Major Changes Ahead for the Minor Leagues?

ORLANDO, FL – Back in the early 2000s, I took a summer vacation and drove around parts of Massachusetts and New York State. Over the two weeks, I toured Boston and its historical sites; visited Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard; saw a baseball game at Fenway Park; visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, and the United States Military Academy at West Point; and just enjoyed the beautiful countryside.

It remains one of my favorite trips.

One day, I was staying near Fishkill, NY, and noticed an ad in the local paper for a minor league baseball game being played in town that night. Fishkill is home to the Hudson Valley Renegades, a team in the Class A New York-Penn short-season league, comprised of players that have been drafted recently or are second-year pros.

I thought, what the heck, I haven’t seen a minor league game in a while. It turned out to be a very enjoyable evening. It was baseball and small-town America to a core.

It was an intimate setting: a small stadium that appeared to hold, at most, 5,000 people, with fans seated much closer to the action than in a typical major league ballpark. Plus, it was inexpensive; parking was free, and $10 more than covered the ticket, a hot dog, soda and popcorn.

A local group did a passable, pre-game rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, and in-between innings there were prize giveaways, trivia contests and raffles with merchandise donated by local merchants.

On this pleasant, June weeknight there might have been 1,000 people in attendance. The spectators primarily were teens hanging out with their friends or on a date; young couples with children playing behind the fences and running up and down aisles; a cluster of men seated behind home plate, obviously scouts with their telltale radar guns and notebooks; and some older fans intently watching the game and keeping score.

While the baseball clearly wasn’t major league caliber, it was refreshing to see the game played with enthusiasm by players who were just starting their professional baseball careers, and still excited about actually being paid to play a game they’ve loved since childhood.

Sadly, such experiences could be harder to come by for fans now. That combination of baseball and small-town America may be about to change – radically, for some communities.

When Will Second Shoe Drop?

These are tough times for Minor League Baseball (MiLB). The first shoe dropped when -- with the season already suspended indefinitely in mid-March as spring training was shut down because of the coronavirus – Major League Baseball (MLB) announced on June 1 that due to the virus big league clubs would not be supplying coaches and players to their minor league affiliates. That effectively cancelled the 2020 minor league season – for the first time in 119 years.

Playing a season during a pandemic is daunting enough for major league teams. Navigating all the different local and state COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions across six classifications of minor leagues would have been all but impossible.

Like any business, minor league baseball needs product to survive. If there are no players, obviously there are no games. That’s like a butcher shop losing its meat supplier, a fashion store not having any clothing lines, or an auto dealership not receiving vehicles from its manufacturer.

The decision to cancel the minor league season was widely anticipated, but it still stung.

Now, the minor leagues are waiting for the second shoe to drop. As first reported by Baseball America last year, as many as 42 of the 160 minor league clubs affiliated with MLB teams could be disbanded when the Professional Business Agreement (PBA) between the two leagues expires at the end of September.

While the exact details of a new PBA still are to be agreed upon by the two leagues, it is believed that under a new arrangement, the six current minor league classifications – rookie, short-season, Low Class A, High Class A, Double-A, and Triple-A – will be reduced to the four full-season classifications from Low Class A up through Triple-A. If the plan is approved, each major league team’s rookie and short-season affiliates then will be consolidated into one, and operate out of each MLB team’s spring training complex.

The contraction very well could cause a seismic shift in the minor league baseball landscape across the country. Long-standing working agreements may change. Some teams – and entire leagues – may fold, others may change affiliations, and still others may move up or down in classification to accommodate what MLB feels will be a better, more efficient and centralized geographical alignment of clubs.

So in cities and towns all across the country – in places like Orem, UT; Billings, MT; Idaho Falls, ID; Johnson City, TN; Jackson, MS; Auburn, AL; North Port, FL; Lexington, KY; Lansing, MI; Lowell, PA; Batavia, NY; and Burlington, VT; -- minor league teams await their fate.

Pandemic – The Lost Season

One day this past May, the Daytona Tortugas of the Class A Florida State League should have been preparing for that night’s game against the visiting Fort Myers Mighty Mussels. Instead, the team was holding a Mega Chicken Truckload Sale, where people could drive up to the stadium and receive cases of pre-purchased poultry.

