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Don’t shrink the minor leagues

Bad idea, MLB.

Last month, we learned that Major League Baseball proposed a radical reorganization of the minor leagues, involving slashing the number of teams by 25 percent — mostly short-season and rookie ball clubs. The New York Times has reported which teams specifically are on the chopping block, 42 in total. [UpdateBill Madden of the New York Daily News reported more details this morning. It is certainly worth a read.]

It isn’t for a lack of interest that MLB wants to hemorrhage MiLB teams. As The Athletic’s Emily Waldon notes, 2019 was the 15th consecutive season in which 40 million-plus fans attended minor league games. 2019 saw an attendance increase of 2.6 percent over the previous year. Waldon also points out that 2019 saw the ninth-highest single-season attendance total in the history of the industry.

MLB’s suggestion to shrink the minor leagues comes on the heels of increased public pressure to improve the pay and conditions of the players. MLB successfully lobbied Congress to amend language in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, classifying players as seasonal workers thus they are no longer entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay, among other protections. As a result, more players have become vocal about the lack of pay and more reporting has been done on the issue, creating a bit of a P.R. problem for the league. Slashing the minor leagues would allow MLB, whose individual teams are responsible for the overhead of their minor league affiliates, to publicly say they improved pay while not actually costing them much money, if any at all. MiLB president Pat O’Conner foreshadowed this nearly two years ago, by the way.

[…]

Beyond the very obvious effect of eliminating upwards of 1,000 minor league baseball player positions, scores of related jobs would be eliminated as well, such as those of the minor league front offices, clubhouse personnel, ticket-takers, security, concessions, memorabilia stores, umpires, and many more. Many cities would lose an integral part of their local economies and cultures.

Perhaps most importantly, if the minor leagues were to be shrunk, many fans would lose access to professional baseball. If, for instance, you are a baseball fan who lives in Billings, Montana, the three closest major league teams to you are the Seattle Mariners (west), Colorado Rockies (south), and Minnesota Twins (east). The Mariners are about a 12-hour drive, the Rockies about seven and a half hours, and the Twins about 12 hours. But Billings has a minor league team: the Mustangs, a Pioneer League rookie affiliate of the Reds. Montana has two other minor league teams on the chopping block as well: the Missoula PaddleHeads (Diamondbacks advanced rookie) and the Great Falls Voyagers (White Sox advanced rookie). The minor leagues, for fans in certain areas of the country like Montana, are one of the few local connections to the sport. Eliminating those teams would sever those connections and drastically reduce the chance to create new baseball fans in that region.

As this piece notes, the Astros were pioneers in this, reducing their number of affiliates from nine to seven in recent years. Look, we know that the vast majority of minor leaguers never get close to the bigs. The MLB draft runs for forty rounds, and then they sign undrafted free agents, and that’s before we take into account the large number of international players that are outside the draft system that MLB signs. Most minor leaguers are there to fill out the teams so the real prospects can actually play regular games. But not every major leaguer was a prospect (see: Altuve, Jose, for one example) and as noted, the minor leagues have a ton of value on their own. MLB could very easily afford to pay every single existing minor leaguer a living wage (say, a minimum of $30K per year) and not even notice the payroll increase. The cost in shrinking the minors and making live professional baseball completely unavailable to vast swaths of the country far outweighs any cost savings. C’mon, MLB. For once, can you see that doing the right thing is also the better choice for you? Pinstripe Alley has more.

UPDATE: More as well from Baseball America and Fangraphs.

Stop the “Save America’s Pastime Act”

Pay minor league players a livable wage, I saw.

When you think of overpaid athletes rolling in the dough at the expense of others, baseball players in the minor leagues are not usually the first people that come to mind.

That is, unless you happen to be U.S. Representatives Brett Guthrie (R-KY). Last week, he introduced a bill misleadingly called the “Save America’s Pastime Act,” with the sole purpose of keeping Minor League Baseball (MiLB) players from federal minimum wage and overtime requirements.

Initially, this was presented as a bipartisan bill along with Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL). However, on Thursday she announced that due to the backlash, she was withdrawing her support after “several concerns about the bill have been brought to my attention.”

According to a release on Guthrie’s website, Major League Baseball (MLB) should be given credit for offering a “paid path to the Major Leagues,” rather than relying primarily on the NCAA to serve as a developmental league.

“If the law is not clarified, the costs to support local teams would likely increase dramatically and usher in significant cuts across the league, threatening the primary pathway to the Majors and putting teams at risk,” the statement warns. “The impact on teams could also have a significant, negative economic impact on businesses and workers that rely on Minor League baseball.”

