Sunday, October 27, 2019

Take Me Out of the Ballgame

WARNING: yet another sports post

As a regular attendee of minor league baseball games, I am observing with curiosity and trepidation how MLB and MiLB devise a plan for mass contraction. The proposal of folding 42 teams is drastic, but sadly necessary. Baseball is a sport at a crossroads, and shaving a little off the bottom is just one problem it needs to address.

Let's begin with the obvious: Minor League Baseball is massive to the point of unwieldy. All 30 Major League Baseball teams have at least six minor league affiliates. Teams in the four highest levels (Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, Single-A) are practically mandatory are development reasons, but some teams forgo or choose between the lower levels (Low/Short Season A, Rookie League). There's about 200 teams in all, spread all across the United States and Vancouver, BC, with each league mostly confined to a particular region. The higher you go in a team's farm system, the incremental likelihood that you'll make it to the Majors.

One pattern I've noticed is that the higher the MiLB affiliate, the larger the city. Just about major American city you can think of that doesn't have a major league team (Las Vegas, Nashville, Buffalo, etc.) has a Double- or Triple-A team. Going into 2020, New Orleans and Portland, OR will be largest without any affiliated baseball at all --there are teams in nearby cities-- but that might change soon. That also means the low minors are typically in small towns and more rural areas; I doubt people are going out of their way to see the brightest young prospects in, say, Johnson City, TN or Bluefield, VA.

Even though the low minors offer some cost-effective summer entertainment with minimal travel, they work on a flawed business model. The stadiums they play in are often small, decrepit, or both and there's just enough money from local government to make small renovations. For instance, the Beloit Snappers (the Oakland A's Single-A team) play in rusty, outmoded Pohlman Field. The park is in the middle of a subdivision, which prohibits any expansion. Attempts to build a new stadium in downtown Beloit have failed repeatedly. Despite the team's proximity to Madison, WI the ballpark is the second-smallest in the league (allegedly 3,500 capacity) and frequently in the bottom five for attendance. Even when the Snappers fielded a competitive team, late season tickets and concession items were often offered for 50% off. I openly wondered how this whole thing turns a profit.

I have made the 90-minute drive to Pohlman Field on three occasions. On my first trip, I was astonished by how the basic the stadium felt compared to others in the Midwest League. Pohlman looks and feels like a run-down YMCA. Over 80% of the seats are aluminum bleachers, and players and coaches are obligated to cross the concourse to go to the barn-like clubhouse. The upgrades that other minor league ballparks have received, including clubhouses under the stands, in have been glossed over in Beloit largely for financial reasons. Unfortunately, there is reason to speculate that the Snappers and their similarly woebegone rival the Burlington Bees (Angels' Single-A) will be among the 42 contracted.

A saturation of pro baseball is an emerging problem. MLB attendance is both decreasing and getting older. Tickets are too expensive for the average fan --blame all those ridiculous contracts-- and a lot of people prefer minor league games because they're way more cost-effective (myself included). However, the price doesn't increase much as you climb through the system. For instance, box seats for the Single-A Kane County Cougars cost two dollars less than similar seats at a Triple-A Indianapolis Indians game. Both can be purchased for under $20. Considering an average Indians player is a lot closer to Major League ready than that Cougars player, the economics are bit wonky. It doesn't help that the average MiLB player makes a paltry income; only a select few top prospects get plump contract bonuses.

What becomes of independent and non-affiliated professional baseball? That aspect is oddly feast or famine. Like their minor league brethren, pro teams without an MiLB designation are faring better in larger metropolitan areas than in more rural, isolated areas. Indie ball is also more serendipitous, with teams folding, merging, and moving almost annually. Without that MLB parent money, the indie teams pay for their own players, and tend to lose money almost on travel alone. It's possible that some soon-to-be former MiLB teams will go the indie route, but at their own risk.

I support contraction, but with some reservations. The 42 teams that are speculated to be thinned out mostly play in towns and regions where the team is a reasonable, but flawed source of revenue. Creating a more satisfactory stadium experience, regardless of how necessary or extraneous it might be, could be too much for some teams and prove to be the X factor. It will also potentially alienate more fans from what some still consider the national pastime.


Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Random Notes, October 2019

This blog hasn't been political in a hot minute:

+ Yes, I support impeachment. Perhaps its an attempt to take the moral high road by House Democrats. I suppose to compared to other allegations against President Trump, the Ukraine situation ranks somewhere in the middle. Regardless, an inquiry had to happen. My endorsement comes with concern, though. It's unlikely there will be enough Republican senators to "flip" and vote Trump out, and that if impeachment fails Trump's frothing base will double down for him in 2020.

+ With that said, the 2020 race is shaping up to be the Baby Boom generation's last stand. I know I've railed on the Democrats' perceived age problem, but the top three candidates for their party's nomination --Biden, Warren, and Sanders-- are all north of 70, potentially going head to head with a 73-year-old draft dodger. Younger candidates with strong, articulated platforms (read: Kamala Harris), regardless of how progressive they are, are being left in the dust. My parents' generation won't let go of the football.

+ Adam Silver learned the hard way that marketing anything in China comes with some tight strings attached.  The Daryl Morey situation is a reminder that the NBA is far more vocal and conscious of social issues than the other major sports leagues, and that their views are beyond incompatible with a country that bristles at the idea of freedom of speech. As such, NBA expansion outside of North America remains a pipe dream.

+ I was set to write another draft of my long-gestating eulogy for, but it appears that the login works again. It remains unclear what CNet intends to do with the site. I don't know if I've ever been in such a prolonged funeral procession. It is especially frustrating seeing episode guides for new shows 2015 to the present with no information on them, or person pages where their last credit is from mid-2016. Between the old TV Tome and now, a site that I've put toil and energy into for 16 1/2 isn't necessarily dead, but remains in some kind of comatose state.