Sep 9, 2020 - Sports

Baseball's shrinking minor leagues

baseball bats lined up by length
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Minor League Baseball (MiLB), whose season was already canceled due to the pandemic, is staring down a historic contraction once its agreement with Major League Baseball (MLB) expires on Sept. 30.

Why it matters: Roughly 42 of the 160 affiliated minor league clubs are set to lose affiliate status by the end of the month, drastically changing the future of not only the affected clubs, but the minor leagues as a whole.

The backdrop: The past two years of the century-old partnership between MLB and MiLB have been strained, to say the least.

  • In early 2018, MLB lobbied MiLB to help them get a bill passed — the Save America's Pastime Act — that would remove the need to pay minor leaguers minimum wage or overtime.
  • MLB argued this would be a long-term money saver, and that failure to pass the bill would result in contraction, so minor-league owners and local politicians scrambled to help out.
  • The bill passed, but seven months later contraction was announced anyway, leaving some owners feeling betrayed. "We were invited to dinner and found out we were it," Dave Baggott, president of Utah's Ogden Raptors, told ESPN.

The latest: Pat O'Conner, who served as MiLB's president since 2007, abruptly announced his retirement on Tuesday, effective Dec. 31. This comes amid rumblings that impending changes would render his role obsolete.

How it works: Each MLB club has about seven affiliates across various talent levels, from rookie ball up to AAA.

  • The parent club pays salaries and buys equipment, while the affiliate pays for travel and other ballpark expenses. Additionally, each affiliate pays its parent club 8% of annual ticket revenue (about $20 million total).

The new proposal would reduce MiLB to 120 affiliates, with each big league club choosing which four affiliates it would like to retain.

  • Contracted teams will basically have three options: join an independent minor league (i.e. Atlantic League), transition to a college summer league (like the famed Cape Cod Baseball League) or simply fold.
  • MLB will also take over merchandising, broadcast and sponsorship rights of the remaining affiliates, splitting revenues 50-50 with the MiLB club.

The big picture: The new minor leagues will look a lot more like the NBA's G League, which is owned and operated by the NBA and gives them more control over their talent pipeline.

  • In that sense, MLB's plan fits into what commissioner Rob Manfred has called his "One Baseball" vision since taking office five years ago.
  • Manfred wants to unite the sport from Little League all the way to the Majors. This may just be step one.

The bottom line: The MiLB contraction was coming, pandemic or not, and perhaps it really will be good for the long-term health of baseball. But right now, it's hard to look at this situation and feel anything but sadness.

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