Major League Baseball is contemplating a drastic change to minor league baseball that, if implemented, will rip the heart out of small-town America. The move is so controversial it has done something improbable in our current political climate. It has united politicians on both sides of the aisle.
In short, Major League teams supply the players to affiliated minor league teams who are usually independently owned. This current system was begun by Branch Rickey almost a century ago. Rickey, of course, is best remembered today for later ending the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Unfortunately, today’s quantitative analysis gurus, who dominate decision making in baseball, have no room for sentiment or history, especially when the math tells an ugly story. Developing baseball players under the current system is inefficient. This is especially true among the lower rungs of the minor leagues, where an entire team may only produce one or two future MLB players.
As you can imagine, all the salaries, coaching, traveling, etc. to field a team for just one future return is an expensive proposition. Major League Baseball’s solution to this is to eliminate 42 minor league teams, mostly from the lower levels, which are usually located in smaller cities and towns.
This proposal is seen as a gut blow to many small cities. And all this mirrors one of the major political tensions of our time: coastal elites vs. flyover country.
If you live in a big city, you’ll still have your major league team to root for, but if you live in Davenport, Iowa, the team you supported for years will be disappearing. The painful irony of all this is small city America has supported minor league baseball well. Minor league baseball, with its homey and sometimes corny charm and unique Americana, does well with folks seeking both low-cost and family-friendly entertainment.
Upon hearing Major League Baseball’s proposal, a bipartisan group of politicians sprang to action to try to prevent this plan from moving forward. Already, over 100 members of the House have signed a letter of protest.
The letter read in part, “If enacted, it would undermine the health of the minor league system that undergirds talent development and encourages fan loyalty.” The letter continues, “It would particularly be felt in areas far from a major league team or where tickets to a major league game are cost-prohibitive.”
Given our cynical times, I’m sure most are skeptical that Washington, D.C., will be of any help. Others may also be wondering why Congress is inserting itself into what is a private business decision. Neither concern will stop politicians from trying to make hay with the issues.
Bernie Sanders thinks enough of the issue to make it part of his campaign, as he barnstorms thorough Iowa fighting for their local teams.
“Closing down Minor League teams like the River Bandits, the Bees and the LumberKings would be a disaster for baseball fans, workers, and communities across Iowa,” Sen. Sanders said in a news release issued by his presidential campaign. “We must protect these teams from corporate greed.”
All of which likely confused Vermonters who were wondering why he was going on about Iowa’s baseball teams, when Vermont’s only professional baseball team, the Lake City Monsters, is slated to be extinguished as well. Not to worry, he tweeted out he was against MLB doing away with Vermont’s team also.
Being a former minor league baseball executive, I have mixed emotions.
No, the government shouldn’t get involved and bully private organizations for making legitimate business decisions. On the other hand, I believe Major League Baseball is being short sighted. In the short term, this decision, if implemented, will save them plenty. But by doing so they’ll be taking baseball away from countless fans. That doesn’t sound like a very well thought out idea to me if you’re in the business of selling baseball. The whole thing smacks of the old expression: penny wise and pound foolish.
Matthew Kastel is a 25-year veteran of working as an executive in the world of sports, including professional teams, organizations, and some of the largest vendors in the industry. Matt has also written two novels and teaches and lectures at universities on the business of sports. For more information you can visit his website at thirdstrikeproductions.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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