Seasons Of Change For Minor League Baseball

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Even if you go to minor league baseball games every year, it’s easy to miss the subtle changes that have occurred over the span of a couple of decades.

Some differences aren’t very subtle. The arrival of a pitch clock at Triple-A in 2015 was hard to miss. The reduction of the ticket-taking, affiliated minor leagues from 160 to 120 teams was a seismic change.

A lot of other changes are a little less apparent. One year’s bleachers become next year’s party deck. A “bark in the park” joins the promotional schedule. 

Any one of these moves is very minor, but they are the tweaks that over the years that transform the experience for players, teams and fans. 

Here’s a look at 10 ways the minor leagues have changed and will change over the next few years.

1. Minor League Baseball Ownership Is Consolidating

The days of the mom and pop-owned minor league team largely disappeared in the 1990s, replaced by the wealthy owner or ownership group. For the owners who survived the threadbare days of the 1970s and ’80s, the chance to sell at greatly increased valuations made it a logical time to get out.

Now, we are seeing another transformation. As part of MLB’s takeover of the minor leagues, previous rules that prevented a single ownership group from owning more than one team in any league were eliminated. 

That opened the doors for consolidation in a manner that had never been possible. Add the desire for some owners to cash out after losing an entire season to the pandemic in 2020, not to mention the concerns that MLB could push for further reductions in the minors in 2031, and the conditions were set for private equity groups to make big inroads into the minor leagues.

Diamond Baseball Holdings, a group owned by private equity firm SilverLake, now owns 15 minor league teams and is expected to make more acquisitions this year. But even at 15 teams owned, they are the largest MiLB owner of the modern era. DBH owns a full seven Triple-A clubs.

The prices DBH has paid are understood to be at the high end of market rates. These sales have confirmed that franchise valuations were not diminished by the pandemic or MLB’s takeover of the minors.

So far, DBH has run teams much as they were run before, though SilverLake’s other business ties provide plenty of additional opportunities to use the stadiums for a plethora of other non-baseball events as well.

2. Fan Experiences Are Changing

Once upon a time, fans wanted to set up camp in some nice seats behind home plate. That was where season-ticket holders wanted to be for every game. Now, many fans prefer to roam around the ballpark, and stadiums are adapting to the changes in fan behavior.

Bleachers have long been unappealing to fans, but these days, picnic areas, high-top tables where people can stand with a drink and some food and grassy berms are often preferred to chairbacks.

The pitch clock and faster pace of games may help spur further changes. As multiple operators have noted, a long concessions line is more of an issue with a faster-paced game. A few years ago, multiple teams made a big push toward having fans have their food brought to them in premium seating areas. The idea didn’t gain much traction for a number of teams, but the idea may resurface. There’s also the possibility that app-based ordering could take off. Instead of standing in line, fans order and pay for food on the team’s app, then get a notification when their food is ready to be picked up.

It probably would have happened anyway, but the pandemic also sped up a trend of teams going cashless. Many fans were already paying with credit cards and their phones, but the move to cashless allows teams to not have to worry about dealing with large amounts of cash and allows teams to better capture customer data.

3. Nets Go Down The Lines

MLB had already mandated that protective netting stretch beyond the dugouts. Now, those nets are getting much bigger. 

At the 2022 Winter Meetings, MLB announced a new requirement that protective netting must stretch from foul pole to foul pole for all minor league teams. Teams will have to get their netting plans approved by an MLB-appointed netting consultant.

The increased netting has to be in place by Opening Day 2025, but teams are encouraged to have the expanded nets installed as soon as possible.


4. More Rules Tweaks To Come

Minor League Baseball will have some tweaks to its rules this year after many of the 2022 rules changes are being adopted in the major leagues.

The minors have become a key part of MLB doing A/B testing to try out rules changes before they come to the majors. Automated ball-strike systems (ABS) will be tested at every Triple-A park plus the Low-A Florida State League this year, with teams flipping back and forth between the challenge system tried last year and a strike zone called exclusively by ABS.

