College baseball has come a long way since Norm DeBriyn led Arkansas to its first College World Series in 1979, and the Razorbacks program right along with it.
In 1970, DeBriyn took over a moribund Hogs baseball program that played at the old Washington County fairgrounds and slowly, steadily built it into a contender. And not just in the Southwest and later the Southeastern conferences, but into a national contender.
Ultimately, his program construction — which included four trips to Omaha in an 11-year span — required the construction of a state-of-the-art facility to satiate a growing fan base after a move to the old George Cole Field on campus (its former site now occupied by the Fred Smith Football Center). Former Hogs second baseman Dave Van Horn, who coached Nebraska from afterthought to CWS contender, took over for his old coach in 2003 and with the stage set, grew Razorback baseball into a monster. And before the pandemic brought the 2020 season to a halt, a money-making monster.
Arkansas is one of just a few college baseball programs to have turned a profit. According to a June 2020 report from the Omaha World-Herald, just 15 of 299 NCAA Division 1 baseball programs, including Arkansas, did so in 2019.
Arkansas baseball generated $6,733,198 that year, the program’s 10th CWS season, against expenses of $5,878,143.
Revenues, which have doubled in the last eight years, included the following items of note:
• $2.9 million from ticket sales (by way of comparison, men’s basketball generated $6.6 million in ticket sales and football $30.7 million);
• $1.6 million from royalties, licensing, advertising and sponsorships;
• $1.3 million from private contributions (basketball drew $3.2 million and football $14.9 million);
• $488,661 in NCAA distributions (reimbursements for hosting NCAA championship events);
• $128,144 in parking and concession sales.
Notable expenses included:
• Van Horn’s $1.3 million salary from the university (he’s guaranteed $175,000 in compensation and benefits from the Razorback Foundation as well);
• $841,412 for team travel (the same figures for basketball came to $964,119 and for football, $1.5 million);
• $774,796 for game-day operations such as hiring event staff, game officials and security (basketball expenses totaled $828,000 and football expenses, $3.3 million);
• $651,084 for scholarships distributed among 28 student-athletes (college baseball teams are allowed 11.7 full-ride scholarships to divide among as many as 30 players);
• $429,186 for uniforms, equipment and supplies (basketball, $260,927 and football, $1.9 million);
• $104,076 in recruiting expenses ($424,068 for basketball and $1.9 million for football);
• $91,150 for medical expenses and insurance (basketball, $45,456, and football, $402,275).
Of course, a profit of roughly $855,000 is dwarfed by the revenue brought in by football and basketball at Power 5 schools like Arkansas — in 2019, Razorback football and men’s basketball generated revenues of $70.3 million and $18.7 million, respectively. But the 2019 season represented the second time Arkansas baseball had finished in the black. (And no student fees are funneled to baseball or any other individual sport, men’s or women’s, to help balance the books. If a sport isn’t self-sufficient, football revenue picks up the tab.)
In terms of revenue generated solely by baseball, Arkansas was No. 3 in 2019 behind Florida State and Ole Miss. Joining the Hogs and Rebels in the top 10 were SEC compatriots Vanderbilt (4), LSU (5), Mississippi State (9) and South Carolina (10).
But for decades, college baseball languished in the shadows. Baseball allegiance traditionally was saved for Major League teams, and to a much smaller degree, the farm clubs that supplied them players, such as the old Little Rock-turned-Arkansas Travelers (and now the Northwest Arkansas Naturals). And allegiances were formed based on access. For most of the early 20th century, the only access Arkansans had to Major League Baseball outside their local newspaper was through the powerful, old AM radio juggernaut in St. Louis, KMOX. Hence, Arkansas became Cardinals country.
As sports economist Brian Goff of Western Kentucky University once noted, pro baseball simply had a big head start on its college counterpart, while pro football and basketball did not. By the time the NFL and NBA really took root nationally and televised games became more routine, college football and basketball had already claimed primary allegiances, especially in parts of the country like the South from which pro franchises had yet to spring.
