As SEC stadiums improve, is Baum next?

By: Matt Jones
Published: Saturday, February 10, 2018
Arkansas fans cheer as Arkansas takes on Missouri State on Monday, June 5, 2017, during the final game of the NCAA Fayetteville Regional at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas fans cheer as Arkansas takes on Missouri State on Monday, June 5, 2017, during the final game of the NCAA Fayetteville Regional at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.

— Baum Stadium is a great baseball facility, ranked consistently as one of the best in the NCAA.

The Razorbacks’ home has seating capacities that would make some minor-league teams envious, and when the weather is warm on spring nights the atmosphere can be electric. Look no further than 3 a.m. during last year’s NCAA Regional for proof.

But believe it or not, the park is becoming one of the more dated in the Southeastern Conference as the TV money has caused athletic programs to look for ways to spend beyond football and basketball. This is trickle-down economics, SEC style.

Florida recently became the latest to make a huge financial commitment to baseball when it announced it would build a $45.9 million facility that will seat 5,500 people. That ballpark should be open by 2020.

The defending national champion Gators are the fourth SEC program to announce a significant baseball facility upgrade since 2016. Kentucky is in the midst of building a $49 million facility that will be open in 2019 and Mississippi State will play this season amid the biggest renovation ever to a college baseball stadium — a $55 million project that will overhaul the venerable Dudy Noble Field. It, too, should be complete in 2019.

Ole Miss will unveil $13 million worth of renovations — the latest in a series of them — to Swayze Field for the start of the season Friday. Vanderbilt’s $12 million renovation to mostly back-of-house areas also is nearing completion three years after it was initiated by David Price, the Vandy baseball alum who donated nearly a quarter of the proceeds toward the project.

In 2016, Alabama re-opened Sewell-Thomas Stadium after a $42.6 million renovation. In 2012, one year before playing its first season in the SEC, Texas A&M completed a $24.7 million renovation to Olsen Field, which was renamed Blue Bell Park thanks to a large financial contribution by the ice cream empire.

South Carolina and LSU have built state-of-the-art ballparks since the last time Baum Stadium underwent a major renovation.

“It’s pretty amazing to look around our league and see what’s happening with the facilities in baseball,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said last fall. “It’s awesome as I travel around the league. As a baseball coach in this league, it just makes you proud to see the way our league is setting the pace in college baseball.”

Arkansas built the Fowler Center, an indoor baseball training facility prior to the 2015 season, but aside from a new video scoreboard, the most recent renovations accessible to fans on game days are a decade old.

The time between renovations has not hurt the Razorbacks in recruiting — Arkansas recently signed the third-best class in the nation, according to Baseball America — but all this movement around the SEC does make one wonder if more features will come soon to Baum Stadium.

Aside from the Razorbacks’ dominant track teams, no program on campus has been more successful than baseball in recent years, and few enjoy such a passionate base of supporters. Arkansas has ranked second nationally in average attendance nine of the past 11 years and always has a strong following on the road.

Season ticket sales have exceeded 5,800 this year. By comparison, only four other programs averaged that many tickets sold in 2017. All were in the SEC.

No other athletics renovation will be started on campus until the $160 million football project is finished in August.

Prior to Jeff Long's dismissal as athletics director, it was expected that improvements to basketball or baseball facilities would be addressed next. Hunter Yurachek's future building plans are unknown, but it has been reported that he was influential in helping build a baseball facility during his time at Houston, and the Cougars are currently displaced while their basketball arena undergoes an extensive renovation.

Renovations to basketball and baseball venues were listed in the athletics department’s master plan in 2011 — extensive work to the concourse and underground areas at Bud Walton Arena, and the addition of suites and an outfield concourse at Baum.

Like with football, any front-facing renovation to the baseball stadium must address the demand for luxury seating. There are 32 suites at the baseball stadium now with a waiting list of 43 as of last fall. There has not been any turnover within the suites since 2009, making them arguably the toughest tickets in town. Even on those cold, mid-afternoon games early in the season, those suites typically are full.

In addition to suites, there is belief Arkansas would like to update its clubhouse and baseball weight room, the latter of which currently is housed in an overflow area at the indoor track center.

Of course, Arkansas does not need any additions to its ballpark, but the money is going to be used to build somewhere. The demand for college baseball is growing - more than 800 games will be shown on ESPN platforms this year - and as multimillion dollar investments go, it’s safe to bet on a winner.

Baum Stadium is a premier place to watch college baseball. It might not be long before it gets even better.

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