Sharon Byers, VP-sports and entertainment for Coca-Cola, predicts the new college football playoff in 2014 will turn into a multimedia advertising showcase for Madison Avenue. "It will be better than the Super Bowl," Ms. Byers told Advertising Age at the 2012 IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in New York last month.
MLB spokesman Matt Bourne countered that baseball doesn't "compare" itself to other sports, thank you very much.
With $7.5 billion in revenue, MLB posted its 10th consecutive year of record revenue in 2012. More than 74.8 million fans attended games, the fifth-best record in baseball history. MLB also signed TV deals with Fox, Turner and ESPN that will double its annual media payout through 2021.
According to a study by Scarborough Research, 109.3 million people, or 48% of U.S. adults over 18 years of age, watched, attended or listened to an MLB game from February 2011 through March 2012.
That compares to 92.6 million, or 39% of adults, who watched, attended or listened to a college-football game during the same period.
"We are at historic levels in the ways in which we measure MLB's popularity, business success and the rate in which sports fans around the world consume the sport in all manners," Mr. Bourne said. "Baseball has never been healthier."
Other research indicates the Grand Old Game is still No. 2. But the power and pageantry of college football is grabbing younger consumers. Numbers are trending in the direction of college football.
In the latest Harris Poll, 16% of adults cited baseball as their favorite sport, compared to 11% for college football. Baseball's actually up three points from last year, when the two sports were tied at 13% while college football dropped two points. But since Harris started tracking America's favorite sports in 1985, college football has gained 1%, while baseball has gone down 7%.
College football was most popular with the 18-to-24-year-old demo and Southerners, according to Harris. Baseball was most popular with 50-to-64-year-olds and Midwesterners. The online poll was conducted from Dec. 12-18, 2012.
During their respective 2011 seasons, national advertisers spent $975 million on college football, vs. $784 million for baseball, according to Nielsen. But advertisers also spend a ton on local baseball telecasts, and Nielsen doesn't provide that data to the media. The NFL, as usual, outpaced all sports with $3.3 billion in national ad support.
ESPN's 2011 Sports Poll measured Americans ages 12 and up. Major League Baseball was named the second-favorite spectator sport by 11.7% of respondents, ahead of college football at 10% and behind the NFL at 25.6%.
But college football led baseball for second-biggest fan base: 63.6% of respondents identified themselves as fans compared to 63% for MLB and 71.2% for the NFL.
Among "avid" fans, college football was No. 2 at 24.2%, while MLB was third at 20.6% (the NFL was tops at 33.3%). The gap in "avids" has been widening, said Bill Hofheimer, an ESPN spokesman. In 2001, the two sports were almost even at 17.4% for college football and 17.0% for baseball.
Despite being a "total disaster at management," college football is already overtaking baseball, Mr. Wetzel said. The coming playoffs on ESPN in 2014 will shift growth into overdrive. "That will be a huge step for college football," he said.