How does the men's college baseball World Series work?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why doesn’t anyone watch men’s college baseball? I think it’s because the format of their tournament is impossible to understand. I might watch it if I understood how it works. Could you tell me? How does the men’s college baseball World Series work?


Dear Stacy,

Men’s college baseball often gets a bad rap. This is partially because professional baseball has an extensive minor league system that snaps up many of the future professional baseball players before they hit college. Losing these players robs college baseball of the air of elite competition that college football and basketball still have. Another factor certainly is persistent slight confusion around how a championship team is determined. The men’s college World Series follows a more complex format than most competitions we’re used to watching, but it’s not beyond our understanding by any means. Here’s how it works.

The tournament begins, like March Madness, the college basketball tournament does, with 64 teams. In the baseball championship, these teams are split into 16 groups of four teams each. These groups of four teams will play each other until one can be identified as the winner of the group. That team moves on to the next round of the tournament. This round, with 64 teams is called the Regional. The next round, with only 16 teams is called the Super Regional. Although groups of four are reminiscent of the men’s World Cup and the women’s World Cup in soccer, there are two major differences. Instead of two or three teams advancing from the group of four, as in the World Cup, only one team advances. Also, the format of competition is different. Instead of a round robing, where each team plays the others once, this part of the college baseball championships are played as a double elimination tournament.

The principle of double-elimination is simple. The teams play each other until every team but one has lost twice. As teams accrue their second defeats, they are eliminated from the tournament. Pretty easy, right? The only tricky part is how to decide who plays who. Within each group, the four teams are ranked or seeded from one to four. This allows the succeeding games to be played out formulaically.

  • Game 1: Team 1 plays Team 4
  • Game 2: Team 2 plays Team 3
  • Game 3: The winner of Game 1 plays the winner of Game 2
  • Game 4: The loser of Game 1 plays the loser of Game 2
  • Game 5: The loser of Game 3 plays the winner of Game 4
  • Game 6: The winner of Game 3 plays the winner of Game 5. Note that at this point, the winner of Game 3 is, by definition, undefeated. They won the first game they played — either Game 1 or Game 2 — and then won the matchup between themselves and the winner of the other of the first two games. Their opponent in this game has to have lost a single game before. In order to play in and win Game 5 to qualify for this game, they would have had to either lose Game 1 or 2 (and win Game 4) or lose Game 3. That’s all just a complicated way to say that this game, Game 6 is between a team with one loss and a team with zero losses. If the team that comes into this game with one loss, loses, then the regional is over. Every team will have lost two games. If they win, then both teams involved will only have one loss and another game, Game 7, must be played to decide who advances.
  • Game 7: The same two teams as Game 6, if needed to decide a regional champion.

For bonus confusion, seeing “Game 7, if needed” triggers thoughts in a sports fan’s mind of a best-four-out-of-seven series. This is the most common playoff format, used in professional baseball, hockey, and basketball. In that format, Game 7s may not be needed if one team beats the other four times in the first four, five, or six games. That’s why you’ll also see “Game 5, if needed” or “Game 6, if needed) in those sports. Never in college baseball’s regionals — in the double elimination format within groups of four teams, only the seventh game is dependent on earlier results to be necessary. The first six will always be played.

After the Regional round, the teams advance to the Super Regionals. In the Super Regionals, the 16 remaining teams are grouped into pairings of two teams each. These pairings are pre-set before the tournament, the winner of Group A will play the winner of Group B, no matter who those winners are. Within each pairing, the teams play a best-two-out-of-three series. In a sense, this is still a double elimination format, but it’s not unusual in the way the Regional round format was. Best-two-out-of-three is easily understood. It’s how many people settled sibling or friendly disputes as kids, with rock-paper-scissors or odds and evens.

The Super Regional best-two-out-of-three series get the field from 16 to eight teams. From there, the tournament enters the College World Series. This eight team tournament within a tournament follows the same pattern as the last two rounds, just with fewer teams. First, the eight teams are split into two groups of four. Within those groups, the teams play a double-elimination tournament like they did in the Regional round above. Once this is done, six more teams (three in each group of four) will have been eliminated. The remaining two teams face each other in a best-two-out-of-three game series to crown an overall men’s college World Series champion.

