College World Series: More eyes on the baseball

A combination of improved talent and small-town charm draws a record number of fans to the annual tournament in Omaha, Neb.

When the College World Series begins its 10-day run Friday in Omaha, Neb., organizers will encounter a most welcome problem: too few tickets for too many fans.

It's one more sign that college baseball is coming into its own. While college football and basketball generate far more mainstream attention and revenue, the collegiate boys of summer are beginning to get more respect - thanks to ESPN television, a change in recruiting by Major League Baseball, and the long-running support and enthusiasm of a Midwestern city known more for livestock and investing savvy than for high-profile sports.

Nevertheless, every year since 1950, college baseball has decided its champion in Omaha. And that relationship is now blossoming.

"Very few championship events in sports are held in the same place every year, and even fewer become synonymous with that place," says Dennis Poppe, managing director of baseball at the NCAA. "When that happens - as it does with Augusta and the Masters or in Omaha with this - you get steeped in tradition. It becomes more special."

During the past 25 years, fans have witnessed future stars such as Barry Bonds (Arizona State), Roger Clemens (University of Texas), and Nomar Garciaparra (Georgia Tech). This year, perennial college powers Texas (31 appearances) and the University of Miami (21 CWS berths) will be part of an eight-team field that includes four Southeastern Conference schools (LSU, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Georgia) as well as Arizona and Cal State Fullerton.

So far, Omaha has built the event without excessive corporate trappings found at other sports championships. Organizers face a delicate balancing act, nurturing the event without detracting from its homespun charm. Since 1992, Omaha has invested $34 million in Rosenblatt Stadium, expanding capacity to 23,100, installing a new sound system, and replacing the playing field. Last year, attendance reached a record 260,091.

While the host city rallies around college baseball without distractions from professional franchises, the College World Series is becoming more important for Major League Baseball - or at least big-league scouts. When the major league draft began in 1965, and for decades afterward, college players were considered less desirable than high school phenoms. Conventional wisdom held that farm teams could hone a player's skills better than colleges could. While plenty of college players were selected, rawer high school players outnumbered them.

But philosophies have changed as compensation for drafted players escalated at a rapid clip. (For example, top pick Ken Griffey Jr. received only $160,000 in 1987. In 2001, Mark Prior reaped $10.5 million as the first selection.) With so much riding on an inexact science, some teams have put more emphasis on college players.

"They're attractive because they have more of a track record," says Eric Kubota, scouting director for the Oakland A's. "You're able to see them play longer and you're able to see them handle situations, whether it's big crowds or pressure. You've got a longer history of performance."

Earlier this month, 40 of Oakland's 44 draft picks came from the college ranks. During the first 10 rounds of this year's draft, considered the prime source for future big leaguers, 70 percent of all players selected were collegians. The figure represents an increase over 2003 (68 percent) and 2002 (62 percent), according to Baseball America. And many of the top picks can be found at the College World Series. For example, two South Carolina players, catcher Landon Powell and pitcher Matt Campbell, were first-round picks in this year's draft.

Mr. Kubota says teams have stopped discounting college players. Now, he says, players can hone their skills just as well in college as they can in developmental leagues run by Major League Baseball.

Paradoxically, much of the appeal of the College World Series is that so many participants won't ever reach the major leagues - or even the minors. Numerous "love-of-the-game" scenarios tap into baseball's inherent nostalgia, Mr. Poppe says. Many fans and baseball experts sum up the appeal as more purist than the major leagues.

"It's a lot like the Little League World Series in that it occupies a very special niche," says Allan Simpson, editor at Baseball America. "And both were hidden gems before TV began spreading the word."

ESPN, which initially televised the games as part of a desperate search for programming to fill air time, now considers the series a staple. Last year, the network persuaded the NCAA to switch from a one-game championship final to a best-of-three format. The move paid off, generating the largest TV audiences in series history, reaching more than 1 million households. Last year, the TV audience increased 27 percent over 2002. This year, the network will broadcast nationally each of the potential 17 games.

And ESPN is putting its ultimate stamp of prestige on this year's series by airing its signature "SportsCenter" program from Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium for three nights. "There are so many great stories and it's such a unique event all the way around," says Carol Stiff, ESPN director of programming. "Every year we look at it and say, what can we do to make this bigger and better? And the NCAA has worked with us to do that without taking from what is already a great event."

ESPN's contract to broadcast the tournament runs through 2011. Omaha organizers are completing a five-year deal with the NCAA as host this month. Negotiations for a new contract will begin in July. While the NCAA won't rule out another home for the series, a move seems unlikely. Poppe says the biggest challenge is solving the popularity problem everyone worked so hard to create.

"The city takes such an unbelievable pride in it," says Mr. Simpson at Baseball America. "I don't think anyone can imagine it anyplace else."

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