I tell anyone that will listen that minor league baseball is the greatest sport and business model out there. It is about making people smile, giving citizens a reason to be proud of the people that proudly wear their city’s name across their chest, all while doing so at an affordable price.
It doesn’t get much better then that. Trust me. It is an easy concept to get behind, and it is also contagious and addictive.
Nothing is perfect, however, and even MiLB could be improved. I am not talking about on the field right now, as there are plenty of good ideas here, here, here, and here. I even wrote about it last year. Actually, I implore MLB to make even more changes on the field so that MiLB could be a testing ground and bring that kind of access and interaction to engage fans and serve as a place of learning for players and coaching staffs alike. Imagine a few legends that work for MLB head office come to a local MiLB stadium and hold a town hall before or after a game on rule changes they’d like to see. That would be community interaction, but I digress.
I am instead referring to changes to the business of MiLB; aspects of the industry that the most ardent fan does not notice but those on the inside have been requesting for years.
This piece will be the first of a series throughout the summer and off-season that will detail some of my suggestions. Let’s start with my first suggestion:
All leagues should begin during the school year.
One of the teams I ran was a short season team, and honestly, it felt bizarre not having baseball in the stadium during the Spring. Sure, we hosted a local college’s home games, which is valuable gameday and field practice, and generates strong civic equity, but spring was in the air, the days were getting longer, MLB was on TV, and our stadium was…empty.
Something was missing. It was like going to a restaurant when you are super hungry and watching all your friends eat and you have to just sit there on the side sipping water, eating peanut butter packets, and playing with your napkin.
This schedule is nobody’s fault, MLB has its draft in early June to coincide with the ends of the college and high school seasons, and those short season leagues are then populated by players who have just been drafted and players already in the system who were in extended spring training.
Short Season leagues include New York-Penn, Northwest, and Appalachian leagues, to name a few.
I am suggesting that those short season leagues expand their schedule from 78 games to 100, to be done over the course of three years, so that their schedule ultimately starts on Memorial Day weekend.
Expanding a season is easier said then done, with challenges including, but not limited to, farm directors not wanting their players away from the spring training complex, added costs, not being able to find housing families as those extra rooms are typically used by students, and teams not being able to use their stadium because they do not control the lease.
That’s why schedule expansion has to be done in bite size chunks; leagues can’t just go from 78 games to 100. It would be too disruptive for the old guard and the leagues would want teams to be as optimally prepared as possible to succeed.
Teams would have to also notify their city and get dates when their stadium is in use for graduations, high school tournaments and community events. That will be the most difficult portion of the transition, but it is doable, especially if the teams work together to get an equitable schedule. For example, if one team simply cant host games on weekdays in June for the first two years, they will host a disproportionate amount in the coming few years once they are able to accommodate. This has to be done in good faith and with everyone in it together to pull out all the stops.
From the team perspective, it would be challenging to house the players and to deal with the hectic amount of roster changes that would take place in the first month, but those would only affect a few people on staff, and are definitely worth this expansion. If anything, I am sure some teams could rationalize keeping some players at team hotels if they don’t have enough housing families to kick off their season.
One thing I’m not concerned about is the weather, as three weeks won’t change a thing. Not to mention, if MLB wants to play its most hallowed games – the World Series – in late October and early November, when the weather is horrific for half its teams and the actual quality of the game is compromised, then MiLB teams could tough it out during the last three weeks of spring.
Creative Ticket Offerings
The obvious benefits are that the team has a chance to make more money through more openings: selling tickets, suites, and sponsorships for 50 games instead of 38.
It also allows teams to get more creative with their ticket packages, like offering a half-season ticket, for example, or to mimic some full-season teams and offer different pricing for the spring and summer.
More Favourable Staffing
Staffing the stadium might be difficult because staff might be in school or work. More openings means more shifts.
A lot of part-time staff members have various summer jobs, like working the county fair, for another sports team, or movie theatres. With my short season team, I often lost staff to the job that pays them the most and gives them the most shifts, so we wasted valuable resources trying to cover for them. By providing more games, those employees would get paid more from the team and thus make the club a priority instead of other options.
Higher Franchise Value
More openings equal a higher franchise value. Plain and simple. The more opportunities there are to generate revenue, in every capacity. This should make owners happy. It also keeps the team relevant in the media a little bit longer, which means more ‘free’ advertising for not just games, but non-game day stadium rentals during the off-season or when the team is on the road.
Also, the greater number of people that are in the stadium, the greater number of people that are exposed to all the fun and possibilities, like a company picnic during a game, or a Christmas party in a suite in the off-season. That functional real-time exposure is invaluable.
Higher Chance of Players Making It To The Show
As I have discussed in the past, players making it to the major leagues is a gift to their former MiLB teams because it allows them to capitalize on their ascension with all sorts of promotional items. The longer season would mean more players wearing the uniform, which in turn means a higher chance of some of them getting to the bigs, even if it is still only a boost of a few every couple of years.
Allows Teams To Get Into Schools
I saved the best for last, as once a community guy, always a community guy. Currently, short season leagues start in late June, just as school is getting out, so it could make for a good field trip the last day of school. But that’s it, as the rest of the season occurs while students are off for the summer. The schedule does not prevent the team from doing things in the off-season, but it just doesn’t have the same impact.
This is what I mean when I talk about ‘relevance.’ It is one thing to do something fun with the mascot for younger kids, it is another thing to get players in uniform to read to kids or give out cool prizes to reward good students. Minor league hockey teams, for example, do excellent work with schools, with a few examples here, here, here and here.
Short-season teams should aspire to play more games, especially if the transition is done tactfully and properly. There are too many pros that outweigh the cons, especially if those cons are largely absorbed and operated by the MiLB franchises.
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