The deadline for a new agreement between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball looms at the end of this month.
The death knell for minor league baseball’s 119-year run of independence is, however, already ringing loudly.
Regardless of whether the sides reach an agreement on their expiring Professional Baseball Agreement, MLB is poised to re-create MiLB in an image to its own liking. That rebirth includes MLB securing control over minor league business and baseball operations, eliminating MiLB’s central offices in St. Petersburg, Fla., in order to run the league out of MLB’s New York headquarters, and stripping big-league affiliation from at least 42 of the current 160 minor league teams spread across the country.
The end of the National Association of Baseball Leagues, which has operated in tandem with — but independently from — MLB since 1901, is “virtually certain,” according to one minor league owner. The pared-down system would feature 120 teams, four per big league team.
The fate of the Lowell Spinners, the Red Sox' short-season New York-Penn League Single A franchise, remains very much up in the air. Each of the 30 teams in the majors needs to let MLB know where it wants its affiliates to play. According to one baseball source, the Red Sox are among the teams who have not finalized their list.
After last fall and winter’s public squabbling and accusations of each party acting in poor faith, the sides are currently making what each describes privately as good progress with a cordial tone.
Longtime MiLB president Pat O’Conner resigned abruptly last week. The move was deemed inevitable by some owners who felt O’Conner was unable to create leverage or make meaningful concessions in the talks. However, it is a departure that will not materially affect the expected fate of the negotiations.
Approximately a half-dozen joint committees made up of MLB officials and MiLB owners have been formed to hammer out details missing from a presentation made by MLB to the MiLB negotiating committee last month.
The 41-deck PowerPoint presentation, titled “MiLB Business Plan,” encapsulated MLB’s views that the current system fails to capitalize fully on MiLB as an asset by increasing focus on the game’s future crop of players. By leaning on its current leadership team and commercial connections, MLB is dangling multiple carrots in front of the minor league owners.
Sponsorships, broadcasting, and marketing — including amped-up digital strategies, ticketing technologies, merchandising, fantasy games, virtual reality, and sports betting — are what MLB is saying it can deliver and that MiLB cannot.
One new idea is an in-season “MLB Cup” tournament. In an event modeled after European soccer competitions, MLB teams would compete with each other as well as minor league teams to crown an annual champion. MLB teams would play in MiLB facilities for some of these contests.
The Sept. 30 expiration date for the Professional Baseball Agreement carries less weight than it seemed to earlier this year, given how the outcome is no longer in a great deal of dispute. A deal could be reached in a few weeks or, if the sides are within sight of the finish line, they could agree on an extension.
The third option is no deal, a scenario in which MLB lets the clock run out, after which it is no longer bound to negotiate and can deal with minor league owners on an individual basis.
In MLB’s view, the current system is bloated, illogically planned when it comes to geography, too many inferior facilities, too little collaboration, and too many adversarial relations.
There are two main tracks MLB is trying to navigate in order to implement its vision.
One is presenting the 120 surviving minor league teams a palatable financial deal, one based on each team incurring fewer expenses by eliminating payments to both their league and MiLB central offices.
No owners are complaining about fewer fixed expenses. But while they are mostly resigned to the reality that MLB is soon to gain supervisory powers, owners will be seeking to formalize language that ensures that revenue MLB plans to share is higher than each club’s current revenue apex.
The setup is likened to a franchise system, in which MLB would issue 120 “licenses,” each of them lasting 10-15 years. Minor league owners would be seeking at least 15 years, evergreen status, as well as buyout guarantees. MLB fears teams will lose incentive to be good partners if the term is extended longer than 10 years.
There is also a hot-button issue. The identity of the 42-team “hit list" will not be revealed until MLB has to do so. (The figure could grow higher if teams from existing independent leagues join the list of 120 survivors.)
MLB is no longer using the “dream team” phrase, just as it has also moved away from saying it will keep professional baseball in those 42 or so ballparks and communities. Amateur baseball, with collegiate and wood-bat leagues, could be played there, also under MLB’s umbrella.
Because MLB says the list remains in flux, more like 50 teams have been caught in a stressful game of musical chairs before the list is revealed.
There are whispers of lawsuits from teams and leagues affected by de-affiliation. Threats of state attorneys general becoming involved where publicly financed stadium leases are affected and congressional intervention over MLB abusing its antitrust powers have also been raised.
As for the latter threat, given the ongoing pandemic and Congress’s inability to pass expanded unemployment and relief aid, as well as this being a presidential election year, few owners expect their plight to catch meaningful attention from enough legislators to stave off the inevitable.