Meanwhile, a little over 1,800 miles to the northwest and 1,600 feet higher in elevation in Colorado Springs, CO, the Rocky Mountain Vibes ordinarily would be making preparations for their Pioneer League season home opener against the Ogden, UT, Raptors in a few weeks. But instead they were getting ready to host high-school graduation ceremonies on their field at UCHealth Park.

Welcome to the coronavirus-stricken, upside-down world of Minor League Baseball. Not since 1901 has a summer passed in this country without baseball being played in the minors. Through wars and the Great Depression the leagues persisted -- until they ran into COVID-19.

Now, all across the nation, stadiums where thousands of young ballplayers chase their major league dreams remain dark for baseball -- just another business impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of a third-base coach waving a base runner home, out in the stadium parking lot a team official is waving forward the next vehicle waiting in line to pick up a food order.

Even if teams were allowed to play, the social-distancing and safety guidelines mandated by many communities across the nation that severely restrict, even prohibit, crowds would be problematic. Unlike their big brothers, minor league teams need games and fans to survive. MiLB clubs are heavily dependent upon “the gate” (ticket and concession sales), plus some local advertising and sponsorship agreements. There are no billion-dollar network TV contracts or lucrative streaming deals to help them weather the storm, as with MLB teams.

With an estimated 95 percent or more of minor league teams’ revenue coming from the fans, playing in empty ballparks is unrealistic. No games and no fans means no revenue -- a disastrous development that impacts not only this season, but also 2021 and perhaps years to come.

“There’s no future for minor league sports with empty stadiums. There’s zero,” Gary Green, owner of Double-A and Triple-A teams, told the Associated Press. “If some of the teams don’t have deep-pocketed ownership groups or owners, I don’t know how they’re going to pay their bills.”

Unlike other businesses, baseball cannot immediately resume if the coronavirus suddenly disappears or municipalities rescind restrictive social-distancing guidelines in November. The calendar dictates when teams can play, and the season generally runs from early or mid-April through August. Each day without a game in those five months is revenue lost.

“I get 70 dates to make as much money as I can. If I lose any of those dates, say to a rainout or the postponement because of a health crisis, it just makes it worse and worse,” San Bernabe told the New York Times. Bernabe is the president of the Iowa Cubs, a Triple-A farm team of the Chicago Cubs.

Surviving A Long 18 Months

The canceled season means minor league teams will have gone 18 months (from October 2019 until April 2021) without having played. And, that’s assuming that things get back to normal by next spring – a very risky assumption given the continued spread of this virus and current lack of a vaccine. Even more than the calendar, the coronavirus is in charge.

Missing 18 months could be a death knell for some teams, as it would be for any business. Imagine a local restaurant, a service station, or a beauty salon trying to re-open after being shut down for a year-and-a-half.

In fact, MiLB president Pat O'Conner told Bradford William Davis of the New York Times that the minor leagues “are in dire straits.” O’Conner said that without immediate financial assistance “north of half” of minor league teams could go bankrupt or be sold. “There are many teams that are not liquid.”

Major league teams pay the salaries of the coaches, trainers, and players on their affiliates; the minor league clubs are responsible for the remaining costs. Most all of the MiLB teams have furloughed or laid off a hefty percentage of their staff. And, even though games aren’t being played, there still are bills that must be paid. For instance, teams that own their own stadiums still must make mortgage payments, and teams that rent from their towns or cities must make those payments. Plus, there’s insurance, utilities, maintenance and other monthly expenditures. The season may have stopped, but the bills don’t.

Plus, for teams that made recent stadium improvements there’s added pressure to generate revenue. For instance, the Las Vegas Aviators, the Oakland A’s club in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, opened a $150-million stadium last season; the Fort Wayne (IN) TinCaps, the San Diego Padres’ affiliate in the Class A Midwest League, received $2 million in stadium upgrades for this season; and, a TinCaps’ Midwest League competitor, the Beloit (WI) Snappers, an Oakland A’s affiliate, broke ground on a 3,800-seat stadium in June.

Minor league teams operate on a very thin profit margin as it is. And, similar to farmers, they are dependent on cooperative weather for having a financially successful season. “Teams will budget for two, three or four rainouts a year. And you hope they are on a Monday or Tuesday. Having eight-to-10 rainouts is the difference between being in the red or being in the black for a lot of clubs,” Jeff Lantz, senior director of communications for MiLB, told J.J. Cooper of Baseball America.

