A great summation here at Baseball America on where things stand between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball, whose contract expires in September, amid a minor league season that might be entirely washed out by the pandemic.
You likely remember all the stuff about reducing the minor leagues from 160 teams to 120, realigning minor league affiliates geographically, shrinking the draft, etc. Again, the BA piece does a great job getting you back up to speed if you have trouble holding a lot of stuff in your mind right now (like the rest of us).
But the report adds one new significant detail: MLB wants to take over minor league operations, effectively ceasing MiLB as an entity.
Although MiLB, obviously, is opposed to the idea, a lot of minor league owners are not. From BA:
MLB’s arguments are that they could do so with less overhead (which means less costs for MiLB teams) and they could produce more revenue for teams in a variety of ways thanks to their sponsorship and marketing muscle.
Taking control of the minors would allow MLB to potentially rework the governance of the minors and streamline some of the issues that have regularly frustrated MLB teams ….
Off the record conversations with numerous MiLB owners at various levels seems to indicate less resistance to the move than one might expect. Even before the coronavirus pandemic postponed teams’ 2020 seasons, the negotiations had left a number of owners and operators clearly aware of the power imbalance between MLB and MiLB. Also, during a very difficult economic time, MLB’s arguments on lower costs and higher revenues are getting some traction.
MLB’s initial proposal last year was for a new, short-term PBA. That was eye-opening for many MiLB owners because it left them well aware of the possibility that in just a few years, MLB could be looking to make further cuts. Could 120 teams in 2020 turn into 90 in 2025?
On the minor league side, there is a desire among owners for long-term stability in a new deal, which means a longer-term agreement. There is also the feeling among some MiLB owners that some stability could be provided by developing a system where MLB is a partner and benefits financially from the success of MiLB and the rise of MiLB franchise values.
To be sure, this is not MLB (and its teams) taking OWNERSHIP of these MiLB teams, though it’s possible more MLB teams will seek to own their affiliates in the coming years. Instead, you’d be looking at minor league owners still being involved, but operations will be guided by the big league parent and/or MLB. So you’d probably see a much tighter public relationship between MLB teams and their affiliates, especially if there is a financial incentive baked in for MLB.
Although I still don’t love the idea of removing pro affiliations from upwards of 40 communities around the country, I have started to come to terms with the reality that (1) it’s happening, and (2) many teams may not have survived the COVID-19 pandemic in any case. From there, I do think it starts to look compelling to have MLB teams more directly involved in the operations (and success) of their minor league affiliates, so long as those affiliates do still have separate owners who are incentivized to see baseball succeed in their community (because that’s how you keep developing fans long-term).
At this point, I’m just eager to see what the final deal looks like. I also remain very curious to see what the plan will be for minor league players this year, but that is still much harder to see (ironically, it’s easier to plan for the longer-term right now than it is the shorter-term).