The Houston College Classic has been played 16 times. Now it’s got a new name, the Shriners Hospitals College Classic. And next year it won’t feature Rice or the University of Houston. This will be the first time in the tournament’s history that the Cougars have never played in it, and it’ll mark only the second time that Rice has not been around.
Next year’s three-day, nine-game college baseball tilt will be an SEC/Big 12 theme weekend. The Astros, who host the tournament at Minute Maid Park, have arranged for LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, TCU, Texas Tech and Baylor to face off next year. The Cougars and the Owls will return for the 2018 season, but there’s no guarantee as to when UH and Rice will return after that, though there is talk of an all-Houston-themed weekend, all-Texas school themes and so on.
If the teams for next season and the format changes hadn’t been announced before this weekend’s games, you might've thought UH and Rice were disinvited because they got stomped in just about every game this weekend. But anyone who saw this weekend’s games knows that some changes are required. Attendance was anemic. And people suggesting that Rice and UH have to stay because they’re name schools that bring fans probably need to chat with those fanbases for deciding to stay home instead of driving out to Minute Maid Park.
The officials who run the tournament for the Astros won’t blame attendance, nor will they blame UH or Rice. But except for last year’s LSU bump, which saw overall weekend attendance jump to 37,793 from the previous year’s 19,843, attendance has been slacking off rather badly over the past five or six years (total attendance for this weekend, which didn't feature LSU, dropped all the way back down to 19,732).
“What we learned last year from LSU is that if you have a theme or not, it’s the name that comes in with it,” Steve Grande, Astros media relations manager, told the Press. “Last year there was no theme [but LSU was a name]. LSU is coming back tentatively every other year — they will be here next year for sure. But we’re still going to try the theme method with them. So maybe moving forward, it’ll be a Louisiana weekend where we reach out to Louisiana-Lafayette again, or perhaps Tulane. We can do Louisiana against Texas, or Louisiana against Houston. Really, anything’s possible, but we do know that the big names are still what really draws.”
The Classic doesn’t just happen overnight. With having to schedule some teams years in advance, worrying about conference realignment issues and having teams back out of deals, there are lots and lots of moving pieces that needed to be shuffled about and locked down for every tournament. Rice’s crazy conference demands (which kept it from playing in last season’s College Classic) is one such issue the organizers have to deal with. So this move to focusing on theme weekends and name teams didn’t just happen. It’s been in the works for several years now.
“You have to schedule these things three, four, five years in advance,” Grande said. “So when we were looking at it three or four years ago, we were thinking what could we do to try and market the tournament better. Because we always have Rice and UH here, and we would add in a PAC 12 team, or a SEC or Big 12. So we started coming up with different ideas. And one of them was let’s try some theme weekends.”
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Hopefully this weekend’s tourney will be the last of its kind. The games were long. Starting pitchers had trouble getting through two innings. Games constantly started at least an hour past scheduled starting times because the first games of every day were long, drawn-out affairs that were rarely competitive. The highly ranked Cougars were swept, losing 3-2 to Texas Tech on Friday, 12-3 to Arkansas on Saturday and 10-1 to TCU on Sunday. Rice was also swept, losing 5-2 to Arkansas, 10-0 to TCU and 4-2 to Louisiana-Lafayette.
Things will look a bit different at next season’s Shriners Hospitals College Classic. And it will seem strange to watch a college baseball tournament at Minute Maid not featuring Rice or Houston. But things change and evolve.
“We just wanted to do something where we could have a hook on each one, and that might change the format just a little bit so that we can get just a few more people here,” Grande said.
So seeing as how UH and Rice did nothing on the field this weekend, and seeing just how few fans they bought out to the park, maybe the changes make sense. And frankly, a few more people in the ballpark late on a Sunday night next year might not be such a bad thing, especially considering just how few there were in the place last night.