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College World Series Has Growing Pains

Associated Press

College baseball, once the skinny kid on campus, is flexing its muscles and experiencing growing pains.

Attendance at college baseball games has doubled since 1979 and the quality of play has never been better. But a plan to change the format of the sport’s showcase event has upset a lot of people.

In an effort to obtain a $1-million television contract, the NCAA is planning to change the College World Series from an eight-team, double-elimination tournament to a single-elimination Final Four in 1988.

That has angered many coaches and two of college baseball’s biggest boosters--Omaha and the ESPN cable network.

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The College World Series has prospered during its 37 years in Omaha, but the demands of a major network contract could force the NCAA to leave the city for a larger stadium that could produce more revenue.

A megabuck TV deal could also squeeze out ESPN, which has televised the College World Series for the past seven years. Officials at the all-sports network say they might abandon their coverage of the tournament’s early rounds if they lose the rights to the championship game.

Many coaches feel the NCAA is trying to fix a sport that isn’t broken.

“I think it’s a crime to alter an event that has been so successful . . . and which has meant so much to college baseball,” said Maine Coach John Winkin, whose team played in this year’s series.

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Mississippi State coach Ron Polk, president of the American Baseball Coaches Assn., said members of the organization are overwhelmingly opposed to the Final Four plan.

“We’re concerned about the loss of public awareness for college baseball that could result from this format,” he said. “We don’t want to lose ESPN (and) we’re concerned for Omaha and the great people there.”

Mayor Mike Boyle said more than 500,000 people have signed petitions to keep the series in Omaha, which has a population of 345,000.

“That’s incredible,” he said. “We’re overwhelmed by the response. We’ve got more signatures than there are people in Omaha.”

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Boyle said the city would consider expanding and renovating 15,300-seat Rosenblatt Stadium if the NCAA agrees to keep the championship in Omaha.

Jerry Miles, director of men’s championships for the NCAA, said he hopes an agreement can be reached.

“We would like to see the series stay in Omaha, but really it’s up to Omaha,” he said. “It depends on what they’re willing to do and what they want in return.”

Miles said a network contract would give college baseball wider exposure.

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“It’s a great event as it is, but if we’re going to make it the premier event we think it can be, we need coverage on a national over-the-air network,” he said.

ESPN, which paid $175,000 to televise the 1986 series, doesn’t have the financial clout to outbid the major networks for the title game.

“We’re in approximately 44% of the homes the networks are in, so it would be hard to go one-on-one with them,” said Steve Bornstein, an ESPN programming executive.

Spokesmen at ABC, NBC and CBS said their networks would consider televising the championship game after ESPN’s contract expires next year.

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“We definitely want to look at it,” said Donn Bernstein, director of college sports at ABC. “But we have to answer a lot of questions first. Is it sellable? What kind of ratings would we get? How many homes could we reach?”

Network officials expect the baseball championship to be included in a package deal when the NCAA negotiates its next basketball tournament contract. If that happens, the network that gets the lucrative basketball contract would also be required to televise the baseball finals.

Bernstein said the value of the baseball event will be determined by sponsor interest.

“Who knows what it’s worth?,” he said. “‘Ask Chevrolet. Do they think it’s worth $1 million? Does Coca-Cola? Does Datsun?”’

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At Collegiate Baseball, the sport’s leading publication, the debate over the championship format is a family affair. Editor and publisher Lou Pavlovich Sr. supports the Final Four plan. His son, managing editor Lou Jr., is against it.

“I think it’s a dangerous type of format because it’s changing a good thing,” Lou Jr. said. “I don’t think it’s right to crucify the people of Omaha and ESPN after all they’ve done for college baseball.”

His father thinks Miles and the NCAA “deserve a medal” for taking a bold step.

“The game is larger than any one town or any one network,” Lou Sr. said. “What’s good for the game is what’s important and I think this will be good for the game.”

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