Imagine what a complete season without games does to a budget.

Naturally, the pandemic hit at the worst time for the minor leagues. When the shutdown came in March, just a month before opening day for the full-season leagues, teams already had spent considerable sums in anticipation of the upcoming season: uniforms, equipment, and promotional materials and items such as banners and logoed hats and T-shirts. Now, those items sit useless in boxes crammed into stadium storage spaces and offices. Meanwhile, most of the revenue comes from fans after the season starts – a season that doesn’t exist in 2020.

Making Use of Stadiums in Other Ways

There’s an old proverb, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” With no games scheduled, minor league teams have turned to using their vacant stadiums for other activities.

They include events such as festivals and concerts; high school graduations and senior appreciation nights; movie nights where, in keeping with social-distancing guidelines, fields become makeshift drive-ins; sleepovers (a “sleep under the stars on a field for future stars” type experience); and renting out stadiums to soccer leagues.

On Wednesdays through Fridays, the Rocky Mountain Vibes offer Toasty’s Takeouts, where people can get curbside pickup of meals, which range from foot-long hot dogs to an ”ultimate picnic” for four that includes pulled pork and grilled chicken; baked beans, potato salad, buns, bottled water or canned soda; s’mores kits, and four rolls of toilet paper.

In California’s Riverside County, the Lake Elsinore Storm – a San Diego Padres’ Class A Advanced club – teamed with its food provider to set up a mini-marketplace at the stadium where people could purchase (almost at cost) some hard-to-find items like eggs, milk, chicken, beef, and toilet paper.

The Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox hosted a food giveaway from its stadium parking lot. And, the Triple-A Louisville Bats turned their parking lot into a curbside pickup location where people could get meals from about a dozen restaurants.

Those activities don’t come close to making up the difference in revenue, and finding enough events to fill about 70 suddenly open dates is challenging. But, minor league teams basically are in survival mode these days. Besides, the activities help to serve another purpose: demonstrating the clubs’ solidarity with their communities in a trying time for everyone.

Contraction – What About Us?

If the economic devastation of a coronavirus-canceled season doesn’t doom a team, then contraction will. It’s a 1-2 combination more lethal than Koufax-and-Drysdale, Spahn-and-Sain, Early Winn-and-Bob Lemon, Schilling-and-Pedro Martinez, Maddux-and-Glavine, Scherzer-and-Strasburg, or any of baseball’s great pitching duos.

“In every sector of our economy, there’s going to be businesses that aren’t going to make it,” Dick Nussbaum, president of the Class A Midwest League, told the New York Times. “So for me to say that we’re all going to be OK, it would be ludicrous.”

The question is, which of the clubs will be among the 42 to get the ax? The plan, if adopted, reportedly would eliminate the four Rookie Leagues (Pioneer, Appalachian, Arizona, and Gulf Coast) which are the starting point in professional baseball for most prospects, the short-season teams, and a number of Class A and Double-A clubs.

Most of those teams are based in small communities, such as Danville, VA; Johnson City, TN; and Keizer, OR. Under the plan, 22 states would lose their minor-league teams -- leaving millions of fans with long drives to attend a game. For many people in these communities, the local clubs are their first exposure to professional baseball. Eliminating the team would deprive them of that chance to develop a connection to the game.

MLB has said that its goal is to not leave those communities empty-handed. Towns that lose affiliated teams might still have organized baseball as part of an independent “Dream League,” for undrafted players and those who’ve been released by major league organizations; or as part of a summer wood-bat circuit for college players, similar to the popular Cape Cod League.

But, some people might liken that to replacing ice cream with ice milk, or ordering a tenderloin steak and getting flank steak instead.

“I started in professional baseball as a minor league player, and I spent two years playing for an independent team, so I know what it’s like. You feel like you’re on the outside looking in,” Dave Baggot, owner-general manager of the Ogden (UT) Raptors, the Dodgers’ affiliate in the Pioneer League, told Ron Kantowski, in a June 19 story for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Therein lies a problem that baseball has grappled with for decades: the business side of baseball vs. the emotional attachment a community develops to its team. As with any small business that closes, when a team is disbanded or relocated, the community loses a little bit of local flavor. After all, there’s only one Binghamton Rumble Ponies, one Amarillo Sod Poodles, one Rocket City Trash Pandas.