MLB will test enhanced grip baseballs in the Double-A Southern League. There have also been minor tweaks to the pitch clock and pickoff rules. With no one on base, there will be 14 seconds between pitches, which is one second fewer than the new MLB pitch clock.

5. This Is A Union Town

This will be the first year of an official, recognized minor league players’ union. Talks between MLB and the MiLB union had not led to a Collective Bargaining Agreement as of March 10. 

There’s a decent chance a CBA will not be in place by the time the MiLB season begins, but that doesn’t mean that fans need to worry about a strike or lockout. Neither side has hinted at a work stoppage, and the negotiations will likely continue as minor league players look to land salary increases and improved work conditions.

6. The Netflix-ification of Season Tickets

Fans may prefer to roam around the ballpark much more than they used to, and they also are changing their season-ticket preferences. 

Fans used to want to pick their location for the season. Now, teams are starting to turn season-ticket packages into ticket subscriptions. For some teams, that just means flexibility to decide up until game day which days you want to use your allotted tickets. For others, it’s more about flexibility.

FanRally is working with teams to offer ticket membership plans rather than season tickets. Using the app, fans can select any available seats in the tiers they paid for as part of their membership. 

Fans can pick different games for different days, pay for seat upgrades to get special experiences and get discounts on concessions.

The idea is to attempt to get younger fans to look into a modern version of the season ticket, while also giving teams a way to both retain and reward their best fans.

7. New Stadiums Are Coming

There is a building boom looming in the minor leagues. 

In multiple cities, it quickly became apparent that it was extremely expensive—if not impossible—to refit existing stadiums to meet the much stricter facility standards that MLB has imposed in the minor leagues. In other cases, it was decided that it would be preferred to build new rather than try to improve old stadiums. 

There are currently plans to build new ballparks in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Richmond, Salt Lake City and Hillsboro, Ore.

All of these stadiums are much more expensive than those built a decade or more ago. Knoxville’s stadium was originally estimated to cost $65 million. Now it’s estimated to cost $114 million. Hillsboro’s new stadium is estimated to cost $120 million. 

It wasn’t that long ago that stadiums could be built for $30-40 million.


8. Teams Will Be Moving

Speaking of new stadiums, a number of teams are investigating moves to new cities to land new facilities.

The Rangers have talked with Leland, N.C., a suburb of Wilmington, about building a park to be the new home of the Down East Wood Ducks. 

Similarly, the Brewers have signed a memorandum of agreement to try to build a new park in Wilson, N.C., to relocate from Zebulon. 

With the deadline of Opening Day 2025 for teams to be in full compliance with the new facility standards, time is running out for teams to finalize their stadium plans.

9. Fear Reigns

There are now eight years remaining on the current Professional Development Licenses. 

By the standards of past majors-minors agreements, that’s an eternity. But minor league owners have never been more worried about what comes next. 

There continue to be fears that MLB will attempt to further reduce the minors to 90 or 60 teams in the next PDL agreement. MLB tried but failed to get formal approval from the MLB Players Association for minor league player reductions in the 2022 CBA. 

Needless to say, that failed attempt didn’t exactly put minor league owners at ease.

10. Is There a Brain Drain?

It’s difficult to put actual numbers to the anecdotes, but across the minors, general managers note that they have seen a lot of people get out of the business over the past few years.

The lost 2020 season led to massive cutbacks, which weren’t easy for anyone. When the minors returned in 2021, it did so in a new MLB-run system, one that created a number of growing pains and friction points for minor league operators.

Multiple GMs have noted that some of the spontaneity and fun of the job has been reduced by MLB-imposed restrictions. Now, all promotions must be approved by MLB, which means there’s no longer the chance to come up with a quickie promotion to take advantage of whatever has caught the public’s fancy at this moment.

Some said that there are fewer opportunities for the fraternity of MiLB operators to get together in or out of season. The loss of all-star games took away one of those get-togethers. The elimination of league offices also, according to some, reduced that feeling of collegiality.

As a number of operators explained it, working in baseball is still a great gig, but there are different hurdles and hassles that didn’t used to be a part of the job. 

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