Coolican: The fate of Minor League Baseball is uncertain
Liam Coolican | Tuesday, April 28, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every level of sports, but nothing has been hit as hard as minor league baseball. The minor leagues don’t have lucrative television deals, and most of their merchandise sales come from fans at the ballpark. Even if they do play games this season, which seems increasingly unlikely, they have no way of making revenue without fans at the ballparks.
This couldn’t have hit at a worse time for the minor leagues. As the Professional Baseball Agreement expired before this season, the MLB wanted to completely overhaul the minor league system. The major league teams want more control over their affiliates, which is understandable. It makes little sense that the Washington Nationals Triple-A team is in Fresno, California, or that the Miami Marlins Triple-A team is in Wichita, Kansas. If an MLB team needs a last-minute call-up, it is nearly impossible to get a player across the country by game time.
However, it isn’t simply realignment the MLB is after. They want to save money, especially now, with so much lost revenue at all levels. This means that the MLB is pushing to cut 42 minor league teams entirely, more than 25% of the current affiliated teams. Of course, minor league owners protested actively to save their teams, and it appeared that they had at least some leverage against the league.
Minor league teams usually make money, or at least sustain themselves. The major league teams could decide on personnel decisions, while the minor league owners managed the business side. It was a win-win, but without a major league affiliate, most minor league teams would not survive, because they would have to pay players, coaches and umpires, instead of just managing stadium operations.
Now, with the minor leagues being in such dire financial straits, they have lost all leverage they had in the argument against major league baseball. It appears as if the two sides are moving towards an agreement to remove the affiliation of those 42 teams, which almost certainly means most of those teams will fold.
This will devastate fans across the country, who love their local teams, and will surely hurt the local economies as well. Most of the teams that would be cut under this agreement are Single-A teams. This means that they are usually located in small towns, whose economies rely heavily on these teams. It will also hurt baseball players with dreams of playing in the major leagues, who will now have nowhere else to turn. The only people this decision will benefit are the billionaire major league owners. The worst part is, this may only be the beginning.
With major league teams continuing to push their bottom line, there is a chance that they will want to cut the minor leagues even further, perhaps to just two or three affiliated minor league teams per organization. The amateur draft was cut to just five rounds this year in response to the pandemic, down from 40 last year, so there simply won’t be enough players to populate all the teams.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has said that moving forward, there may only be 20 rounds in the draft, resulting in a permanent decrease in the number of players in the system, even if there was a significant increase in the number of undrafted free agents.
If there were fewer minor league teams, it would be easier for the MLB to manage the teams themselves, rather than continue to allow their affiliates to be owned independently. This would give the league complete control over the location, and give them easier access to player development.
Minor league games are everything a major league game is not. They are full of local culture — from the mascots, to the local concessions, to the on-field activities between innings. Each experience is unique. The fans don’t care so much about their team winning, just about the experience of being at the ballpark. If the teams were owned by MLB organizations, they would lose much of that local culture, which is what makes minor league baseball so great.
This was probably going to happen regardless of the pandemic. Commissioner Rob Manfred has been pushing for a reduction in teams for years. The downfall of the minor leagues has been gaining momentum, and this may have the final blow. Many teams will struggle to reopen in 2021 without significant financial help from the majors, leading to an ever decreasing chance that the minor leagues will stay independent.
Minor League baseball teams are a national treasure, and they won’t be here forever. Whenever the stadiums reopen, head out to the ballpark and celebrate your local team because in a few years you may not have the chance.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.