Big Decisions Facing Sun Belt Baseball – From the Bird’s Nest
Late this summer, the coaches from around the Sun Belt will meet, and while that meeting is frequently social, this year the coaches will have to make some hard and fast decisions on how to handle the future of the league.
The Sun Belt baseball league will expand to 12 teams in 2014 with the additions of Georgie State, Texas State and UT-Arlington, combined with the departure of FIU. With new coaches come new ideas and it will be interesting to see what the coaches decide to do with some critical areas of the league.
HOW DOES THE LEAGUE WANT TO SCHEDULE?--While most would say there are two options, I think there are actually three.....
1. The Southeastern Conference Model--SEC coaches wanted to cap their conference schedule at 30 games, and, as a result, each year there's a conference team on your schedule you don't play. That team comes from the opposite division. The upside of this is you have four weekends, not three, to get your team ready for conference play. The down side is the unbalanced schedule. But the league has an unbalanced schedule now with teams playing their natural rival twice. I think the coaches will opt for having an extra weekend to prepare for conference and will probably take this option.
2. The Southland Conference Model--The Southland will have a new lineup beginning next year, but the way they've handled twelve teams is to play everyone. That means only three weekends to get ready. It also means everyone plays the same schedule of 33 conference games and it's a true round-robin. The Sun Belt probably doesn't need to do this. In the Southland, getting weekend series at home has been tough. Not so much in the 'Belt.
3. The "Yellow Bus" Option--This one probably won't fly with the coaches or the fans, but if you're going to look at options, at least discuss them all. This option would be to play a double round-robin within the two divisions. This would cut down on travel costs considerably, since, unless you're FAU or headed there, every road trip is a bus trip. In this scenario, teams in the respective divisions would play other teams home and home. There would be no cross-divisional play. This was something that was done in the league in the early 90's, but ended in the mid 90's. It's difficult for fans to relate to other teams in the league if their team never meets them until post-season play. It also would end a pretty intense rivalry between Louisiana and South Alabama. Don't look for this one to fly (pun intended) unless the higher-ups get involved and are hell bent on slashing travel costs.
WHAT ABOUT THE TOURNAMENT FORMAT?--The coaches agreed to give the round-robin format for the conference tournament a two year trial period and now the two years are up. There has been a mixed reaction from the coaches concerning the format. Fans have complained loudly about it because of the propensity to have to play meaningless games after a team has been eliminated from consideration from the finals. And, that's a legitimate concern. It was especially bad the first year, where everything was pretty much decided on Thursday. This year, Arkansas State didn't clinch their berth until Saturday afternoon which actually added to the excitement.
But the positives of this format, in my opinion, greatly outweigh the "meaningless games" argument.
1. Travel is easier--Since the teams know ahead of time when they are going to play, it's so much easier for teams and fans to make their travel arrangements, especially those who are flying.
2. Playing Three Could be Key--It didn't come into play this year of this format, but sometimes, playing (and winning) one more game might be the difference between playing on or staying at home. This year the Sun Belt was a one-bid league and the extra game didn't matter. But, the league's challenge is to get as many teams into postseason as possible. This format really helps that. Don't believe it? Check out the ACC and CUSA this year. Teams got a chance to play their way in...or out.
3. It keeps the integrity of the game intact--In the Southeastern Conference, it's possible to play that new, crazy format and still have some pitching left at the end. But, not in the Sun Belt. I still cringe at the thought of FIU's Scott Rembisz throwing 200 pitches in the tournament two years ago. And, I cringe even more when I think of the final score in the championship game, which was something like 105-96, (actually it was 14-10. It just seemed worse.) Fast forward to this past Sunday, when both teams got to start their best arm and both pitchers went six strong innings in a game that ended 4-2. That is baseball. That other stuff? Not so much. This format is just so much better, despite some games not factoring in the final matchup.
NEUTRAL SITES OR CAMPUS SITES--Now, the coaches aren't going to make this decision, but they'll at least get to make their opinions known. As of right now, the 2013 tournament is set for M. L. "Tigue" Moore Field. But the conference didn't award any sites for the future and said they were going to research and come up with different criteria for hosting. There's been some rumbling about moving the tournament to a neutral site. From a media standpoint (having radio and television booths and plenty of room) that isn't a bad idea. Sites like Zephyr Field and Hank Aaron Stadium could be possibilities. There are also minor league parks in Little Rock, Bowling Green, Montgomery and Nashville. There are spring training sites in Florida. The potential downfall here, however, is the potential to kill the tournament from an attendance standpoint. Louisiana, South Alabama and Troy have been the attendance leaders and Louisiana-Monroe has joined the party the last couple of years. If you're going to go to a neutral site, it needs to be near the aforementioned schools so that fan base can attend. Otherwise you're looking at a lot of empty seats. And, that's not good.
WAS THIS YEAR AN ABERRATION?
There isn't much question this was a down year for the Sun Belt Conference...way down. The 'Belt, perennially in the top seven of the RPI, was in the middle of the pack of 31 conferences this year, and that isn't acceptable. A closer look, however, indicates this might have been a blip on the radar. Several schools had multiple injuries this year, including injuries to weekend starting pitching. And, although a couple of schools will have some replacing to do, there were actually very few seniors in the league this year. Now, the coaches obviously need to recruit better talent...but you won't see it like this again, I don't think.