realizing it’s going on 10 years since either Michigan or Ohio State won a conference championship is a testament to that. More Big Ten teams are entering seasons with rankings, more are in the conversation for hosting a regional, and playing in the College World Series is no longer merely a fairy tale or a trip through the archives.

That’s awesome. Now keep getting better.

College baseball will soon approach 10 years of having a common state date, a movement championed by Minnesota’s John Anderson and former Ohio State head coach Bob Todd. With their success on the field, the words of Anderson and Todd were paid attention to by many as that fought and advocated for a more equitable college baseball experience for teams and players in the conference. The success that the conference has had cannot stop voices from speaking on changes that still need to occur for a better college baseball experience for all.

This isn’t Jim Delany popping off about guaranteeing two spots in the College World Series to northern programs, but it’s about being proactive, creative and often needing to counter the discussion and conversations that tend to be driven by those in the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences.

For example, the big-time DIs want a third paid-assistant to create a better coach-to-player ratio and enhance their experience. Great, how about with that we move the common start date to March 1? Where the current calendar forces many schools to be on the road for the first four to five weeks of the season, if that could be trimmed to two or three, doesn’t alleviating a hectic Thursday-Sunday schedule also create a better experience for the student-athlete? (Seriously it’s nuts to force a player to abandon Thursday and Friday classes to travel, and often not get back into their beds after midnight Sunday night… and do it for four or five straight weeks.) Also, today’s media landscape is becoming so reliant on sports and live events for advertising dollars, there has to be an opportunity to air college baseball games and the live event it is, on conference networks, regional networks, throughout June.

Be it the schedule, the days the conference permits players to miss school, to guaranteed four-year scholarships, so on and so forth, Big Ten administrators shouldn’t view the last five years as a stamp of success and that all is well and done. Instead, the last five years should open the imagination to what more can be done over the next five years.

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