This year, 2015, those two teams are Virginia and Vanderbilt — the same two teams as last year. The series starts tonight, Monday, June 22 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. Game 2 will be Tuesday at the same time and channel and Game Three (if needed) will be on Wednesday at the same time and channel. Last year, Vanderbilt won the first game 9-8, lost the second 2-7, but won the third and deciding game, 3-2 to become the 2014 champion. Only time will tell if they can repeat or if Virginia will take their revenge.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Rep your school this holiday season

For fans of college sports, December is not just the holiday season, it’s also the time when college football enters into its postseason bowl games and when college basketball starts its regular season in earnest. It’s a great time to pick up something sports related as a gift for yourself or the college sports fan in your life. There are a trillion and a half (exact number) things that you can buy that have your college’s team logo slapped on them somewhat randomly. Many of them are pretty tacky. My philosophy is that tacky is okay but only if the object in question is something used primarily in a sports situation like attending a game, tailgating, or watching at home. If the product is something you would ever use or see in a non-sports situation, like a shirt or a framed piece of artwork, then the bar is higher for tastefulness. Here are a few college sports related gifts that fit those requirements.

Faux Vintage College T-Shirt

Michigan State Shirt These shirts are just over the line in my mind from tacky into classy. I don’t like that they are artificially distressed, I think a good college shirt should earn that look from years of misuse. But, I do like the look, and the fact that there are no words, only a logo, on these shirts makes me like them enough to feature in this post.

Logo Grill Covers

Alabama Grill Cover Barbecuing isn’t a sport, it’s just cooking outside, but for sports fans, the two activities have somehow become inextricably linked. Throwing a college logo onto a grill cover is a low-cost, unobtrusive way to honor that link.

Barbecue Set

Tennessee Grill Tools While you’re out there barbecuing, you will have removed the cover. I hope you do, anyway, otherwise the smell of all that burning plastic is definitely going to attract some unwanted attention from your neighbors and possibly the police or an environmental protection agency. Anyway, with the cover, you’re removing your ability to rep your school. Not to worry! Use these grill tools. I particularly like the subtle embossing of the logo on the spatula. That and the team color on the handle last long after those stickers have fallen off.

Old-School Wall Bottle Openers

Auburn Bottle Opener Other than cooking outside, drinking beer is another activity closely related to watching sports. I’m a sucker for these type of bottle opener that hangs on your wall or doorframe. For some reason, I find opening a bottle on an opener like this 1,000 times more satisfying than using a handheld opener.

Tailgating Table

Clemson Table Okay, I’ll admit that this folding table is firmly on the tacky side of the fence. There’s just something about it that I like. I think maybe, particularly with the Clemson paw print on it, it looks very soft and cozy to sit at. In any event, used solely for tailgating at games, I see no reasonable objection to owning one!

The Best JELL-O Mold

Michigan Jello I cannot imagine a better gift for a sports fan than these JELL-O molds. Look at them. They are so retro, so kitchy, so hysterical. If they had my team, I would totally buy a few of them and enjoy eating jiggly, delicious little college logos on game day.

Cue Cards 9-19-14

Cue Cards is a series designed to assist with the common small talk about high-profile recent sporting events that is so omnipresent in the workplace, the bar, and other social settings.

Yesterday —  Thursday, September 18

  1. The U.S. Women’s National Soccer team rolls — Our women’s soccer team is to international soccer what our men’s national basketball team is to basketball. Dominant. Perhaps they aren’t quite as overwhelmingly dominant as the men’s basketball team but you wouldn’t know that from the easy 4-0 victory over Mexico last night. This followed an 8-0 win over the same team in their previous game. According to Liviu Bird of Sports Illustrated, these two games against Mexico are actually likely to be more challenging than any teams the team will face in official qualifying games for the 2015 World Cup.
    Line: If only we could develop male soccer players in this country as well as we do women, we’d have been able to give goalie Tim Howard some support in the men’s World Cup in Brazil.
  2. The Atlanta Falcons swoop the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Last night’s NFL game was compelling like a fender bender is. The Falcons scored the first 56 points of the game. 56!! The Bucs? Well, they fumbled and bumbled and slipped and fell. It was ugly.
    Line: I know they’re professionals and all but how can you not feel sympathy for a group of guys who just had their absolute worst day on the job watched by millions of people?
  3. Auburn survives Kansas State — There was a rare high-profile college football game on Thursday last night. The Auburn Tigers have national championship aspirations and the way college football is set up, teams basically can’t lose more than one game all season if they want a chance at the championship. It’s far better to be undefeated. The Kansas State Wildcats showed a lot of talent and heart by putting a real scare into the Tigers late in the game.
    Line: The good thing about college football is that the regular season is so important, the games feel like playoff games.

Cue Cards 9-16-14

Cue Cards is a series designed to assist with the common small talk about high-profile recent sporting events that is so omnipresent in the workplace, the bar, and other social settings.