This reasoning is alarmist at best. After all, minor league baseball players barely make enough money to get by as it is. According to Deadspin, “Since 1976, MLB salaries have risen 2,500 percent while minor league salaries have only gone up 70 percent. Players in low-A ball start at $1,100 a month, while AAA players earn $2,150 per month.”

While baseball games only last a few hours, between travel and training, practices, and promotional appearances in the community, most players in the minor leagues are working far more than 40 hours a week. Minor league players work five months a year chasing after their major-league dreams, and yet very few of them earn enough to cross the federal poverty line. Apparently, though, they’re the ones who are threatening the future of baseball as we know it.

The “Save America’s Pastime Act” insists that ticket sales and local community sponsors pay the salaries of the players in the minors. In fact, it’s actually billionaire MLB owners that are financing these salaries, as a way to develop future talent for their lucrative big-league teams.

“It’s despicable. You have billionaire major league owners working with millionaire minor league owners to add to their pockets more, and at the same time you have minor leaguers who are making below the poverty wage,” Garrett Broshuis told Sporting News. “You’re talking about a group of guys whose salaries start at $1,100 per month, and they’re only paid during the season. They’re not paid during spring training. They’re not paid during instructional leagues.”

There was a lawsuit filed in 2014 alleging that pay in the minor leagues violates fair wage and overtime laws in California; Broshius is of of the attorneys involved in that. There’s really no argument I can think of for this legislation, and plenty of arguments in favor of paying minor leaguers a salary they can live on. Sure, some of them will strike it rich in the big leagues, but the vast overwhelming majority of them won’t even get close to that. They deserve to be able to make a living. MLB and its owners have more than enough to make that happen. Pinstripe Alley, the Sporting News, SB Nation, For The Win, and the Press have more.

Skeeter mascots

Meet Swatson and Moe, the mascots of the Sugar Land Skeeters. I guess when your franchise is named for a winged pest, your options for cuddly anthropomorphic representations are somewhat constrained. Be that as it may, the Phillies Phanatic comparison works pretty well for them. What do you think?

A night with the Skeeters

I learned a couple of interesting things from this Richard Justice column about the forthcoming Sugar Land Skeeters minor league baseball team. Among them: You may think you know what a Skeeter is, but you don’t.

If you’re wondering what a Skeeter is, don’t.

“It’s not a mosquito,” [team president Matt] O’Brien said.

He will unveil a mascot later this year, and then we’ll all know.

Why wait that long? Leave your guesses as to what a Sugar Land Skeeter is if it’s not a mosquito in the comments. Bonus points for links to a representative image.

Houston hasn’t had a minor league baseball team in 50 years, and the gamble for the Skeeters is trying to survive in the shadow of a major league franchise.

And then O’Brien starts rattling off reasons people will enjoy the ballpark experience.

“At times, we’ll feel like dinner theater,” he said. “It’s a place to eat, have fun and socialize with your neighbors.”

If the Skeeters are a success, there likely will be more teams added within two or three years. Baytown has been mentioned for a franchise. So have The Woodlands, Conroe and Waco.

These would be Atlantic League teams – the league is looking at expanding into Texas, if only to make future Skeeter scheduling easier. There’s also supposed to be a Montgomery County team coming online in 2012, but I have not heard anything more about that recently. I don’t know if they’ve officially landed a team, and if so what league it’s in. I’m not sure there’s room for two minor league teams out that way.

The description of the minor league experience as being a bit like dinner theater is apt. I’ve been to minor league games all over the country, and they do work hard to keep you entertained. A common factor now seems to be having a play area for kids. Speaking from recent personal experience, you can spend the better part of the game there with the kiddos if they’re not as into watching the action on the field as you might be. Minor league games are very different than their major league counterparts, but they’re a lot of fun. I plan to make the trek out there once or twice a summer.

One more thing:

There will be all the bells and whistles of minor league baseball. One section of the outfield will be a playground, another an old-fashioned Texas icehouse.

Tickets will go for $8, and $1.75 will get you a hot dog. Depending on your taste in beer, a cold one will cost between $4 and $6.

Again, speaking from personal experience, let me implore President O’Brien and the entire Skeeters staff to ensure there are microbrews available at the games. If you don’t have Saint Arnold, No Label, and Southern Star on tap, you’re doing it wrong. Trust me on this.