A little boy waiting in line for an autograph from his favorite Charleston (SC) RiverDogs player, or a chance to run around the bases, or looking forward to a youth group sleepover on the outfield grass doesn’t care about business.

At a time when MLB needs to draw more fans to the game, some in the minors feel that these moves seem to be pushing fans away. “All of these clubs are a hub for camp groups, and church groups and school groups – everybody does an outing at their local ballpark,” Peter Freund, owner of minor league teams in three classifications, told Kantowski of the Review-Journal. “It really is part of the fabric of these communities, and that’s why it is hard for us as minor league owners to understand why (Major League Baseball) would want to pull out.”

A Community’s Social Fabric

A minor league team is part of that community’s social fabric. Residents look forward to those five months of baseball season for a variety of reasons. Particularly in small towns, the team is one of a limited number of entertainment options. Many teams allow local non-profit groups to help staff the concession stands, with those groups receiving a percentage of the profits to help fund their activities. And, across the country, hundreds of families serve as “hosts” – providing room and board for players who may be away from home for an extended period for the first time in their lives; or are international players trying to adjust to a new culture and language; or, particularly in the lowest league classification, players trying to make ends meet on salaries that can be as low as $1160 a month in the rookie leagues.

It’s not just communities that pay the price for losing a team. If contraction happens as expected, thousands of people – stadium vendors, grounds crews, cashiers, security, front-office personnel, etc. – will see their jobs disappear. Jobs that are harder to find in small towns.

Not to mention the players. Under the proposed plan, about one-quarter of the estimated 8,000 minor league players would find themselves without a team. At the end of May, when MLB teams were preparing for the First-Year Draft, and it became increasingly apparent that, without fans, there’d be no minor league season, the 30 major league clubs released 1,000 minor leaguers from their affiliates. With no games, there was no need to pay all those players for the season (although many MLB teams provided some financial assistance of varying degrees). Some of those players could be re-signed if there’s a season in 2021.

Every summer major league teams cull players from their farm systems, to help open spots for prospects selected in the draft -- just never that many at one time. But then, nothing is normal in our COVID-19 ravaged world these days.

All is not doom and gloom for Minor League Baseball, though. Team valuations and attendance are growing, for instance.

As Ray Glier reported in a 2017 USA Today Sports story, the 20 most valuable minor league teams, according to Forbes, were worth an average of $37.5 million – led by the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats at $49 million. (MiLB has a much more conservative value of minor-league teams, ranging from $3 million to $25 million.)

That’s far below the $1.7 billion that Forbes has pegged as the average value of a major league team, but certainly a lot more than the hundreds of thousands of dollars that minor league teams were worth three decades ago.

Plus, while attendance at MLB parks has been declining for years, it’s on the upswing in the minors. Heading into 2020, attendance at minor league games had topped 40 million fans for 15 consecutive seasons.

That’s Entertainment

Helping fuel that rising attendance is an emphasis on entertainment and inexpensive ticket prices. As Ken Babby, CEO of Fast Forward Sports Group, which owns teams in Akron, OH, and Jacksonville, FL, told Glier, “The core of what we do has not changed: It is affordable family fun. We scream that from the rooftops. Our fans know they can come to the ballpark for a $5 ticket, and hot dogs are $2 (those prices remained in effect last season).”

Last season, the Lakeland (FL) Flying Tigers had an “all-you-can-eat Wednesdays” promotion. The $10 reserved seat or $12 box seat advance ticket prices included unlimited hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, polish sausage, pretzels, popcorn, and peanuts. Regular game tickets for Lakeland were $9 for box seats and $6 for reserved seats, purchased in advance. Day-of-game ticket prices were $12 and $9, respectively. Parking was free.

Compare that to the average cost of a ticket to a Chicago Cubs game in 2019: $59.49.

Meanwhile, one ticket for a club-level, all-you-can-eat buffet at an MLB game can cost $150. In short, a family of four can attend a minor league game with an “all-you-can-eat” deal for less than the price of one regular ticket for a big-league game.

“Fun at the ol’ ball park” translates to “fun in the stands,” in the minors, with creative promotions, trivia contests, and the crazy antics of colorful mascots with names like Yard Goats (Hartford, CT), Muckdogs (Batavia, NY), and Chukars (Idaho Falls, ID).

In the minor leagues, it’s about putting on a show. Like the promotion by the St. Paul (MN) Saints, when a fan won an auction to be part of the team for a game – not as a batboy, but as a player. The fan batted in the eighth inning, and fouled out to the catcher (at least he hit the pitch). Or, the “Silent Night” promotion by the Charleston RiverDogs, which was part golf and part baseball. Fans were forbidden to clap, cheer or boo or shout at vendors until the fifth inning – instead holding up signs to register their pleasure or displeasure, or grab vendors’ attention. Golf marshals were on hand to hold up “Quiet Please” signs.

There is a method to that madness: off-the-field entertainment is a major draw at minor league games. Unlike at MLB parks, what happens in the stands is more important than the score. A week after a game, fans are more likely to remember the hijinks of a giant RubberDucks (Akron, OH) mascot, or a Jumbo Shrimp (Jacksonville, FL), or a Mighty Mussel (Fort Myers, FL), than which team won.

Just as developing prospects is a higher priority for big-league clubs than their affiliates winning games, creating a fun atmosphere that puts fans in seats is more important for the farm teams. In fact, it’s their lifeblood.

It’s pretty much the same through all levels of the minors. The towns, and the names of the teams and on the uniforms may change, but the need to entertain does not.

For MLB, Less is More

When the contraction plan was first unveiled in the winter, many minor league clubs fought back, saying that, in part, losing their affiliation with an MLB team would financially cripple their franchise and have a devastating impact on its value.

But as financial losses mounted during the pandemic, more clubs came to see it as the only way many of them could survive -- baseball’s own version of Darwinism – and reportedly are amenable to the plan. Plus, teams are afraid that without a new PBA, they will lose their supply of players from MLB in 2021 and perhaps longer – and that hurts all teams, not just those on the chopping block.

For their part, Major League Baseball sees the current system as an antiquated, inefficient and, in some cases redundant, patchwork of leagues that needs overhaul. In 1950, there were 58 minor leagues; today there are 20. And, if the contraction plan is adopted as reported, elimination of the 10 short-season and rookie-level leagues would cut that number in half, to 10.

Baseball always has operated on a profit-first basis. Fewer teams means having to pay the salaries of fewer coaches, staff and players. There are those in the minors who feel that MLB is using the pandemic as an excuse to continue to rein in costs and foster change, a charge that major league owners deny.

“I think (contraction) is just a math equation, and a dollar-and-cents equation,” Freund told the Review-Journal’s Kantowski.

As sabremetrics and advanced technology have helped teams to better evaluate which players have a more realistic chance of reaching the big leagues, there is a need for fewer players and teams. Signing players just to fill out rosters, particularly in the lower league classifications, will be a thing of the past.

MLB sees a more efficient, streamlined system as benefiting both players and teams. The league feels the changes will enable it to increase player salaries, enhance work conditions (say good-bye to those legendary 12- and 14-hour bus rides in the Pioneer League), reduce travel time and costs, upgrade facilities, and improve player development with additions such as more video assistants and nutritionists.

While MLB sees the proposed plan as improving player development, many in minor league baseball fear it might have an opposite effect. For instance, eliminating the rookie leagues might place more pressure on prospects to produce more quickly, instead of having the luxury of a little time to “figure things out” – such as, adjusting to the new routine of baseball full time, playing against better competition, or living on their own.

An Associated Press story in February reported that Major League Baseball already has agreed to pay raises for minor leaguers beginning in 2021, with minimum weekly salaries increasing anywhere from 38 to 72 percent. According to the report, those minimum salaries for the five-month season would increase to $400 for rookie and short-season league players, $500 a week in Class A, $600 a week in Double-A, and $700 a week in Triple-A. (Players are not paid salaries during spring training, instead receiving a diem that is about $30-per-day for minor leaguers.)

Critics argue that all those improvements come with a steep price: eliminated teams, jilted communities, disillusioned fans, lost jobs, and broken dreams. Proponents, though, contend that improving efficiency is simply good business, just as corporations like Amazon, FedEx, Ford, and McDonald’s look for ways to improve their business models.

There will be minor league baseball again, of course. The questions are when, and what it means for the players, fans, and minor league cities and towns across the country. They are wondering: Will we be included, or will we be on the outside, our noses pressed against the glass, looking in at professional baseball?

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Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL

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