Yesterday saw the news break that Major League Baseball has a proposal out there to reduce the number of teams in the minor leagues by up to 42. At The New York Times, David Waldstein first noted that Major League Baseball is pushing for an overhaul of the Minor Leagues. Shortly after that, JJ Cooper had a far more expansive and more detailed article on it at Baseball America. You should read both of those stories before continuing, because there’s a whole lot of stuff to unpack. And you should probably read part 1 of my series on all of it, which looks at what the reduction in teams means from a jobs standpoint, for both MLB employees and employees of minor league teams.

Today I wanted to talk about the future impact on the game this could have. Some of this is going to be based around the premise of yesterday’s work that many of the teams wouldn’t actually be able to sustain themselves if they lost their Major League Baseball affiliation. If you believe that they’d still somehow be able to survive as a college wooden bat league you probably should stop reading this because you won’t agree with much of what is going to be written below.

Things are easier today than they would have been thirty years ago had this been introduced. Today you can watch 150 games on cable in just about any market you happen to live in. You can purchase and watch probably 25 teams or more all year long if you want to. More games are available on national television too, between Fox, Fox Sports 1, ESPN, ESPN2, and MLB Network. Those things weren’t options in 1990. You were lucky to get 15 local games a year, and then two national games per week.

But watching the game in person is still something that’s very different than watching the game at home. And for a large part of the country, watching the game in person is one of the great things about baseball. And the only way that they can do that is to take in a minor league baseball game. It’s not reasonable for a baseball fan in Billings, Montana to drive to Denver or Seattle to take in a professional baseball game. But those families and fans in and around the area can go see the Billings Mustangs play.

For many people in towns that have teams that will (or could) be eliminated they aren’t remotely close to a place where they can go see professional baseball in a reasonable manner. Being able to grow up watching baseball in person can make someone a fan for life. The family with young children who can afford to, and feel fine going to a game for the first 4-5 innings and then leave as the kids get restless/tired/bored, but over time as they get older stay for the entirety and have grown into fans of the game because it’s one of the things they did when they were young – what happens if that opportunity isn’t there in 40 cities around the country?

Rich Luker was quoted in a piece at The Athletic earlier this month showing research that showed this:

Someone who attends their first baseball game, major league or minor league, before the age of five will attend 58 percent more games in their life compared to someone whose first game waits until age 14, Luker and co. found.

This just feels more like, well, more of the same from Major League Baseball. They’ve continuously made moves that felt like cash grabs for the now, while not thinking about the sport in the future. They seem to care less about growing the sport down the line. I know that I’ve certainly been jaded towards ownership around Major League Baseball for a while now. You may have noticed that, too. But I have to admit, I saw this tweet and it felt so true that it hurt.

There’s something to be said about the cable bubble bursting that probably deserves an entire article. But I fully believe we are going to see teams fall on hard times because the cable money they’ve been promised simply isn’t going to be there to pay them. Perhaps they also feel that is the case and are working their way towards stockpiling what they can now. Or maybe they are just like what feels like everything else that’s going on – just trying to cut costs as far as they possibly can, in any possible way that they can.

Blackout rules making it difficult to watch the team close to you, in a day and age where you can literally watch anything you want whenever you want, is about as “give us your money right now” as it gets. And while it has seemingly lightened up slightly, how MLB used to aggressively go after fans trying to share highlights on social media, was as backwards thinking as possible. Baseball doing next to nothing about the culture in the game where if someone shows any sort of personality at the plate they can just throw baseballs at them to teach them a lesson does nothing but turn off anyone remotely considered to be a young fan of the game.

Taking away access to professional baseball from these people, these cities, doesn’t help build future fans. It feels short-sighted. It feels like another step in the wrong direction for the sport of baseball.

16 Responses

  1. James K

    Agree completely. Anyone who has seen the beautiful baseball park in Billings and the enthusiasm of the fans there would know how wrong it is to contemplate for one second the idea of removing that opportunity.

  2. George M Miller

    I also agree this is very short sighted. What made me a fan of major league baseball was my dad taking me to Buffalo Bison games as a kid and watching Johnny Bench . I saw him on TV the next year and became a life long Reds fan. I took my kids to Bison games as they grew up and that made them baseball fans.. The atmosphere at a minor league park is to far more family oriented. Baseball is going to lose in the long run because kids are going to miss out on this experience.

  3. Tony

    I agree with the downsides you are pointing to in this Doug, but there are positives. One would be geographic realignment. I live in Nashville and honestly have no interest in most PCL teams so I don’t go to many games. The fact that Louisville and other mid-south and lower Midwest teams don’t come to Nashville hurts the team here and it’s just dumb.

    • Doug Gray

      I’ve got this as a 5-part series right now. There is a “there are some positives” part coming.

