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Contracting minor league teams is short sighted

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How potential contraction could affect baseball fandom

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a Rockies fan. Becoming part of a fandom is a highly personalized journey. (In fact, as you read this, you’re probably recalling some of the memories key to your fandom.) MLB is banking on this because in addition to profiting from baseball, MLB’s business model is grounded in monetizing your nostalgia.

That said, it seems counterintuitive that MLB is very bad at cultivating fandom. It restricts fan access to games by making them expensive, inconvenient, and family unfriendly. It fails to address meaningfully issues of domestic violence, discrimination, and cheating. It enables tanking. It has awful merchandise selections, especially for women. It keeps regional fans from watching local teams through MLB blackouts, unless they have a cable subscription. It prohibits fans from using video to make memes at a time when media most needs to be “spreadable.” MLB is all for fandom — as long as MLB is controlling and profiting from it.

So far, their plan is working — at least on the revenue side. In 2018, MLB made a record 10.3 billion through “baseball-related revenues,” even as attendance declined (down some 1 million fans in 2019 to about 68.5 million). Since MLB assumes its fandom/customer base is constant (a point backed both by research and revenues), they have little incentive to change. And when opportunities arise to maximize profits, MLB does what any smart business would do.

Most recently comes MLB’s announcement that they have approved a plan to contract 42 MiLB teams. (You can read about that here, here, here, and here.) The Rockies will lose the Grand Junction Rockies (so long, dream of the Grand Junction Humpback Chubs) and the Lancaster JetHawks. In addition, the Rocky Mountain Vibes, based in Colorado Springs, would also be contracted. MLB says it is taking this approach to address inefficient player development, inadequate facilities, untenable travel, low wages for minor league players, and an abundance of players who lack the talent to make it to the major leagues.

Just to be clear, the owners are a very wealthy group of guys. This article from October estimates each owner’s wealth — the Monforts are number 15 at $700 million. So it seems disingenuous at best for the owners to be crying, “We just can’t afford it.”

Here’s what Baseball ProspectusMatt Winkelman sees:

It’s hard to disagree with this. MLB owners have embraced a strategy that maximizes short-term profits without giving much thought to the future.

In 2018, 40,450,337 fans attended MiLB games. As an example, my closest MLB team is the Rockies, who are more than 500 miles from where I live; the Billings Mustangs (a Reds MiLB affiliate targeted for contraction) are 100 miles away. That makes me one of Rob Arthur’s 4 million fans affected by this proposal.

Decisions like this one remind me of just how far removed MLB is from the daily lives of fans — and how little they care as long as the corporation generates a profit. MiLB provides accessible, inexpensive, family-friendly baseball for those of us who live away from urban areas. This piece by Over the Monster’s Matt Collins gives a personal perspective on the effects of MLB’s contraction of the Lowell Spinners, a Red Sox affiliate. Collins, like me, is one of millions of baseball fans alienated by this move.

MiLB is also an important revenue source for rural communities. I recommend reading Nola Agha’s 2013 study of the economic impact of minor league baseball. To summarize, “AAA teams, A+ teams, AA stadiums, and rookie stadiums are all associated with significant positive effects on the change in local per capita income.” Those folks who work at MiLB stadiums? They’re our friends and neighbors, and we get to know players when they are part of our community. It is difficult to overstate what MiLB brings to local communities.

Although MLB says it is questioning the effectiveness of minor-league baseball on player development, there is a separate issue here about long-term consequences. MiLB is an investment in players, communities, and fans. As Danielle Allentuck and Kevin Draper note, “[N]early everyone in baseball agrees that the surest way to create lifelong fans is to have people play the sport and attend games.”

Wouldn’t it make sense, then, for MLB to invest in fandom by keeping the game accessible to as many people as possible while improving conditions for MiLB players? MLB can certainly afford to, given that in addition to record revenues, the league enjoys an antitrust exemption paid for with our tax dollars. As this plan makes clear, MLB feels no responsibility to give back to communities that support baseball.

Contracting more than three dozen MiLB teams is a short-sighted move that will just make it harder for many to discover baseball.