Cal State Omaha answers the questions the Big West won’t

UPDATE: A qualified source has revealed that the Big West Board of Directors will hold an emergency meeting today to discuss the safe return of spring sports. After speaking with Mike Villamor yesterday, this was not revealed to us and is purely a rumor. Do not be surprised if this meeting does in fact happen in response to the overwhelming number of competing conferences announcing spring sports plans.

UPDATE 2: Long Beach State Athletic Department’s Twitter account announced The Big West Board of Directors cleared the way for a return for spring sports today, 1/15/2021. The tweet linked to an official statement from LBSU’s Athletic Director, Andy Fee.

More to come as this is developing…

Coronavirus killed the 2020 college baseball season. The Big West Conference feckless leadership and inaction could ultimately kill Titan Baseball’s return to Omaha in 2021.

Whoa, that’s a leap! How are we coming to that opinion?

We requested to speak with a representative of the Big West Conference to ask questions about the potential start of the college baseball season. After months of on-and-off email exchanges starting in October 2020, (18 emails in total) we still have not gotten a straight answer as to how spring sports will resume. Our main question we wanted to ask was:

“Why is the sport of basketball the pilot program to determine if Big West Conference spring sports can play in 2021?”

That’s the $1,473,084 question. We didn’t just pull that number randomly out of the air. That was the amount of money the Big West Conference received in 2013 for the University of Pacific earning an automatic bid into the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. (We could not find financial records for money granted for more recent NCAA Basketball Tournament appearances by the Big West.)

In our communication with the Big West requesting answers, we were constantly rebuffed and emails went unanswered or were mysteriously “undelivered” when they did not include higher ups CC’d in the email strings. We were even told we should ask Cal State Fullerton Athletic Director Jim Donovan or Sean Collins, the Titan Athletics Sports Information Department head the questions the Big West was refusing to answer. Not surprisingly, Jim Donovan was quick to respond and attempted to shed light on a very convoluted situation despite not being privy to the Big West’s decision making process. Without direct knowledge of what was discussed in Big West Conference meetings Donovan was not invited to attend, he provided excellent insight as to what he suspects went into the decision making process. But without direct knowledge and the Big West officials refusing to provide answers, we along with Donovan, can only speculate as to the future of spring sports returning to competition in 2021.

Based on what little information the Big West provided us and left to our own speculation, we’ll conduct a mock Q&A, attempting to answer questions Titan Baseball fans have been asking on message boards and within social media.

Titan Baseball fans: Basketball? Why is basketball the linchpin if Titan Baseball can play in 2021?

Cal State Omaha: In the Big West’s attempt to resume sports during the COVID-19 pandemic, men’s and women’s basketball is the “pilot program” that will guide and ultimately determine if spring sports like baseball and softball can compete in games.

Titan Baseball fans: You’re telling me that basketball, a sport played indoors with heavy contact between players, will determine if baseball can be played safely in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic?

Cal State Omaha: Yes. That is apparently the Big West Conference’s official stance per their press release announcing the cancellation of fall sports. It was buried in the second to last paragraph after Chair of the Big West Board of Directors and University of California, Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman said, “this decision [canceling all fall sports] is disappointing.”

Titan Baseball fans: Wait, so spring sports hinge on if basketball players can remain healthy and not contract the virus?

Cal State Omaha: The Big West has not revealed any metrics, indicators, number of positive cases or basketball games canceled as the criteria to determine if spring sports can play. They have only said that basketball will be the pilot program to inform and guide their decision if spring sports can return to competition. The details as to what they can glean from men’s and women’s basketball is murky. BWC officials have remained mum on what they will use from basketball to determine a safe return to competition for spring sports.

Titan Baseball fans: Why was basketball, an NCAA winter sport, allowed to play yet fall sports, which typically start their season in August or September, are still sidelined?

Cal State Omaha: We still don’t know. The communication from the Big West Conference has been infrequent and vague at best. We can only assume that since basketball produces significant revenue while fall sports do not, they were allowed to start playing. Other conferences allowed fall sports to start on time, most notably college football. With that said, it is no secret that NCAA conferences value revenue generating sports, with NCAA Division 1 football being the biggest. It does not take a high IQ to understand why the Power Five Conferences (SEC, ACC, Big 12 and later the Big 10 and Pac-12) all found ways to play football in the middle of a global pandemic. They may stomp around and crow about “health and safety of the student-athletes, coaches and staff” but when it comes to losing millions of dollars, they figured out a way to play. Sadly non-revenue generating sports are not a priority and speaks volumes how conferences view the value of their amateur athletes. This is not a problem inherent to the Big West.

