I’ve been wanting to write up a diary on the ridiculously early start dates for spring sports and how they affect the lacrosse, baseball and softball programs.
Personally, I’m excited the season is here so soon and that lacrosse already has a significant win under its belt. But, it sucks when May rolls around and their season is already over. And for a sport that is always seeking new audiences, it doesn’t make sense that they pit themselves against the still-ongoing winter sports season.
I believe the February start dates are hampering these sports’ popularity. The structure of the semester as well as the sports’ postseasons are creating a situation in which the first games creep earlier and earlier and significant portions of their schedules are played in the depths of winter. It’s miserable for the athletes to play these games and even more miserable for the fans to watch them. As a result, spectators don’t show up and this makes it difficult for these programs to get the attention and support they deserve.
Yesterday was Valentine’s Day and softball and lacrosse have already played multiple games. Baseball starts on Friday. But the winter sports season isn’t close to being over yet. March Madness doesn’t start for another month and the Frozen 4 won’t be played for another seven weeks. Let’s take a look at these team’s schedules to see just how ridiculous they are. **I left the golf, tennis and track & field programs out of this analysis primarily because I don’t understand their seasons. Plus, I am more familiar with lacrosse, baseball and softball which I consider to be more spectator-oriented**
Lacrosse is already 1-1, opening their season last weekend, February 6th at UNC. It was clear and cold. Despite the early February weather, 2,000 fans came out to see the game, which isn’t bad (and yesterday they had the fortune of playing in the friendly climate-controlled confines of Oosterbaan Fieldhouse). UNC is a program that usually brings in good crowds, especially in late-spring warm-weather matchups versus its hated rivals Duke and UVA. But, look at what the Michigan game was up against: that night the top 10 Tar Heels hoops team was hosting ACC foe Notre Dame. The lacrosse game wasn’t streamed either - the athletic department’s streaming service showed a gymnastics meet instead. Even if it was streamed the game was on at the same time as Michigan’s only regular season basketball game vs in-state rival Michigan State, so the small community of Michigan lacrosse fans on this board likely would’ve focused on that instead. Oh and the Carolina Panthers were in the Super Bowl that weekend. If you were a casual observer of UNC sports who had an interest in lacrosse, you likely had much bigger things on your plate that weekend.
This year, Michigan plays five games in the month of February, and a total of seven games before the ides of March. That’s half their schedule. This was unheard of in Division 1 even just a few years ago. They also only play one game on their spring break trip and they play zero regular season games in the month of May, when it’s actually nice.
Why does the season start so early you ask? Well, the college lacrosse season is built around Memorial Day which has been the traditional date for the national championship game. The schedule is created backwards from that. But, in the last several years the NCAA tournament field expanded to 16 teams and then again to 18 with play-in games. Also, the ever-shifting conference landscape has created bigger and bigger conferences and now most of them hold end-of-the-year conference tournaments to determine their champions and AQ bids. As a result there are virtually no dates in late April/early May to host home games. Teams compensate for this by scheduling games earlier and earlier which is how we end up with pre-Super Bowl lacrosse. If we’re playing lacrosse games before the NFL is even finished, then there’s something wrong.
Here are some examples of how this is hurting the game. On Saturday, #11 Loyola beat #7 UVA in Charlottesville in 25 degree weather. Only 1,200 fans were in the stands - in milder weather later in the season, that game brings in another thousand fans at least. Even worse, last week Hopkins and Navy played another chapter in their historic rivalry - on a nasty cold Tuesday night. Inside Lacrosse reported that in several recent meetings of the two teams attracted more than 10,000 fans. Hopkins-Navy is basically the equivalent of the Michigan-Notre Dame football rivalry, but on an awful, cold Tuesday night in February 2016, only 665 fans came out to see it. They might as well have played it on Christmas morning in a dark basement with the lights out.
Here is a great discussion on how even the coaches and players hate it. http://www.insidelacrosse.com/article/video-coaches-on-february-lacrosse/33897
Winter and early spring in North America, especially in places like Big Ten country, is not a particularly nice time to do things outside. Nor is it a nice time to do summer-time activities like play baseball. This of course is a major obstacle for the northern teams, most of whom spend the first month of the season on the road in warm places like Florida, Texas and California.
