Over the last few days, I’ve been watching bits and pieces of the College World Series---at least, those parts of the College World Series that have not interfered with my wife’s ability to watch "So You Think You Can Dance"---while lamenting the fact that the Diamond Dogs are watching it on television, just like I am.
I keep thinking about how much fun last year’s run to the College World Series finals was. I keep telling my wife, sincerely, "I want to take Thomas out to Omaha one of these years." My 30th birthday had come and gone before I ever set foot in a state that didn’t have a star on the Confederate battle flag, so, when I say, "I want to visit Nebraska," that’s really saying something.
Here’s the thing, though: I have never once said, "I want to take Thomas to a postseason college basketball game."
I have nothing against basketball. It’s a fine game. Those who love it have legitimate reasons for appreciating it. Unlike baseball and football (which owe much to cricket and rugby, respectively), basketball is wholly, uniquely, indigenously American to a degree no other sport can claim. Basketball is exciting, fast-paced, and defined by dazzling feats of athleticism.
And, honestly, I just don’t care.
Once again, that is no insult to basketball or to those who enjoy it. I appreciate and respect the coverage given to basketball by MaconDawg and Paul Westerdawg. When it comes to college sports not played on a gridiron, however, I vastly prefer the one that takes place on a diamond to the one that occurs on the hardwood.
I get that there are valid financial reasons for emphasizing men’s basketball over baseball at the intercollegiate level. For fiscal year 2009, in which David Perno’s team vastly outperformed Dennis Felton’s, men’s basketball generated $750,000 in ticket revenue, while baseball produced a paltry $175,000. (By comparison, gymnastics generated $275,000 in ticket sales.)
Even as a function of costs, basketball was the better buy. In fiscal year 2009, basketball generated $3,262,333 in expenses, as compared to $1,067,243 for baseball. The Diamond Dogs cost just under a third as much money but produced just under a fourth as much return in the form of ticket sales. For all the griping about attendance at Stegeman Coliseum, more cash is being generated by folks who buy tickets to see the Hoop Dogs.
Then again, Foley Field is the second-smallest baseball stadium in the Southeastern Conference and the facility saw its share of sellouts in 2009. Now that David Perno is getting the Diamond Dogs into the postseason even in odd-numbered seasons, it is time to expand the seating capacity of the home of last year’s national runners-up in baseball. Let us not forget that the phrase "if you build it, they will come" did not enter the American lexicon as part of a plan to build a basketball arena.
So, while we’re busy overhauling the Coliseum as part of the master plan---no, not a "master plan" in the ex-post-facto-defense-of-Lane-Kiffin sense; there really is a master plan!---and swinging for the fences in an effort to make a big splash in basketball, I find my mind routinely turning back to the question, "Why are we slighting baseball?"
Basketball generates revenue, so it cannot be overlooked entirely, but it rarely generates interest, except in brief unsustainable bursts utterly lacking in staying power. We basically didn’t spend a dime on the Coliseum between 1965 and 1995, but what has the attention (relatively) lavished on basketball since then gotten us? Georgia has made fewer Final Four appearances in the last fourteen years than in the fourteen years before that; in the interim, what has our basketball program been other than a steppingstone for a coach on the rise, the final stop on the disgraceful downward road of a coach deservedly in decline, and a laughingstock broken up by the occasional fluke run?
Baseball is the University of Georgia’s oldest varsity sport. For those of us who put football first (read: all of us in Bulldog Nation), baseball is not just the foundation for our alma mater’s athletics program, but also the fountainhead: Steadman Vincent Sanford was attending a baseball game between Georgia and the Gordon Institute in the spring of 1910 when he saw in the visitors’ dugout a quality coach and a promising high school athlete.
The coach was Alex Cunningham. The player was Bob McWhorter. The following fall, both were in Athens on a full-time basis. Coach Cunningham led the Georgia football team to its first sustained success. McWhorter became the Red and Black’s first football all-American and later became the namesake of the athletic dorm.
Last year’s historic television contract between the Southeastern Conference and the Worldwide Leader included league baseball games among the 5,500 S.E.C. sporting events to be broadcast over a fifteen-year period. With attendance rising, interest peaking, and exposure increasing, it is past time for us to remember the national pastime.
Give basketball only what it needs to generate the revenue required of it without causing the overall athletics program any embarrassment greater than losing at a sport that never has been more than intermittently a priority in its best days. Baseball has a longer history, a much more storied tradition, a vastly superior record of recent success, and---let us be honest here---a significantly greater likelihood of future accomplishment than basketball. Omaha is by far the more realistic aspiration and money spent in pursuit of annual excursions there represents the better investment.