Minor League Park

What It’s Like Going Through an MiLB Affiliation Change

As the dog days of winter pass by and the Hot Stove has never really heated  cooled, let’s touch upon a question I receive quite often. No, not the usual ones, but one that fans pay attention to nonetheless.

“Can you describe what occurs during an affiliation change between MLB and MiLB teams?”

Both of my MiLB teams changed their affiliates, with varying results. Generally speaking, if there is a good relationship, it is probably best to keep as is. Having lived through a bad change, it is as though the expression ‘the grass isn’t always greener on the other side’ was made for this particular situation. Many teams have a good situation and think they could do much better – or think they deserve better – and get screwed. Some teams even get caught tampering and have to pay a $100k fine.

It is an emotional whirlwind from the time a team decides to make a change – or the change is made for them – to when the ink is dry, the press conference is done, and new MLB team logo patches are ordered for the jersey sleeves.

Let’s look at the timeline involved in an affiliate change.

Types of Relationships

To a fan’s naked eye, a good sign of a strong partnership is if MLB execs show up at their affiliate’s off-season events because they are literally taking time away from their schedules to tangibly help their partners. In reality, a good relationship between an MLB team and MiLB affiliate takes many forms, but a simple rule to abide by is if it works for both sides, you should leave it as is.

Some reasons an MiLB team would want to leave:

  • Get better players to win and promote future MLB players.
  • MLB ownership and management not making them feel a part of their ‘family’ by not visiting their stadium, and not inviting them to Spring Training and home games.
  • The MLB team isn’t very good on the field.

An MLB team’s reasons would be:

  • Poor facilities – the field, clubhouse, housing and gyms, etc
  • Geographic location
  • Nagging from the MiLB side about the elements above.

Teams in positive relationships never let the PDC (Player Development Contract) get to less than one year remaining. They look hard for ways to celebrate their consistency like press conferences, appearances at Hot Stove events, and fancy Winter Meetings dinners.

And despite challenges, changing isn’t sometimes worth the work or the risk to your reputation. It really needs to be a positive move, as entering into a worse situation could make both teams look bad and undesirable.

Final Year of Agreement

Let’s set the hypothetical but sometimes typical scene:

MiLB Side

An MiLB team has been with the same affiliate for a decade. The relationship is functional: both front offices know how one another works, the field staff is the same every year so they are easy to work with, they have their local housing set up and know the road city hotels and restaurants, PDC payments are always sent in on time, and all things that could go poorly never do. It is comfortable.

But the MiLB team hasn’t been competitive on the field in years, the MLB team does not immediately return calls, the hot stove rumours the MiLB front office are fed to feel cool are starting to wear thin, the war stories are becoming redundant, and they never get help with procuring a former player to sign autographs.

Furthermore, the MiLB team has to go to their league meetings every year staring at a new champion, competing owners boasting of playoff gates, championship rings, tales of trips to the MLB playoffs, and MLB guests at their local charitable events.

At some point in the season, the MiLB braintrust will decide to make a change. Usually there is a straw that breaks the camel’s back after years of thinking about it, or sometimes they simply realize that the MLB club does nothing for their fans and the bottom line.

They very quietly begin sniffing around to see who might be available at the end of the season. It is easy to track and database which teams have PDC contracts that are expiring and thus who might be available because they send out press releases when they renew and each contract can be two or four years only. And with MLB teams not restricted to keeping their affiliates in a specific league (Blue Jays moving their AAA team from Las Vegas of the PCL to Buffalo of the International League, for example), the club has some options.

MLB Side

Chances are, the MLB team is happy with this arrangement. Everything is on autopilot, they don’t have to send good players or go out of their way to show their affiliate any love outside of a small cocktail reception at the Winter Meetings with a few pats on the back – an ‘our staff loves your city and fans’ and a promise to personally show up to the stadium during the season. In their eyes, the extension is a formality, so they have small talk with the MiLB team about it, and promise to send out the contract soon.

But as the season wears on, and during an internal meeting, the GM will want an update from the Farm Director or AGM in charge of their MiLB affiliates, and they won’t have a signed contract to present their boss. They still won’t worry, though, because it’s paperwork and teams are busy during the season. But May turns to June, then July, then to August and people begin to sweat. These things are usually sewn up by now.

The Farm Director knows his neck is on the line because this should be finalized. A change could result in a downgrade, a lot of unexpected work, a massive unexpected cost to the team, and make his bosses look bad and unwanted. So he starts calling the MiLB office, or maybe even travels to visit (which also costs unexpected money and time). The MiLB team will say ‘we haven’t thought about it yet’ or ‘we are crazy busy’ or some variation of the ‘cheque is in the mail’.

At the next internal meeting, the Farm Director will have yet to present a signed contract and will really start to sweat. The relationships and affiliate consistency are his responsibility and his boss now might have to step in to help him out. He now will have to begin unexpected research and see what else is out there, just in case. They might send good players from other affiliates to help them make a push for the second half playoffs or to tangibly show them they care.

Deadline & Two-Week Period

At the end of the MiLB season, a team that aspires to become a free agent (for lack of better term) has to submit a form to the Minor League Baseball head office stating this intention. Two weeks will go by and then they will receive an email from the head office stating who else did the same and the timeline to officially talk to other teams. During those two weeks, some agreements get renewed because teams are too nervous to change and their gossip search didn’t yield very helpful intel.

The very biggest fear is that this gamble doesn’t pay off and the team is left like the last person at the dance. It will cost time, money, and credibility if they downgrade. Not to mention, if it doesn’t work, they have to repeat the process 18 months later. They will have to learn how new teams work, do their payments, if they are effective communicators, are they available 24/7, etc…

Onset of Free Agency

The email with the list of other available teams is sent at 730am EST. My favourite experience was an unexpected MLB team calling my cell at 732am and letting me know to pick them up from the airport at 930am. They had heard good things about us and wanted to see if we could be the right fit.

I took them to our gym, a few housing families to check out the homes, to the ballpark to check out the training room, field, and clubhouse, and then for dinner with our ownership group. At dinner, they told their bosses that this was the right fit. Within 48 hours their team owner, GM, and Farm Director were at our stadium for a press conference announcing our new partnership, how excited they were to be a part of the city and community, how many great things they had heard about our fans, and how they looked forward to winning for them.

To their credit, this team maintained most of their promises and the affiliation still lives strong to this day. That day, I received a call from another team, albeit not with the same urgency and research. It was only an introductory call, so the decision for our owner was easy.

Behind The Curtain

This deserves its own separate article, further to the other one I wrote, because a lot of work goes in to make sure all the small stuff is taken care of before the season. The first thing I do during an affiliate change is order new business cards for the staff, so they can proudly show off their new partner.

The second thing is order our new MLB partner’s patches for our 200 on-field jerseys and hats, so they arrive nice and early to sew them on. After a few local media requests for both teams, maybe some lunch, everyone goes their own separate ways to handle their individual duties.

The MLB head trainer plans a separate meeting with the MiLB GM to go over exercise equipment, medication and how they will space out the clubhouse. The stadium ops team has to take down every single logo of the old affiliate and replace it with a new one. This includes little things like on jerseys, the box office, clubhouse carpeting, merchandise, program stands, and the field, just to name a few. The marketing and sales team does the same with its website and sales collateral like ticket forms and schedules.

There is a lot of risk that is involved with this particular portion of the industry, and a lot of times it is better to stay put then to move. That said, there are definitely rewards and perks to taking that risk.

Lead Photo © Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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