Cooper: MLB, MiLB Relations Have Turned Ugly

Image credit: (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

As hundreds of officials from Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball teams prepare to gather in San Diego for one of the most contentious Winter Meetings in years, there is one small comfort.

Things have been worse.

In 1990, the negotiations between MLB and MiLB on a new Professional Baseball Agreement became so fractured that the two sides couldn’t even agree to hold their annual meetings together. The minor leagues met in Los Angeles. The majors met in Chicago.

Hopefully for baseball fans and all involved, 1990 will not serve as a preview of the 2021 Winter Meetings, which will be held during the expiration time of the current PBA. Back in 1990, the 1991 minor league season was left hanging in question until December.

Heading into those Winter Meetings, there were 59 minor league teams without Player Development Contracts for 1991. Without a new PBA approved, MLB teams threatened to keep their players at spring training facilities and play all levels of minor league games on their backfields. They also looked at forming new leagues to play games at college facilities.

At the same time, MiLB teams began preparing for the seemingly unthinkable idea of fielding teams of non-affiliated players, all chosen, signed and paid for by the MiLB clubs. They even looked at the idea of forming a third major league targeting expansion cities.

Some 30 years later, it’s impossible to know who, if anyone, would have won such a standoff. It’s equally impossible to imagine a similar fracture for 2021. In 1990, there were still a number of co-op and even independent teams playing in the minor leagues. The idea of a minor league team going its own way was not only possible, it was also semi-plausible. The independent Miami Miracle drafted a number of players in 1990, including future Expos second baseman Mike Lansing.

Now, there are higher salary costs and existing independent leagues to compete with for unsigned players and less appetite for such an approach.

Baseball has come a long way in the past 30 years. MiLB attendance has nearly doubled since then. But in some ways the current contentious negotiations for a new PBA may show that MiLB’s success has led to some unexpected side effects.

In the 1970s and early ’80s, Minor League Baseball was a niche sport. There were the few diehard fans who came to support the home team, or to see young players on their way up or to satisfy their deep love of baseball. Few casual fans ever stepped through the gates.

Now, MiLB is big business. The decision to market the sport as an inexpensive, family-friendly entertainment option has fueled MiLB’s massive growth. Many MiLB general managers proudly note that many of their fans leave without knowing who won the game. A successful night revolves more around fun promotions, good food and entertainment opportunities—bounce houses for kids, well-stocked bars for adults—than an eighth-inning comeback by the home team.

The emphasis on entertainment is coming back to haunt the minors. MLB’s proposal for a new PBA would dramatically remake the minors by dropping 42 current minor league teams out of affiliated ball, while eliminating the entire classifications of short-season and Rookie altogether, outside of the Arizona and Florida complexes.

MLB would also cut the draft from 40 rounds to 20 or 25. After all, fewer teams would need fewer players. The cities left out by the cutbacks would be encouraged to join MLB’s proposed Dream League. It’s independent league baseball by another name, though in this case it would be indy ball with some MLB support.

In MLB’s view, its fan surveys show that fans really don’t have that much affinity or even knowledge of which MLB team is affiliated with their minor league club. If fans are just coming for a night of entertainment, why does an affiliation matter? Whether a team is tied directly to an MLB team, or to MLB as a whole, is viewed as a minor difference.

To MiLB, that difference is huge. For MiLB owners, being part of a special club—one of just 150 teams with a coveted PDC—is the point. (The 10 Rookie-level Appalachian League teams are MLB-owned and do not have PDCs.) These owners paid their millions to gain entry. Any city with a stadium can house a baseball team. Only a select few can house the young major league stars of tomorrow.

These owners worry that the drop from affiliated ball to the Dream Leagues would erase much of the value of those minor league clubs. And the minute it becomes established that PDCs can be eliminated, the value of the remaining MiLB teams will also plummet, because what has been seen as a permanent right will become a temporary one.

That’s what makes this negotiation so tricky. MLB’s initial proposal would eliminate 42 current MiLB teams. In a standard negotiating process, MLB would start at 120, and MiLB would start at 160 (including the Appy League) and the two sides would compromise in the middle. But for MiLB, the moment PDCs are no longer permanent, the value of every franchise likely is diminished. So they have every incentive to fight for every single MiLB franchise.

And this is one of the core disagreements and sources of tension the two sides will have to reconcile. Some MLB owners see MiLB owners as succeeding by basking in the glow of MLB. Therefore, it is their right to take that value away if they see fit.

MiLB owners see it much differently. They all purchased, at significant cost, franchises that have been part of a stable, successful agreement that stretches back more than a century. They are part of a partnership that has worked for baseball for generations.

And at the end of the day, there are some MiLB owners who wonder if decreasing the value of MiLB franchises is part of the point. MLB owners have purchased more and more MiLB teams in recent years. If the valuation of the clubs is cut dramatically by MLB’s proposal, it would make it easier for MLB to purchase now less-expensive minor league franchises and eliminate the middlemen.

There is room for a compromise somewhere in the middle. But the trust and partnership that has ruled the agreement for years is already a casualty of the negotiations.

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