  4. Bill

    Much of your criticism of this proposal could be addressed if the healthiest franchises are retained in the strongest markets. Take Greeneville (population 15K) for example, less than an hour drive to the AA Tennessee Smokies. There are multiple franchises within easy distance of some MLB franchises (e.g., Baltimore’s AA team in Bowie is just outside the DC beltway).

    I used to live near Wichita, Kansas which at the time played in a decrepit stadium. Frankly, it was a much better family experience to go to a game on the Wichita State campus and watch their very competitive team. Prices/amenities were similar.

    Lower level minor league teams are heavily concentrated in certain regions of the country. It’s quite possible a more strategic approach could address the concerns you raise. It’s also quite possible that college baseball, which is growing in popularity, could fill the void in many of the affected franchise locations.

  5. Brian Cubbison

    Would the players in MLB’s Dream League be part of the raises for minor-leaguers, or would they be left out, as not really part of the system, more like semi-pro?

    • jim walker

      I think this is up to the league. The reference articles indicated the MLB will subsidize the league; but, not individual teams per se. Since the teams will be employing the players, the call on salaries would seem to be the league’s, although I’d think MLB is going to have some “suggestions” to add in.

  6. Daryl

    Could this help fuel expansion at the ML level? If there is expansion you need more minor league teams. But we are most likely running out of cities that can support this. This proposal would open up the doors to some of those new minor league teams to be given new ML affiliates.

  7. Colorado Red

    I do purchase the (single team Reds) package.
    I can watch parts or all of 162 games.
    The partial league team in Colorado Springs, does not interest me.

  8. Simon C.

    The writing is on the wall. Baseball is in decline. I hate football and basketball. I guess I better learn to enjoy soccer if I want to be entertained by spoiled athletes.

  9. Optimist

    I hate that so many of these become legal issues, but it’s almost a century now since we’ve been under the delusion of baseball as not “commerce”, but fundamentally local “exhibitions”. Given the emphasis Doug and others rightfully place on the owners extracting maximum value (as well as the value itself), it’s wholly understandable if MiLB, and various localities, take another whack at the anti-trust exemption. Seems the owners are basically daring them to do so.

    • Doc

      MLB players are also all about extracting maximum personal value, without regard for the good of the game.

  10. MK

    Doug I know you hate political talk but this will become a congressional issue. Just a few years ago Ohio’s Senator Brown pushed through legislation to change the NFL’s TV blackout rules siting that due to public funding of NFL stadiums the taxpayers deserved to see all the games they are helping to finance. Many of these minor league stadiums have been publicly funded including infrastructure improvements under the promise that they will have some protections on this very subject.. I’m sure Anti-trust protections will be threatened. Anyone who thinks a wood bat college league team will be a suitable substitute have not been to one of them. They try hard but there is no comparison.

  11. Martino

    I’m just now getting ready to go to bed. My eyes feel like they’re about to fall out, but I read these two articles and it breaks my heart to think baseball is trying to doom itself even more with these kinds of moves. Insanity is the only way to describe it.

  12. DaveCT

    Part of the reason this is so mind boggling is due to MLB’s rollout that has left an enormous amount of speculation.
    I know it has soured my mood. Right before the World Series seems like an awful time to do something guaranteed to yank the chains of fans. I would sure like to know what exactly is driving this — and we as fans certainly deserve to know. I agree with others that say using collegiate leagues etc to replace professional baseball is folly.

    I’ll point out that I’ve been very fortunate to have been able over the last 25 or so years to watch high quality summer college wood bar leagues, the Cape Cod League and the New England Collegiate Baseball League. The Cape League, obviously, is the real deal. The NE League, good not great. But both were awesome experiences for my kids as well as — and this is key — very, very different than pro ball. The ‘juice’ of pro ball ( no pun intended) is just far superior to amateur ball. There is no comparison. As a longtime CT resident, I was able to see everything from ML games in Boston or NY, to AAA in Pawtucket’s history stadium, to AA Waterbury Reds playing in a high school stadium and AA Gartford in a beautiful new facility. From A, to Rookie Ball, to Indy Ball. Where did my kids ask to go? To the pro games. They knew all too well, even as much as they loved the laid back, sit on blankets or lawn chairs college games on summer nights at the Cape (a must for bucket lists by the way).

    I’m just confused.

  13. jim walker

    By not having the “Dream League” teams not affiliated with specific MLB clubs the door is opened for a set up like the Arizona Fall League to allow preferred players from multiple MLB franchises play on the same team. This in turn would seem to pave the way to having a higher overall level of competition across the league while needing fewer teams (players) to stage games which vet the preferred talent than if each MLB team had to field a full “nonaffiliate” team.

    Is this good, bad, or indifferent? We all have probably varying opinions on that. I see varying angles and am withholding my bottom line opinion for now.