Comparing stadium experiences

The Sugar Land Sun has an interesting three-part series comparing the minor league baseball experiences in Fort Worth and New Orleans to what we might expect in Sugar Land with its forthcoming stadium. Here’s the introduction:

Both cities provide key comparisons to Sugar Land that should allow residents to have realistic expectations of what non-Major League Baseball could bring.

The Fort Worth Cats play in the independent American Association and have no affiliation to a Major League Baseball franchise. Sugar Land’s team will play in the Atlantic League, an independent league.

The Cats share another trait with Sugar Land’s team: Both are or will be located in major metropolitan areas, and will vie for dollars with other sports options.

[…]

Like the Zephyrs, the Sugar Land team will compete against other sports options, namely the New Orleans Saints and the New Orleans Hornets, for ticket revenue.

And like the Zephyrs, the Sugar Land team will play in a stadium financed by taxpayer funds.

There is a key difference between the Zephyrs and would-be Sugar Land team: the Zephyrs are a Triple-A team with an affiliation to a Major League Team, the Florida Marlins. That give the team a little more cachet with baseball fans who want to see tomorrow’s Major League stars hit the field.

Actually, a fair number of true stars-in-waiting will bypass AAA ball, or at least not play a full season there. Double A is your better bet. But the point is well taken.

Here’s the Fort Worth story, and here’s the New Orleans story. Each provides a relevant point of interest for Sugar Land. From the former:

[A] 2005 analysis conducted by the University of North Texas estimates that the stadium, which it says [team owner Carl] Bell’s companies have spent $9 million at that time, generated $14 million for the city of Fort Worth, and $20 million for Tarrant county as a whole, an area nearly 36 times bigger than Sugar Land.

Sugar Land’s projects estimate the stadium will generate $7.7 million annually, or $23.1 million in the same time frame.

And from the latter:

[Jay Cicero, president and chief executive officer of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation and the team’s first general manager since it moved to New Orleans] said the team’s base comes from locals and usually doesn’t rely on tourists.

“It’s 99.5 percent local,” he said. “You may some regional group nights where you get fans from farther away, but it’s mostly local fans.”

Historically, Minor League and independent baseball teams rely on local fanbases, especially when the economy goes south. When tourism dries up, local fans determine whether a team lives or dies.

When announcing its agreement with Opening Day Partners, the city estimated that 300,000 people would visit the stadium. The team would have to average 4,285 fans per game to hit that mark, excluding any other events such as college of high school baseball tournaments, that may be played there.

Should the team reach that mark, it would be the fourth-highest attended team in its league, according to current Atlantic League statistics. The team would also draw more than the average attendance of every Minor League Baseball team affiliated with a Major League Team.

I think Sugar Land will meet its projections initially, as I expect there will be a fair amount of excitement over the stadium’s opening and the team’s arrival. Maintaining that will be the challenge, especially if the team isn’t competitive right off. I think Sugar Land will have somewhat better prospects for having a fanbase that extends outside of Fort Bend County, from folks in neighboring counties who might not want to drive all the way into Houston, or who might be enticed by the lower minor league ticket prices. But it’s a good idea to keep all of this in mind, and to ask about how well the reality matched the projections in a few years’ time.

Sugar Land stadium site selected

The location for the Sugar Land baseball stadium has been chosen.

Sugar Land City Council has chosen an area near the northeast corner of Hwy. 6 and U.S. Hwy. 90A as their preferred site for a minor league baseball stadium.

The preferred location is part of the Imperial Redevelopment/Tract 3 site proposed by Johnson Development Corporation, Cherokee Sugar Land LP and the Texas General Land Office.

The city will now begin a detailed process to confirm the site’s development capabilities and suitability prior to a final decision by City Council that’s expected by the end of the summer.

Here’s an aerial map of the location, courtesy of Hair Balls. I’ll be very interested to see what the vision is for the stadium and the development that is expected to be built around it. Given that the locals are hoping for this to be a regional attraction that will draw in folks from elsewhere, one way to go with this is to mimic an urban downtown stadium setting, with shared parking for all establishments and pedestrian access between them. They could have something really cool if they think outside the box a bit. Or they could go the standard suburban islands-in-a-sea-of-parking-lots route, which would be boring but familiar. We’ll see how it goes. Muse has more, and you can learn about job opportunities at the new stadium here.

Sugar Land gets its stadium

They’ve been working on it for over two years now, and at long last, the city of Sugar Land has struck a deal to build a minor league baseball stadium.

The project promises to create 120 jobs, generate $7.7 million and draw 300,000 visitors annually, according to the deal between the city and Opening Day Partners, a Lancaster, Pa.-based ballpark developer that also owns and operates minor league baseball teams.

