Mar 17, 2020 - Sports

Baseball's uncertain future

Illustration of a baseball crying

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

MLB has delayed Opening Day until mid-May at the earliest, per recommendations from the Center for Disease Control that gatherings of 50 or more people be canceled or postponed for the next eight weeks.

Why it matters: Of all the major sports leagues, MLB faces arguably the most disastrous outcome from this unprecedented sports outage, and some of its minor league affiliates might not survive the summer.

  • While the NBA and NHL should be able to extend their seasons into the late summer if necessary, any plan to extend the MLB season into November would have to clear a significant hurdle: winter weather.
  • MLB teams remain "committed to playing as many games as possible," per commissioner Rob Manfred. Should that desire remain, the 2020 postseason will almost certainly have to be held at neutral-site ballparks that have roofs or warm weather.

The big picture: While MLB's 30 teams will do everything in their power to make up missed games, the roughly 250 minor league teams know that any games lost in April and May — and the associated revenue — are gone for good.

  • Minor league clubs make the vast majority of their revenue from ticket sales and concessions, so every canceled game brings them one step closer to having to lay off employees or potentially even halt operations.
  • "If this pandemic lasts six months and the season is wiped out, all bets are off [on how many clubs would potentially have to fold]," one minor league team owner told JohnWallStreet.

The backdrop: In October, MLB unveiled a plan to overhaul the minor leagues and eliminate 42 clubs. It was not popular then and it will likely be even less popular now.

What to watch: Minor league players are paid (very poorly) by the big league clubs they're affiliated with, but paychecks won't arrive until Opening Day, which has players facing uncertain futures.

  • "The understanding is that MLB is in discussions with the MLB Players Association about how to pay major leaguers during this break and will shift its attention to the minor leaguers after that is figured out," per WashPost.
  • But in the interim, some minor leaguers will have to get part-time jobs, all while staying in shape for the impending season.
"If it's a couple weeks, fine, we can scrape by and handle this. But if it gets to be a month, two months, you could see guys quit because they just have to do something else to support themselves. That's my biggest worry, that this isn't sustainable."
— Anonymous Nationals minor league player, per WashPost

The bottom line: The financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic will be felt by every sports league, but thanks to scheduling limitations and the vulnerability of its minor league system, MLB faces a particularly daunting next few months.

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