Yesterday —  Monday, September 15

  1. Eagles beat Colts, no one was arrested — The Monday night football game was between two teams that most everyone thinks are in the top third of the NFL. They played true to form by having a close, tightly contested, high scoring contest. The Eagles won, 30-27, moving to 2-0 (two wins, zero losses) while the Colts moved to 0-2.
    Line: Did you know it’s the first time the Colts have lost two games in a row since Andrew Luck became their quarterback?
  2. Rutgers apologizes for “classless fans” — Over the weekend, my alma mater, Rutgers, hosted their first ever Big Ten Conference game in football against what, geographically speaking, should be our new rivals, Penn State. Rutgers lost the game 13-10 but we upheld our reputation for vulgar behavior when some fans publicly and visually mocked Penn State for its recent sexual assault scandal. I can’t say I condone the behavior… but when I was at school there, we were way better at ceaselessly mocking the other team than we were at beating them in football.
    Line: There’s been so many other scandals lately, Penn State’s issue feels antique in comparison.
  3. Baseball’s checkered flag — In car racing, a checkered flag means ‘one more lap.’ Major League Baseball teams have about twelve games left in their 162 game season. Playoff races are in full swing (pun intended) and last night the first team clinched a playoff spot. That team was the Los Angeles Angels. The Kansas City Royals also helped their playoff cause by beating the White Sox in a “dramatic ninth-inning comeback.”
    Line: Wow, the playoffs are coming up fast. I better start paying attention to baseball!

Cue Cards 9-2-14

clapperboardCue Cards is a series designed to assist with the common small talk about high-profile recent sporting events that is so omnipresent in the workplace, the bar, and other social settings.

Over the Weekend —  August 29 to September 1

  1. Harbingers of NFL Football — The professional football season starts this Thursday with one game and then this Sunday with a dozen others. Since the NFL is by far the most popular professional sports league, the upcoming season will likely dominate most water cooler type situations this week. Depending on where you live, your friends, family, and colleagues will be obsessing over the details of a different team but one national story that may spark conversation was the cutting of Michael Sam. Sam, the first openly gay football player to be drafted into the NFL was cut by the team that drafted him this weekend. The questions being asked are, “How much, if any, did being gay play into his being cut? And will he get a chance to play for real this season?”
  2. College football went mostly as planned — As we covered last week, the first weekend of college football is full of easy games for the top twenty five teams in the country. As expected, only three of the top twenty five teams lost their first game, and those were the three (well, three of the six) teams that were brave enough to play another top twenty five team.
  3. The U.S. Open rounds into shape — The major tennis tournament enters its second full week and has narrowed its field to eight women and twelve men. As has often been the case with tennis in the last few years, the male side of the bracket has been more predictable and all three of the favorites, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Roger Federer, are still alive. The women’s side, as has also been the pattern, is more fractured. Of the top seeds, only Serena Williams is still playing. Williams and Federer both have 17 major tournament victories during their wonderful careers. It would be great to see them both play for number 18.
  4. The Basketball World Cup — The FIBA basketball world cup in Spain is underway and after two or three games in each group… nothing surprising has happened. Spain and the United States are still undefeated and look destined to play in the finals against each other. The United States did struggle against Turkey — they even trailed at half-time — but outscored Turkey 63 to 37 in the second half to win by a comfortable margin.

It's the first college football Saturday. What's worth watching?

A couple days ago, to celebrate and brace myself for the first weekend of the college football season, I wrote a post and created an infographic showing which of the top 25 teams have scheduled legitimate games against teams of relatively even strength. There are sixty college football games on today’s schedule but only two of them show up as “spinach” games according to our logic. So, if you want to see some college football today, I recommend you watch Georgia vs. Clemson or LSU vs. Wisconsin.


Dear Sports Fan College Football Cupcakes

Cue Cards 8-28-14

clapperboardCue Cards is a series designed to assist with the common small talk about high-profile recent sporting events that is so omnipresent in the workplace, the bar, and other social settings.

