The SEC and ESPN want you to watch baseball today. They're invested, heavily, in the idea that all of America's college sports fans could use a Hoover in every home -- that college baseball is fast on its way to becoming the next big time televised college sport. For the first time ever, ESPN will offer coverage of every single game in the 64-team NCAA baseball tournament, an event broken down into 16 four-team Regionals, eight Super Regionals (in which two teams play a best-of-three series) and eventually the College World Series tournament of eight teams in Omaha's TD Ameritrade Park.
"We don't go in assuming that our viewers know much about college baseball," ESPN senior coordinating producer Mike Moore said. "We make that assumption and then we try to show the national picture and give context to each regional. I tell all our crews, 'be sure to step back and make sure to headline in the openers and throughout the games to give new viewers big things to latch onto.'"
ESPN is excited about the growth of the sport. Over the last three years, College World Series games broadcast on ESPN have pulled in around 1.3 million viewers per telecast, while six Super Regional telecasts on ESPN in 2011 peaked with an average of 644,000 viewers. Last season, a record 15 Super Regional games were broadcast on ESPN and ESPN2. But with 112 potential games at 16 different sites and only one network, ESPNU, scheduled to broadcast games, ESPN is relying on its streaming services as well as the launch of "Bases Loaded," a whip-around coverage program similar to its "Goal Line" platform for college football.
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Baseball is a long way from joining football and basketball as a money-maker, though. Through varying sets of numbers, only a handful of Division I baseball programs break even or actually generate revenue. But if the game proves viable to a national TV audition, there are two potential paths: programs and leagues could either generate enough revenue to raise the scholarship max, or critics of big-money college sports could have a smoking gun in a revenue-generating sport with a labor force that's paying to work.
"It's amazing even today with the popularity of the game that people don’t realize that on a 35-man roster, a scholarship is around 33 percent. Parents are investing more than half the money for these kids to go to school and play," Bianco said.
That's from SB Nation's Steven Godfrey. Godfrey, while writing a piece about the growth of college baseball, its growing pains, and how ESPN is platforming the product across its array of networks, may as well be writing the story of college lacrosse. The two sports -- competitors on the calendar and, now, for eyeballs focused on televisions -- are arguably taking a similar path into the American consciousness, existing historically on the fringe of college athletics and now -- due to ESPN telling you what you should like and follow -- are coming more into the mainstream. The most interesting question, then, is whether there's room on ESPN for both baseball and lacrosse to exist simultaneously.
ESPN, as a result of its deep contracts with various conferences, has a large volume of programming inventory it can deliver (and it's inventory that ESPN would likely want to weaponize based on the sizeable value of these contracts, avoiding the simple write-off of the non-broadcast sports). Lacrosse's season reaches its climax before baseball's does, which gives lacrosse the leg up on platforming content on ESPN after the resolution of hoops season, but the game still trails baseball in terms of national appeal. Will lacrosse find its product on ESPN relegated further to web-only broadcasts as a result of ESPN putting more college baseball -- and dastardly softball! -- on ESPN's spider web of networks? College lacrosse only had one game on ESPN this season (the national championship), a handful of ESPN2 games, and the rest put on ESPNU or ESPN3/WatchESPN. (Notably, though, the network did institute the ESPNU Wednesday night showcase game, which was a nice addition to the network's broadcast capacity.) It's somewhat unclear where lacrosse and ESPN are headed, but more platformed college baseball may have a direct impact on the amount of college lacrosse the network may pursue to broadcast. ESPN is a king-maker (remember the NHL? neither do many people at ESPN), and baseball potentially earning favor over lacrosse could change how viewers consume lacrosse.
It will be interesting to see how ESPN approaches this. Fox Sports is getting into the game with the Big East and ECAC (assuming the ECAC doesn't disappear from existence following the crushing blows its has taken due to conference realignment (or if Fox Sports has an out in the deal relative to such occurrences)), NBC Sports Network is on board with a limited package, and CBS Sports Network has a deal with the Patriot League. Will these other networks look to gobble up lacrosse programming if ESPN backs off (if they can even get the rights)? Will ESPN double down on lacrosse to keep these other networks at bay? Or will everything kind of stay the same, a situation that may or may not be the most likely scenario at play?
ESPN has been a key player in the growth of lacrosse over the last decade (Inside Lacrosse named the relationship one of the top 15 stories in lacrosse over the last 15 years), and the network's continued dedication to the sport is a major factor in the game's volition. Sean Bratches, ESPN Executive Vice President for Sales and Marketing, has stated that ESPN is committed to lacrosse. Where the network goes with the game and baseball over time could ultimately impact lacrosse's ceiling. College lacrosse needs ESPN (just as college baseball does), and a continued presence on the network is vital for the game's health and continued growth.