Is COVID-19 A Blessing In Disguise For MLB?

Nathan Tucker
nrtucker@lc.edu

 

Prior to the outbreak ofthe  novel coronavirus, one of the biggest stories around the baseball world was Major League Baseball’s proposal to effectively disband roughly a quarter of Minor League Baseball teams across the country. It had already been a tough 2020 for many around the minors, and that was before a pandemic threatened to cancel the entire 2020 season.

According to JJ Cooper with Baseball America, rumors from within MiLB suggest anywhere from 10 to 40 clubs will struggle to make it through this season, if there even is one. While discussions regarding a new Professional Baseball Agreement for 2021 and beyond are on hold during the outbreak, one thing is certain: teams will need help, and bad.

“The reality is it’s bad. We’re a small business. There are going to be some really hard decisions made in the next 30, 60, 90 days that are very uncomfortable,” Memphis Redbirds owner Peter Freund said to Baseball America. “We are realistically looking at a situation where we may not operate this year. I can’t imagine a scenario where our season begins before June. What are the implications for all the people who work in the ballpark—the ushers, the grounds crews? It’s so upsetting. There is only so much we can do as a small business owner to keep the lights on. There are some very harsh realities.”

While MLB teams pay players on minor league teams, (for example the aforementioned Memphis Redbirds are the St. Louis Cardinals AAA affiliate) they are not paying the salaries of the grounds crew who keep the field looking sharp year-round and are not paying other valuable employees who are integral to making sure games go smoothly, both around the stadium and organization.

MLB has stated that it will pay minor league ballplayers’ wages until the start of the 2020 season, but that leaves almost an entire organization of people still unpaid. If the MLB follows the trend of many businesses across the US during the pandemic, mass layoffs or furloughs are probably not far away. 

Unlike Major League Baseball, who’s money for the season is largely already made through previously agreed television rights contracts, teams in the minor leagues make their money during the season by getting butts in seats. Obviously, without baseball being played, that becomes a bit of a task.

For many teams in the minors, rained out games greatly affect their bottomline, with thousands and thousands of dollars lost between ticket sales, concessions and more. Even if COVID-19 miraculously disappears off the face of the earth by the somewhat optimistically planned start of the baseball season in June or July, it is not an overestimate to say that at least a quarter of minor league teams will be struggling to hang on.

One neutral reader might think, “Well, obviously Major League Baseball has a vested interest in the success of Minor League Baseball and wants it to succeed and will help.” And that is not crazy to think, as it is very true! But, and this is a big “but”, Major League Baseball does not share that same opinion.

Just at the beginning of this article I stated MLB’s proposal to axe a quarter of the minor leagues before a pandemic was even known about. Unless, of course, you were a U.S. politician who was briefed on the effects of coronavirus months ago, and then used said knowledge for insider trading to make money before the stock market plunged at rates not seen since The Great Depression. 

Back to MLB, COVID-19 might just do the dirty work of shutting down minor league baseball franchises that they wanted to do in the first place. The MLB’s side of this argument is that the proposal will allow them to free up money to pay remaining minor leaguers a better, living wage.

It is absurd on its face that MLB cannot pay every player playing baseball a living wage. Last season alone MLB’s revenues reached never before seen heights, nearly $11 billion according to Fangraphs. 

Major League Baseball has the money to keep every minor league team alive, and money for those teams to pay their employees to avoid layoffs. Unfortunately for those teams, MLB has made it painfully clear that baseball itself comes second, and the bottomline comes first. 

Paying a few thousand ballplayers and coaches a living wage would be a drop in MLB’s bucket, but the league is getting a firmer and firmer grip on that bucket in the Rob Manfred era. Hell, they could probably afford to keep those teams fully staffed with employees and paid during the outbreak, but that is not MLB’s modus operandi.

Given the crisis situation many ballclubs will face in the coming months, Manfred and MLB can look like the good guys for paying minor league player wages during the outbreak. If those minor league clubs are forced to cease operations, they can have their cake and eat it too. 

If this becomes an unfortunate reality, I do not see how baseball continues to be successful if the biggest league in the world actively kneecaps the sport across the country it is most popular in. Taking live games away from thousands, if not millions, would be largely detrimental to the growth of the sport with new generations.

For baseball’s sake, I hope it does not come to that.

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