Omaha’s bold move, TV coverage spur growth

Quaint days at venerable Rosenblatt Stadium began trudging toward mortality on a cold morning on Feb. 23, 2007, on the third-floor office of Omaha’s City Hall.

Three months earlier, Mayor Mike Fahey opened informal negotiations to keep the College World Series at its 57-year old haunt perched atop the rise along 13th Street on the city’s south side. The deal boiled down simply: A $26 million dollar overhaul of the 24,000-seat stadium and surrounding property in exchange for a new 10-year hosting contract starting in 2010.

Early on, the plan was met with optimism by Fahey, who had laid out its parameters to the NCAA brass at its home base in Indianapolis and hoped to cement the deal in June. Until then, the resuscitation effort had the right backing, too, which would raise $16 million in private funds to be paired with $10 million in tax dollars to foot the bill.

At this point, though, Dennis Poppe, the NCAA official in charge of running the College World Series, sat before Fahey with a simple question— and a nudge toward a sobering realization: Stripping Rosenblatt to the studs couldn’t prolong its life.

“Mike, would you consider a new stadium?” asked Poppe, who has kept watch over the CWS since 1988.

Replacing Rosenblatt wasn’t a new notion, though. Two years earlier, Omaha began mulling building a new 8,000-seat downtown stadium — only as a home to the Kansas City Royals’ Triple-A affiliate. And the NCAA’s committee for Division I baseball discussed the seemingly unimaginable topic: moving the College World Series to a new ZIP code.

So Fahey succinctly rendered his decision and plunked down a hefty bit of political capital.

“I haven’t thought about it,” Fahey told Poppe. “But I will.”

A golden age forms

Pinpointing the moment of a waning era often requires the distance of time.

In the case of college baseball, the year 2007 is the end of an age. A year after the sit-down between Fahey and Poppe, the city and NCAA struck a deal where Omaha would build a $143 million stadium in the NoDo district — on the site of an old railroad scrap yard — and receive an unprecedented 25-year deal to keep the CWS in town.

Eight months after that meeting, the NCAA tweaked the event’s format. Instead of starting on a Friday, the first games would be played Saturday. Gone was the midweek elimination-game doubleheader, split over two days to allow teams slogging through the losers bracket more rest. Finally, the first matchup in a best-of-three championship series shifted to Monday — a change meant to appease ESPN in drawing more eyeballs to the sport’s finale.

The question persists: What explains college baseball’s burgeoning popularity?

For the first time, every game of the NCAA tournament was broadcast or streamed over the Internet by ESPN, which has broadcast the event since 1980 and reported more than 11.6 million viewers for 100-plus regional-round games this season.

Scouring for new revenue streams, power conference programs’ spending more than doubled over a nine-year span to roughly $116 million in 2011, according to data provided to the U.S. Department of Education. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement effectively capped signing bonuses for players picked after the 10th round to $100,000, thus pushing high school prospects toward college campuses and adding elite talent to rosters.

“There’s more great players now (in college baseball) than there’s ever been, and there’s more great coaches than ever before,” said David Kleilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association. “I’ve been a player, coach and administrator for over 50 years, and it’s never been this good. It’s a golden age.”

Of Omaha and ESPN

Blasphemous as it sounds, a giant backhoe shearing down red girders at the stadium’s entrance and the six months it took to turn the location of LSU legend Warren Morris’ Rosenblast into rubble was a necessary sin.

The renovation plan pushed by Fahey and the city would have freshened up the event’s home. Yet the concern was whether the tenant would even want to return when the contractors packed up and left.

By 2007, the NCAA and its baseball committee wondered whether paying to refurbish Rosenblatt was a worthy endeavor. Since 1989, Omaha spent $36 million on upgrades and expanding capacity from 15,000 to 24,000, and was on the hook for another $2.3 million in work as part of a contract set to expire in 2010.

“We looked at it as a short-term fix,” said Larry Templeton, who served as the chair of the NCAA’s baseball committee. “We really also had the conversation of, ‘Is this the time to start moving the championship around?’ ”

The debate over preserving Rosenblatt is long mute. TD Ameritrade Park opened three years ago, and attendance hasn’t fallen off. So, if fans are irked, they aren’t showing it with their feet or the $40 million pumped through Omaha’s local economy by 300,000-plus fans rolling through turnstiles each June.

