Last month, we learned that Major League Baseball proposed a radical reorganization of the minor leagues, involving slashing the number of teams by 25 percent — mostly short-season and rookie ball clubs. The New York Times has reported which teams specifically are on the chopping block, 42 in total. [Update: Bill Madden of the New York Daily News reported more details this morning. It is certainly worth a read.]
It isn’t for a lack of interest that MLB wants to hemorrhage MiLB teams. As The Athletic’s Emily Waldon notes, 2019 was the 15th consecutive season in which 40 million-plus fans attended minor league games. 2019 saw an attendance increase of 2.6 percent over the previous year. Waldon also points out that 2019 saw the ninth-highest single-season attendance total in the history of the industry.
MLB’s suggestion to shrink the minor leagues comes on the heels of increased public pressure to improve the pay and conditions of the players. MLB successfully lobbied Congress to amend language in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, classifying players as seasonal workers thus they are no longer entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay, among other protections. As a result, more players have become vocal about the lack of pay and more reporting has been done on the issue, creating a bit of a P.R. problem for the league. Slashing the minor leagues would allow MLB, whose individual teams are responsible for the overhead of their minor league affiliates, to publicly say they improved pay while not actually costing them much money, if any at all. MiLB president Pat O’Conner foreshadowed this nearly two years ago, by the way.
As FiveThirtyEight’s Travis Sawchik mentioned in September, the Astros were trendsetters, reducing their number of affiliates from nine to seven. They were confident in their ability to develop talent with a smaller pool of players but a better development and coaching staff. While many new trends in the sport have been explained with some performance-based reason, it is always about money in the end.
Beyond the very obvious effect of eliminating upwards of 1,000 minor league baseball player positions, scores of related jobs would be eliminated as well, such as those of the minor league front offices, clubhouse personnel, ticket-takers, security, concessions, memorabilia stores, umpires, and many more. Many cities would lose an integral part of their local economies and cultures.
Perhaps most importantly, if the minor leagues were to be shrunk, many fans would lose access to professional baseball. If, for instance, you are a baseball fan who lives in Billings, Montana, the three closest major league teams to you are the Seattle Mariners (west), Colorado Rockies (south), and Minnesota Twins (east). The Mariners are about a 12-hour drive, the Rockies about seven and a half hours, and the Twins about 12 hours. But Billings has a minor league team: the Mustangs, a Pioneer League rookie affiliate of the Reds. Montana has two other minor league teams on the chopping block as well: the Missoula PaddleHeads (Diamondbacks advanced rookie) and the Great Falls Voyagers (White Sox advanced rookie). The minor leagues, for fans in certain areas of the country like Montana, are one of the few local connections to the sport. Eliminating those teams would sever those connections and drastically reduce the chance to create new baseball fans in that region.
Major league attendance is down for myriad reasons: more tanking teams, stagnating wages combined with increased prices, and weather just to name a few. Another big reason is that league ownership has diversified its revenue sources. In layman’s terms: they don’t need fans coming in droves through the turnstiles anymore since they make so much money off of things like TV contracts, MLB Advanced Media, and ancillary business interests like real estate. They don’t care nearly as much about the fan experience these days. If the Braves, for example, barely give a hoot about the fans coming to see their major league team, imagine how little they care about their minor league fans.
Ultimately, this gambit is short-sighted. They’ll get their P.R. win by increasing pay for minor leaguers while drastically reducing its minor league workforce. They may even save money overall. But the ripple effect of slashing 42 minor league teams across the country will stunt the sport’s growth in the long-term. And that’s bad for everyone.