Robert Sanchez wrote one of the more fun articles that I read in 2019 when he wrote the inside story behind the funniest baseball card ever made over at ESPN. Seriously, it’s a funny card and a good story. Yesterday he wrote about Minor League Baseball at Sports Illustrated and the problems that many teams are facing.

Minor League teams are facing a situation where there’s almost no chance they are going to have games played in home stadiums this year. Major League Baseball is reportedly planning as if there will be no season in the minors – so short of a literal miracle, teams in the minors are going to have nearly all of their revenue cut off. Even when there are games happening in the minors almost all of the money made comes from ticket sales and in-park purchases. An overwhelming majority of teams don’t have any of their games on television, and the few that do aren’t exactly getting paid like their big league counterparts are for their games.

Without ticket sales, and the in-park purchases of merchandise, food, drinks – there’s nothing at all for teams to really bring in revenue. Yes, there is likely an incredibly small amount of online orders of t-shirts or hats, but that’s not covering the salary of one employee, much less 5-65 depending on the size of the operation we’re talking about in the minors. Like many other businesses around the country, people have been laid off, furloughed, had hours reduced and or had pay reduced.

Twenty-four teams (or 35% of respondents) said they were seriously concerned that lost revenue from this season would impact their ability to operate next season or in future years, ranking their level of worry at seven out of 10 or higher. Twelve of the clubs—including two of the 16 Triple A teams that replied and five of the 13 from Double A—said they were “extremely concerned” about their ability to continue operating in the future: a 10 out of 10.

Some minor league operations are doing what they can to do something, to do anything. Some are offering up curbside food pick up, or even outdoor seating options where allowed – serving food that would have been available at a game that should have been happening right now. The Daytona Tortugas announced the other day that they would be hosting a movie night at their ballpark. They’re showing 42 – fitting for Jackie Robinson Ballpark – and are expecting hundreds of people to show up, having sold plenty of pre-order “sections” to families. The Reds old Double-A affiliate in Pensacola has been having all kinds of events, including trivia nights and even set up a disc golf course on the field that had hundreds of participants.

With the minor league contraction that was a big story during the offseason seemingly on the back burner as far as talks go with bigger things to worry about from Major League Baseball’s perspective, it’s making all of the uncertainty even more uncomfortable for many teams in the minors that have a reason to believe that they could be on “the cut list”. There’s a concern, understandably, that this whole situation is going to lead to less unity among the minor league teams and see more of an “every man for himself” kind of situation where they’re all simply trying to survive and remain viable.

Unfortunately, it seems that at least some teams have already played their last game of affiliated minor league baseball without even knowing it. And that’s a real shame.

15 Responses

  1. MK

    I think we always knew that what seemed like an unlimited pot of money of the Major League teams was someday going to run dry. The huge contracts at the Big League level and the huge bonuses paid to amateurs was just not sustainable.

    Historically this reshaping and downsizing of the minor leagues happened before. Up until 1950 there were hundreds of more minor league teams.Heck, the old Ohio Indiana League had teams in cities all over Ohio (Springfield,Lima, Marion, Portsmouth, to name a few). Teams, leagues, and players were contracted. I know of 30 guys from Springfield/Clark County who were playing affiliated ninor league baseball in 1949, today there are2. The days of a Branch Rickey controlling 50 teams is over.

    If minor league teams are going to survive they are going to have to start becoming and working like the better teams in the Independant Leagues, or quite frankly the Dayton Dragons. And Independant Leagues might be the big winners here.

    The article was correct. It won’t be the same. But that has happened at least twice before and might happen again many years down the road.

    • Tom

      That is interesting MK, I didn’t know that there were so many minor league teams years ago.

    • Doug Gray

      MLB’s unlimited pot of money isn’t dry because of the contracts or bonuses, though.

    • Jim Walker

      When I graduated from high school in the late 1960’s, there were still a large number of minor league teams. A number of guys signed into what were called Class D leagues. My guess is this would have been a step below the half season rookie leagues of today. I think basically scouting wasn’t as comprehensive and all encompassing; and, they essentially brought these guys in for what amounted to extended tryout camps for many of them.

      Also the college baseball wasn’t nearly as developed then, at least outside of the south and southwest. The ongoing contraction of the minors and growth of college baseball seem to have gone hand in hand.

      • Oldtimer

        Pete Rose and Tony Perez started at Geneva NY (Class D rookie level) in 1960 Reds MiLB system. D leagues then roughly = Rookie league (such as Billings) now.

  2. amdg

    I guess this means either no MiLB games, or they get played at the team training complexes in Arizona/Florida?

    • Doug Gray

      It means there are no games. MLB can’t even figure out how to get things going for 40-50 man rosters in the Majors where players can live at home. They definitely can’t figure out how to make it work for an additional 200 players who aren’t living at home.

