Well, when discussing why college baseball is so much less popular than the major leagues, the first thing to bring up is the most obvious difference between them; aluminum bats. Why does this difference matter? Reader bowbasaur summed it up succinctly: "aluminum bats suck".
First, a little history. Aluminum bats were introduced to the college game in 1974 as a cost-saving measure; although they can cost 5 times as much as wooden bats, they’ll last a lot longer than 5 wooden ones will. Athletic Departments across the nation were in a budget crunch at the time, and this was intended to be a temporary measure. However, like the monstrosity that is Evans Hall, it’s still standing today. Aluminum bats have both their proponents and detractors, but because of the cost difference, I’m pretty sure we’ll never see a switch back unless MLB is willing to subsidize the cost.
To be sure, aluminum bats have made the college game a different one than the professional version. Inside pitches, instead of sawing off the hitter’s bat, can now be fought off into left field for a hit. Balls travel further and faster, leading to more home runs, but also more pitchers hit by line drives. It’s a different game, but I can’t say it’s that much better or worse. Besides, the general public doesn’t seem to have a problem with differing amateur and pro versions. The NBA has a longer 3-point line and 4 15-minute quarters instead of 20-minute halves, yet each is plenty popular. The NFL and the NCAA have vastly different overtime rules, yet neither version seems to turn off many people. Yes, aluminum bats have made college baseball a slightly different game, but you certainly can’t say that the game being different accounts for the difference in popularity.
Now, do aluminum bats themselves make the game less popular? That’s hard to say. I’ll admit, I don’t like them. The ‘pinging’ noise they make just sounds wrong. And yet, the couple times I went to Cal games this year, I didn’t enjoy myself any less because of them. You can get used to it, and you can get over it. Can I honestly say I would have gone to more games had they used wooden bats? That seems like a stretch to me.
Expanding to the general populace, can we say that aluminum bats are that big of a turnoff? I doubt it. Sure, there are people who cite them as a reason they don’t like to watch college ball, but there are an equal number of people who believe that the current increase in college baseball’s popularity (and yes, it is increasing, though it’s still a far cry from the major sports) is due to the increase in offense that aluminum bats afford. Remember the summer of ‘98? Sammy v. Big Mac? Chicks dig the long ball.
My main problem with the argument that college baseball isn’t popular because of aluminum bats is that it always comes from purists: people who love the game as it used to be. These are the same people that hate interleague play and the wild card, yet those two innovations have done wonders for MLB’s popularity. Purists may grumble, but for the most part they love the game so much they’ll never turn away from it. The general sporting audience doesn’t care about tradition; they care about excitement. Complain about aluminum bats all you want, but I don’t think you can blame them for college baseball’s relative obscurity.