Fullerton volleyball players
Titan Volleyball players resumed work outs complete with masks and practiced social distancing in October in anticipation of their season resuming in the spring. In December, the Big West announced the cancellation of all Fall sports.

Photo courtesy of @Fullerton_WVB

Titan Baseball fans: Are you saying that the Big West Conference values basketball players more than their other student-athletes that play in non-revenue generating sports?

Cal State Omaha: In our opinion, yes. The Big West’s actions have clearly demonstrated that revenue producing sports are a priority while under valuing all other sports. The fact the Big West announced the cancellation of all fall sports, despite member institutions’ fall sport student-athletes resuming workouts and practices in the fall, demonstrates to us that non-revenue generating sports and the student-athletes that compete in those sports are of little value to them. We’re confident that the Big West will disagree publicly but their actions speak louder than their vague and hackneyed press releases.

Titan Baseball fans: Have you reached out to the Big West Conference and asked them directly why basketball is the cornerstone to playing baseball in the spring?

Cal State Omaha: Yes, numerous times since October. We initially emailed three people within the Big West Conference communications department requesting to speak with an official to ask that question and others. Mike Villamor, Assistant Commissioner – Communications, was the main contact that responded. He suggested I ask questions to Big West Commissioner Dan Butterly and offered to coordinate an on-the-record interview to be recorded for our 1544 Miles to Omaha podcast. After repeated requests as to when Commissioner Butterly could spare just 15 minutes, we have yet been invited to speak with him.

Titan Baseball fans: Sounds like Commissioner Butterly is a very busy man and doesn’t have time to answer questions, right?

Cal State Omaha: It’s possible, but he apparently found the time to speak to Kevin Baxter of the LA Times.

Titan Baseball fans: Come on, Cal State Omaha… You honestly think you are on the same level as the LA Times?

Cal State Omaha: Of course not. We live in reality and know large publications take priority. But after repeated requests and being told repeatedly by Villamor he’s “checking Dan’s schedule” since October, you would think Commissioner Butterly would find 15 minutes in his busy schedule to answer a few questions. Or maybe they knew Baxter wouldn’t ask any tough questions and we would. In all fairness, Baxter’s article focused on the Big West’s cancellation of Fall sports, specifically men’s soccer, and not the future of spring sports.

Titan Baseball fans: We understand that Power Five Conferences have football and much larger athletic budgets and play by their own rules. Is it safe to assume that other mid-major conferences like the Big West are using this same, “Basketball is the pilot for spring sports” model?

Cal State Omaha: Actually, no. Some conferences have already come out and released their schedules for baseball. The Missouri Valley Conference Athletic Directors have approved a 2021 season structure that will include 28 conference games and non-conference games are allowed. The Sun Belt Conference will play 24 conference games along with non-conference games. The SEC has already announced they will have a normal baseball season structure which includes non-conference, mid-week games. Sources are reporting the Horizon League administrators have approved a season structure for 2021 that includes a 40-game conference schedule spread out over 12 weeks. No midweek games, but non-conference weekend games are allowed.

It appears that other conferences are taking the lead and are approaching the spring sports season independent of basketball.

Titan Baseball fans: Okay, but you mentioned a bunch of other mid-major conferences that don’t have schools in California. Isn’t that an apples to oranges comparison since California has stricter COVID-19 restrictions handed down by the state and county elected officials?

Cal State Omaha: Although it is true that California has some of the strictest orders encouraging Californians to slow the spread of the Coronavirus, credible sources are reporting the 10-member West Coast Conference administrators have reaffirmed status quo from a baseball scheduling standpoint this spring. According to Kendall Rogers of D1Baseball.com, the WCC will continue with three-game series in league play and will leave non-conference games totally up to each school’s discretion. Of the 10 WCC schools, seven (University of San Francisco, Saint Mary’s, University of the Pacific, Santa Clara, Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount and University of San Diego) reside in the Golden State.

Titan Baseball fans: Since the Big West has been too busy or uncooperative, did you reach out to Cal State Fullerton’s Athletic Department to try and gain some answers to your questions the Big West won’t answer?