With the new park in the fold, a system of interdependence between Omaha and ESPN continues.

In Omaha, the NCAA has a site fully committed to fulfilling — almost beholden, actually — to its wants and desires, evidenced by Omaha shelling out $98 million in bonds to pay for the stadium. Yet, the cache from hosting has netted it marquee events such as the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials and the early rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. There is also the exposure on ESPN, which reaches 96.5 million households.

“There was a vision in the community that sports should play an integral impact on the quality of life and economy of Omaha,” said Jack Diesing Jr., president of College World Series of Omaha, Inc. “The success we have with the College World Series is a springboard to providing credibility to other organizations.”

ESPN, too, relies on the event as a steady way to fill a void in the college sports calendar during spring’s doldrums. Those telecasts reverently reflect Omaha in a montage of cornrows, brick facades with faded ads on their walls and sun-kissed families tailgating. It’s a distinctive culture in the city of 425,000 people with broad appeal.

“I don’t know if that’s something we’d ever want to change,” said Brent Colborne, the network’s vice president of programming and acquisitions. “The sport thrives off of that. It’s vital, and people love coming to this event — from the general fans to our producers who have been doing this for 20-plus years. The homegrown sense of that feeling is in their blood.”

So, the debate over whether to abandon Rosenblatt left more vexing questions. What is the value of nostalgia? How big is too big? And can it fail?

“I always hated using the term ‘product,’ and I have to remind myself to snap out of it sometimes,” Poppe said. “It’s my job to make this work, but this is still about kids playing baseball.”

‘A very real fear’

Suitors had lined up in the past to woo the NCAA, starting with Los Angeles in the 1950s and San Francisco in the ’70s, along with faint hints from Miami and Phoenix in the early 1980s. The last serious rumblings occurred in 1989, when Minneapolis was rumored to be interested.

Six years ago, though, Fahey didn’t want to create an opening to exploit. Not only did the city still owe $15 million in public debt on earlier renovations, but the ballpark would need to be shuttered for a year to add 750 bleacher seats, tear out old seats, renovate dugouts and locker rooms and hire a management company for the property.

“It was a very real fear,” Fahey said. “The handwriting was on the wall. Unless we step up and make it happen, some other city with a lot more money will.”

The initial plan, too, would have required spending half of the $26 million on buying a six-block stretch, razing homes and bulldozing businesses for a park. The land would be rented out by the city for merchant tents, a move to control the rise of “beer tents” and unauthorized merchant vendors.

Still, it wouldn’t solve long-standing problems such as parking, even if there was the fond tradition of parking in the front yards and driveways of nearby residents near Rosenblatt Stadium. Or that there was a dearth of nearby hotels and restaurants.

On March 12, 2007, the NCAA put the kibosh on the plan in the most administrative way possible with a memo to Fahey and the city, which was obtained by the Omaha World-Herald. Instead, it called for a $50 million facility. Fahey hired an architect and directed his staff to look at options .

“It wasn’t heavy-handed,” Fahey said. “It’s a partner asking you honestly, ‘Are you willing to look at this?’ There was never a real threat.”

Two months later, Fahey pitched NCAA officials on a $50 million ballpark near the Qwest Center that would seat 8,000 for Royals games and serve as the home field for Creighton University as another option alongside renovating Rosenblatt in exchange for a 20-year hosting deal. In late June, another NCAA memo outlined extensive problems with the Rosenblatt plan and raised the projected cost of a new stadium to $100 million.

“The cost analysis ruled out renovation,” Poppe said this week. “The new stadium was not going to replace Rosenblatt, which had its own place in history. But I’m going to steal a quote I’ve heard in the past: The new stadium would have to earn its own spurs.”

For his part, Templeton arranged for Fahey to tour modern parks at LSU, Texas and Arkansas — facilities where players had better environs for midweek games than they did for the national title.

As for Diesing, no one understands the nostalgia better than him. In 1963, his father, Jack Diesing Sr., took over the event after his boss died. Until then, the event had lost money nine out of the 14 years Omaha had hosted the CWS. It wouldn’t again. And in 1967, Diesing Sr. established CWS, Inc., which his son took over in 1988.

