Oregon’s version of Groundhog Day occurs every January when baseball players emerge from the dugout for the season’s first practice at PK Park.
The day tends to be wet and dreary, foreshadowing a familiar forecast: six more weeks of rain and cold, with a slight chance of runs being scored.
This year, practice opened on warmer note. As George Horton walked down the first-base line to meet with reporters last Thursday, the sun shone brightly enough for the coach to see his shadow.
A positive omen, perhaps?
“We’re in a good place chemistry-wise,” Horton said. “We think we’re better.”
For Oregon, a breakthrough on the baseball diamond would be welcome and long overdue. While Oregon’s softball program qualified for the Women’s College World Series five times in the past seven years, the baseball team is still seeking its first CWS trip after 10 years of trying.
I wrote about those two programs Sunday, promising a deeper look at the financial factors behind softball coach Mike White’s departure for Texas. When you talk about the softball program’s fight for facilities and funding, it’s usually a matter of time before someone brings up baseball and the Ducks’ big investment that, thus far, hasn’t yielded a Pac-12 championship or a trip to Omaha.
As I wrote Sunday, Pac-12 athletic directors have some increasingly tough choices to make because of the conference’s lagging media revenues. And because football is the sport that pays the bills, the league’s non-revenue programs could end up being the hardest hit.
Oregon isn’t going to out-spend a school like Texas, which has a $219 million athletics budget. If you can’t spend big, the goal should be to spend smart.
For the most part, Oregon has done that. Athletic director Rob Mullens has an accounting background, and even his critics would say he’s done a sound job balancing the books.
It helps to have Phil Knight on speed dial, but Knight doesn’t pay for everything. Donations represent about 25 percent of Oregon’s operating budget in an average year, leaving more than $90 million that has to come from other sources.
Oregon isn’t broke — far from it. But the Ducks aren’t as flush with cash as the big spenders in the Big 12, SEC and Big Ten, which means they need to find efficiencies if they want to compete with those schools on the scoreboard.
Which brings us back to baseball and softball. Neither is a money-maker for Oregon, with baseball losing $2.3 million and softball losing $1.5 million in 2018. But in terms of bang for the buck, it’s no contest.
This is something that can get lost when we talk about programs and their bottom lines. A program’s value goes beyond its financial net worth; winning is itself a unit of value, even if it’s harder to quantify than ticket sales or concessions.
It might surprise you to know that Oregon’s biggest financial loser is also one of its most successful programs. The Ducks lost $3.1 million on women’s basketball in 2018, but I don’t know anyone who would call it a bad investment.
The positive energy surrounding Oregon women's basketball is worth something. Is it worth $3 million? I’m not smart enough to figure that out, but every “SportsCenter” appearance, every Shea Serrano shout-out and every feel-good moment at Matthew Knight Arena generates value for Oregon.
Softball was the same way. The sport was an entry point for a different demographic of fans, and it cultivated a passion for Oregon athletics that extended well beyond the softball diamond.
That’s what seems to be missing with Oregon baseball. Every year the crowds get a little smaller and the expectations get a little lower. Rather than bringing a positive return, baseball is just ... there.
If nothing else, the Ducks have an optics problem on their hands. You can justify the salaries paid to football and basketball coaches because of the revenues their sports generate. But when Horton is earning $500,000 per year — roughly double what White was set to make in 2018 — balking at the softball coach’s salary request is a bad look.
This isn’t a shot at Horton. He’s doing what any coach would do, continuing to work as long as Oregon is willing to employ him. It’s more a comment on the market forces that say a baseball coach is more valuable than a softball coach, when I’m not sure that’s the case at Oregon.
Sometimes you’ve got to be smarter than the market. Oregon failed to see that the cost of stonewalling White would far outweigh the cost of giving him a raise. Meanwhile, the Ducks have continued to pay for a successful baseball program without actually demanding one in return.
If Oregon could go back in time, I’m certain the Ducks would try harder to keep White happy. Since there’s no going back, all they can do now is throw their support behind new coach Melyssa Lombardi and hope their patience in Horton finally pays off.
With all the misery in softball, this would be a great year for the Oregon baseball team to make a run. As hard as it’s been to get fans excited about the sport, a winning baseball team could do wonders for the atmosphere at PK Park.
I know a few softball fans who will be looking for something to do.