College World Series: North Carolina vs. N.C. State Sunday 3 p.m. ESPN2

NC State, UNC baseball could benefit from increased interest in Omaha matchup

acarter@newsobserver.comJune 12, 2013 

— Before boarding a bus on the way to the airport, Elliott Avent stopped to sign autographs, take pictures and hug an elderly N.C. State fan or two. A small but spirited crowd gathered on Wednesday to see the Wolfpack off to Omaha and the College World Series, and Avent, the N.C. State coach, couldn’t hide his appreciation of the moment.

He expected a nice sendoff.

“I didn’t expect this, though,” Avent said.

There was a group of little girls holding red and white handmade signs. People who’d come from work. Others who’d been long retired, who’d been cheering on N.C. State for decades. They’d come to experience a moment not seen in 45 years – the Wolfpack departing campus, bound for the College World Series.

Crowds have followed N.C. State baseball this season. Its regular-season series against North Carolina sold out days in advance. More than 11,000 – the largest audience ever to watch a college baseball game in the state – showed up at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park to watch the Wolfpack and Tar Heels play in the ACC tournament.

And now, not only are UNC and N.C. State both headed to Omaha to play in the same College World Series, but they will also play against each other on Sunday on the sport’s grandest stage. In the short term, the victor on Sunday will be one game closer to the ultimate goal of winning a national championship.

In the long term, the baseball programs at UNC and N.C. State could both benefit from the increased interest surrounding their meeting in Omaha. So, too, could college baseball, which is a major spectator sport in some parts of the southeast, but one that remains a niche sport in North Carolina.

“This is going to help, because this is going to bring college baseball to the attention of people that I don’t even think know it exists here,” Mike Fox, the Tar Heels’ coach, said on Wednesday. “People are going to flip it on and that’s all that’s going to be talked about for the next two or three days until we play and even probably after we play.

“So who knows. I think you’ll see some effect of that probably in the years going forward.”

According to the Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, UNC and N.C. State ranked 32nd and 33rd nationally in average attendance this season. Both averaged about 2,000 fans per game. East Carolina, which drew an average crowd of nearly 2,500 per game, led state college baseball teams in attendance.

Overall, though, baseball attendance at North Carolina schools doesn’t compare to others in the southeast. LSU led the nation in attendance, averaging 11,006 fans for its 43 home games. Like LSU, the remaining schools in the top five for baseball attendance are all in the SEC: Arkansas, Mississippi, Mississippi State and South Carolina.

Clemson, which ranked seventh nationally in attendance (4,751), and Florida State, which ranked eighth (4,594), are the only ACC schools whose average crowd ranked among the top 10 nationally. Games like the one UNC and N.C. State will play on Sunday, though, could lead to larger crowds at the Tar Heels’ Boshamer Stadium and the Wolfpack’s Doak Field.

More than 10,000 fans gathered in Greensboro to watch UNC and N.C. State play in the 2012 ACC tournament. It was a record crowd at the time, only surpassed by the one that gathered in Durham to watch the teams play last month.

“This is what it takes,” John Manuel, the editor of Baseball America, said when asked what would have to happen for college baseball interest to remain strong in North Carolina. “It takes rivalry games that have high stakes.

“I think you can see last year’s game in Greensboro begot this year’s game in Durham, and begot the series in Raleigh being sold out a week ahead of time. And the parallel that I can make is Clemson and South Carolina.”

Mississippi and South Carolina are the only states with two schools that rank in the top 10 nationally in college baseball attendance. In South Carolina, Manuel said, interest in the sport boomed when Clemson and South Carolina met in the 2002 College World Series.

The Tigers that season were the No. 2 national seed, but the Gamecocks came through the losers bracket and beat Clemson twice to advance to the national championship. Since then, South Carolina has become one of the sport’s dominant teams, and South Carolina-Clemson baseball games have become even more of an event.

“To me, that’s when college baseball in the state of South Carolina really blew up,” Manuel said. “The Gamecocks beat Clemson twice and went to the finals. They lost to Texas. And then since then, college baseball really matters in South Carolina. The games in that rivalry are so heated.”

They are becoming that way in North Carolina, too, between UNC and N.C. State. The past four games between them have all been played in front of sold-out, standing-room-only crowds. UNC needed extra innings to beat the Wolfpack in the past two ACC tournaments, and in April the teams split their only two regular-season games.

Baseball America, which is based in Durham, featured both N.C. State and UNC on its preseason cover. Two players from each team stood side-by-side, and the headline on the cover now appears prescient: “Tobacco Road to Omaha,” it reads.

“The rivalry of us and Carolina, which has been very intense for the last few years – it just continues to grow,” Avent said. “But I told somebody today – John Manuel, he must have some kind of sense of (the future). It never works out like you put on a magazine, and he had the guts to put that on a magazine and both of us (are) going.”

It will take more than magazine covers and memorable games for the sport to take permanent hold, of course. Local college baseball teams also face competition that many teams in the SEC don’t.

The Durham Bulls remain one of the most popular minor league teams in the nation. For baseball fans on the eastern side of the Triangle, the Carolina Mudcats are another option.

“To me the baseball fans in this area are used to having beer,” Manuel said with a laugh. “…The Bulls are a Triple-A club (and) in my mind the most famous Triple-A team in baseball. Thanks to the movie (Bull Durham). But they obviously have capitalized on it. And they win.

“That and the beer, that’s a pretty good product. So I don’t think you ever have that apples-to-apples comparison.”

Beer isn’t sold at college baseball games – at least not at UNC and N.C. State. But compared to the thousands of dollars in potential costs – booster club contributions, parking passes, season tickets – to attend N.C. State and UNC football and basketball games, college baseball is a bargain.

All the winning can’t hurt, either. N.C. State is headed back to the College World Series for the first time since 1968. For the Tar Heels, this is their sixth trip to Omaha in the past eight years. They meet for the fourth time this season on Sunday, in a game that could be a catalyst for college baseball in this area for years to come.

“There’s a lot that goes on around here and basketball obviously, as we know, is still the most important thing around here,” Fox said. “And we understand that. But we’re doing our best to draw attention to baseball.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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