Full disclosure: this article has been started and stopped and modified about 10 times in the last 2 weeks. The situation is...fluid. To say the least. Very little is set in stone, and much could/will change in the coming weeks and months. But make no mistake, Minor League Baseball is changing. Rather dramatically. MiLB, as we’ve known it for 100+ years, is dead. MiLB and MLB have always essentially operated as two wholly independent identities, sharing 1 labor force in the form of all uniformed personnel. The arrangement had always basically been, “We (MLB) will provide you (MiLB clubs) the players, coaches, and trainers, you (MiLB clubs) provide everything else, including the ballpark, marketing, travel, dining, etc. All the folks in a dugout and bullpen are paid by the MLB org, every other employee you see in a minor league ballpark is paid by the affiliate. Parts of that arrangement appear to be coming to an end as MLB seeks to broaden their power and take over MiLB’s parent operations. The writing’s been on the wall for this for a few years. MLB owners wanted fewer players, coaches, and team personnel to pay (because they’re being sued- and might lose, and have already lost handily in the court of public opinion), and more control over the environments in which their employees train. Now, thanks to the pandemic and, let’s be honest, some borderline calamitous decision making on the part of MLB owners, they’re in a pretty dang huge financial pickle. I suspect you’ll be hearing plenty about how strapped MLB budgets are this winter and next, because a) they are, and b) they want to win the CBA negotiations...again. But back to my beat, they also wanted a bigger piece of the revenue MiLB was generating, while simultaneously cutting costs. And so, here we are.
First, lemme say, there’s a million moving pieces and possible changes being discussed, so this ain’t an article highlighting every tidbit on the table. Second, like everything these days, there’s not much of a plan at the moment. Third, like everything associated with Major League Baseball, there’s absolute uncertainty. The uniform agreement connecting MLB and MiLB expired in September. It has yet to be renewed. MLB seems ready to commit to a vast culling of the herd of MiLB teams. They’re chopping about 25% of affiliated minor league teams for the coming season. Yet no official announcement has been made as to which teams that will be (we all have a pretty good idea). They’re turning a few of the previous rookie-league teams into an invite-only wood bat league for college players. Beyond that, all we know is MLB is putting in a solid effort to squish and mold MiLB into a form they approve of.
In the last week or so, MLB has also issued their proposed requirements for MiLB team facilities and even their travel. They’re comically unattainable for many clubs, certainly at the lower levels. All visiting and home clubhouses must be 1000 sq ft and have separate food prep and dining areas. Clubs must increase their existing field’s lighting efficiency significantly, and build covered batting cages and pitching tunnels with wi-fi. All of these are great and certainly healthy requirements for professional athletes. The problem is going to be the initial push to pay for these improvements. Many of those clubs have ballparks owned by the towns they’re in. It’s a stretch to think of some of America’s smaller communities plopping a few hundred thousand or even a million bucks or more into ballpark improvements. Did you know MiLB teams foot the bill for travel? They do. New rules stipulate MiLB teams must provide 2 buses rather than one. Any trip more than 350 miles will require the team to either travel by air, or on an off day (there aren’t many of those in a season). That last one is a real doozy for the Texas League in particular. I mean, Corpus and Midland are pretty much screwed and oughta just buy a plane at this point. Reliable sources put commercial air travel costs for a MiLB team in the $9,000-$11,000 range per trip. 2 buses oughta cost around $2,500. As you know, Minor League Baseball didn’t have a season in 2020. That is an obvious budget killer. Unlike MLB, there is no TV revenue to fall back on. MiLB teams’ revenue comes primarily from ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, and merch sales. They missed an entire year’s worth of income in 2020. And the scary prospect is the forecast for 2021 is nearly just as uncertain. Assuming there’s some form of a vaccine or active therapies for COVID-19, Spring Training can begin a bit later for the minor leaguers and so can the season. Easy solution, except for the minor league teams themselves. They’re in a huge pickle at the moment and having spoken to some of the few remaining MiLB team employees this week, the wild uncertainty is nearly crippling. In a typical offseason, MiLB teams are aggressively pursuing new revenue. Sponsorships, crazy ol’ promotions and celebrity appearances are booked in November and December. All of that is on hold at the moment. You can’t book Lark Voorhies to throw out the first pitch of a game if you don’t know when you’re going to have games.
Much like the new ballpark requirements, the travel requirements are ostensibly meant to improve the lives of the minor leaguers — which is awesome. But the fact these new reqs got dropped on the MiLB squads following a cancelled season with no revenue is decidedly uncool. All this plays into what I’ve suspected for a few years. Major League Baseball doesn’t really like the minor leagues anymore. To an extent, I understand, and agree some changes were necessary for the game to survive and thrive. If I’d invested millions of dollars into my workforce of tomorrow, I’d like to have greater control over their training environment. Understood. As we discussed earlier, it looks like they’re going to have to pay the players more, and in general, billionaires don’t often pay employees more without cutting others. Agree or disagree with the tact, that’s just the way the majority of them are wired. So they’re cool with cutting teams because that’s also cutting payroll. It’s an accounting end-around and a marketing miasma. Less baseball in fewer cities seems like a poor way to grow the game, but it’s the decided direction of the current crop of owners, so again, here we are.
The silver lining for Rangers fans is that the big league club owns both of their A-ball affiliates: Low-A Hickory and High-A Down East. Those clubs are obviously safe, because Ray Davis isn’t gonna vote to cut off his own toes. And Frisco is a well-run juggernaut with a passionate following and a 30 minute skip to the big club’s new digs. Nashville is safe and sound, though there are some who speculate Texas could return to Round Rock once Sugar Land (yep) is elevated to a AAA club and the Astros take the point-blank bait. Unfortunately, the Rangers’ ties with Spokane have ended and that’s a shame. Spokane is an awesome club run by great people and they have really beautiful uniforms. I’ve predicted for a few years to expect some type of a Complex League being run throughout the season at all the teams’ Spring Training facilities. Frankly, this makes a ton of sense. There’s already a boatload of fields, year-round access, all the training and video equipment, and in the Rangers’ case, a huge dorm that can safely house and feed players and coaches. Unfortunately, I stand by my prediction that eventually there will be 60 MiLB teams and a huge Complex League. And for a hundred or so small towns across America: that sucks.
Sorry. This is a whole lotta words to simply say, no one really know what’s going to happen in 2021 or 2022 or beyond, but it will be different than it’s ever been. In the coming weeks and months, you’ll see articles about minor league teams losing their affiliations, running low on money, or, worse: closing up shop all together. Truth is, like so much these days, it seems certain to get worse before it gets better. But it will get better. Minor League ball will persevere in some shape and form in cities and towns in pockets of America. Hang in, hang on, be good to one another, and...stay tuned.
As Always, Enjoy Baseball.