“You can still talk to a lot of people here who will tell you the old atmosphere won’t be duplicated,” Diesing Jr. said. “But it leaves us the job of creating a new one.”

Finally, in August, Omaha pitched a $95 million to $117 million option with up to 30,00 seats, while Diesing made a final presentation for Rosenblatt that hinted toward the ultimate conclusion. Fahey had pushed for a longer deal largely out of necessity: Ten years would not be enough time to pay off the bonds.

At the same time, Omaha City Councilman Gary Gernandt and a group called the Save Rosenblatt Committee hired an architect to draw up a new proposal for the stadium. Yet, they were rebuffed. The NCAA would only deal with Fahey, Diesing and the city. At town hall meetings, Fahey would leave under the less-than-ideal circumstances.

“People would wave at me,” Fahey said. “The only thing is, they were using just one finger.”

It did little to halt progress or slow Rosenblatt’s demise. On June 11, 2008, the city and NCAA signed a deal to keep the CWS in Omaha through 2035. The city council approved a series of agreements for the stadium four hours later, including raising hotel and car rental taxes.

“He took a lot of heat. It was a bold political move,” Templeton said Thursday. “You’re talking about tying up the city financially for a couple decades on the chance the NCAA grants the deal.”

The city issued $98 million in private bonds to pay for the stadium, while TD Ameritrade signed a 20-year, $20 million naming rights deal. Meanwhile, 34 private donors shelled out $43 million for the project, paying $31 million toward construction and $12 million that allowed the Henry Doorly Zoo to buy the old Rosenblatt property and retire outstanding city debt.

Three years into its existence, there is still a feeling-out process at TD Ameritrade Park, which contrasts its predecessor in every way. Its concourses are wide with views of the field. Its seats are navy, not a primary color rainbow of red, blue and yellow. Instead of sitting atop a hill, it is sunk into concrete below street level. Its dimensions are the same, but the city’s high rises and below-ground location and acres of foul territory have made the new park a pitcher’s haven. The lone relic from Rosenblatt? The fabled statue entitled “The Road to Omaha” stands out front.

“Some day, we’ll talk about its tradition,” Diesing said. “It might take another 25 years to get that here. So talk to me in 24, and I’ll let you know how we’re doing.”

‘The viewership is fantastic’

Late in the afternoon of May 30, Cox spokeswoman Sharon Bethea worried a deluge of phone calls would pour into the cable company’s New Orleans office as customers flipped through channels trying to find LSU’s NCAA regional opener against Jackson State.

Instead, 2013 threw a wrench into those plans. ESPN, which paid $500 million for a 13-year multimedia deal with the NCAA in 2011, exercised its option to broadcast all 122 regional games. None of the Baton Rouge Regional.

“We’re going to have people calling in asking what channel the game is on, and we’ll have explain it all,” Bethea said. “In the past, people just turned on the TV, and there was the game.”

Twenty-five years ago, though, the sport clawed for any air time it could get and going so far as altering the format of the College World Series format to get two games on CBS’ over-the-air broadcasts.

Now, college baseball figures prominently into ESPN’s plans, including 270 live games and branded showcases such as ACC Monday and the Southeastern Conference Baseball Game of the Week on Thursdays.

“It’s not just diehards anymore,” Colborne said Tuesday. “It’s not the early ’90s, either, where you had a limited number of games in the regular season and little hype on the College World Series. We’re trying to get our hands on anything we can get.”

Optimism around college baseball’s TV potential stems largely from the results produced in Omaha. Ratings for CWS games ranged between 1.1 million and 1.9 million on ESPN, while sister station ESPN2 posted averages between 770,000 and 1 million viewers since 2007.

The network first noticed the potential held by the sport roughly a decade ago, when the CWS severed ties with CBS. ESPN took over in 2003, showing the first best-of-three series to crown a national champion — a move network officials loved.

Three years later, the NHL lockout left ESPN and ESPN2 with vacant programming holes at the same time ESPNU, a station wholly dedicated to coverage of college athletics, was unveiled. Needing content, college baseball filled the void and exposed the potential as a viable programming option.

“We saw good viewership in those slots, and I don’t think we were too surprised,” Colborne said. “It was more a feeling of validation, a feeling that we were on to something good.”

