As the business of baseball grows and fans become more educated, a facet that is growing in importance is the working relationship between the MLB & MiLB affiliates.
Speaking very broadly, a strong working relationship could be built on the following, at minumum:
- MLB team sends their affiliate good on-field players
- Team has a field staff with good leadership that helps out with community initiatives like kids camps, hospital visits and post-game player autographs
- Players stay out of trouble off the field
There are also rare situations where the two clubs share a geographic, historic, or national connection that works in both teams’ favours.
Relevant examples are the Rome Braves –playing just 60 miles away from Atlanta – owned by the MLB club, the Sacramento River Cats affiliated with the San Francisco Giants just 80 miles away, and for Blue Jays fans, having the only current Canadian MiLB team being their affiliate in Vancouver.
Those synergies make logical sense.
While those anomalies are increasing, they are still few and far between. Changing affiliates and the tight deadline process involved is a topic that merits its own article – which I will cover next – but for now, let’s look at a few characteristics of a standard affiliation and how it affects the MiLB team.
A Bad Relationship Takes Up A Lot of Resources
Behind the curtains, a lot of work goes into an affiliation. Some MLB teams bring their own weights, hot tubs, medicine, batting cages, and other elements so their players have access to all the proper amenities. Some teams even hire special chefs or get their meals catered to make sure the players have proper nutrition.
As a result, changing an affiliation is like moving houses. Think of how time consuming, costly, and shameful it would be if you had to move every two years. That is what it is like changing affiliates. Not only does the MLB team have to send someone – usually a trainer or strength coach – to pack up everything, but the MiLB affiliate also has to have someone to supervise or determine what items belong to whom.
It could get messy.
In addition, the MLB merchandise the MiLB team has purchased is now useless. Obviously, the rational and logical thing to do is have the new major league affiliate buy some of the stuff off of the previous one, seeing as how there is so much overlap amongst the items. But teams are leery of sharing secrets, even in the minors, so they don’t mind spending the extra money and time to keep their own belongings.
Fans Could View Change As An Insult
If fans see that their MLB affiliate is changing every two or four years (the standard contractual length per the Collective Bargaining Agreement), it signals to them that their team, THEIR city is not a desirable location.
The emotions might range from their city not being good enough to feeling ripped off because they might have just purchased a hat or jersey with the MLB club logo on it. That doesn’t even include the time some of the fans might have invested in following a new club daily, or even travelling to other affiliates.
Front Office/Ownership Looks Bad
Imagine not being able to hold down a job for more than 18 months at a time, or constantly having to move apartments every two years. That is essentially how changing affiliates appears from the outside.
It is embarrassing to roll out the red carpet for a team and then have them leave town and certainly not the type of PR teams want to generate. Also, it looks bad amongst the minor league community as word could circulate that your field is poor, your stadium isn’t up to standard, your coaching staff does not like their interactions with the staff, and all things related to their negative experiences. Also, don’t underestimate how owners feel at League and Winter Meetings when they are the butt of the joke amongst other owners, and within their social circles at their golf clubs, gyms, and friends.
More often then not, they bought the team as a way to do something good in the community, so this negative press is disheartening.
Consistency is Key
If a bad relationship takes up a lot of resources, a good one saves them. Just as a bad relationship takes time and might make the city and team look bad, the inverse is true for a sustained affiliation.
For a long term relationship, the GM of the MLB club will come to the minor league city for a Hot Stove event in the off-season and/or for opening day and tell the local media and fans how happy they are with the affiliation and publicly declare they are extending it moving forward. A side effect that relationship is that fans start following the MLB club, meaning that club starts to develop new fans. The MLB club is investing in them, so the fans are reciprocating.
Like a valuable player on field, if both sides are happy, there should be a concerted effort to not let the contract go into the final year and to instead work towards an extension. Also similar to a player on field, sometimes the grass isn’t always greener on the other side and it might make sense for both teams to swallow their pride and to work through any challenges.
We have all seen a team with a star player in a good position think they could do much better, maybe save some money, or get too technical with analytics to rationalize why a player isn’t worth that extra year. Well, those thought processes go on inside an MiLB front office. The owners think the MLB team isn’t sending them good enough players and not helping them make money. Many times those thoughts might be correct, but it might net out as a negative result to try and see what exists on the other side.
This is applicable to all working relationships in all industries, but I will give two examples of how this sometimes goes awry. Thankfully, these examples never happened to me, but people in the industry talk.
Many years ago, an MiLB team had a player that was going to fail a drug test. That player was going to get a 50 game suspension, and perhaps worse have his credibility shattered and professional momentum stunted. The player and big league club were informed of the failed test by the league and told that the results would be made public within a few days.
However, nobody told the MiLB club, who had to deal with the media and fan backlash.
One day before it was going to go public, a member of the minor league front office found out through that player’s housing family. Needless to say, that didn’t sit well with the MiLB club, and they were livid with their major league affiliate. They didn’t have time to prepare a media statement, a proper exit for the player, or deal with things internally.
Things started to go south with that relationship and they never signed another extension.
The second example is through payments. Essentially, the minor league team fronts the cost for travel, transportation, and a few other costs, and the big league club reimburses them. It is commonly known as The PDC (Player Development Contract). When a relationship is good, there are no sneaky accounting tricks by either side.
With one team many years ago, the field staff tried to submit their meal receipts on the PDC and have their bosses pay for it, as opposed to it coming out of their own pockets. Now, my friend who worked in the MiLB front office took offense to it, not because they tried, but because ‘how stupid could I be for missing $1200 worth of Applebee’s receipts over the course of 4 months’.
Needless to say, in a good working relationship, that doesn’t happen.
Need To Be All In
I have been a part of affiliations where the MLB club doesn’t care if they win, doesn’t send top players, and is not really interested in the market. There is nothing wrong with that at all. In fact, it is common and expected out of the relationship, as we covered.
Fans, however, can tell when the relationship is strong. Public cues are usually the MLB team sending former players to sign autographs and be ambassadors, giving tickets to staff and housing families, for giveaways online and on radio shows, and sending the same on-field staff year after year.
The latter is key, as the staff will ceremoniously arrive and say how much they love spending their summers here, how this is their second home, they love the fans and community, and all of this validated by the fact they keep returning! It is literally walking the talk, and it goes along way with the locals.
Larger cues are fans wearing merchandise from the MLB club. The MLB ownership and front office will treat the MiLB city’s media very well and grant them access, interviews, and time, and the former players rave about their experience there.
In a long-term partnership, the MLB club sees its affiliate as an extension of themselves, and a way to market the team, grow their fanbase, all while developing players.
Lead Photo © Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports