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Minor League Baseball is likely not going to have any sort of 2020 season

Having a MiLB season this year runs into many obstacles.

Four Winds Field, home of the South Bend Cubs
Melqui Rodriguez/South Bend Cubs

We have been discussing various ways in which Major League Baseball might have a 2020 season, of sorts, far different than anything we’ve known. Some of the proposals involve playing in empty ballparks in Arizona and/or Florida.

Something like that might actually happen. But for Minor League Baseball, playing games in 2020 is much more problematic. JJ Cooper of Baseball America lays out the issues in this article published early Thursday. The problems begin with the fact that with hundreds of minor-league teams, an “Arizona Bubble League” can’t happen:

Many MiLB leagues stretch across numerous states. Getting approval from each state, county and city to resume adds several additional logistical hurdles—the South Atlantic League (a league that plays in 14 cities in seven states) or Pacific Coast League (which has 16 teams in 11 states) can’t easily resume if only half of its teams are in areas where mass meetings are allowed.

Even if somehow those issues were resolved and MiLB leagues were cleared by local and state governments to play, there are further obstacles. MLB teams would have to decide they are comfortable sending players to travel from town to town for a MiLB season.

There’s almost zero chance that any of those approvals or logistics would happen in time to play any sort of meaningful baseball in the minor leagues in 2020. But beyond all that, the structure of Minor League Baseball would make any games far more difficult, because MiLB counts far more on fans actually coming to the games than MLB does:

Fan-free games might work in the major leagues, where TV revenues are significant. In the minors, they are a non-starter. MiLB relies on packing fans into the stands on its most successful weekend dates and using those full houses to make up for the sparse crowds on less-attended days. Spacing out a few hundred or even a thousand fans around the park is a money loser.

MiLB teams rely on the fireworks nights, bobblehead giveaways and holiday weekends to produce a significant amount of their in-season revenue. Theoretically, there may be scenarios where teams see modest revenue (and potentially non-profitable games) as better than no revenue, but it’s very hard for MiLB to make sparsely attended games successful.

Cooper’s article goes on to discuss various ad sponsorships and season-ticket sales that had already been made for 2020 when everything was shut down. What happens to those? Do they simply get carried over into a 2021 season? And can there even be a 2021 season if minor-league clubs are operating with no revenue for 2020? Remember, most minor-league teams make almost nothing from broadcast rights. Those minor-league teams that do televise games do it primarily as a loss-leader to try to entice fans to come to the ballpark. Viewership is mostly die-hards who just love the game and ad revenue on those broadcasts is minimal.

Wait, it gets worse:

With no season, MiLB teams face an entire year with almost no income (other than the modest revenue that comes from merchandise sales). Already, many teams around the country have begun to furlough or lay off significant numbers of full-time employees. Many successful teams with large full-time staffs have found they don’t have the cash flow or the reserves to keep meeting payroll month after month.

Without outside help, multiple MiLB operators predict that the layoffs will increase dramatically if the season is eventually cancelled. With no season (and cancellation of the concerts, beerfests and other events that many teams have added in recent years), there’s no income to provide cash flow to pay employees.

Like many small businesses during the coronavirus crisis, minor-league teams find themselves in a spot where they could conceivably go out of business. MLB had wanted to decrease the number of minor-league teams already; Cooper points out that there’s no 2021 MiLB schedule or even an extension of the Professional Baseball Agreement between the major and minor leagues. That agreement expires at the end of this year.

And so far I haven’t even touched on the future of the dozens of independent league minor-league teams in seven current leagues. This includes multiple teams that play in the Chicago area (Chicago Dogs, Gary SouthShore RailCats, Joliet Slammers, Schaumburg Boomers, Windy City Thunderbolts), all of whom could be in danger of folding before play starts again.

Minor League Baseball has been a great base for baseball throughout this country for over a century, in cities big and small. In its pre-2020 incarnation, it has provided inexpensive family entertainment and brought live professional sports to many cities and towns that wouldn’t otherwise have it. Obviously the current crisis is not of MLB’s or MiLB’s creation, but I hope that when things begin to return to normal, MLB will try to help their minor-league affiliates stick around and continue to provide that type of entertainment, as well as places for player development.

As always, we await further developments.