The format of the tournament, amended in 2007 and implemented in 2008, certainly plays to the network’s advantage. For the first four days of the tournament, ESPN gets two games — one in the afternoon and one at night — and staffs them with two better known broadcasters such as Mike Patrick and former MLB pitcher Orel Hershiser. Starting the championship series on a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday ensures it doesn’t compete head to head against other June events such as Wimbledon or the NHL’s Stanley Cup finals.

Ideally, it produces results in the vein of 2009’s series between LSU and Texas, which hooked 3.1 million viewers to see the Tigers claim a sixth national title.

“It affords us a lot of opportunities from a programming perspective,” Colborne said. “We’re able to direct our resources to a spot. You build a bit of consistency, and you’ve got guys like (ESPN analyst) Kyle Peterson, who does games from March on, who know the sport well. It builds a story and trust from a fan’s perspective.”

Moving forward, though, questions arise over what role the network might play in shaping the event. In the past two years, the NCAA has discussed the possibility of altering the NCAA tournament’s format, adding a 32-team round at campus sites with best-of-three series to replace the traditional regional stage.

The math is simple: It would allow 16 more schools to host and allow the NCAA to spread the reach of games into areas such as the North and Northeast but push the College World Series into early July — an area the NCAA and Omaha have been leering of fording.

“If you add a round on the front end, but keep the CWS date the same, you run right into conference championships or reducing regular season games,” said Damani Leech, who is slated to take over when Poppe retires this year. “When you start talking about format change, there are a lot of moving parts that have to be taken into consideration.”

‘It’ll sell itself’

Oddly, the NCAA’s one-time broadcast policy was akin to lifting a veil from blinded eyes.

Until 1995, Poppe faced a seemingly silly decision by today’s standards. Each day, he would have to review general admission ticket sales. If they passed muster, he would rescind local broadcast blackouts in Omaha.

“At the time, there was genuine concern that television in the local market would keep fans away from the game,” Poppe said. “We found it was the exact opposite. If you see a game on TV in your hometown, and you have a chance to go out and watch it live, it’s pretty enticing.”

Shedding its blackout policy coincided with an expansion that pushed Rosenblatt Stadium’s capacity to 23,800 — an easy impetus for the policy change outside of scouring for broader exposure.

Conferences are eager to use baseball as another avenue to access TV revenue, and follow the CWS’ method of using the exposure to drive attendance on campus. The tumult of conference expansion led to shifting allegiances, and the formation of nascent networks to achieve those aims.

The SEC rolled out plans in early May for a channel that is estimated to bring in $14 million to its 14 member institutions. The Big Ten launched in 2007 and distributed roughly $7.2 million to members this season. Already, the SEC Network, which will go live in August 2014, is sorting out how to provide live content to justify the subscription fees that land on consumers’ cable bills.

Its handling of baseball will offer an insight into whether the sport — outrageously popular at LSU, Mississippi State and Arkansas — appears as a leading candidate.

The network must fill 1,000 live slots for game content, which includes 450 slated for TV, and 75 baseball games. In reality, roughly 50 games are not wholly new broadcasts. Schools signed over their third-tier rights, shifting those games off regional network such as a CSS or Fox Sports, said Chris Turner, the SEC Network’s senior director of programming.

“What is happening on national networks will not change moving forward,” Turner said, referencing games on ESPN’s broadcast networks. “We’re simply migrating some content over and boosting our inventory as it expands for the SEC Network.”

The implications for SEC programs? Expect more schedules to shift like they did in 2012, when some series opened on Thursdays to accommodate ESPNU’s broadcast. Larry Templeton, who consults with the SEC on TV matters, said midweek games will turn up on broadcasts, adding “you’ll see us move more games to Thursday and some to Monday, just because it’s great programming.”

Looming, though, is whether the appeal spreads beyond the region, such as Midwest markets like St. Louis — a city with divided loyalties between the recently added Missouri and Big Ten-member Illinois (along with having its storied MLB franchise in the Cardinals). Or if traction is gained by a network, whose own executive in Justin Connolly, has insisted is national in scope.

Omaha veterans, however, contend conference networks can be the biggest drivers for locally generated revenue.

