It can be argued that Major League Baseball’s realignment of the minor leagues is the most significant change since seven minor league presidents met in 1901 to form the National Association. By the time the American and National leagues ratified the agreement in 1903, the number of minor leagues that had joined the NA had swelled to 15.
That agreement at the beginning of the 20th century formed the basis of a relationship that lasted for more than 100 years. Now, it’s over. Major League Baseball has fully taken over the organization and operation of the minor leagues.
MLB does not expect to announce the final structure of the leagues and their 2021 schedules until late January or early February, but enough is known to look at what this will mean for minor league baseball for the next decade and beyond.
Because there is a lot of information to process, we present the ramifications of the new minor league landscape from the perspective of fans, players and teams.
The effects of the changes to the minor leagues will largely depend on where fans live. Fans who live in or around one of the 43 cities that had affiliated baseball in 2019 but did not receive an invitation to be one of the 120 affiliated teams in 2021 will likely be watching a different type of baseball.
A number of those teams are joining summer amateur wood bat leagues. There already were nearly 200 summer wood bat teams before these additions, but the Appalachian League and the MLB Draft League will both aim to land many of the best college players. MLB is positioning the Appalachian League as a league for rising college freshmen and sophomores and the MLB Draft League as a destination for draft-eligible rising seniors and graduated seniors as well as a few draft-eligible rising juniors.
The Cape Cod League and USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team will still be the top summer destinations for rising college juniors.
Other cities will now have teams in professional partner leagues, formerly known as independent leagues. The players will be professionals who are paid by the local team. In some cases, the players who fill the roster could be veteran minor leaguers and even some ex-major leaguers. In the case of the Pioneer League, it will be younger undrafted players who are hoping to prove they have what it takes to end up in affiliated ball.
Will fans come to games if those teams are no longer directly affiliated with an MLB organization? There may be a subset of fans for whom the change is repellent. For those who go to the ballpark to watch prospects for their favorite team, the new system will be different. But there is little evidence that such a switch makes much difference at all to the average fan who attends minor league games.
With the 2020 minor league season canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, multiple Texas League teams joined the summer wood bat Texas Collegiate League. Social-distancing restrictions limited attendance, but Amarillo still averaged nearly 1,700 in announced attendance per night for 32 dates. Tulsa averaged 1,500 fans.
That’s far below normal attendance for those teams, which was unavoidable because of the pandemic, but it did show that fans would come to games with different and less-accomplished players. Fans were there because they were looking for affordable entertainment.
So what about the teams that do join MLB’s new system? Many fans who head to two or three minor league games a year for a fun Friday night likely will not notice any difference. There will still be dizzy bat races, mascots, bounce houses, two-for-one drink promotions and baseball.
In other words, the minor leagues will still be the same fan-focused entertainment they have always been, but there will be some subtle differences for those who pay more attention.
Minor league games have long been commercial enterprises. The between-innings promotions are sponsored. The stadium is filled with advertisements, from the outfield signs to the on-deck circles and the tops of the dugouts.
That will remain the case going forward, but the behind-the-scenes business will also be done by Major League Baseball. And there will be some additions. Under the proposed structure for Professional Development Licenses, MLB will be able to sell a decal on batting helmets and a uniform patch.
Expect to see MLB attempt to sell naming rights for the minor leagues as well.
In its summary, MLB says the PDL agreement will give it the rights to sell three of the between-innings promotions as well as up to five 30-second in-game videoboard advertisements. It will also have the right to sell wall signs, have advertiser-sponsored theme nights and be in control of all of the social media and national marketing for the minor leagues.
The increased national inventory will mean that there will likely be a little more continuity from one minor league park to another.
There will also be subtle tweaks. So-called “education days,” which have become a popular way for teams to fill the ballpark for early-week games will be limited to one per season. These games typically start before noon to accommodate students, but teams are now limited to one such 11 a.m. start time per year. Game times on getaway days will often be earlier, thanks to rules MLB has put in place to help improve player travel.
All-star games are likely to be eliminated and can only happen with the approval of MLB. Teams will also no longer play 140-game schedules. Instead, Triple-A will play 144 games, Double-A will play 138 games and Class A teams will play 132.