The 79th version of the National Baseball Congress World Series will look vastly different — and cost less to attend — than the first 78, as traditional NBC powerhouses are virtually guaranteed a spot in an eight-day "championship week" that will likely include 16 of the tournament’s most traditionally familiar teams.
Champions from leagues with less success in the tournament over the past decade, as well as second- and third-place teams from leagues with automatic bids, will make up the first-week’s 16-team, double-elimination bracket.
The Wichita Wingnuts and the City of Wichita will announce the changes at a Thursday afternoon press conference at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
"I think it will create some buzz," tournament director Casey Walkup said. "It creates two climaxes in the tournament, and I think it will be more entertaining for the fans to know that we’ll have our best 16 teams competing for the championship during championship week."
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The new format is Walkup’s brain-child and was refined by Walkup and other tournament officials including NBC president Josh Robertson, operations director Kevin Jenks and former tournament director Jerry Taylor. It was approved by the city in recent days.
The top two teams from the first week advance to championship week, also in double-elimination format. They’ll be joined by teams from 10 leagues whose teams have had the highest average finishes in the tournament over the last 10 years, two at-large teams determined by NBC officials, and the previous year’s champion and runner-up. Those spots go to Santa Barbara and Seattle this year.
The tournament will be played from July 26-Aug. 10 at Lawrence-Dumont. Previous incarnations of the tournament included a single bracket of 32 teams played out over 15 days.
"We’re hoping that these changes not only help out with teams that travel a long way," Robertson said, "but that it also attracts some other states that we haven’t been able to get or states that we’ve lost because of the expense, and make this more of a national tournament."
According to Jenks, ticket prices are being reduced and buyouts from local business offering complimentary tickets will occur during both weeks of the tournament, creating more free nights than in the past. Promotional efforts to heighten ticket sales will be increased.
Walkup believes those fan-friendly aspects and the urgency of the first week will stabilize attendance even when the most well-known teams from years past aren’t yet participating.
"People are fighting tooth-and-nail to advance, to have a chance to play for that national championship," Walkup said. "Honestly, I think it will be better baseball than the first week in our previous format."
The city owns the tournament and the Wingnuts operate it, and their partnership since 2008 has coincided with the World Series becoming more of a regional event for college summer teams than a national one. Last year, 22 of the 32 teams came from Kansas or a bordering state.
The changes are being implemented to reduce costs for teams traveling from long distances, to increase competitiveness for local and regional leagues whose bids will be reduced under the new format, and ultimately to persuade leagues from untapped areas of the country to affiliate with the NBC.
"We’re losing more and more out-of-state teams coming into our city to play in our World Series because they can’t afford to do so anymore," Robertson said. "It’s making it tougher and tougher. The format of the tournament hasn’t changed in 79 years, but everything outside of it has.
"It’s time for the tournament to change with our current economy and our current way of doing things."
One of the leagues with an automatic bid is the Alaska League, from which participation has dwindled in recent years due to travel costs. NBC officials believe teams from Alaska and other faraway locales will be enticed to participate because they won’t be staying in Wichita longer than eight days. Walkup mentioned the possibility of luring teams from Michigan, Canada and the east coast.
Most of the teams in the first week will be midwestern, but there are two spots slated for California teams and one for North Carolina. Jenks said the two teams that emerge from the first week earn $5,000 apiece, which would reduce expenses for teams outside the area who stay an additional week.
Jenks said overall compensation is being raised from $62,200 to $65,300, and the winner’s total is up $1,000 to $19,000. The runner-up’s compensation goes from $11,000 to $12,000. The NBC, Walkup said, has begun working with local restaurants to organize team meals on gamedays and with Go Wichita to find reduced rates for hotels.
"You’ll hear Casey talk about it and you’ll hear me talk a lot about community partners, getting the community involved," Jenks said. "Hopefully people jump on it."