Friday roundup: Phoenix to get USL stadium with giant disappearing soccer ball, plus more fallout from MLB slashing minor league teams

Too much going on this week to have time for more than a brief intro, but I do want to note that “’Company announces advertising campaign’ is not a story, no matter how easily that campaign can be metabolized by the publications it’s aimed at” is something that should be tattooed on the foreheads of all journalists, even if it is a quote from an article about Pantone colors.

And now, how sports team owners and their friends are trying to rip you off this week:

MLB just killed 18 minor-league teams that got $249m in public stadium funding

MLB issued its final list yesterday of which 120 minor-league teams will get to continue as farm teams for big-league clubs, and which will be left to join a series of independent or amateur leagues or disappear altogether. While a few teams got official notice that they’d be switching levels — the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp jump from Double-A to Triple-A, the San Antonio Missions drop from Triple-A to Double-A, the Frederick Keys are bounced from Single-A to the new MLB Draft League where players will have to play for free to showcase their skills for the annual player draft, and the Fresno Grizzlies just yesterday afternoon accepted their demotion from Triple-A to Single-A once they saw what the alternative was — let’s focus on the truly SOL franchises, those that USA Today listed under the heading “No Current League” (state and former affiliation in parentheses):

  • Lowell Spinners (MA, Red Sox)
  • Hagerstown Suns (MD, Nationals)
  • Burlington Bees (IA, Angels)
  • Clinton LumberKings (IA, Marlins)
  • Kane County Cougars (IL, Diamondbacks)
  • Lexington Legends (KY, Royals)
  • Charlotte Stone Crabs (FL, Rays)
  • West Virginia Power (WV, Mariners)
  • Florida Fire Frogs (FL, Braves)
  • Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (OR, Giants)
  • Staten Island Yankees (NY, Yankees)
  • Batavia Muckdogs (NY, Marlins)
  • Auburn Doubledays (NY, Nationals)
  • Norwich Sea Unicorns (CT, Tigers)
  • Tri-City ValleyCats (NY, Astros)
  • Vermont Lake Monsters (VT, A’s)
  • Lancaster JetHawks (CA, Rockies)
  • Boise Hawks (ID, Rockies)

That is a whole lot of intercaps being thrown to the wolves, not to mention both of the minor leagues’ Burlington teams. (The Lake Monsters played in Burlington, Vermont.) And while some of these franchises may yet end up joining an existing non-affiliate league — the MLB Draft League has two spots available, according to the Washington Post, and the indy Atlantic League is currently down to just six teams and could add more — many will almost certainly follow the Staten Island Yankees into oblivion.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how much public money was spent on stadiums for teams that have now been annihilated by MLB fiat:

  • Lowell Spinners: $11.2 million (construction, 1998)
  • Hagerstown Suns: $1.06 million (construction, 1930; renovations, 1981 and 1995)
  • Burlington Bees: $3 million (renovation, 2005)
  • Clinton LumberKings: $4.35 million (construction, 1937; renovation, 2006)
  • Kane County Cougars: $19.5 million (construction, 1991; renovations, 2008 and 2015)
  • Lexington Legends: privately funded
  • Charlotte Stone Crabs: $32.2 million (construction, 1987; renovation, 2009)
  • West Virginia Power: $25 million (construction, 2005)
  • Florida Fire Frogs: $45.9 million (construction, 2019)
  • Salem-Keizer Volcanoes: $6.8 million (construction, 1997)
  • Staten Island Yankees: $71 million (construction, 2001)
  • Batavia Muckdogs: $3 million (construction, 1996)
  • Auburn Doubledays: $3.145 million (construction, 1995)
  • Norwich Sea Unicorns: $9.3 million (construction, 1995)
  • Tri-City ValleyCats: $14 million (construction, 2002)
  • Vermont Lake Monsters: privately funded
  • Lancaster JetHawks: $14.5 million (construction, 1996)
  • Boise Hawks: privately funded

A couple of caveats: The Stone Crabs and Fire Frogs played at their big-league affiliates’ spring training sites, so those stadiums will still be in use on a lesser basis; and a couple of other stadiums get use as high school or college fields. Still, that’s $249 million in tax money down the toilet, with little hope of finding replacement teams in the future.

Little hope, I should say, without throwing more public money at the situation. You’ll note that a lot of those stadium construction dates above are from the 20th century — Centennial Park in Burlington, Vermont opened way back in 1906! — which is ancient in the what-have-you-built-for-us-lately world of pro sports. One of the reasons MLB gave for seeking to cut teams when it was first announced last year was to “improve Minor League Baseball’s stadium facilities,” and in fact the Boise Hawks owner specifically said he was told his team was marked for death because it was an age-defying 31 years old:

“We were told our current facility ultimately led to the decision,” [Hawks president Jeff] Eiseman said in a statement. “As we have stated since the day we purchased the Hawks, the venue is a challenge. The failure to not have replaced it in all of these prior years led to this move.”

Not having to pay as many minor-league salaries — in part by forcing minor leaguers to play as amateurs, whether in the new MLB Draft League or the conversion of the entire Appalachian League to a “college wood-bat league” — was obviously a prime reason for MLB’s restructuring of the minors, but increasing leverage for new or renovated stadiums could turn out to be the far more lucrative result. If Boise or Lexington or Batavia wants a new team, they will almost certainly be asked to upgrade their stadiums first; and if the cities that do get rewarded with teams, that will allow MLB to cast existing teams onto the scrap heap, in an endless cycle of stadium shakedowns.

Even now, the new minors structure isn’t 100% finalized: MLB and the surviving minor-league teams still need to work out a player-development contract that will determine exactly what each side will pay toward minor-league team costs; the Tacoma Rainiers owners have already released a statement that they “cannot accept the invitation until we’ve had time to review the deal that will govern our sport, and this relationship, for decades to come.” And there is still the possibility of antitrust lawsuits to fight the elimination of teams, since MLB has effectively taken control of all of its competitors for baseball fan dollars and ordered a bunch of them to shut down — recall that last year an unnamed MLB official told the New York Daily News’ Bill Madden, “My God, we’ll be sued all over the place from these cities that have built or refurbished ballparks with taxpayer money, and this will really put our anti-trust exemption in jeopardy.”

Still, a whole lot of minor-league baseball fans are about to lose their teams, and a whole lot of cities are about to see their investments in stadiums go up in smoke. And a whole lot of minor-league players are about to be, in essence, redefined as unpaid interns. Thus has it always been.

MLB redraws its minor-league map, including demoting team Wichita spent $75m to lure there

The fallout of MLB’s plan to jettison 42 minor-league affiliates to save money on paying players pittance wages is coming fast and furious, with big-league teams switching farm clubs while other teams scramble not to be left without a chair when the music stops:

  • The St. Paul Saints, founded in 1993 as one of baseball’s most successful independent-league teams, will now be converted into the Minnesota Twins‘ Triple-A farm team. The Sugar Land Skeeters previously announced they will likewise go from indie ball to affiliate ball, as the Triple-A team of the Houston Astros.
  • Since every MLB team has exactly one Triple-A affiliate, this means two teams will have to get demoted to Double-A, and those will apparently be the San Antonio Missions and the Wichita Wind Surge. The Wind Surge demotion is especially notable because the team never actually played a game at the Triple-A level (it is the former New Orleans Baby Cakes, relocated in 2020 right before the pandemic wiped out the minor-league season), and also because Wichita just allocated more than $75 million to a new stadium to lure a Triple-A team, and is now right back in the Double-A Texas League where it was until 2007.
  • MLB gave the owners of the Fresno Grizzlies and the city of Fresno until yesterday to accept demotion from Triple-A to Single-A, or else be left without an affiliated team at all. Following a behind-closed-doors council meeting yesterday, city attorney Doug Sloan released a statement saying MLB had agreed to give the city more time, but not how much more time. (MLB is supposedly set on releasing final team affiliations today or tomorrow.)
  • No, I don’t get where the additional Triple-A team would come from if Fresno were demoted, unless maybe this would give San Antonio or Wichita a reprieve? (UPDATE: The Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp are reportedly in line to jump from Double-A to Triple-A, thanks, Facebook commenter!)
  • The entire Pioneer League is becoming an independent “partner league,” which according to the press release seems to involve MLB giving them some seed money (“initial funding for the league’s operating expenses”) plus “scouting technology” (uh, radar guns?) and then cutting them loose to sink or swim.
  • The Mahoning Valley Scrappers, State College Spikes, Trenton Thunder, West Virginia Black Bears, and Williamsport Crosscutters, all of which were set to lose their affiliated teams, will instead become part of a grab-bag MLB Draft League, which will also get that “state-of-the-art scouting technology,” plus “educational programming designed to prepare them for careers as professional athletes.” (Make your own jokes here.) Will the players get paid? Given that the league’s FAQ brags about how there’s no fee for players to play in it, almost certainly not! (Also, the FAQ warns that “players need to pay their way to get to the league at the start date,” so think on that before you submit your application to play shortstop.)

The offseason affiliate dance is a time-honored tradition by now, but this winter’s is something entirely different, and not just because of the contraction plan: MLB effectively took over the formerly independent Minor League Baseball organization in September, simply by refusing to negotiate a new operating agreement and demanding that MiLB hand over the keys. That means that instead of negotiating with individual MiLB teams as in the past, MLB can simply redraw the minor-league map and issue edicts: If you’re not happy being a Single-A team, Fresno, no more shopping around for a Triple-A affiliate on your own, because MLB has already decided that for you.

In other words, it’s extending MLB’s cartel power — or monopoly power, depending on whether you consider the league an association of competitors or one big company with 30 co-owners — to govern all of the minor leagues as well. And that’s a scary concept, and not just if you’re one of the people who bought gear with the hideous Wichita Wind Surge logo in anticipation of Triple-A ball. While MLB’s offer to Fresno right now is take-it-or-leave-it, there’s nothing stopping the league in the future from exacting stadium or lease concession demands from minor-league cities, or risk losing their teams to wherever MLB decides to move them. While hosting a minor-league team has always been dicey since they often have a relatively short lifespan, at least there was a silver lining in that if one MLB team abandoned you there were 29 others to shoot for; now, the minors are all a single-source negotiation, and that’s bad news for cities’ leverage.

The other benefit to MLB, of course, is that it is transitioning lots of minor-league players to playing for “exposure” instead of actual paychecks; in addition to the Draft League, the Appalachian League is becoming a summer league for college players, who also won’t be paid. This is such a common practice now in the work world that it has its own Twitter account for horror stories, but it hadn’t spread to pro sports until now — there’s a class action suit trying to force pro sports teams to pay their players at least minimum wage, but until then, it looks like baseball is determined to make lots of wannabe major leaguers start out their careers by doing season-long unpaid tryouts. Maybe teams like Trenton and Williamsport will at least allow players to trade autographs for sandwiches, that seems like a fair solution.