Cal State Omaha: We actually did. Although the Big West is the one driving the decision on spring sports’ safe return and should be the one to disclose the information about spring sports competing, we did reach out to CSUF Athletic Director Jim Donovan. Donovan was very gracious with his time and responded quickly to our emails. He offered insight the best he could despite not being involved in Big West Conference closed door discussions. Unfortunately, of the approximate five or more meetings the Big West Conference Board of Directors have had since March that specifically involved the pandemic, BWC Athletic Directors have been present at only one meeting. As you might have guessed, ADs were not invited nor involved in the meeting that determined that basketball would be the pilot program steering spring sports’ ability to return. In all fairness, since Donovan was not at the meeting, he can not speculate as to why basketball was the pilot program chosen by the Big West Board of Directors.

Titan Baseball Fans: When can we expect an answer as to when, or even if, Cal State Fullerton will play baseball in 2021?

Rick Vanderhook
How long will Cal State Fullerton head baseball coach Rick Vanderhook need to wait before he can start filling out the line-up cards for an actual game in 2021?
(Photo courtesy of Matt Brown)

 

Cal State Omaha: Of the limited responses we received from Villamor, he did say another announcement is expected “late January”. Another vague answer yet again, but it has become expected when dealing with the Big West. We would not be surprised if the late January Big West press release is non-committal and includes phrases like, “health and safety of student-athletes, coaches and staff are extremely important“, “we’re continuing to monitor this very serious, yet fluid situation“, “we have yet to make a determination but our Board members are working diligently to exhaust every possible avenue to have a spring sports season” or our favorite Covid era cliché, “in these unprecedented times and out of an overabundance of caution“. I wouldn’t hold your breath but we could be pleasantly surprised.

Maybe the Big West Conference will look around and follow other conferences leads and allow them to take the risk first. The Big 10 and the Pac-12 tried to be leaders when announcing their football seasons were canceled only to see the ACC, Big 12 and SEC proceed with their football seasons. It was only after seeing those three conferences play football that the Big 10 and Pac-12 miraculously found new and safer ways to play football in the middle of a global pandemic. With so many other conferences not named “the Big West” taking the lead and announcing their baseball schedules, expect the BWC to limp in and feebly raise their hand and say, “don’t forget about us too“. Instead of trying to break the perception, the Big West’s lack of initiative and leadership will perpetuate their image of being an “also-ran.”

Titan Baseball fans: Do you think the Titans will get to play baseball in 2021?

Cal State Omaha: Titan Baseball will probably play in some capacity in 2021. What that will look like is up to the Big West. Because the Big West Conference has demonstrated they are not leaders within amateur athletics and would rather let others announce their schedules first, the season will probably not start until after St. Patrick’s Day. Many conferences and teams are putting out schedules that include February 19th start dates, the same date D1 baseball programs would be starting the 2021 season if there was no pandemic. It should be noted that a number of cold weather conferences that typically do not start playing home games until Mid-March or even April, have come out and said they will play the full 56-game season. In order to compete in that many games, they would need to start in February. If anyone had an excuse to cancel non-conference games and play conference only, it would be conferences like the Mid-American Conference that plays in cold weather states like Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan. The MAC has chosen to be a leader on this issue while the Big West points to the basketball pilot program and takes a “wait and see” approach.

Titan Baseball fans: If the Big West Conference does allow baseball to play in the spring, albeit conference only, how would that affect if the Titans can play in the postseason?

Cal State Omaha: Simply put, the Titans will need to win the Big West Conference title in order to be assured of an NCAA postseason bid. Outside of winning the conference, all bets are off.

Each Division 1 conference that competes in NCAA baseball is guaranteed one bid into the postseason. All the rest are granted an at-large bid based on the NCAA’s selection committee. The problem for the Titans lays within the lack of non-conference resume building. Sadly, the Titans do not play in a Power Five conference where each year four or five teams make the postseason. (The ACC and SEC typically send eight or nine baseball teams to the playoffs.) The prevailing opinion is that teams playing in mid-major conferences need to prove their mettle, typically on the road, against teams outside their conference. Wins out of conference build RPI points and help committee members establish a baseline as to compare different teams from different conferences. Without this cross pollination, committee members find it difficult to evaluate the strength of competition of one conference over the other.

Titan Baseball fans: Well, a conference only schedule starting in March would still be a good thing. It’s better than no Titan Baseball at all, right?

