Scores are up. Home runs are really on the rise. And the earned run averages are really, really up. But one stat is down for the regional round of this year’s NCAA baseball tournament. Attendance is down from the pace of 2021. And, for a very clear reason.
2022 is a year where many of the major college games programs with excellent attendance each year are not hosting an NCAA regional. By “several” we more honestly mean “Southeast Conference”. Because reliable trendsetters from Mississippi State, Arkansas, LSU and Ole Miss didn’t qualify to have postseason baseball on their fields.
In the case of Mississippi State, to play the postseason. The defending national champions – for three more weeks – did not advance. The others didn’t win a #1 seed and went on the road to Regionals for this first round at least.
If one wonders, the last time any of these top four programs hosted an NCAA region was in 2011.
Now, as the first weekend of this year rolls around, there are sure to be super regional hosts, up to half the pitch in fact. But the record at the box office is already clear, measured by the day of the opening of the regional.
Across the sixteen venues, published attendance numbers for the 32 matches in the first round amounted to just under 122,000. That’s not terrible for a sport that outright claims only a niche in most markets. But here, baseball means absolutely more than anywhere else.
How many? Just take what Fridays at three of the four SEC executives’ stadiums have done in 2021. Between Mississippi State, Arkansas and Ole Miss, the first-round tally last June was… 59,585. Yes , just half of what the whole country did last Friday (or due to the weather Friday and Saturday in a few places). And that was with LSU missing a year as host, which would have been worth around another 30,000 of the total.
In fact, if four more 2021 SEC venues — Gainesville, Nashville, Knoxville and Columbia — are added, a year ago the NCAA’s opening days had nearly 90,000 fans anyway. It is not simply a local inflation of the number of spectators. NCAA events allow almost no free tickets other than player families, playing staff and media. So when a host publishes attendance, the dollars returned to the NCAA must match.
Perversely, this is a factor as to why a number of sites that have secured hosting rights this year or any year are not attracting big doors. With no free tickets and out-of-session school attendance, it’s barely a fail by SEC standards. Yes, even in venues that don’t follow their conference parents – we’re looking at you, Nashville.
None of this implies the need for a return to the old days of sites attributed to revenue potential, i.e. the purchase of regions, in which the state of Mississippi was a happy participating in the late 80s. The current seeding = location system is just for teams that earn the right. Just because Maryland can’t draw flyweights to games doesn’t mean this remarkable 22 Terrapin team should be sent down any road. Former national champions Oregon State are attracting what would watch batting practice at MSU and LSU and certainly deserve to host because of what’s happening on the field more than around it. Etc.
Yet… there is an argument for making regionals simply mean more when played on grounds where it means more. More fans in the stands than anywhere but Omaha, that is. Maybe next year, gang. Maybe next year.
Regional 2022 first day, attendance at two matches (either Friday or *delayed by the weather to Saturday):
College Station 12,353
Calm water 11,160
Chapel Hill 5,947
*Coral Gables 7,456
College Park 4,679
#Tennessee hadn’t listed an attendance for the first game of their two Fridays, so the crowd for this final game for the Vols is doubled.
For comparison, here are the 2021 numbers from the SEC sites. And note that Mississippi State opted to play Friday’s early game, as has become fashionable in the postseason picture. This year, eight of the 16 hosts also played the opener either to beat weather threats or to keep their throwing fresher over the two days.
SEC 2021 First-day regional venues, attendance at two games