The talent level in college baseball is increasing, but yesterday, I promised a coach that I would not credit Moneyball for helping. I promised not to be that dense. But, if nothing else, Michael Lewis’ book raised awareness of the uptick in attention that college baseball players have gained in the last decade. In my pre-2007 draft survey of scouting directors last season, 19 of the 28 scouting directors profiled had a history of drafting more college players in the first five rounds. Fourteen of them were pronounced histories-men with at least a 20 percent difference between drafting collegiate and prep players.

“What’s happening is that a lot of professional organizations are getting smarter, and they’re understanding that giving a big signing bonus to an 18-year-old comes with a pretty big risk,” said Louisiana State baseball coach Paul Mainieri, who suggested college baseball represents the best option for about 90 percent of high school seniors. “If I’m a professional scout and I see a kid [play in the SEC] for three years, I’m going to have a pretty good idea if he can make the major leagues or not.”

Coaches across the nation are using the increase in draft numbers as their sales pitch for attending college. Mainieri’s LSU program, which boasts Collegiate Baseball’s top-ranked recruiting class, is a prime example of the increase in talent that college baseball has seen. Mainieri’s freshman phenom is a mammoth pitcher, the six-foot-seven Anthony Raunado, a hurler that the coach recognizes as an atypical college player. It’s likely the nation’s best high school players will almost always opt to sign a pro contract coming out of high school rather than attend college, but the effect could be making a difference on the second-tier prep talent. A high school player not drafted in the earliest rounds should now have more incentive in attending college than ever before-even highly-rated high school players like Andrew Miller and David Price proved that building a body of college work can pay large dividends.

“I think [Price and Pedro Alvarez] are two kids that it’s not going to take very long to get from college baseball and get into the big leagues,” said Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin. “The more coverage it gets, it helps out our school with the recruiting efforts, and it points to college baseball and the talent that exists at the higher levels.”

Perhaps the really important thing for college baseball is not simply to increase and improve the level of talent, but to have more people notice it. Coaches are hoping there is a correlation there, that more talent will attract more fans, but there is work to be done. We’ll start with the bad news-the top ten attendance marks in the college game from 2007:

Average Attendance
Rk   Team                   Total     Average
 1.  Arkansas              250,759     8,089
 2.  LSU                   256,537     7,330
 3.  Mississippi State     217,438     6,795
 4.  South Carolina        159,545     4,986
 5.  Mississippi           173,523     4,958
 6.  Clemson               163,537     4,810
 7.  Texas                 203,449     4,731
 8.  Florida State         183,481     4,475
 9.  Alabama               156,379     4,468
10.  Wichita State         178,801     4,257

At this juncture, 5,000 per game appears to be the golden number in college baseball attendance, one that just three Southern teams crossed last season. College baseball has often been labeled a Southern sport, but in terms of popularity, that characterization just happens to be true. From the list above, only Wichita State is north of the Mason-Dixie Line, and Northern coaches are spent far more time than they should selling their program. One Big Ten coach I talked to explained he’s forced to play with creative marketing tactics to put fans in the stands.

In 2008, for the first time, the season will start on a uniform date for teams across the country. While Northern coaches recognize it as a step forward, most wish the season was pushed back, with the College World Series not beginning until July. A different Big Ten coach explained the difficulties of selling baseball in March, but believes June baseball would help the programs compete better financially.

Nothing supports this argument more than the success of the College World Series. Before the 64-team tournament, the College World Series was a struggling post-season setup, but arming themselves with that tournament to create drama has enhanced the popularity of the Omaha event itself. In all, college baseball’s postseason, highlighted by the CWS as Rosenblatt Stadium, is the second-largest revenue producer for any NCAA championships, behind only college basketball’s March Madness. In 2007, attendance in Omaha topped 300,000 for the second consecutive season, eclipsing the record for average attendance in a College World Series (23,131) previously set in 2006. The numbers put to bed any talk of moving the College World Series away from Omaha.

Furthermore, the College World Series drew an estimated viewing audience of over 444 million in two weeks, including heavy play on ESPN and ESPN2. The CWS averaged a 0.9 cable rating on ESPN and 0.8 on ESPN2, according to Sports Business Daily. While the 1.4 rating for the two championship games was less than the 2006 Oregon State-North Carolina championship, the 2007 rematch still exceeded ESPN’s 2005 numbers. The sport is also becoming far more visible with the proliferation of CSTV and ESPNU, as well as conference-centered channels like the Big Ten Network and the Mountain West Conference’s ‘mtn’. Both will show numerous games to subscribers in the spring.

“You could tell when women’s basketball made the jump when ESPN and other stations put it on TV,” said Corbin. “The more it’s on TV and the more it hits the national magazines, I think that’s when it’s going to build a little bit more.”

Television is certainly the next frontier for the growing sport, and another important spur for college baseball’s growing popularity was the movement of Major League Baseball’s June amateur draft to television in 2007. The show was a success, and the NCAA ruled that players completed with their junior seasons would be allowed to attend the draft in person, considered a major sticking point in ESPN’s coverage. The show only drew a 0.3 overnight cable rating, but given that it appeared on ESPN2, and was in its infancy (not to mention the splintering of the audience because of the internet traffic the draft has historically drawn), there is reason to believe a rise will come in 2008. Much like the NFL and NBA drafts, college baseball coaches believe an increased focus on the draft could yield an increased focus on college baseball’s best players-and on the virtues of the college game as a vehicle for a pro career.

There’s another element in play, of potential cooperation instead of conflict between the majors and the colleges in trying to land high school talent. “I would think it would be wise for professional baseball to do all it can to enhance college baseball,” said Mainieri. Both the NBA and NFL aided their respective college analogs by forcing young players to attend college. Currently, NBA players must attend college for one season and football players for three seasons.

For the first time this winter, scouting directors and college coaches met to discuss the challenges each face. There was no talk of pushing more kids to college, but instead the dialog focused on possibly pushing the draft back until after the college baseball season. Coaches have acknowledged the August 15 signing deadline was professional baseball’s first nod in their direction, but the deadline is simply too late to have a real effect. Coaches are crossing their fingers that complaints don’t fall on deaf ears, and scouting directors either move to push the signing deadline earlier or the draft later. “The pro draft affects the upper echelon of college programs more than anything,” said Corbin. “You just don’t know what’s coming in and you don’t know what’s coming out.”

College baseball is achieving new popularity levels each season. Conference-specific television networks give the sport heightened visibility for 2008. But there is work to be done, and coaches believe for ultimate success, attendance numbers will be the result of bureaucratic changes, both at the college and professional level. Let’s just hope the sport can make fans out of Bud Selig and his successor soon.

Next Week: Upcoming changes in college baseball, and their likely effects.