Minor League Baseball Facing an Uncertain Future

Yesterday, Minor League Baseball released a statement announcing the cancellation of the 2020 baseball season. This announcement came after Major League Baseball informed MiLB that it would not be “providing its affiliated Minor League teams with players for the 2020 season.” MiLB has been in existence since 1901 when it was founded as the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. This marks the first time in its history that there will be no minor league baseball for a season.

Without television contacts, minor league teams find themselves dependent on having fans in the stadiums. Owners of these clubs need fans to pay for tickets, concessions, merchandise, etc. in order to stay afloat. MiLB teams are trying creative ways to generate revenue to replace the losses due to the cancellation. Some are trying to turn the ballpark into a restaurant or catering service while others are going as far as opening a nine-hole, target-style golf course within the stadium.

For now, Minor League Baseball faces an uncertain future. Along with the cancellation of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, minor league teams are facing intense disagreements with MLB over a new Professional Baseball Agreement or, PBA. According to MiLB president Pat O’Conner,

“This is the perfect storm. There are very many teams that are not liquid, not solvent, not able to proceed under normal circumstances, and these are anything but normal circumstances given the PBA and the uncertainty of the future for some of these ball clubs. I think the coronavirus has really cut into many clubs’ ability to make it. I think we’re looking at, without some government intervention, without doing something to take on equity partners, you might be looking at half of the 160 who are going to have serious problems.”

The current PBA is set to expire on September 15, 2020. A huge point of contention is MLB’s push for lower-level minor league teams (e.g., Low-A) to improve their facilities in order to meet MLB standards. Per MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem,

“It always has been the responsibility of the Minor League owner to provide first class facilities in geographical areas that do not impose unreasonable travel burdens on our players. Many of the current stadiums, primarily in the lower levels, are in worse shape than the facilities players played in during college, and in some cases high school, and require significant travel by bus to stage games. This is a significant issue for MLB that we are seeking to address in these negotiations.”

Halem argues that the terms of the PBA have not changed much since 1990, but a lot has changed in professional baseball since then. He wants the agreement to display the heightened emphasis that MLB clubs have on player development, improved working conditions and compensation, and having updated facilities.

To complicate matters for MiLB, MLB wants to eliminate 42 minor league teams as soon as 2021. Those eliminated would represent the lower tiers of Minor League Baseball. To offset those eliminated, MLB has proposed a Dream League in which,

“undrafted players, players from diverse backgrounds who played other sports in college, local star baseball players, and players from countries trying to develop professional baseball, compete for contracts with Major League Clubs. The players on each team would be selected, managed and coached by aspiring general managers, former MLB players, and diverse individuals seeking front office and on-field positions with Clubs.”

The owners of these clubs, who would be able to have teams in this new league, argue that this would not be sustainable. The league would cover too large of a geographical area, thus raising travel costs. Further, without the promise of seeing players affiliated with MLB teams, owners fear that fans will not come out to the ballpark. Add to this concern MLB’s decision to reduce the draft from forty rounds to five rounds this year and at most twenty rounds in 2021, MiLB teams will find it more difficult to fill out their rosters.

With MLB’s return, fans are understandably excited about baseball coming back. However, one hopes that with an uncertain 2021 and beyond, there will be minor league teams opening their stadiums to welcome in fans.

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