Yesterday — Wednesday, August 27

  1. A Slew of Suspensions • #1 — NFL player Josh Gordon was finally suspended after a long appeals process for a full year because of testing positive for weed. The knee-jerk reaction is going to be to compare the length of his suspension for a non-violent offense to Ray Rice’s two games after assaulting his fiancée. It’s a little bit of a false comparison because the penalties for substance abuse were collectively bargained for and agreed to by the owners and the players union. Also, the chemicals in an athletes body seem more reasonably the jurisdiction of a sports league interested in protecting the fairness of their competition than any crime off the field, no matter how horrible. Then again, weed seems to be on its way to being legalized most everywhere and sexual assault is really, really, really awful. Maybe the knee-jerk reaction is the right one.
  2. A Slew of Suspensions • #2 — University of Southern California football player John Shaw has been suspended indefinitely after admitting his story about spraining his ankles while saving his nephew from drowning was a lie. The indefinite duration probably has something to do with the fact that the true story of the ankle sprains is still either not known or not known publicly. This type of blundering is a good way to remind ourselves, right before the college football season starts, that as much as they look like grown, professional, super-hero athletes, college athletes are still basically kids.
  3. A Slew of Suspensions • # 3 — The University of North Carolina has suspended four of their college football players after an “alleged hazing incident that left walk-on freshman wideout Jackson Boyer with a concussion.” Not much to really say about this one. Even if it wasn’t hazing, it sounds like assault. I suppose it’s helpful to also remember that there are around 125 college students on each of the 125 (symmetry not intended) division one college football teams in the country. That’s 15,625 men from age 18 to 22 who, when they get into trouble, are going to be in the news.
  4. Actual Sports • U.S. Open Upsets — Heat and humidity fray the nerves of even the most casual commuter in New York. So it’s no surprise that it works its evil on tennis players sprinting around mid-day for two to five hours. Two big names on the women’s side of the U.S. Open lost yesterday to relative unknowns. Number four ranked Aga Radwanska lost to Peng Shuai and Sloan Stephens lost to Johanna Larsson.

Cue Cards 8-27-14

clapperboardCue Cards is a series designed to assist with the common small talk about high-profile recent sporting events that is so omnipresent in the workplace, the bar, and other social settings.

Yesterday — Tuesday, August 26

  1. Almost Perfect — A very rare and exciting thing in Baseball is a “Perfect Game.” This is when a pitcher pitches the entire game without allowing a single person from the other team to get to first base. Not even who! San Francisco Giants’ pitcher Madison Bumgarner had a perfect game through seven innings but allowed a hit in the eighth. No one else got on base though and that runner did not score. It was still an impressive and notable performance by Bumgarner.
  2. Strong Little Fifteen — The U.S. Open’s opening round was enlivened yesterday when fifteen year-old CiCi Bellis from California beat the tenth ranked player in the world, Dominika Cibulkova. When told after the game that she was trending on twitter, Bellis said, “I know some of my friends were doing hashtag like ‘takedowncibulkova,’ something like that,” she said. “I know three of my friends did that.”
  3. Sports as Soap Opera — Two interesting non-game-based sports stories developed further yesterday. One is heartening — Michael Sam, the first openly gay professional football player, made it through the first round of cuts on his team. Still, his team has to go from 75 players to 53 by this Sunday, so we’ll have another week of watching this story before things are settled. The other story is bizarre — a couple days ago, USC football player John Shaw hurtled into the news when he explained to his team that he had sprained both his ankles badly by jumping from a balcony onto concrete to save his nephew from drowning in a pool. As the story became big news, it also became… suspect. Now the story is that USC has started to back away slowly with its hands held up, gesturing to the world that they don’t know what happened and aren’t fully supporting Shaw until they know more.

What is a Conference in Sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a conference in sports? What makes a conference a conference? And why is it called a conference?


— — —

Dear Erik,

Thanks for your question. A conference is a collection of teams that play more against each other than they do against the other teams in their sport. As you’ll see, conferences have various histories and meanings in different sports. In some sports conferences are defined geographically. In some they are the remnants of history. In some sports the conferences are actually pseudo competitive bodies themselves and in other sports they are cooperating divisions within a single organization. Conferences vary in importance and independence from sport to sport. Before we get into the differences, let’s start with some general truths about conferences that apply across (almost) all sports.

Teams within a conference play more games against each other than against the other teams in their sport. It varies by league and by sport. In the NHL, for example, teams play at least three times per season against every other team in their conference but only twice against teams from the other conference. In Major League Baseball teams only play 20 of 162 games against teams from the other conference.

Conferences crown conference champions in all sports. In many leagues like the NFL, NBA, and MLB, playoff brackets are organized by conference. Teams in the AFC (one of the NFL conferences) only play teams from the AFC in the playoffs until the Super Bowl. So, the conference champion is basically the winner of the semi-final game. In other sports, mostly college sports, the conferences only really have meaning during the regular season, so conferences have different ways of deciding a champion. Depending on the sport and conference, there may be a conference tournament at the end of the regular season or a single championship game between the two teams with the best records in the conference. In some conferences, like Ivy League basketball, the champion is just the team with the best record in games against other teams in the Ivy League.

