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At Large: A World Series thriller is one thing, but what happens in the minors really matters

After a captivating end to its 2019 season, MLB is heading into a tough series of negotiations over its Minor League Baseball partnership in conversations that could have broad implications for club sports.

31 October 2019 Eoin Connolly

So that was the World Series. The underdog Washington Nationals are the winners of Major League Baseball’s (MLB) big prize for the first time in that franchise’s history, the US capital home to the champions for the first time since 1924.

For two weeks, baseball has been back somewhere close to the heart of the American conversation. Everyone has had something to talk about: a seesawing seven games, settled at the last, a purists’ debate about the art of pitching, a tense row between the Houston Astros’ management and Sports Illustrated, concerns over the physical quality of MLB’s baseballs, and Nationals’ fans pithy take on the 45th president of the United States.

Yet in baseball, as in life, things do not begin and end in Washington DC. 

At the end of the 2020 season, the current agreement tying MLB to Minor League Baseball (MiLB) will expire. Negotiations for its renewal will be emotive. They could also be instructive for the future of professional club sport far and wide.  

In October, shortly before the World Series began, details of MLB’s opening proposals for the latest Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) – governing the relationships between the two organisations, their respective financial obligations and their responsibilities to the player pool they share – found their way into reports by Baseball America and the New York Times. 

MLB has staked out an aggressive position, seeking improvements to stadiums, training facilities and accommodation standards, and the relocation of certain teams in the minors closer to their big league partners. But the most explosive of its demands is an immediate cull of 42 affiliated teams. This has all been dubbed the ‘120 Plan’ in reference to how many MiLB clubs would be left, not including those wholly owned by major league franchises. 

The unlucky 42 would be allowed to operate independently but, speaking to the Athletic a couple of weeks ago, MiLB president Pat O’Conner said they effectively faced “a death sentence”.

There are legitimate discussions to be had about who pays for what in affiliate baseball, whether that is better facilities or higher salaries. What’s valuable in MLB’s farm system is also changing. Much has been made of how improvements in analytics and the tightening of scouting networks have made teams more confident about fielding players without a lengthy apprenticeship in the minors. Increasingly, the argument goes, minor league rosters are filled with those whose ticket to the big time will never arrive.  

O’Conner, however, senses a battle for control, one in which MLB’s efforts to centralise operations and cut costs would come at the expense of MiLB owners and local fans.

“If we are forced to defend ourselves and fight for mere survival, we will,” he said. “We would hope to negotiate a reasonable settlement with MLB. Short of that, we have multiple options. Appealing to Congress, state, county and local elected officials is certainly one of them.”

And whatever contractual arcana makes up the next PBA, MLB still derives something vital from the minor league game. Regular season attendances at MLB ballparks dipped 1.7 per cent to 68,494,752 in 2019, a 16-year low. Regular season MiLB attendance, after hitting its own 14-year low in 2018, was up 2.6 per cent this summer to 40,450,337. 

Ignore the ups and downs in those figures for a moment: that’s another 40 million tickets sold to professional baseball, another 40 million experiences of live sport. 

For baseball devotees hundreds of miles from a big city MLB franchise, then, there’s much to recommend the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Salt Lake Bees, the Quad Cities River Bandits or the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. There are communities around these teams. There is an industry, too, as much chance to develop talent in the front office as on the field, and an environment to try new things in presentation, sponsorship, promotion and ticketing.

Baseball is hardly alone in juggling these challenges. Amid all its talk of breakaway leagues and Club World Cups, some of the richest countries in soccer have neglected the localised base of their pyramids. Cricket needs to settle on a role for its traditional networks of teams in the age of big-money but ephemeral franchise tournaments. A welter of high-profile Olympic sports still struggle to turn huge participation bases into viable elite propositions.

The scope is always there to grow sport as a small-event enterprise but the competition is bracing. There’s fragility in not being the main attraction. This week, the indoor Arena Football League looks close to the end of a 32-year run after shutting down the local operations of its six remaining teams. Without the baseline assets of billion-dollar media rights deals, global profiles and accessible, wealthy urban populations, things could get brutal for smaller teams and leagues. It’s in the interests of the biggest rights holders to try and stop that happening.

For all the talk about disruption and new ventures, and all the opportunities those will create, one of the things that will determine sport’s fate in the next decade will be what happens at the grassroots. Sport makes a lot of money in the media business but much of that is founded on the quality of its live experience. As the established routes to audiences change then that only gets more important – access to the real thing is still a powerful way of making a connection.

All those gains in the majors are at stake if sport can't strike the right minor key.

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