How Can the NCAA Maximize College Baseball and Softball Revenue? My Unasked for Recommendations & Other Thoughts

As you probably know by now, when I write a long article for another website, I inevitably have some leftover thoughts that I put up on my my own website. So first, head to Athletic Director U to read my framework for looking at revenue growth and then read my first option, growing college baseball and softball. After you read those, today I’ll answer these additional questions:

– Should the NCAA invest more?

– Why did I include softball?

– What are some ideas to grow college baseball and softball?

– How would you negotiate the next round of rights?

Should the NCAA invest more in baseball?

My tentative plan is to avoid making “go or no go” decisions until after I’ve looked at 4 or 6 different opportunities. (We’ll see how long the series goes.) After I’ve evaluated that many, I’ll try to rank them by net present value and/or qualitative factors. So I don’t want to prematurely make any calls here.

But I feel pretty confident that the NCAA should lean more into college baseball. With other opportunities—take e-Sports or international growth—the learning or expertise likely just isn’t present. That means you’ll need to build institutional capabilities, which is fundamentally hard. Or, like with gambling, it may go against the organization’s charter. (And I use NCAA as a fill in for all colleges, universities and conferences.)

I don’t have that hesitation with college baseball. The NCAA can build these sports bigger, and, unlike other ventures I’ll explore, I can say the baseball investment has the smallest costs.

Why did I include softball?

Two reasons. First, philosophically I’m a big supporter of Title IX. I’m inclined to try to put women’s athletics on par with the men’s wherever possible. 

But this is a business website. So the real answer is money. College softball gets playoff ratings as big and often bigger than college baseball. Depending on whether or not the Olympics is featuring softball—and it depends, it will be back for 2020—these are arguably the best softball athletes in the world playing. And the cities/university fanbases tune in. Especially the legions of young fans who play softball. There is also some chance of synergies between the two sports and baseball and softball can benefit each other by growing, which I wouldn’t say for some other sports necessarily.

What are your unasked for recommendations?

In some ways, I saved the most fun part of my exploration of college baseball for my own website. Why not include these gems in the original? Well, they’re pretty much my gut thinking on the topic. So I don’t have a lot of tables or charts or numbers to justify my thinking.

Also, as I mentioned in the introduction, I love the “marketing framework”. The key step is identifying the target segment you want to reach, then positioning the product to them. That allows you to develop the “marketing mix”, often called the 4Ps. If I want to do this right, run that analysis first.

But that takes a lot of time to do right, and I had some ideas I just wanted to get out there. 

Gamify the Baseball Experience

I love being able to take off work for the first two days March Madness. For a few years in a row, my wife and I had schedules that enabled us to do this together. It was a phenomenal experience. Nothing is more fun than constant basketball games ending in buzzer beaters. (Can you imagine if the US made the first two days of March Madness a national holiday? All our lives would be better.)

In addition to the games, though, part of the appeal is filling out a bracket and seeing how well it does. That’s right, the simple act of picking winners and losers emotionally invests me in colleges I may have never heard of. Even if UCLA isn’t playing. (Some years I fill out a survivor’s bracket too, and get even more invested in that.)

Can college baseball get to the same thing? Sure. It would be a bit tougher because the individual game match-ups are complicated by the double elimination format, but you still have the start of a massive bracket to fill out. If you can make filling out baseball/softball brackets a “thing”, that can only help ratings.

Notice, I did use the term “gamify” versus “gambling”. I think you can create the same thrill of winning various pools without having to teach all of America how to wager on college athletes. (And my initial thinking is that even as the NBA and NFL get comfortable with gambling, college sports is a different arena entirely.)

Shorten the games

This is one of those touchy subjects I’m hesitant to even type. But let’s start with a personal example.

Game 2 of UCLA-Michigan was a win or go home game. It started at 6pm. Three hours later we were just leaving the sixth inning. A few extra innings later, and it ended at 11pm in dramatic fashion. So a fun, dramatic game, but five hours is a long time. I could have gone and played a round of golf in that time. (If the sun was up.)

This seems to be the most common recommendation for improving college baseball. Both pace of play and the length of games could be sped up/shortened without really hurting the game. I’m not a baseball traditionalist, but I already complain about the pace of play in both college football and basketball, so I think all NCAA sports could be improved in this regard.

Build out from the SEC

One of the underlying themes of the evidence is that right now college baseball’s growth is being driven by the SEC. They’re the schools that are out in front in revenue and ratings in football, and apparently are adopting college baseball faster than the rest. (The gold standard is LSU.)

When in doubt, I recommend making your strengths stronger. Keep reinforcing the growth in the SEC states, and it will expand to Texas, the midwest and eventually all of the country. Whatever tactics they’re using to work, other conferences can copy. Part of the SEC’s success may just be that it’s sunny enough to play baseball during winter, which is another potential improvement. (The Big 10 schools apparently are hindered by this.)

How Would You Negotiate the Next Round of Rights?

At first, I had my sports rights recommendations lumped in with the above growth opportunities, but I realized they were a subtly different area. So I split them out.

Really, this is how the NCAA monetizes its product. Sure, gate revenue is good. And sponsorships are something. But we know that the bat that hits the ball here is the giant paychecks from ESPN. So the NCAA needs to constantly maximize the revenue from this source.

Thinking about the future negotiations—and media rights deals—is crucial for the NCAA. So here are my initial thoughts on baseball I may try to quantify in future articles.

Separate baseball and softball from the rest of the NCAA playoffs.

This is really the point when I think individual sports can justify themselves as “the third revenue generating sport”: when they can stand on their own as their own negotiated deals. 

If you can separate out college baseball and softball from the rest of the NCAA playoffs, as opposed to a total content deal, I think the NCAA could get a higher price overall. (I’d add, if you separate out college baseball and softball, you can still have women’s basketball—the third highest sport in terms of ratings—prop up the rest of the post season sports.) I have to do some modeling on this, but the idea is you can get more bidders for more sports, which increases the odds the bidders are maximizing each bid. 

Shorten the length of the contracts.

If you think sports rights are going to keep increasing in the near future—and everyone is predicting that—why would you get into decade long deals? How much money are you leaving on the table between negotiations?

I first thought of this with the Pac-12. If they had done 6 year deals with Fox and ESPN, then the Pac-12 would be getting a price boost right now, instead of in 2022. Even if the price had been subtly lower for a shorter term in 2010, that would easily be made up for right now.

Take bids from everyone, but go with biggest audience builder.

This is a topic that’s worth twelve different articles, probably, but when it comes to picking a digital partner, value the money the most, but think about growing the audience as well. This would clearly give ESPN a lead track, but consider if another channel can commit to more marketing or feature a sport even more because of its new profile. Could Fox Sports pair their MLB coverage with NCAA baseball coverage? Also, for all the hype of digital only platforms like Apple and Amazon, pairing digital with linear will maximize the total reach, even if the price is less. Again, ESPN has an advantage here.

Final question: any last piece of advice?

Don’t hire consultants to do strategy. In my opinion, 95% of the time, businesses should own their own strategy. Strategic thinking is why you pay top executives as much as you do. If you don’t have the capabilities in-house, I’d ask your highest paid executive, “Why not?” If you don’t have a team building out these models and writing these reports, save your money from hiring consultants and build a team to do it.

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