What Sports Have Geographically Defined Conferences?

A geographic division of teams is perhaps the most sensible way of defining a conference. Since teams within a conference play more games against each other than against teams outside of their conference, organizing geographically saves money, time, and wear and tear on the players by reducing the overall travel time during a season. The NBA and NHL are organized in this way. Both leagues have an Eastern and a Western Conference and both stay reasonably true to geographic accuracy. The NBA has a couple borderline assignments with Memphis and New Orleans in the West and Chicago and Milwaukee in the East. The NHL recently realigned its conferences, in part to fix some long-standing issues with geography like Detroit being in the West. Geographic conferences seem logical because they simplify operations for the teams within them. Many college conferences began geographically but as we’ll see later, that’s no longer their defining characteristic or driving force.

What Sports Have Historically Defined Conferences?

It’s easy to think about the sporting landscape as a set of neat monopolies. The NFL rules football, the NBA, basketball, the MLB, baseball, and the NHL, hockey. It wasn’t always that simple. Most of these professional leagues are the product of intense competition between leagues and only became supreme after either beating or joining their rival. The NFL was formed by the merger between two competitive leagues, the traditional NFC and the upstart AFC. The NBA beat out its biggest rival, the ABA, in 1976 but took many ideas from it, like the three-point line but alas not the famous ABA multi-colored ball. Believe it or not, Major League Baseball was not a single entity until 2000! Before then its two conferences (still called “leagues” because of their history as separate entities but pretty much, they are conferences,) the National League and the American League were independent entities.

Two leagues, Major League Baseball and the National Football League continue to have conferences defined by their competitive history. In baseball, the American League and National League each have teams across the entire country, often even in the same city like the New York Yankees (AL) and Mets (NL), Chicago with its White Sox (AL) and Cubs (NL) and Los Angeles/Anaheim with the Angels (AL) and Dodgers (NL). The NFL has similarly kept its historic leagues, the AFC or American Football Conference and NFC or National Football Conference. Each NFL Conference is broken up into three geographic divisions, East, Central, and West, but they all play more against the teams in their conference, even far away, than the teams close by but in the other conference. In the NFL the two conferences play under exactly the same rules but in baseball there are still some major historic differences in how the game is played, most significantly that pitchers have to also bat in the National League but are allowed to be replaced by a designated hitter in the American League.

What Sports Have Conferences that are Competitive?

So far we’ve looked at geographic and historically defined conferences. It’s clear that geographic conferences don’t compete against each other — they are part of the same entity. You can imagine that because of their history, the conferences in the NFL and MLB may be a little competitive with each other, like brothers or sisters. There are still some conferences though where competition against other conferences is their key driving force. These conferences are largely found in college sports.

Most college conferences have geographic names — the Big East, the South-Eastern Conference (SEC), the Pacific Athletic Conference (PAC 12), the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the Sun Belt, and the Mountain West. When they formed, they formed for all the reasons we discussed above in the geographic section but also to take advantage of financial arrangements that could only be made together, most importantly television contracts. As the money has gotten bigger, especially in college football, the competition between conferences for the best teams and the most lucrative contracts has become incredibly intense. In recent years, you’ve seen conferences poach teams from one another in a race to provide television viewers with the most competitive leagues to follow and therefore generate gobs of profit. This scattered the geographic nature of these conferences so that a map showing which teams are in which conferences now looks like a patchwork quilt.

Like it did with the ABA and NBA, the NFC and AFC, and the NL and AL, my guess is that this competition between conferences in college sports will resolve itself into some more stable league form. No one knows when this will happen but my guess is that it will be in the next ten or fifteen years. I guess we’ll have to stay tuned.

Thanks for asking about conferences,
Ezra Fischer

A One Word March Madness Bracket Guide — 2014

As many of you know, the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Championship tournament begins this week. This event bleeds far over the normal sports-fan border because of the omnipresent BRACKET. March Madness brackets are a fun and usually low-stakes form of gambling that asks people to predict the outcome of all games in the tournament before it even starts. This is harder than it sounds because a mistake in an early round can compound throughout the tournament. As such, winning is often more about luck than anything else.

To help you win your bracket, my colleague Brendan Gilfillan and I created a Dear Sports Fan March Madness Bracket with each team described in a single word. So, instead of wracking your brain picking between Oklahoma and North Dakota St., choose between Fast and Large. My favorite match-ups are between Streaky and Happy and Zone and Butter.