Blanchat: Pac-10 needs baseball tournament

May 24, 2011, 12:10 a.m.

All across the nation this week, college baseball teams are preparing for their season-ending conference tournaments. The SEC plays a tournament in Hoover, Ala., the Big 12 heads to Oklahoma City, the ACC sets up shop in Durham, N.C., and even smaller leagues like the America East and the Horizon League have tournaments to cap off the regular season. However, there is one notable exception to this conference tournament season—the Pac-10.

Unlike almost every other major and minor conference in the country, the Pac-10 doesn’t have any season-ending baseball tournament to determine a champion. And while the Pac-10 is exploring the possibility of a postseason tournament when the conference expands to 11 teams next year (Colorado hasn’t had a baseball program since the mid-‘80s, Utah currently plays in the Mountain West), it appears that the new Pac-12 is missing out on a major opportunity to draw in fans (and cash) by neglecting to add a tournament to the championship schedule next year.

While the conference could be capitalizing on the fact that it consistently boasts some of the best baseball teams in the country, the Pac-10 currently lets the regular season end quietly while—in stark contrast—the SEC has its entire conference tournament broadcast on ESPN.

This hole in the Pac-10 schedule is particularly surprising because of the conference’s strength from top to bottom. The Pac-10 has sent four or more teams to the postseason in nine of the last 10 years, and a Pac-10 team has played in the finals of the College World Series in six of the last 11 years.

Those stats don’t mean that the conference is just top-heavy with good teams, either. Last year, eight squads made an NCAA Regional appearance, and Oregon State won the national championship in 2007 despite finishing sixth in conference with a 10-14 record.

But instead of letting teams like the 2007 Oregon State squad have one final run at the conference title in the last weekend of the year, teams are firmly stuck in their places without a chance to salvage their season and their postseason hopes, despite how good the team might actually be.

Because of this conference parity, if the newly named Pac-12 were to hold a conference tournament between the top eight teams after the regular season, the worst seed in the tournament might have almost as good a shot to win the title as the top seed. And if a middle-of-the-pack squad (like Stanford this year, which right now sits fifth in the conference with a 12-12 record) were to win the Pac-12 Tournament, it would have a nice feather in the cap to encourage the NCAA to select that team for the postseason or even to host a regional, which only would add to conference prestige and pocketbooks.

Speaking of money, the Pac-12 could stand to earn a nice bit of cash if it handled the postseason tournament correctly. Last year, the SEC Tournament had 126,071 fans show up, an average of 9,698 per game, to its eight-team, double-elimination tournament. Is it possible for the Pac-12 to draw numbers like that to the gates? Probably not. But the tickets, concessions and merchandise sold in one solid weekend (as well as the money the conference would earn from any television broadcasts) could be substantial if the Pac-12 could bring in just half the fans that the SEC does right now.

With the extra coin, the conference could then turn around and help teams build new stadiums and facilities, or even use it to help Colorado reinstate a baseball program. The influx of money would at least prevent schools from cutting their baseball programs, as Cal did earlier this year before donors ponied up $10 million to keep the Golden Bears out on the diamond.

If the conference does indeed want to pull the trigger on a postseason tournament, it needs to think big in order to draw in fans and their wallets. Other conferences have their tournaments at minor league ballparks in mid-sized cities, and there are plenty of minor league parks readily available in California—but the Pac-12 can do better than a park in Sacramento or Modesto.

Perhaps the best minor league option might be Las Vegas, home of the Toronto Blue Jays’ Triple-A affiliate, the Las Vegas 51s. While the coaches might not like the fact that the Vegas strip will tempt their players, fans would come out of the woodwork to spend a weekend in Vegas and watch some college baseball. Perhaps the Pac-12 could even convince AT&T Park, Dodger Stadium, Chase Field in Phoenix or Safeco Field in Seattle to let the college kids play a few, yet another enticing option for fans.

With the Pac-12’s new media deals now set in stone, the conference has a major opportunity to bring in new fans and lots of money, and baseball is the one place where other conferences are still clearly ahead of the Pac-12 right now. With a season-ending tournament, though, the Pac-12 could quickly catapult itself onto the national media stage. Then, instead of watching SEC baseball all Memorial Day weekend, fans on the West Coast and all over the nation would finally get to see that the Pac-12 has some of the best baseball the country has to offer.

Jack Blanchat forgot one MLB stadium in Pac-12 country. Remind this Rangers fan who has won five of the last seven AL West titles at blanchat “at”


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