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The Minor Leagues could be a casualty of COVID-19

MLB wanted to contract the minor leagues. The pandemic might do it for them.

The fans in Myrtle Beach
Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans

This international coronavirus pandemic is hitting everyone, but no group is experiencing hard times more than America’s small businesses. For baseball, that group is best represented by the hundreds of minor league baseball teams that are struggling to survive.

In case you missed it earlier, the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) is up for renewal in 2021 and the negotiations have been contentious. The big point of disagreement is that MLB has proposed eliminating about 25 percent of minor league teams (42 to be precise) in an attempt to “streamline” player development. (This would also allow MLB to increase the criminally-low wages of minor league players without increasing their actual payroll costs very much.) MLB has said that the contracted teams and leagues could continue on as independent league teams or as summer amateur wooden-bat leagues. Minor League Baseball does not consider this to be a reasonable proposal and insists that these teams could not stay financially solvent under those terms. (I’ve written more about these negotiations here and here.)

Now along comes the COVID-19 pandemic and the complete cessation of worldwide sport. No one is sure when we’re going to start playing again and to be sure, it’s low on the list of society’s priorities at the moment. But for the people who work in that industry, this is how they put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. Most owners fall under the category of “small businesses” that are getting hit the hardest by this pandemic-caused recession. There are a few teams owned by deep-pocketed investment groups that can probably survive this (and some are owned by the Major League teams themselves), but most of them are not. They have rents that are due and loan payments to make. They have workers who aren’t getting paid and most of them will be forced to look for other work. Even when play resumes, fans may be hesitant to go sit in crowded stands with a few thousand other people. For the Major Leagues, this is less of a problem as they make most of their money off of broadcast fees. For Minor League Baseball, the gate is king and broadcast revenues are tiny. It’s going to be very difficult for many Minor League owners to stay afloat.

This article in Baseball America states that between 10 and 40 MiLB teams may struggle to even make it through an abbreviated season. It probably helps that the most vulnerable teams are probably the Short-Season teams that wouldn’t start their season until late-June anyway. Still, there are so many unknowns going on here. Things are likely to get a lot worse before they get better.

To be sure, the negotiations between MLB and MiLB are on hold at the moment. Everyone has a more pressing issue than how many Minor League teams there are going to be in 2021. But the sad fact is that 40 MiLB teams may go out of business without MLB doing a thing about it. I’ve already written that Minor League Baseball has very little leverage in the PBA negotiations. They have even less now that some of them are facing extinction through no fault of their own or MLB.

What can be done about this? Obviously, Minor League teams should be eligible for the same kinds of small business aid that any other small business is eligible for under bills that are currently being debated in Congress. But that may simply not be enough for some teams. And if the United States is going to enter a prolonged recession because of this pandemic, there may simply be nothing that can be done. While Minor League Baseball is important to me and millions of Americans, this country has so many other needs at the moment.

Will Minor League Baseball continue at all? Certainly. The majority of teams will probably survive. (It scares me that I have to add the “probably” qualifier.) One day soon we’re going to be singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the 7th-inning stretch at a ballpark near you. Or maybe not so near you anymore. The sad fact is that a pandemic could achieve MLB’s goal of contracting the Minor Leagues without MLB having to do a thing.