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Minor League Baseball Survey 2019

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At long last, the minor league season has arrived. Across the country, players, coaches, employees, mascots and fans are flooding into ballparks to see their favorite team. In advance of the season, Baseball America polled executives throughout the minors to get their opinions on some of the issues surrounding the game.

In past years, this survey has featured simple, multiple choice questions. This year, we’ve tweaked that formula. Each of the eight questions sent out was open-ended, with plenty of room to go deeper than a simple “yes” or “no.”

This time around, we looked at the biggest opportunities and threats facing minor league clubs over the next decade, the results of efforts to increase diversity in front offices, the first year of the new extra-innings rule and the unique advantages provided by each team’s home state.

Here’s what they had to say.

1. Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner has often spoken about how he’d like to see teams’ front offices become more diverse. How well do you believe your team has done in that regard?

This question required executives to look in the mirror, and the answers we received were varied across the board. Most teams responded that they had done well to diversify their front offices, though several couched the positivity by saying that there was more work to be done before they were fully satisfied.

“We’ve worked hard to make our office a representation of the local community,” one executive said. “It’s important in all walks of business that this takes place. It’s obviously the right thing to do culturally and it also makes good business sense.”

A few teams, however, acknowledged that their efforts had failed and their front offices remained relatively homogeneous.

“I think we still have work to do in diversifying our front offices,” a second executive said. “We’ve certainly made strides over the past few years to make sure our office reflects that of the community that we serve, but we can always do better.”

2. How do you think the first year of the extra-innings rule went? What have you thought about the minor league speed-up rules in general, and are there other things you would like to see?

The response to the new extra-innings rule, which places a runner on second base to begin each extra inning, was a nearly unanimous hit among minor league executives. With the rule in place, marathon games were few and far between, bullpens weren’t exhausted nearly as often, and teams could improve their bottom lines by not having to pay staff nearly as long during extra-inning games.

Some respondents even acknowledged that fans’ and executives’ opinions might take divergent paths.

“As a baseball fan, I do not care for the extra-innings rule, but as an MiLB employee I think it did have benefits to our operations from a length of game and payroll standpoint,” one executive said. “The (negative) commentary regarding the new rule seemed to trickle off as the season went on.”

Given the positive response from a purely financial aspect, it seems like pace-of-play rules in the minor leagues are going to stick around.

3. If your team has taken part in MiLB’s Copa de la Diversión, an initiative aimed at celebrating Hispanic heritage, what kind of results have you seen in terms of a more diverse fan base?

Thirty-three teams took part in the Copa de la Diversión (Fun Cup) in 2018, and 39 more will join the fray this season. Overall, MiLB reported that teams who participated last season saw an average of a 12.6 percent attendance increase as compared to similar game days from 2017.

More than overall numbers, however, several teams that participated also reported more diverse crowds during games when their team played as their Spanish alter egos.

“While our average attendance increase was marginal, we definitely saw a more diverse group of fans for our Copa games,” one executive said. “In general and around the community, the Copa program has allowed us to enter into relationships with organizations that we otherwise would not have been able to enter into without Copa.”

Teams that play in cities with smaller Latin American demographics understandably did not see immediate results, but those teams were still hopeful that another year involved with Copa would move the needle a little more.

4. What do you hope to see included in the new Professional Baseball Agreement?

Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball will operate under a new PBA after the 2020 season, and executives throughout the game obviously have some wishes about what will be included.

One of the biggest wishes from those surveyed involves the updating of facility standards to keep with the trend of more robust coaching staffs. Beyond a manager, pitching coaches and hitting coaches, a trainer and a strength coach, teams often have some combination of defensive coaches, bench coaches, bullpen coaches, nutritionists and video coordinators in tow with them all season long. Those extra bodies need extra room to operate, and older stadiums aren’t always equipped to accommodate those needs.

“With the growing number of nutritional guidelines, staff sizes, and preferred amenities, it’s becoming a tougher operation to run from the club side,” one executive said. “Some MiLB teams have already made this transition, but I believe having the clubhouse manager be an employee of the parent club could help sync up expectations. Obviously, there will still be a lot of crossover within that operation, but it could be a step in the right direction.”

Other executives mentioned wanting to return to the slightly longer 142- or 144-game schedules, while others wanted the pare the current schedules (which are uniformly 140 games throughout the full-season minor leagues) even further. Still others pointed to better travel accommodations, including leaving the night before a game if the trip is slated to be more than five hours.

5. Given the rebranding boom of the last half-decade or so, how much more prominent has merchandise-based revenue become as compared to attendance-based revenue?

The answers here were nearly unanimous: Merchandise is nice, but attendance is still the key to the castle. Even so, there was a sense throughout the responses that merchandise is slowly making its way up the priority list because of its year-round nature. Teams get just 70 days a year to bring fans into the park, but hats and shirts can be sold year round.

“The importance of merchandise revenue has grown slightly, but it’s still a relatively small piece of the financial picture. I believe teams are beginning to think about its role in terms of our larger brand presence,” one executive said. “The industry appears to be devoting much more importance to it with that 360-degree perspective, rather than a straight profit and loss focus and then shutting down outside of the season.”

It might not be the most important part of the equation, but the rebranding boom has certainly helped teams give their bottom line a bit of a boost.

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6. Over the next 10 years, what do you see as the biggest opportunity for your team?

Given a question of this scope, the variety of answers was, well, varied.

Some executives hoped for a new ballpark, which is always a financial boon. Others referenced efforts to reach out to their area’s underserved minority populations, and still others hoped their city’s overall growth would boost their teams’ fortunes as well.

Perhaps the most interesting answers, however, revolved around the newly legalized sports gambling. The Supreme Court struck down federal laws that had previously prohibited betting on sports and gave states the discretion to make their own decisions on the subject.

Many states quickly legalized the practice after the decision, and those states house plenty of minor league teams.

So don’t be surprised if a gaming booth or two pops up at your local ballpark sometime in the near future.

7. Over the next 10 years, what do you see as the biggest threat to your team?

By far, the majority of answers to this question revolved around other entertainment options competing for fans’ attention. Primarily, that means people and families choosing to spend their time in front of screens rather than at a ballpark. The cost of a month of a streaming service is usually considerably less than the cost of a family night out at a ball game. Factor in the abundance of content populating these services, and it’s fairly easy to see why the most popular Game in town might take place in Westeros.

Other answers included the stagnation of the economy in certain areas, the possibility of MLB teams moving into minor league teams’ territories, natural disasters and the degradation of existing facilities. There was also concern from some teams about their home states raising the minimum wage significantly, which would raise the cost of staffing their stadium for 70 home games a season.

8. What unique advantages does your team’s home state provide?

Obviously, this question featured the widest array of responses. One underlying theme, however, revolved around proximity. Some teams valued being near multiple major cities, while others liked being near their parent clubs to help draw fans seeking a look at the next generation.

Some teams, on the other hand, valued being in smaller cities where they were the only game in town. Less competition, in theory, makes it easier for a team’s promotions staff to get fans in the seats on a nightly basis.

Other answers included consistently excellent weather, favorable tax laws, strong civic pride and specialty food stuffs.

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