“Sugar Land is a great spot. This ballpark here is going to be the best,” said Brooks Robinson, a Major League Hall of Famer who is an ODP partner. “I’ve seen the enthusiasm the city has for it. I’ve had a chance to meet a lot of people here. The vibes I get are fantastic.”

The project is estimated at $40 million, including $30 million in construction, of which the city will pitch in $25 million and the company $5 million.

In the remaining costs, the city will spend $5 million for site and parking development while the company will put in $5 million for project startup and team franchising.

[…]

Planners have yet to map out an exact location for the facility among three possible sites, but are leaning toward a tract leased from the University of Houston System at U.S. 59 and University Boulevard.

City officials believe the stadium would become a “regional draw” and help establish Sugar Land as a tourist destination.

Regina Morales, the city’s director of economic development, said the project would spark further development around it.

“The long-term economic benefits will not only benefit Sugar Land, but also the surrounding area,” City Manager Allen Bogard said.

I recommend you have a chat with Andrew Zimbalist before you go putting any of that into future budget projections. The team will be from the independent Atlantic League, with a 140-game schedule. I figure I’ll trek out there some day in 2012 to see the place for myself. Minor league baseball has a unique vibe that you have to experience to understand, and if they do it right it ought to be a hoot. Construction will start in March, with the inevitable team-naming contest to follow. Anyone want to get a head start on that and suggest what the future franchise should call itself?

Montgomery County gets in the minor league act

We know about Sugar Land’s plan to build a stadium for a minor league baseball team. They’ve now been joined by a neighbor to the north in that pursuit.

The East Montgomery County Improvement District signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ventura Sports Group and Sugar Land-based Wallace Bajjali Development Partners to build a stadium in Montgomery County with the intention of hosting independent minor league baseball in 2012.

The site would be in Porter just off the U.S. 59 feeder road near the proposed intersection with the Grand Parkway extension.

According to the parties involved, the ballpark — located on 42 acres of land purchased by Wallace Bajjali — would be part of a larger development, which could feature a hotel, dining and retail.

“We bought this land knowing it was a growth corridor,” said David Wallace, CEO of Wallace Bajjali and former mayor of Sugar Land.

As the story notes, Venture was the runnerup in the Sugar Land process. I guess there’s only so many outfits that do this sort of thing.

The project is a mix of private funds with public money, which McCrady said could come from a parking tax, a venue tax and/or a sales tax.

Remember what Oliver Luck said a few weeks ago? I wonder how the mix of public and private funds will compare to that for Dynamo Stadium, assuming it ever really does get built.

Like in the Sugar Land plan, the first pitch will not be thrown by any major league club’s prospect. Only independent leagues will be considered.

The Astros declined to waive their right to block an affiliated team from moving into their metropolitan area in the Sugar Land case.

“We had heard time and time again that the Astros were not interested, so we didn’t approach them,” [Ventura managing partner Mark] Schuster said.

Yeah, I’m curious as to what the Astros think about all this. It’s not clear to me that it wouldn’t have been better for them to want affiliated teams in their area, like the Yankees and the Mets have. I guess we’ll see how it goes.

UPDATE: Houstonist has more.

More on the Sugar Land minor league baseball push

Here’s an update from the Chron to last week’s news about Sugar Land’s pursuit of a minor league baseball team.

The preliminary discussions about the ballpark put it in the Class AAA compatibility range, typically requiring a seating capacity at least in the high four-digits, but the exact capacity is among the features that will be sorted out during the 90-day period, which ends in mid-May.

Which league will make the expansion or relocation to Sugar Land is the biggest question.

For now, it seems clear it will not be a team affiliated with a major league club. Sugar Land is part of the territory controlled by the Astros, so they can block any move of a competitor’s minor league club, and they are not inclined to bring one of their own affiliates to the area, according to Thompson and Opening Day Partners chairman Peter Kirk.

What will most likely happen, assuming this does go forward, is for a team from one of the independent leagues – the Atlantic League and the American Association, which seems to be the better geographic fit, are mentioned – to move or create a team there. These are AAA teams, so you’ll get an overall better quality of baseball than you’d get from a lower-level farm team, but what you won’t get is a peek at the Astros of the future. Odds are you’ll get a number of recognizable names, guys who used to be on a major league team and are trying to catch on with one again. It ought to make for an interesting mix. The city and the developer are in a 90-day negotiating window with the intent of having a facility ready by Opening Day 2012, so we’ll know soon enough what will happen.