“Personally, I don’t know if there’s exponential growth,” Diesing said. “Where it’s expanding more is on the campuses. They’re figuring out building new facilities and realizing what Omaha did: It’s a sport that can be a part of the overall culture and fabric of the city.”

A boost even in the Big Ten

Ironically, the trickle-down effect sent ripples of interest to an Indiana town known for basketball: Bloomington.

No example of college baseball’s expansion has been referenced more during this College World Series than the Hoosiers, who were eliminated by Oregon State on Wednesday night. Ending a 29-year drought for the Big Ten at the CWS, the Hoosiers’ brawny lineup slugged its way to Omaha in the age of deadened bats with a .306 batting average, averaging roughly seven runs per game, slugging .452 and clubbing 53 home runs. Their ascent came with a two-game sweep of college baseball blueblood Florida State in Tallahassee during the super regionals.

A week ago, coach Tracy Smith said the resurgence hasn’t necessarily pushed baseball to the forefront of the crimson-and-cream’s fan base.

“Growing up in the state of Indiana, born and raised there, it’s a basketball state now,” Smith said. “It was then. And always will be.”

Still, the Hoosiers are lauded as an example of parity, the product of expanded budgets, new stadiums, better TV exposure and the affects of scholarship limits.

For the past decade, IU ranked near the bottom nationally in revenue generated by the sport, taking in an average of $57,570 annually, according to federal data. Even abysmal by Big Ten standards, where schools spent the least on the sport among BCS conferences, the Hoosiers’ commitment was woeful.

IU had already started exploring options to replace Sembower Field in 2004 before hiring Smith, who had success at Miami (Ohio), in 2006. Built in 1951, the stadium sat just 2,250 fans in metal bleachers that would have been more appropriate at a high school.

Funded largely through private donations, the school opened Bart Kaufman Field in April, which cost $19.8 million and got a boost from dollars rolling in from the Big Ten Network. At the same time, the school doubled its baseball budget to $1.2 million in 2011, data shows.

“Five or six years ago, they weren’t even on the blip of becoming a powerhouse,” Templeton said. “You’re going to see this at more and more institutions as the revenue starts to flow in and allows those decisions to happen.”

Across the Big Ten, a facilities arm race has unfolded, too.

At Purdue, roughly $21 million was spent on Alexander Field as part of a $121 million master plan, funded in part by Big Ten Network revenues. Michigan dropped $14.5 million on its baseball and softball complexes during 2008. Minnesota shelled out a modest $7.2 million to replace Seibert Field, while Michigan spent $4 million on stadium renovations. Penn State paced the conference, opening up the $31 million, 5,400-seat Medlar Field at Lubrano Park ahead of the 2007 season.

At the same time, combined spending more than doubled to $15.5 million in 2011 from $7.2 million in 2003, a year where Ohio State’s $918,022 was the most doled out on baseball. Nine years later, new addition Nebraska paced the conference with a $2.1 million budget — comparable to most SEC programs.

The Big Ten isn’t alone, either. ACC programs spent $22.8 million on baseball in 2011, more than tripling budgets from 2003. The SEC lavished more than $232.6 million on its programs over the same span, while new $35 million-plus stadiums went up at LSU and South Carolina along with $15 million in fixes at Ole Miss’ ballpark.

Those dollars are invested not just to make for a nice television backdrop. As LSU learned with Alex Box Stadium, the dividends show up on a balance sheet. In the stadium’s first three seasons, baseball generated a $5.9 million profit, according to federal data.

“The key is to have people turn out, have it be affordable and have it be a great time. Once they go home, they need to say, ‘This is a great time,’ ” Kleilitz said. “In many cases, too, it boils down to another fact: You need to win ball games.”

‘More parity than ever’

Yet the Road to Omaha isn’t clogged by power conference programs, either. UC-Irvine, Stony Brook and Kent State, Tulane and Louisiana-Lafayette have nimbly swerved and darted to reach the sport’s biggest stage. Elite mid-major conferences, such as the Big West, West Coast Conference and the Sun Belt, have programs that on average spend less than $1 million annually.

Unlike their bigger brethren, who often spend twice what they take in, the balance sheets show most mid-major programs tend to break even. UC-Irvine, which revived its baseball program in 2002, spends less than $1 million annually. Still, the Anteaters reeled off six consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, including a 2007 trip to Omaha.

