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MLB’s proposal to MiLB could change the minor leagues forever

Minor league baseball will be very different when it resumes.

Four Winds Field, home of the South Bend Cubs
Al Yellon

There’s been no affiliated minor-league baseball at all in 2020 due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Players under contract to MLB teams have either been part of their team’s alternate site workouts, have played for independent league clubs, or sat out the 2020 season.

When minor league baseball (presumably) resumes in 2021, it will not look the same as it did previously. The pandemic is only one of the reasons; Major League Baseball had made it clear that they wanted a change in the way the minor leagues were run. They painted it as “efficiency” when what they really wanted was more control.

Late last week MLB made an official proposal to MiLB on how the minor leagues will be run. It’s all laid out in this article by J.J. Cooper in Baseball America. The article’s paywalled, but here are some of the highlights of the proposal.

MLB’s plan once again reiterated its goal of having 120 full-season teams (30 teams in each of four full-season leagues) and the elimination of short-season and Rookie-level teams outside of the Gulf Coast, Arizona and Dominican Summer leagues.

This would eliminate 42 currently-existing minor-league teams. That’s basically the proposal that was laid out last November. It’s not clear exactly which 42 teams are in this specific proposal; the BA article says that MLB “will attempt to retain current classifications and league structures when possible.”

The National Association (which trademarked itself as Minor League Baseball in the 1990s) was founded in 1903. MiLB has always been independent of MLB, which has provided players and coaches to MiLB teams through affiliation agreements. Under this arrangement, MLB teams pay the costs of the players and coaches and MiLB teams handle the business of operating games and providing facilities. The entire relationship has been governed for decades by Professional Baseball Agreements.

This MLB proposal would change that dramatically. Under this system, MLB would take over governance and all aspects of running the day-to-day operations of the minor leagues. The current PBA system would be replaced by one in which MLB operates the minors. MLB would deal with individual MiLB owners on a franchisor-franchisee system, similar to how many hotel and restaurant chains operate.

MLB claims this would result in higher revenues for minor-league teams, because they say MLB would provide everything MiLB now does and only charge MiLB teams what they currently do, an 8.5 percent “ticket tax.” Whether this will be the reality or not for MiLB teams remains to be seen. Further, MLB wants control over the following aspects of Minor League Baseball:

MiLB teams would also grant to MLB their sponsorship, broadcasting, licensing and digital rights. This could best be described as national rights, as MiLB teams would retain the ability to sell locally. Currently, MiLB teams grant many of those rights to MiLB’s offices to sell as part of national sponsorships and licensing.

In its proposal MLB would then split the revenues from those conveyed rights on a 50-50 basis with MiLB teams.

MLB would be responsible for handling scheduling, umpire assignments (and umpire development), league governance, dispute resolution and the many other day-to-day tasks that MiLB and MiLB league offices provide.

In some ways this might be better for baseball. More uniform umpire training and development would certainly help umpiring be more consistent going forward, and having broadcasting rights for minor-league baseball granted nationally could mean we’d have more minor-league games televised. But MLB wants even more control:

Under MLB’s plan, the 120 remaining MiLB teams would receive licenses. Those licenses would replace the current affiliation agreements, which lead to some affiliation swaps every two years. Licenses would have terms of up to a maximum of 10 years (although they could be shorter, especially in cases where facility upgrades are needed). Teams whose facilities do not meet the upgraded facility requirements of this proposal would have time to make the required improvements.

That 10-year maximum license is less than the 15 or 20 years that many MiLB owners have desired. There is a second aspect of the license which may meet MiLB owners’ long-stated desires for a system that preserves franchise values.

If a team is in compliance with terms of the license but is left without an MLB affiliate at the expiration of its license, that MiLB owner will receive a guaranteed buyout. The new affiliate will be required to pay compensation.

A system like this could give minor-league team owners (who would now be “licensees” a bit more stability. Rather than suddenly be whipsawed between MLB teams when affiliation agreements expire in two or four years, MiLB teams would receive a longer-term license. I’d think that if MiLB teams want a longer license term, this would be something that could be negotiated. Remember, this is a proposal, though MLB has a fair amount of leverage, especially considering the financial losses MiLB teams have suffered with basically no revenue this year at all.

The proposal does not include the “Dream League” that had been mentioned previously as a way to have some baseball in the 42 cities that would be contracted out of MiLB under this proposal. Still, in an interview this week in the Los Angeles Times, Commissioner Rob Manfred said he would expect baseball to continue in those communities:

Every plan we have put forward with the minor leagues involved preserving some sort of baseball in every single community that currently has it. I don’t buy the premise of your question. We intend to play baseball in the communities where it exists, and we intend to play baseball in a way that it continues to grow the sport.

The implication was that there might not be minor-league baseball as they had known it in those cities, but perhaps a summer wood-bat league or some other “pro prospect league,” as Manfred put it. There have been similar leagues that have been quite successful in the past, including the Northwoods League, which has teams in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and Canada. But those leagues play a much shorter season than a traditional minor-league season. It could work in places where short-season leagues currently play, but one of the original cities on the “cut” list was Chattanooga, a city with a metro population of over 500,000 and a minor-league history going back to 1885. Would that sort of thing work in places like that?

It’s clear to me that MLB’s idea is primarily to save money by having 42 fewer teams. This would mean around 1,000 players per season would not be playing in affiliated minor-league ball. It’s possible more independent leagues could arise to fill the gap, but there’s no guarantee of that. It means MLB dreams for a lot of players might not happen. It means that someone like David Bote — an 18th-round draft pick — might have fallen through the cracks and never gotten a chance to play in the big leagues.

MLB would counter by saying they’ll pay minor leaguers more — but that’s only because there would be fewer of them. The total amount paid to players isn’t likely to change much.

Minor league baseball has a rich history and provides inexpensive entertainment in dozens of cities where such things are a big part of the fabric of the community. It’s true that the sport now has pandemic-related economic troubles to deal with, but I hope that doesn’t mean the complete decimation of the minor leagues. MLB should be in the business of promoting more baseball, not less baseball.

I hope MLB is actually willing to negotiate with the minor leagues and not have this proposal simply be “Here, take it or leave it.”