No Joy In Mudville For Minor League Baseball

By Kenneth Jacobsen
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Law360 (May 20, 2020, 4:14 PM EDT) --
Kenneth Jacobsen
Kenneth Jacobsen
The recent announcement by Major League Baseball that it might resume games in July is certainly welcome news for sports-crazed fans who have endured weeks of empty, silent stadiums and arenas and reruns of old games on television.

The pandemic hit the United States with a fury during what many consider the "sweet spot" of amateur and professional sports — "March Madness" in the NCAA, the NBA and NHL playoffs, the beginning of the baseball season, player drafts, and other overlapping events that yield an abundance of sports riches to watch either in person or on TV. So MLB's announcement is welcome news indeed.

But there is still much to be worked out logistically. First and foremost, this is only a proposal by the MLB owners that must be approved by the MLB Players' Association, hardly a sure thing given comments by some of baseball's more high profile (and highly paid) players.

The owners' proposal calls for a compensation structure that splits revenue 50-50 with the players for an 82-game season and expanded playoff series. Players are balking at the plan (pun fully intended) because it would mean a substantial salary cut and, in their view, the first step down the slippery slope of a salary cap. MLB is the only sport among the big four that does not have a revenue-sharing plan or salary cap. And then there is, of course, the serious issue of player health and safety.

Whatever the outcome of the negotiations between the MLB owners and players (and I hope that it will be a positive one), one thing is certain — the virus has thrown a beanball at Minor League Baseball and the thousands of full-time and seasonal employees who depend on those 160 clubs for their livelihoods.

The big leagues can play in empty stadiums, with no fans, because of lucrative television contracts. Even during an abbreviated season, and perhaps especially one in which pent-up demand for sports is ready to explode in viewership and ratings, live broadcasts of games will quench not only the fans' thirst for sports but also yield substantial revenue dollars to fund the season. Not so for the minor league teams.

The lifeblood of Minor League Baseball is ticket revenue, concessions and merchandising. No fans in the stadium, no tickets sold. No fans in the stadium, no sales of beer or hot dogs. No fans in the stadium, no sales of T-shirts or caps or other prized souvenirs of a night at the ballpark with family and friends. And although sponsorships are another important source of revenue for the clubs (think of all those signs lining the outfield fence), that revenue also dries up as the games do. The whole point of signage and program books is having fans see them.

Most minor league clubs are not owned by affluent investors fulfilling their youthful dreams with a vanity acquisition. They are owned by local businessmen and women, often in small, rural communities in which minor league play is the "only game in town" (again, pun fully intended). Think "Bull Durham" — although that city has come a long way since Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon filmed that movie. Many owners of the teams operate the clubs on a daily basis, often as a family business. It is their livelihood, as it is the livelihood of those they employ and, in many small towns, the center of community life.

Even teams in more suburban markets or with independent ownership have that same close sense of community. Of necessity, perhaps, to attract fans and generate business. But also because there is that close connection to the communities in which they play.

The teams and players give back, even while playing a grueling 140-game schedule over a five-month period, spending more time traveling on buses and staying in motels than in their own apartments. The players and team staff, often accompanied by popular mascots, visit schools and hospitals, sponsor reading programs and engage other outreach efforts on their rare days off, supported by team ownership from those same communities.

So the prospects for Minor League Baseball this summer are not very rosy. Playing in empty ballparks or half-empty stadiums required by social distancing are not viable options — the clubs would lose even more money just hosting the games, while struggling with the same player and staff health issues as the major league teams.

But hope springs eternal. So here's hoping that, unlike the tragic character in the poem "Casey at the Bat," Minor League Baseball does not strike out, and that its important contribution to America's pastime can find a way to continue this season.

Kenneth A. Jacobsen is a practice professor of law at the Temple University Beasley School of Law, where he is the director of the sports law program. He also is a founding partner of the Wilmington Blue Rocks, a Class "A" affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, a member of the Carolina League.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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