  3. Oldtimer

    I would be saddened by the loss of MiLB if that happens. The NFL and NBA (for the most part) operate without significant minor league option(s). MLB players typically need 3-5 years of development to reach MLB skillsets.

    • Jim Walker

      The development leagues for NBA and NFL are AKA NCAA basketball and football ;-)

      • Oldtimer

        I guess. But neither NFL nor NBA pays a dime for NCAA expenses.

  4. IMHO

    I feel bad for the MiLB guys sitting home not knowing if they should get full time jobs or wait this out. There are a lot of guys who did not make huge or even significant signing bonuses – living out a dream and now they don’t know what to do.

    If any baseball is played, what guys are the “chosen ones” in the MiLB that will get to be on a taxi team? Will those guys be asked to go back? Heck, if there is a Fall Spring Training, who gets the nod?

    There are some really good players out there that might never get to play again – that’s who I feel bad for. Not the $7Million dollar prospects… MiLB was about dreams – I don’t think that even matters or mattered for a long time now.

    But that’s just my 2cents and honest opinion.

  5. MK

    One of the realities is MLB is going to stop paying those organization fillers who are just paid to give the real prospects someone to play. They have decided to put those resources elsewhere. Sure we might not see the success story of the 30th round pick who becomes a star. Now it will be the undrafted guy who signs from a place like the Evansville Otters who becomes a star.

    • victor vollhardt

      On 5/15/20 Reds minor leagues posted a topic “Don’t expect a ml season for 2020 Reds”. I made a long comment posting there and it holds true for this topic. Last year when MLB posted their ideas about downsizing the ML—what they got was public push back, strong opposition from the minor league owners and investors and then MLB got furious opposition from the US Congress. They knew it would have been an up hill battle to put their plan in place and now it looked like it would have to be cut back or dropped altogether. The virus came along and with everything attached to that problem–it gave MLB a perfect opportunity not only to implement their original plan , but to greatly expand it as well. This “starve them out” idea will leave only those left (if any) with no choice, but to do MLB’s way. Today it looks like some sort of MLB might start around July 4, but if the player’s union doesn’t adjust the earlier agreement to allow ” no fans in the stands” loss of revenue then emboldened by their “success” with their ML plan—I think the owners will walk away from the 2020 season and plan a very austere 2021 season so that in the new contract talks (after the 2021 season) with the players the owners have more control over the new financials splits. The players are like all schoolkids at every level right now in that they will never (no matter what happens) be able to regain this loss of time and the idea of a strike, which is the players most effective weapon, a year after this whole ball of guts won’t look very good. The owners will be in a much better position than a group of young men with families and in a lot of cases huge financial obligations (with a year (2020) missing from their bank accounts) to sit out any more time. If the virus comes back in the fall it will really hammer the above points even stronger in the owners favor, but it won’t matter much because we all will be dealing with a world wide depression that upends all plans. All parties need to give in a little NOW so if the virus doesn’t go away all will be in a better position for the future.

      • Big Ed

        The owners will take a huge bath if they don’t play this year, primarily because it will be a PR blunder that they can’t possibly overcome. At this point in history, nobody wants to hear about owners and players arguing over money. The bubble will burst. The TV audience will collapse; attendance will collapse; merchandising will collapse; and nobody will pay for $11 beers any more. Fox and ESPN are not going to pay for baseball broadcasts for which they can’t sell ads. Cord-cutting will doom the regional sports networks.

        The Reds would no longer be worth $1 billion; they would be worth whatever their share of MLB’s investments are (which I understand to be about $300 million), plus whatever the value is left in a discredited product, which won’t be much. The owners, then, have to make a good faith effort to play this season. The Reds’ ownership group is looking at a $500 million in diminution of an asset, if baseball collapses, which is a distinct possibility.

        The owners simply have to make a deal to play this season. Rob Manfred may be too stupid to know this reality, but the sophisticated money behind the Dodgers, Yankees, Nationals, Cubs, etc. will eventually force his hand. The Reds may lose $50 million this year, but that is far better than the alternative.

        Guys like Mookie Betts and even Trevor Bauer have made unlucky bets, because there is too much uncertainty for the teams to make big deals. Betts is now unlikely to get close to the deals that Mike Trout or Anthony Rendon got, and Bauer will not get nearly as much in 2021, either.

      • Jim Walker

        @Big Ed and Victor

        I think it may just be that this pandemic is so big that it doesn’t really matter what the players or owners do.

        People may just not care that much given the scope of the pandemic; and, when the thing has finally been tamed be ready to move forward with their lives as nearly as before as possible.

        And everybody everywhere is going to suffer economically in one way or another, even privileged owners and players.