Cal State Omaha: We would agree that some Titan Baseball is better than no Titan Baseball. That said, without the opportunity to play teams from outside the Big West Conference, the Titans better win the conference so they can assure themselves a spot in the postseason. It’s our opinion the Big West would be shooting themselves in the foot by not allowing non-conference games. The reason being is that based on recruiting, coaching changes and past performance, the Big West baseball schools are going to be much improved in 2021. Titan fans may not want to hear it but Long Beach State was on a torrid pace in 2020 prior to the shutdown and should pick up right where they left off. Something else Titan fans may not like hearing is Dave Serrano is turning around Cal State Northridge‘s program and they should not be taken lightly in 2021. UC Irvine (Trent Denholm) and UC Santa Barbara (Zach Torra) have legit Friday night starters that should get drafted early and will make the Guachos and Anteaters a tough out. Cal Poly and Hawaii are going to be sneaky good. Given the Titans in 2019 missed the postseason for the first time in nearly 30 years and the 4-12 start in 2020, Titan Baseball making the postseason is not a gimme by any stretch of the imagination.

Will the Big West’s lack of leadership ruin Tanner Bibee’s final season in a Titan uniform?
(Photo courtesy of Matt Brown)

If the Big West Conference announces a conference only schedule in 2021, it is doing a tremendous disservice to their member institutions, the student-athletes and the conference itself. A “conference-only” decision would be the death blow for any other programs outside of the league winner to advance to the postseason. Unfortunately, the money given to conferences for teams making the NCAA Baseball Tournament pales in comparison to the March Madness basketball money they receive. Wouldn’t it be smarter to have the opportunity to rake in two to three or possibly four small payouts from baseball rather than slitting your own throat and limiting yourself to just one? To be candid, the Big West baseball programs have a much better chance of advancing out of the regionals and earning the conference even more money than the lone basketball representative in the NCAA tournament that get killed on a regular basis.

Titan Baseball fans: What does all of this mean for us, the Titan Baseball fans?

Cal State Omaha: This is just our opinion and prediction, but based on how California has been treating college and professional sports that have been playing already, don’t expect to attend a game in person in 2021. California’s heavy restrictions regarding indoor dining or outdoor gatherings have prevented Californians from returning to any type of normalcy since March 2020. The NFL’s San Francisco 49ers had to move their home games to State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona because the restrictions in Santa Clara County prevented games from even being played in an empty Levi’s Stadium. Although Orange County Commissioners and health officials have not been as restrictive as other counties in the state, we would be surprised if Titan Baseball fans were allowed to attend games in person this season.

Titan Baseball fans: If we can’t go to the games, how will we watch the games?

Cal State Omaha: It looks as though Mike Martinez‘s voice will be heard on a lot more streaming and mobile devices in 2021. Don’t be surprised if the Big West moves their Big West TV streaming services to a subscription only model to capitalize on this new found opportunity. As the old saying goes, “Never let a perfectly good crisis go to waste“. Apparently the money you may have earmarked for Titan Baseball tickets can be transferred over to the Big West coffers. Will the streaming services be upgraded to include multiple camera angles and an overall better viewing experience? We’ll let you speculate on that one…

Titan Baseball fans: So what now?

Cal State Omaha: Sit back and wait, much like it appears the Big West is willing to do. It appears that the Big West is content to let other conferences take the lead on this issue despite having more to lose than other mid-major conferences. Cal State Fullerton cannot release a schedule until the Big West gives its blessing on if baseball will be played or how that will look. The longer the Big West waits, the worse it is for Titan Baseball and the rest of the spring sports. The longer the Big West waits means more time teams within the WCC and the Pac-12 have to schedule non-conference opponents other than Big West opponents. Titan Baseball and other BWC teams could be left without potential dance partners and could have to play a de facto conference only schedule. Given travel restrictions and tightened budgets, playing non-conference opponents out of state could prove problematic.

So what have learned today, sports fans?

By choosing to be a follower and not a leader, the Big West Conference has made their bed and has forced all of their member institutions held hostage by their feckless inaction to now lay in it. We honestly and truly hope we are dead wrong on this one. That would mean we would get to see a shred of a return to normalcy in 2021. The Big West is the one holding all the cards and sadly their inaction has proven they are merely a tourist at the poker table and not Doyle Brunson or Phil Ivey.

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