David Whitley: Time to find out if Florida Ballpark can draw big-time SEC baseball crowds

David Whitley
Gator Sports

Florida’s baseball season begins Friday, and fans will no doubt be psyched for the first pitch. It will be delivered by the football coach.

The school’s baseball coach has given Billy Napier some advice.

“I told him not to check any videos on YouTube because there are some awful first pitches,” Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Might as well not get that in his head.”

No worries. Napier could throw like Mariah Carey (hide that video from any aspiring Cy Youngs in your house), and his performance would go over well in this town. But as O’Sullivan begins his 15th season at UF, one uncertainty lingers.

Will baseball ever go over big in Gainesville?

The current answers are, “We don’t know,” and “Does it really matter?” When it comes to baseball hotbeds, Gainesville has always been lukewarm. Part of that was where the home team performed.

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McKethan Stadium wasn’t a dump, but it had enough problems (bleacher seats, scarce shade) to give students and the general public an excuse to stay home. That was supposed to evaporate last year with the opening of Florida Ballpark.

It had all the creature comforts $65 million could buy. It also had COVID-19 attendance restrictions, which made it impossible to gauge its impact on Gainesville’s baseball mindset.

McKethan’s capacity was 5,500 at the end, and the Gators drew standing-room-only crowds for NCAA Regionals. Average attendance was 3,500 to 4,000.

“We’ve had great supporters,” O’Sullivan said.

Well, yes and no.

Florida’s attendance was borderline top-10 in the nation. Schools like Texas Tech, Oregon State and Louisville have thrived in smaller stadiums, and playing in McKethan didn’t stop O’Sullivan from building one of the nation's premiere programs.

The thing is, the SEC is not the Pac-12 or ACC. The league motto — It Just Means More — applies as much to baseball as it does football. LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Arkansas have 10,000-seat plus stadiums that go absolutely gaga over the Grand Old Game.

From the left field Hog Pen in Fayetteville to the right field bleachers in Oxford, where massive beer showers erupt with every Rebel home run, baseball is not just a game. It’s an experience.

The Gators kicked off Opening Day of the 2021 season against Miami, at their new Florida Ballpark in Gainesville, on Feb. 19, 2021.

Traditions take years to grow and aren’t as simple as loving baseball. The sport means more in Starkville and Oxford, partly because fans know they’ll probably never win a national championship in Napier’s sport.

Baseball can be a tad ponderous, and its hotbeds evolved in slower times. Florida will have to build one in a TikTok era where attention spans are much shorter than the average at-bat.

That’s why Florida Ballpark was built with fans in mind. It holds 7,000 but can be expanded to 10,000, and there’s not a bad seat in the house. There’s plenty of shade, wireless connectivity, gourmet concessions and socializing areas.

There’s also the most fundamentally necessary element — a good product to watch.

Plenty of good baseball to see here

The Gators are always a College World Series threat. There are occasional hiccups, like last year’s 38-22 error-prone mystery. It ended ignominiously enough, with losses to USF and South Alabama in the NCAA Regional.

Attendance restrictions were lifted, but both games drew about 3,600 fans. Noon starts didn’t help, and neither did the Gators’ pitching. But 35% capacity never would have happened at an SEC West Regional.

I wouldn’t chide anyone over their entertainment choices. You are no more obligated to make Gainesville a baseball hotbed than you are to make it an opera hotbed.

But when you see the communal joy baseball can bring to Baton Rouge, it seems like a missed opportunity if it doesn’t happen here.

“There are a ton of amenities for fans to have the best experience they can have,” O’Sullivan said. “But for me, at this point, the last thing I’m worried about is how many fans we’ll have.”

In the short term, he’s far more concerned about the weekend’s three-game series against Liberty. In the long term, O’Sullivan knows lukewarm baseball fever is not an existential crisis.

The Gators will still reel in recruits and have top-flight teams. Now they have a top-flight stadium.

The question is whether it will ever have top-flight attendance.

We’re about to start finding out.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley