How MLB’s war on the minor leagues screws over both players and taxpayers

Speaking of the impacts of MLB’s minor-league putsch and downsizing plan, I have an article up at Defector today that runs down the history and strategy of the move, from its origins in the brain of Astros GM Jeff “Trash-Can-Banging” Luhnow to the ways in which it will enable big-league owners to convert entire leagues into work-for-exposure internships and turn up the heat on cities to cough up for minor-league stadium improvements. Two brief excerpts for those who don’t want to read the whole thing (though you should, I spent long enough writing it):

The nine-team Pioneer League would become an independent “partner league,” with MLB providing some seed money and a bunch of radar guns; the 109-year-old Appalachian League, meanwhile, was converted to a “college wood-bat league,” of which there are already several throughout the U.S. Though the name sounds like a training service—you young’uns come learn how to hit with real lumber, and keep your NCAA eligibility too!—in practice it means that the 10 Appalachian League teams will be replacing paid employees with unpaid ones.


Shaking down bush-league cities has traditionally offered both advantages and drawbacks for baseball owners. Sure, teams had more places to threaten to decamp to—hello, Worcester!—but there were also enough teams out there that cities could hold out reasonable hope of digging up a replacement elsewhere.

With each farm system limited to no more than four affiliates, that hope fizzles, tightening the remaining teams’ monopoly on pro ball.

As noted this morning in relation to the Tennessee Smokies‘ stadium plans, reducing the number of minor-league teams — and placing the decision over which teams survive solely in the hands of MLB league office functionaries — increases team owners’ leverage in shaking down cities for new or upgraded stadiums. But while that may be the more lucrative benefit to MLB from its minor-league takeover, possibly even more alarming is that hundreds of ballplayers will now be expected to play for free, either as college students on summer break or, in the case of the new “MLB Draft League,” as college (or just high school) graduates seeking to showcase their skills to earn a spot in the MLB summer draft. As a former NLRB chair told me, this is kind of a gray area in labor law: Normally if someone tells you when and where and how to work, you’re an employee and subject to laws about minimum wage and overtime and the like; but labor law has traditionally looked the other way when it comes to college athletes, so it may well do the same in the case of college-graduates-but-still-amateurs-until-MLB-says-they’re-not.

Anyway, hopefully this is just the start of a longer discussion about baseball’s cartel power — maybe the 2020s will be the decade that antitrust action finally makes its long-awaited comeback? Plus the start of a longer relationship with Defector, which has hit the ground running after its September emergence from the ashes of Deadspin and is even offering its freelance writers decent wages and rights, against the tide of modern news (and sports) industry practice; consider throwing them some money for a subscription and a tote bag, journalism will be glad you did.


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6 comments on “How MLB’s war on the minor leagues screws over both players and taxpayers

  1. I was very happy to see your name pop up on Defector this morning – hopefully the first of many!

    1. That’s the plan! They seem determined to pour their subscription fees back into quality journalism, so keep pledging for those tote bags!

  2. Congratulations on getting this up on Defector. It’s a great read and a great website. I wonder if teams that have been jilted and squeezed out of minor league baseball will have enough ground to take on the MLB antitrust exemption.

    1. I get to this toward the end of the article, ending up at the conclusion that with the current Supreme Court, probably not. Maybe if Congress took it on, but after sending that open letter to Rob Manfred last year, they got real quiet on this issue.

  3. That’s basically what replaced townball and I’m not sure it’s better. They weren’t close to being unionized but I’m pretty sure teams broke a little off for the townball players back in the day.

  4. Not to hate, but in 2,500 words I didn’t see the term “player development” once.

    The reason for the minor league re-org has been clear and consistent since the plans were first leaked: MLB clubs feel like minor league owners have been skimping on player development; instead focusing on boosting their own revenue.

    Whether all of this affects stadium subsidies remains to be seen. I see the point about “tightening the monopoly” by having a lower number of teams. Still, fewer teams means fewer opportunities.

    Good to see you getting work with Defector. I’m surprised and impressed that they’ve been able to find that many patrons. Just goes to show that supply side economics is the truth.

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