“In the Big West, there’s just a tremendous weather advantage and tremendous talent pool nearby,” Kleilitz said. “In major conferences, there’s just more money, and there will be now with TV. If you’re a mid-major, it’s difficult to build a $15 million stadium and tell your coach, ‘Go after it.’ ”

The leveling instrument partly stems from locations on the West Coast or Deep South, but also from moves made by Major League Baseball.

The decision to dock bonus pools for issuing amounts greater than $100,000 for draft picks taken after the 10th round has lowered the enticement for mid-round picks to bypass college, Klelitz said. A move to back up a signing deadline to mid-July is another boon. No longer can teams see how a prospect performs in the summer and up a bonus offer to $300,000 or $400,000.

Last year, 35 of Baseball America’s top 200 draft prospects went unsigned, and 33 of those wound up playing in Division I. One of those includes LSU shortstop Alex Bregman, the SEC Freshman of the Year initially expected to be a first-round choice until he broke his finger as a high school senior and slid to the 29th round.

“Coaches are getting kids they haven’t gotten in the past,” Kleilitz said. “That’s added depth to rosters, and you know they’ll be on campus for three years.”

The net effect of improving the overall quality of the player also enhances the marketability of college baseball. With MLB franchises valuing college prospects as safer investments, ESPN can market the NCAA tournament and College World Series much in the same vein as it does football and basketball.

“Are we seeing more interest from core MLB fans? I don’t know yet, but the more talent you have the better that rollover will be,” Colborne said. “There is interest in your favorite team, and, who knows, this kid might be pitching in a year or two for them. That’s gone a long way to capturing fans.”

Talent also spread more equitably after tweaks to scholarship limits in 2009.

Under the new parameters, only 27 players can count toward 11.7 scholarships allotted for baseball, while covering a minimum of 25 percent in financial aid. The move was intended to provide more wiggle room for rosters, but carried the dual effect of leaving coaches less to offer in support. Invariably, not every elite prospect drops his bag at an ACC, Pac-12 or SEC program.

Scanning the list of latest first-round draft choices is proof enough: San Diego, Stephen F. Austin, Nevada, Gonzaga, Nevada and Oral Roberts are sprinkled in with Texas, Florida, Arkansas, Stanford and Oklahoma.

However, the NCAA and MLB have engaged in discussions on various issues affecting both entities since 2008, with one idea bandied about to have pro franchises underwrite one full scholarship while the NCAA raises its limit on what programs can offer.

“We’ve got to get the scholarship limit raised,” Templeton said. “We’re getting more and more support from other conferences and mid-major schools that the number is out of kilter compared to other scholarship limits.”

But with the potential for major programs to widen the chasm with bigger budgets lined with TV dollars, is there a risk parity could be imperiled?

“The gap has always been significant between some areas of the country and others,” Kleilitz said. “But Kent State, Stony Brook and others are still finding a way to get there. There’s more parity than ever.”

Always home in Omaha

A week ago, Poppe made another pilgrimage to Rosenblatt’s former site.

The zoo constructed a small replica of the park. A plaque sits at the former location of home plate. Along the outfield, several rows of replica red, yellow and blue seats await visitors. On its brick pavers, there are engraved names for fans whose family members purchased them as gifts. The original infield is intact, only rubber replaced dirt on the base paths. Standing in the distance, both foul poles loom.

Poppe’s family surprised him with a paver of his own. He ran his hands over his name etched in its surface and mulled what nearly three decades making his annual trek to Omaha meant. They snapped a portrait and watched hundreds of fans circulate around the memorial.

Last year, Poppe violated his own oath: He wouldn’t return to the stadium until it was torn down. “I made the mistake of going back,” Poppe said. The once immaculate infield was overgrown, the base paths gone. Most of the grandstand was gone. The letters spelling Rosenblatt on the left-field scoreboard were about to be dismantled.

“It was very depressing,” Poppe said. “I wish I had not done it.”

And maybe it’s the same sense of loss felt when your favorite restaurant burns to the ground, only to reopen with a new menu: The name is the same; the feeling wholly different. Maybe that’s the task for the new yard, and the sport itself.

“There’s always a worry that the food won’t taste quite the same,” Poppe said.

“I can tell you, that hasn’t happened.”