Several factors have contributed to college baseball’s delayed emergence and rise in popularity, among them the proliferation of college sports on cable TV and streaming services and the construction of veritable baseball palaces by schools awash in conference TV revenue. Nowadays, more of the nation’s best high school baseball players, such as Arkansas’ young star Robert Moore, wait to sign pro contracts, opting to hone their skills for a couple of years in college, thus elevating the level of play.
The result? The same kind of arms race in college baseball that has long existed in football and basketball. Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville was opened in 1996 to rave reviews, and 25 years later, it’s still considered a crown jewel of college baseball.
Since it opened and helped set the standard for college stadiums nationwide, Baum has:
• Seen capacity more than doubled to almost 11,000 (a college baseball stadium seating 10,000 is the rough equivalent to a football stadium seating 100,000 or a basketball venue holding 20,000).
• The number of luxury suites increased from 12 to 32.
• The construction of the $10 million, 52,000-square-foot Fowler Family Baseball and Track Indoor Training Center, which includes a full-size infield, throwing area and batting cages.
The latest round of expansion and renovation, scheduled for completion later this spring, is expected to set the facilities bar even higher.
The $27 million, 49,000-square-foot Hunt Family Baseball Development Center, nearing completion and looming over Baum’s right-field corner, will house new coaches’ offices, an improved and expanded team clubhouse, a pitching and development lab, an in-venue batting tunnel, a tunnel connecting the facility to the first-base dugout (which will become the home dugout), as well as a new team meeting room, strength and conditioning center, training room and nutrition center.
The Hunt Center also will include the Norm DeBriyn Champions Lobby with historical displays and interactive content, new luxury loge boxes, and it’ll connect to the current west concourse of Baum, affording many more vantage points for viewing a game.
All these upgrades were funded entirely through private donations, athletic department revenues and bond proceeds.
Jason Ford, senior architect with Populous of Kansas City, told Sports Business Journal last summer that the arms race indeed is on in college baseball. In 2019, Mississippi State debuted its new-and-improved Dudy Noble Field, which underwent a $55 million upgrade with increased capacity to 13,000 and a new elevated, wrap-around concourse providing fans a 360-degree view of the field. And renovations in 2018 to Swayze Field in Oxford pushed capacity to 11,000 while adding the latest bells and whistles for Ole Miss.
Eight of the SEC’s 14 teams have either completed new stadiums or significant stadium renovations since 2009. Bells and whistles are par for the course in SEC baseball.
“Now, with the additional TV revenue that’s been coming in, we’re seeing some real significant investment in baseball,” Ford said. “We’re at the point now where the line is blurred between these top college baseball stadiums and a double-A stadium, even triple-A.”
College baseball has come a long way since Kendall Rogers began covering it more than a decade ago. Rogers, national writer and editor at D1Baseball.com, is one of the country’s most prominent college baseball writers. He’s witnessed firsthand the Razorback rise to college baseball’s elite. He’s sold on Arkansas as baseball royalty, even as the program chases its first national baseball title. And he appreciates how difficult it is for traditional “non-revenue” sports like baseball to break even.
“There are not many programs that make money on college baseball,” Rogers told Arkansas Money & Politics. “Arkansas is definitely one of the outliers. The key is having a lot of premium seating options, and, of course, people to actually fill those seats.”
The demand indeed is strong for the Diamond Hogs and shows no signs of abating. The Hogs annually rank among the top two or three leaders in both overall and per-game attendance, despite playing home games throughout the first month of the season in temperatures that often dip into the 30s. And there are long waiting lists for season tickets and luxury suites. As of 2018, the waiting list for luxury suites at Baum numbered 43 despite no turnover in suite holders since 2009.
Steve Clark, president of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, said Razorback baseball has become its own distinct tourism draw, attracting visitors to Northwest Arkansas from across the state and even the region.
“It’s definitely a regional draw,” he said. “Folks are coming into town for Razorback baseball from Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. That’s new money coming in, and that’s a very positive thing. I get calls all the time about Razorback baseball — it’s an economic driver. Any time you can bring people to town, it’s a chance to showcase Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas.”
Clark estimates that Razorback baseball fans, on average, spend about $75 per fan on game day (not including the cost of tickets). That’s $225 per fan for a weekend series. Meanwhile, football fans, he said, spent about $120 a day and basketball fans “a little more” than baseball. Though most Razorback fans cross over and support multiple programs, the Diamond Hogs enjoy a passionate following from their core backers.