College baseball is ruled by southern schools and those in places like California and Arizona. They can play outdoors year round and can recruit talent that often times is in its own backyard. A look at the past winners of the College World Series show that a northern team has not won the title since Ohio State in 1966 (Fresno St, Oregon St, Wichita St, Vandy and UVA are all non-super warm climate teams who have won, but in that time period there are no winners from east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon).
The warm weather schools also don’t suffer road fatigue the way the northern schools do. Look at Michigan’s first month of games - they play five straight weeks of road games. That’s 19 consecutive away games including a pair of Saturday doubleheaders. Before they play their first home game on March 25th, they will have logged thousands of miles going to Florida, Hawaii, Oklahoma and five different cities in California. Contrast that with the schedules of teams like Texas, LSU and UCLA who host games in February and hardly have to go anywhere when they do go on the road.
Michigan baseball has a nice long homestand in April, but they play 36 games of their 50 regular season games on the road. If they make the tournament and CWS they could be playing as late as June 29th.
Like baseball, softball spends the first several weeks of their season in far-off warmer corners of the planet because it’s simply too cold to play in the midwest in February.
This year, Michigan kicked off the season in Tampa. Then they go to Tallahassee. Then it’s on to Palm Springs, Los Angeles, Fullerton and then Louisville. They finally play their first homestand on March 16. Out of 50 regular season games on the schedule, 34 of them are somewhere other than Ann Arbor. Their last home game is May 8 before finishing up the regular season on the road and then heading to the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
Softball is dominated by Western teams. Before Michigan won its first national championship in 2005, no team east of the Mississippi had ever won the Women’s College World Series. A look at the past winners of the WCWS shows that Michigan is the only northern team that consistently competes for the national title. Having one of the best coaches in all of sports may be the thing that helps Michigan get over its climate handicap.
If Michigan goes deep this year, as expected, they could be playing as late as June 8th.
From a markets perspective, the spring sports season is saturated. The month of March is dominated by the NCAA basketball tournament, to the point that most people stop paying attention to the NBA and NHL (I definitely do). After that we have Major League Baseball’s Opening Day. Later in April, the NHL and NBA begin their marathon playoff slags that go to June. Also in the spring we have other American sports traditions like the Masters, the Triple Crown, the Indy 500 and the NFL Draft. Niche and non-revenue sports are going to have a hard time trying to compete in this media landscape.
But there is a simple solution - move the seasons back, even just a few weeks. If these sports play most of their meaningful games when people will see them, their popularity is likely to grow. While the field is crowded in spring, there is a significant drop-off in late May. By the end of May the NBA and NHL have whittled down to only a few teams and their games are often few and far between. They’re done in mid June at the latest and unless it’s an Olympic or World Cup year, there is only pro baseball for the next three months until football starts up again.
Sports-wise there is little to do on college campuses once the basketball and hockey programs finish up their regular season. But, by the time it’s actually nice enough to sit outside and take in a game, the baseball, softball and lacrosse teams are wrapping up their seasons. Summer in AA is great, but I would’ve loved to have played some home lacrosse games in early May and been able to go see some baseball and softball games in June.
For lacrosse, the answer is simple - just move the championships back a week. Memorial Day can still be a huge weekend for the sport - they can even play the first two rounds of the tournament on the Saturday and Monday - the way they do with the Final 4 now. This would essentially shorten the tournament and open up more days in early May for on-campus games. More importantly, it would eliminate the need for early February games. They could also create a hard start date of March 1st (more realistically February 21st) and require all teams to play 3 or 4 games on their spring break.
Baseball/softball should also push back a few weeks. I would love to see them start the season in March and play both the CWS and WCWS on the July 4th weekend or even later. The northern teams should lobby hard for a calendar change like this so they don’t have to spend the first six weeks of their seasons on the road.
