Bland: As college baseball interest spikes, the 2024 CWS kept all-time heater going in Omaha (2024)

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Tennessee baseball's press conference after winning the College World Series. Provided by the NCAA

The line stretched a thousand people deep around Schwab Field. Folks in orange and maroon sweating out a Saturday morning for a chance at tickets to the College World Series final more than eight hours away.

Not seats. Standing room-only admission.

This was a new CWS sight in the era of all-reserved seating that began in 2021. A reflection of two diehard SEC fanbases doing whatever necessary to witness their first national title. Also a reminder that interest is up, up, up in college baseball — and its showcase event — like never before.

To borrow a phrase from Tennessee coach Tony Vitello — This thing has turned into a monster.

Pick a metric. Total attendance at 2024’s Greatest Show on Dirt was 371,818 and would have broken last year’s all-time record if either bracket final had required an if-necessary game. The per-game attendance average of 24,788 set a new mark, surpassing last year’s 24,559.

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People are watching. The three-game final between Tennessee and Texas A&M was the second most-watched CWS final ever — just off the pace of LSU-Florida a season ago — at an average of 2.82 million viewers. Game 2’s 2.92 million is the best-ever audience for a CWS final, boosted by its debut on ABC.

Even Jell-O shots are going at an all-time rate. Rocco’s reported 96,407 sold this month, a new high for the restaurant located a ground ball away from Schwab Field.

The College World Series is becoming more mainstream by the year, and why not? This is a time of shorter MLB drafts and fewer minor-league teams, of name-image-likeness payments and annual free agency. Never has the climate been friendlier for star players to stay in college longer while migrating to big-name programs flush with developmental resources.

Last year’s CWS set the standard with high-end star power including the top two draft picks — LSU pitcher Paul Skenes and outfielder Dylan Crews — and seven other first-rounders. Omaha this time missed on seeing some of the sport’s very best prospects like Charlie Condon (Georgia) and Travis Bazzana (Oregon State). Texas A&M outfielder Braden Montgomery will be a high choice next month but watched from the dugout this week after suffering an ankle injury in the super-regional round.

Still, Florida’s Jac Caglianone is projected as a top-five choice — he reminded everyone why with a pair of no-doubt blasts last week. At least half a dozen other participants are likely pending first-rounders including Tennessee’s Christian Moore, who hit for the second cycle ever in the CWS.

“You could go pay a ton of money and watch the Braves play,” Vitello said. “But you can get right up close to these guys. And they’re the next guy on the Braves or the Phillies or whatever it might be.”

Vitello is a character on par with anyone to compete in Omaha in June — how many coaches would jump into the seats and a sea of his own fans down the left-field line after winning a title? This CWS featured a lineup of big coaching personalities with Kentucky’s Nick Mingione, NC State’s Elliott Avent and Florida’s Kevin O’Sullivan all appointment listens. Florida State’s Link Jarrett is among the most thoughtful skippers in the game.

Virginia’s Brian O’Connor — the native son who played and coached at Rosenblatt Stadium before extending his legacy at the downtown ballpark — perhaps officially laid to rest any debate that the College World Series has evolved well with the times.

“I loved Rosenblatt,” O’Connor said. “This is better.”

So is the drama. Jim Schlossnagle’s move from coaching Texas A&M in a decisive title game Monday to being named the head man at Texas the next day drew national attention in a big-money shocker usually reserved for football and men’s basketball. His rebuke of a query about his future in his final Aggies press conference in Omaha — “I think it’s pretty selfish of you to ask me that question” — will endure as an all-time example for coaches on how not to handle the moment.

The College World Series product on the field is as good as ever. The first two days set an impossibly high standard with three walk-off results among four one-run games. Tennessee may not have ended on Rocky Top if not for a controversial check-swing call in its opener that kept alive what became a four-run ninth-inning rally and a 12-11 win.

Long gone are talks of bringing in the Schwab Field fences. This CWS saw 37 home runs, the most since 2009 (45). It also included five games totaling five runs or fewer. Action is balanced and entertaining. Well-paced, too — for a second straight year, no contest eclipsed the four-hour mark.

Fans sat through one of the hottest CWS games on record (98 degrees in the Game 2 final) and one of the coolest (74 degrees June 19 between A&M and Florida). Celebrities including Peyton Manning, Morgan Wallen and Ron DeSantis were on hand. Locals celebrated with Omaha Westside graduate and Tennessee sophom*ore utilityman Dalton Bargo, who became the first to win a title in his hometown in 20 years.

This CWS provided the in-your-face reality of the radical ongoing change in college athletics. Only two conferences — the SEC and ACC — were represented in the eight-team event for the first time. Transfers dotted every roster, with a few players reaching Omaha with their second schools.

The unofficial SEC-ACC Challenge was a novelty this time, but one wonders if it will wear thin as a trend in a few years. A field of power teams is fun. So is West Coast representation and an occasional Cinderella run. When, if ever, does a surge of SEC dominance — five straight different champions and counting — shift from impressive to off-putting for the casual viewer?

Meanwhile, price gouging on the ticket resale market continues to become more extreme. It remains the biggest complaint of traveling fans and teams.

But by and large, the College World Series is on a heater. And the June climate isn’t likely to cool off anytime soon.

evan.bland@owh.com,

402-444-1201,

twitter.com/EvanBlandOWH

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Bland: As college baseball interest spikes, the 2024 CWS kept all-time heater going in Omaha (2024)
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