Here’s What Life After Affiliated Ball Is Like For Minor League Teams


Image credit: Burlington Sock Puppets mascots Bingo (left) and Socksquatch (right) prior to the USA Collegiate National team game between Team Stars and Team Stripes at Burlington Athletic Park on July 3, 2021, in Burlington, North Carolina. The Stripes beat the Stars 7-4. (Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)

Four years ago, the Rookie-level Appalachian League was on the chopping block.

From the moment that news broke about Major League Baseball’s plan to reduce the number of minor league teams to the day when MLB officially took over the affiliated minor leagues, the Appy League was always on the outside looking in.

At the time, many believed that this was the death knell for baseball in Appalachia.

Without MLB ties, fans wouldn’t come to games. Revenues would drop. Teams and then the league would die. And baseball would disappear from the region entirely.

Or so the thinking went.

Four years later, the Appalachian League keeps plugging along. In 2023, eight of the league’s 10 teams averaged more fans per game than they did in 2019, their final year as an affiliated Rookie-level league. Average attendance improvements could be explained by the fact that as a summer college league, the Appy League now has 24 home dates a summer, compared to 34 in affiliated ball.

But there’s this: six of the 10 teams drew more total fans in 2023 than they did in 2019, even though the league had 135 fewer dates.

Drawing more fans in significantly fewer dates is a pretty clear sign that the world did not come crashing down the day those affiliations were taken away.

The Burlington Royals drew 40,143 fans—or 1,216 per game—in 2019. The Burlington Sock Puppets drew 46,730—or 2,033 per game—last year. The Danville Braves drew 30,008 (909) in 2019. The Danville Otterbots drew 35,539 (1,536) in 2023.

Ryan Keur, who was the Burlington Royals’ general manager in the mid 2010s, now owns both teams. As he sees it, life in the Appy League is pretty good these days.

“One of the unique things that happened was clearly the ability of each of the teams to create their own identities. That had really good implications for the surrounding communities. That created additional buy-in,” Keur said.

“We leveraged 2020’s lost season to re-energize both communities. It coincided with the new ownership group to think about baseball—not what it had been for the past 35 years, but what it looks like for the next 35 years. It’s allowed us to look forward to the future.

“We used the brand identities to spring forward. It’s allowed us to create a lot of local tie-ins and generated regional interest.”

It’s also helped teams sell a lot of merchandise.

Before the changeover, an Appy League affiliate’s entire brand—team colors, logo and nickname—were all tied to its parent club. In those days, Appy affiliates were all owned by MLB organizations, with minor league operators signing contracts to run each club.

The MLB nicknames and resulting logos demonstrated the team’s affiliated status, but it wasn’t a desirable product. If a Royals fan wanted a hat or T-shirt, they generally bought a Kansas City Royals hat, not a Burlington Royals lid.

But the Burlington Sock Puppets? That has proven to have an appeal both in the market and for fans far from Burlington, N.C.

“In 2015, once a week I would ship a hat out,” Keur said. “Within the last three years, I’d guess we’ve sold more Sock Puppets (merchandise) than we had for the past 35 years combined by significant amounts. That’s been a really nice boost.

“Merchandise was not even something we considered as a revenue driver before being able to build our own identity. There wasn’t a serious upside.”

This is just the fourth season under the new system. It would be premature to say that baseball’s survival in all the cities that MLB dropped from affiliated baseball are in similar states or better off than they were in 2019. But it is also reasonable to say that the changes haven’t been as dramatic or devastating as many feared.

When MLB took over the minor leagues beginning in 2021, a total fo 43 cities were affected by the reorganization. MLB cut 40 teams, and three independent league teams were added to replace affiliated clubs. Of those 43, just two cities—Lancaster, Calif., and Lowell, Mass.—did not receive a replacement teams as MLB promised.

Two Florida cities, Port Charlotte and North Port, no longer have full-season minor league teams, but they continue to have spring training as well as Rookie-level Florida Complex League affiliates. Hagerstown, Md., did not have baseball in 2021, 2022 or 2023, but the Flying Boxcars are set to join the Atlantic League in a new stadium in 2024.

Of the other 38, two—Salem-Keizer in Oregon and Auburn, N.Y.—do not report attendance. The Orem Owlz moved to a new site to become the Northern Colorado Owlz.

The other 35 minor league teams that lost their affiliations have shown that, with a quality operation, being an affiliated MiLB team doesn’t seem to matter to the majority of fans who take in a game on a Friday night.

