In 2004, the SoCon baseball tournament was a happening. A record total of 35,150 fans rumbled through the turnstiles at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park during the event.
It was the fifteenth consecutive year the tournament had been held in Charleston, and the culmination of a six-year stretch (1999-2004) in which the SoCon tourney annually drew more fans than did the ACC Tournament. Yes, you read that right. The Southern Conference tournament had a higher attendance than the ACC’s version for six straight years.
The good times continued in 2005 (attendance of 26,707), 2006 (28,206), and 2007 (31,298). So what did the SoCon’s powers-that-be decide to do in June of 2007?
You guessed it. They announced they were moving the tournament.
This happened, it appears, for two reasons. First, a small minority of school coaches/officials complained about Charleston’s status as the permanent host site, led by Mike Gaski, the longtime UNC-Greensboro coach whose teams had established a pattern of underachieving at the SoCon tournament.
However, it is likely the main impetus for the decision was financial. The league thought it could make even more money than it already was (and yes, it was doing quite well in Charleston) if it shopped the tournament to different communities.
After a mildly disappointing 2009 tournament in Greenville (at least in terms of attendance), SoCon commissioner John Iamarino insisted that the net guarantee to the league from that tournament was “141 percent greater” than the net revenue in the previous year’s event (2008), which suggested that Greenville had ponied up a lot of money to swipe the tournament from Charleston.
You could say the league cashed in that year. It is doubtful, however, that you can say that these days.
The last two years, the tournament has been held in Greenville (2013) and Charleston (2014). Combined total attendance from those two tourneys: 15,471. Combined.
Those are the two lowest years for attendance (regardless of venue) since at least 1997, which was when Riley Park first opened. They are almost certainly the two lowest years for attendance since the tournament was first moved to Charleston in 1990 (attendance figures prior to 1997 are hard to come by, as the league doesn’t list them).
I doubt anyone thinks it’s a good thing that the combined attendance from the last two league tournaments was lower than the attendance from the 1994 event (15,486), which was held at College Park. Twenty years later, and the conference is going backwards in terms of tournament interest.
The sad thing is that it was all too predictable. The league could have looked at the aforementioned ACC tournament, which struggled mightily after being moved from Greenville, where it had enjoyed a lot of success over a nine-year period. Rotating sites did that league no good, and attendance suffered until a multi-year stay in Jacksonville got the event back on track.
In 2009, Mike DeMaine from the Greenville Drive (which co-hosted the event) said that “Maybe if you are in one place a long time, it gets stale for everyone.” I guess he would have favored rotating the Rose Bowl between Pasadena and Fresno.
What a permanent host site does is establish consistency. It makes it easier for fans, coaches, and administrators to plan ahead, knowing from past years what to expect. It helps in developing relationships within the community that lead to increased sponsorships and other promotional opportunities.
You don’t have to take my word for it, though. Take John Iamarino’s comments, for example:
There are advantages to going back to a city: It helps with sponsors; it helps with awareness of the event.
Of course, he wasn’t talking about Charleston. He was talking about Asheville, which will now host the SoCon men’s and women’s basketball tournaments through 2017.
For some reason, the league is anxious to find a permanent home for its basketball tourneys but would rather rotate the baseball tournament, despite evidence suggesting that leaving it in one place is the way to go.
That place should be Charleston, which previously demonstrated an ability to “grow” the event in a way that Greenville simply has not been able to match.
Don’t count on it happening, though. Next year the tournament will return to Charleston, but in 2016 and 2017 it will probably move back to Greenville (which has an option to host in those years). After that, who knows.
While moving the tournament around has been a problem, the actual format of the event has also drawn attention, and in a very negative way.
The Southern Conference bracket is set up so that two teams will meet in a winner-take-all final, whether or not one of the teams is undefeated (it is conceivable both could be undefeated). Thus, even though most of the tournament is a double-elimination setup, it is possible for a team to lose only one game in the tournament and still not win the championship.
In fact, that has happened the last two seasons. In both cases, the previously undefeated team lost in the title game (and by one run) to a team that had already lost earlier in the tournament.
The SoCon isn’t the only league to have a single-elimination final, but that’s no excuse for using a format that is clearly unfair.
In a conference like the SEC (which has a single-elimination final and semifinals), the automatic berth in the NCAAs that goes to the tourney champion is not as important as it is to a league like the SoCon. That’s because at least half of the teams in the SEC are getting regional bids anyway (this year, 10 of 14 squads in that league are headed to the NCAA tournament).
Meanwhile, most years the SoCon is a one- or two-bid conference, never more than three. Winning the tournament championship is critical. That auto-bid means something. Devaluing it by using a made-for-TV tournament format is borderline unconscionable.
What’s worse, though, is that the final is not on television anyway. It’s on ESPN3. That is not the same thing as ESPN or ESPN2 or ESPNU or ESPN The Ocho or any other ESPN channel you can name. What’s the point of using a bracket designed for a one-shot television window when you aren’t even on TV?
There is no reason not to hold a standard double-elimination tournament. That’s the fair thing to do, the right thing to do, and the sensible thing to do.
Don’t count on that happening, either.