Clark noted that many of them will drive in for a game and head back home afterwards three days in a row with a weekend series, sometimes traveling long distances. “It’s a way of life for them.”
Football, of course, is king. But Razorback baseball has firmly established itself alongside football and basketball as a fan destination, and a growing number of Hog fans are gravitating to it. Razorback retailers in Fayetteville now cite baseball merchandise as a leading in-store traffic driver. The on-field success, the number of former UA players in the big leagues and the nostalgic, slow pace of baseball, even the popularity of Van Horn, are all part of the draw.
But longtime radio Voice of the Razorbacks Chuck Barrett told The Hog Pod with Bo Mattingly earlier this year that it ultimately boils down to the fan experience. And Baum delivers.
“You’ve got to have a nice place for people to go, particularly now with every game on television in some form or fashion,” he said. “But in this day and age, if you’re going to get people to the ballpark, the theater of the mind is, ‘Oh, back in the day, it was kind of like listening to the Cardinals.’ When you were a child, you imagine what it was like at Busch Stadium. Well, once you win a few times, it was still fun, but it wasn’t quite as magical. I mean, college baseball was the same way. I think Razorback baseball was the same way. And I think to keep those people coming year after year after year, you’ve got to have amenities. You’ve got to do new stuff every year, and Arkansas has done that. They’ve made it a great place to bring the family and come watch a baseball game, particularly if the weather’s great in the spring.”
Barrett said another program catalyst was The Buzz radio network in Little Rock picking up all Razorback games across its statewide network in the late 2000s.
“Their radio station reached a part of Arkansas that very frankly, the Razorback baseball program from a broadcast standpoint had never reached before. And players, who fans in Northwest Arkansas knew about, started becoming more household names to the everyday Razorback fan around our state.”
A native Texan, Rogers is familiar with Arkansas and its path from the old Southwest Conference, where it was the only non-Texas school, to the SEC, where the Hogs traded one University of Texas for several equivalents. And he remembers when college baseball was but a shadow of its current self in terms of national prominence.
“It’s honestly been pretty incredible,” Rogers said. “When I started covering college baseball, I would say about 10 to 20 programs had what I’d consider premier facilities. Now, I feel like that number is around 50 to 60. That’s just having luxurious stadiums — not necessarily predicated upon size.
“The SEC is so far ahead in this category, there’s no catching up for others. For instance, Oklahoma State has a brand new ballpark that is one of the top three in the country. However, the fan support in Stillwater is not what it is in places like Starkville, Baton Rouge and Fayetteville. There is really no comparison to the SEC in that regard, and certainly not a place like Arkansas.”
Rogers is impressed with the new player development center at Baum and the perks it affords, such as the pitching lab developed by Hogs pitching coach Matt Hobbs. He thinks the commitment will pay dividends down the road.
“Kids these days, whether you like or not, are all about the latest bells and whistles. And not only do the Hogs have a ton of bells and whistles, they also have actual development perks that really advanced the player to the next level.”
Van Horn told The Hog Pod that it’s almost unbelievable how far college baseball has come since he’s been coaching.
“If you would’ve told me 20 years ago that Division I college baseball would grow into what it is today, I wouldn’t believe you. No way. Not at all. I’ve thought about it on my own and talked about it with other people and coaches many times. There’s no way we could’ve ever projected this. The crowds, the stadiums, the competition, just everything.”
Indeed, Razorback baseball is a thing for Arkansans. Rogers said he could think of only two instances when a team wielded a home-field advantage like the one enjoyed by the “OmaHogs” in the 2018 CWS Finals — Mississippi State in 2013 and Texas in 2005. He said it’s one of many reasons why Razorback baseball is so special. He advises Hog fans to soak it all in and be patient.
“I think Arkansas turning into an Omaha mainstay, and perennial power is extremely impressive. Dave Van Horn did an unreal job at Nebraska, and the job he has done at Arkansas nears that,” he said. “To turn Arkansas, a school that is somewhat isolated from major population centers — it’s really impressive to me. He’s created a monster there, and a national title will come at some point.”