“The majority of our fans are coming out to have the best hot dog, a cold beer and a safe and enjoyable place for their family. We’re a community center,” Keur said.

Of the 35 teams dropped from affiliated baseball that report attendance, 14 (40%) are averaging more than 100 additional fans per game than they did in 2019. Four (11%) are drawing between 100 more and 100 fewer fans per game compared to 2019. And 17 (49%) are averaging more than 100 fewer fans per game.

That may seem like a story of decline, but it’s actually right in line with what’s happened in affiliated ball. Of the 114 teams playing in the same city in affiliated ball in 2019 and 2023, 48 (42%) saw an average attendance increase of 100 or more fans per game. Nine (8%) are roughly even. And 57 (50%) have averaged more than 100 fewer fans per game.

When it comes to fan interest, the story of the teams dropped from affiliated ball is much like the story of teams who remained. A top-notch operation can do well, but a team that fails to connect with its community can struggle. But it’s hard to see evidence that fan interest is closely tied to affiliated status.

The Kane County Cougars went from the Midwest League to the partner league American Association. They averaged 5,571 fans per game in 2023, which was up from 5,228 fans per game in 2019. Because of 20 fewer dates, they drew 88,471 fewer fans overall, but when it comes to average attendance, they compare favorably with most anyone in affiliated baseball.

“We appreciate what we have more,” Kane County Cougars owner Dr. Bob Froelich said. “When we lost the affiliation, we realized how much work it is. It was a wake-up call for our organization. It was a wake-up call for our community.

“Those people who thought the whole world would end didn’t understand why people came out to our games.”

The experience of the Appy League and also the Cougars aren’t aberrations. The Pioneer League went from being an affiliated Rookie-level league to being a partner league. In that case, seven of the eight teams drew fewer fans per game in 2023 when compared to 2019, but because the teams have 10 more dates per team, the league drew 50,475 more fans overall.

If any team that would appear to have been in danger of a fan revolt, it would seem to have been Trenton. The Thunder were the Yankees’ Double-A affiliate in 2019. They are now a member of the MLB Draft League, a summer amateur college league. So the team went from being an upper-level affiliate of the dominant MLB franchise in the market to having college players.

Thunder fans are still coming out.

The new league has many fewer dates, so in total attendance the Thunder drew 144,040 fewer fans in 2023, but the Thunder averaged 221 more fans per game as a Draft League member than they did in the Eastern League.

The economics can be a little trickier than the attendance indicates. Teams that moved to partner leagues from affiliated ball have to pay for their players’ and coaches’ salaries—and workers’ comp—an expense covered by the MLB team when they were affiliated.

As Froelich sees it, the economics of being a partner league team and being an affiliated team have ended up being very similar. Now, his team has to pay its players and coaches, but it also doesn’t have to share revenue with MLB—though MLB sold advertising and inventory—which was part of the affiliated system.

“It’s sort of a rounding error in terms of financial impact,” Froelich said.

Teams that moved to summer college leagues don’t have player salaries, but they still have to cover other expenses they didn’t have in affiliated ball. The Princeton WhistlePigs have dropped out of the Appalachian League before the 2024 season, saying that facilities upgrades required to stay in the league were too expensive.

MLB has provided support for some of the former affiliated leagues. MLB and the Draft League just announced an extension of MLB’s support of the league through 2030 as well as plans to expand by two teams. MLB and USA Baseball assist the Appalachian League as well.

There’s something else that has become part of being in a partner league. Froelich stresses the importance of still having a tie to Major League Baseball that being a partner league team entails, but he also notes that now his organization has a direct responsibility for on-field success that never was possible in affiliated baseball. The Cougars pick the players for their roster and make every in-season move. The team has made the playoffs each of its first three years in the American Association.

“This contraction has been the single greatest experience for me and my staff,” Froelich said. “I think everyone who owns an affiliated team should be required to operate an independent or partner league team first. I didn’t appreciate how hard and important player development is . . .

“We as an organization and me as an owner underappreciated everything the players went through. It’s been eye-opening for us.”

There was plenty of disappointment that came with being one of the teams dropped from affiliated ball. Four years later, a lot of those teams are finding that it’s been much better than they feared, and in some cases, better than they had hoped.

“Sometimes you have to realize that there are things bigger than you or your team,” Froelich said. “It wasn’t great for Kane County, but in retrospect, I think it’s the best thing that’s happened to Minor League Baseball. There are fewer affiliated players and fewer teams, but they are getting paid better and they are playing in better facilities.”

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