Alternatively, they could move to a summer season. There has been talk on mgoblog that the Big Ten should consider scrapping baseball/softball as spring sports and create a summer season. Of course the downside of this would be that B1G teams wouldn’t be able to compete in the NCAA tourney/CWS. And it would make it difficult for these student-athletes to rest and get important summer jobs and internships. Nevertheless, I am intrigued by this idea. I think it would add an interesting feature to college towns in the summer and would make the sports more popular.
And while these sports are non-revenue, I wonder if they would make more money if they were played in the summer. And that’s really the only language the NCAA understands.
Of course, these sports will always have to compete with other college and pro sports for the hearts, minds and eyes of fans. But, I think the current set-up makes it difficult for these programs to succeed. The NCAA should make it easier for athletes and fans to enjoy the spring sports season.
No two ways about it, the game earlier today was a big disappointment, both offensively and defensively. The great thing about softball, though, is the fact that the season is very long, and there will be many other opportunities to get high-quality wins.
In the meantime, we've got a 2nd match-up today, going head to head with the USF Bulls. The game can be watched online (although it looks like there's a price tag) at http://www.gousfbulls.com/liveEvents/liveEvents.dbml?SPSID=36725&SPID=29... You can also follo via live stats or on the Michigan Softball twitter account. First pitch should be right about 4:30. Let's hope we can get a good palate cleanser here & put that Florida game firmly in the past.
[Bumped (and added some photos) because it's good and so is our softball team. --Seth]
Sprinkle the cheese
It’s hard to put the experience of Michigan’s 2015 softball season into words. It was totally unique in so many ways. Michigan fans were desperate for something to go right after hockey, basketball, and football all came up well short of pre-season expectations. Jim Harbaugh was making headlines, but concrete results were still months away, and the Michigan community was still convalescing from its long bout of Brandonitis. It was the perfect time for niche sport to make a bid for mainstream status, as fans needed something, anything to go right, to make things feel like Michigan again.
Into this void stepped a group of twenty young women, swinging bats and making pizza as they blasted their way through the country and the Big Ten, into the record books and Maize and Blue hearts nationwide. The team combined absurd offensive production and strong pitching with an unmatched rootability factor. Whether on TV or in person, this team was fun. When Lauren Haeger’s Gators bounced them in the last game of the season, it felt like an injustice, just like Trey Burke missing out on his crown or the Legend of Shawn Hunwick falling short against Minnesota-Duluth.
The difference between those crimes and this one, however, is that Michigan has a chance to put things right. Almost everyone is back from the 2015 squad, and there’s no question that they’ve been working harder than ever all offseason to earn what was denied them a year ago. It’s a new year with fresh faces and stiff competition, but this is a team on a mission. Below, we’ll break down roster changes, offense and defense, and the opposition Michigan will face in the season ahead. 2016 isn’t going to be 2015 all over again, and Hutch and her crew are smart enough not to try to make it that. It just might be a little bit better.
[Hit THE JUMP to see what that team lost and what to expect from this one]
Flosoftball web-video interview with Coach Hutch
She mentions pitchers being banged up, but rest of team anxious to get going. Also some discussion of her development of the program from the ground up. I love the Team 38 pizza paddle behind her.
"Only 24 women in the universe get to wear Michigan Softball"
Michigan is lucky to have her.
Florida is #1 by default after they defeated Michigan in the World Series final last season thanks to the dominant play of their now-graduated NPOY and the ability of UF players to get hit by pitches. But they bring in the top ranked recruiting class in the country and will be aiming for their third straight national title.
Michigan, meanwhile, is absolutely loaded with talent. This season's lineup has the potential to be even better at the plate than last season's, which was the most explosive in the nation. In the circle, Michigan loses Haylie Wagner, but returns two pitchers who have each led Michigan to the World Series as the staff ace in separate years.
Which team will be better this season? We won't have to wait long to get an idea, as Michigan faces off against UF on February 13th, the third game of their season.
Update: Link above is to the USA Today/NFCA poll. The ESPN/USA Softball poll also came out today with Michigan and UF in the same positions.