By In Baseball

Rule change: Free the Minors

OK, I admit I’m kind of cheating a bit on this one because, unlike the other four rule changes, I don’t have anything specific in mind here. This is something kind of unconventional I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and it’s something that seems particularly timely right now. So, instead of a specific rule change, I’m offering a challenge to the Brilliant Readers.

Your mission: Free the minor leagues.

Here’s the starting point: If you add up the metropolitan areas surrounding the 30 Major League teams — even if you go pretty liberal and include, say, Columbus and Hartford because they are relatively close to Major League baseball — you will come up with a number that is less than half the U.S. population. I did a little figuring and came up with about 146 million out of 314 or so million people in the United States, but you can do the math yourself.

I live in Charlotte, which has the largest metropolitan population in America not served by a Major League Baseball team. San Antonio is right behind. Las Vegas. Memphis is in there. There are many very big cities that have no real access to Major League Baseball. And, beyond that, there are many, many, many smaller cities that still have a lot of people. Like I say, you’re talking about 168 million or so people without direct access to MLB.

So what are people in places like Charlotte supposed to do with baseball? This question, I think, cuts to the heart of what Keith Olbermann talked about here, what countless people have written about, and what most people have come to accept as true: Baseball has become a regional sport.

The World Series television ratings tell the story nightly. Ratings from the first two games of the World Series were up from last year and so have drawn some positive reviews. I certainly do not understand television ratings as well as the excellent Maury Brown, so I take it on father that overall this might be good news. But I see a lot of bad news here. For one thing, everyone knows St. Louis and Boston both have much larger fan bases than last year’s teams, San Francisco and Detroit. So the numbers being up a bit doesn’t really impress me. And let’s face some a other troubling facts:

— More people watched Big Bang Theory than the World Series and it wasn’t that close.

— Twice as many people watched Sunday Night’s Regular season game between Denver and Indianapolis than watched the World Series.

— Well, Broncos-Colts was the Peyton Manning game, but Monday Night’s Giants-Vikings matchup was about as uninteresting as you could draw up, and that game drew about the same ratings that the World Series drew.

— The first two games of the NBA Finals rated higher than the first two games of the World Series.

— The Red Sox ALONE should be drawing much higher ratings. The last time they were in the World Series was 2007, it was on FOX, they were playing a Colorado Rockies team with a limited fan base — and they got two or three million more viewer in each of the first two games. In 2004, the Red Sox played the Cardinals — who obviously have an enormous following in the Midwest — and that was also on FOX, and they got about TEN MILLION more viewers each of the first two nights.

Why has baseball lost so many viewers? There are many factors involved, and many theories beyond. It’s obvious that fans have more choices than they’ve ever had before — not only on the countless cable television channels but also various other new technologies. The World Series on Thursday night wasn’t only up against an NFL game, the Big Bang Theory and several hundred other shows and whatever people happened to DVR, but it was also against The Avengers, which is streaming for free on Amazon Prime. There are Netflix original shows. There are video games, there are iPads and other tablets. And there’s the timing too. The World Series start late, so they are competing against sleep and school the next morning. Baseball also has a pace of play problem — not only are the games too long, but much of the length is tied up in tedious pitching changes and dreary last-second timeouts called by the hitter. For many, baseball just isn’t gripping television.

Well, everyone has a theory. And one of those theories — one I personally agree with — is that baseball is just not a national game anymore. It is doing brilliantly well regionally. Attendance in Major League ballparks is fantastic. I talked about how in 2004 about 10 million more people a night watched the Cardinals-Red Sox World Series. But attendance across baseball this year was actually a bit HIGHER than in 2004. Several teams have cut massive local and regional television deals. And Major League Baseball is probably better placed on the Internet than any other league with and the colossal video streaming operation they run. If you live in a big league city, baseball is doing just fine in your neighborhood.

But as a national product? No. Again, a million theories, and I’d like throw out a quirky one (finally, we get to the point). I think the way baseball has handled the minor leagues has played a big part in killing the game as a national sport.

Let’s get back to Charlotte for a moment. Charlotte has a large metropolitan population of well over two million people. And the city’s baseball entry point is … nowhere. Atlanta is four hours away and there are a number of Braves fans in Charlotte — more than any other MLB team, I suspect — but there’s really very little passion for the Braves for obvious. Charlotte is like most other cities in the United States. They want to root for a TEAM OF THEIR OWN. Sure, Indianapolis has a lot of Reds fans, Oklahoma City has a lot of Royals fans, Little Rock has a lot of Cardinals fans, Omaha has a lot of Cubs fans. But everyone knows that passion isn’t anything close to what it would be for a local team.

Charlotte, of course, has a local baseball team. That is the Charlotte Knights, a Class AAA team. Almost nobody cares about them. They are moving into a downtown stadium next year, and so people expect a little bit of buzz about them for a while but that buzz will fade and, once again, almost nobody will care about them. Is that because they are a minor league team? Maybe. I think differently.

I think it is because the Knights are not a REAL baseball team.

This is the core of minor league baseball in 2013. The Knights don’t play for Charlotte. They play for the Chicago White Sox. They used to play for the Cleveland Indians. They used to play for the Chicago Cubs. They used to play for the Baltimore Orioles. Now it’s the White Sox. Like it matters.

The White Sox make every single determination about the Charlotte Knights. They decide who plays in Charlotte and who doesn’t. They decide how many pitches each Charlotte pitcher throws and what positions each Charlotte player plays. If a player is hitting well, they will take that player away. If a pitcher is pitching well, they will take that player away. If a pitcher is throwing a two-hit shutout and he reaches his pitch-limit, they will take him out in the middle of an at-bat. If a player is having trouble bunting, they will have him bunt in bizarre situations. If a pitcher is working on developing a change-up, they will have throw it even if he can’t get hitters out. If the Knights have an excellent shortstop but the parent team already has one — they will move that shortstop to second or third base without thinking twice. If there’s a super exciting prospect in Class AA, there’s a good chance he will skip right over Charlotte.

NONE of this is done to help the Charlotte Knights win a game. And that’s because: The White Sox and every other parent team do not CARE if the Charlotte Knights win a game. Oh sure, they’d prefer winning the same way you’d prefer your rental car to be red. It would be nice. Some teams even try to build winners because they would like their minor leaguers to have winning experience. But that’s not the same as trying to win. They really don’t really care. The sole purpose of the minor leagues is to develop players for the major leagues. That’s all. It’s not to build interest for baseball. It’s not to develop fan bases. It’s not to give fans exciting and competitive baseball to watch. Charlotte doesn’t have a competitive baseball team. Charlotte has a training facility, and people are allowed to come watch.

And this is true in Buffalo and Durham and Indianapolis and Albuquerque and Austin and Salt Lake City and Tucson and Harrisburg and Richmond and Jacksonville and Mobile and Tulsa and San Antonio and Modesto and Lynchburg and Salem and Winston-Salem and dozens and dozes of other great American cities. Many of these cities have great fans who come out to the games and root for the teams and care despite the system. But they know, deep down, that they don’t get baseball, not the real stuff, not the highly competitive baseball that Major League teams get. They don’t get a general manager trying to build a great team, don’t get a manager trying to coax everything out of his players, don’t get players who are there to win.

This has been going on for years and years, of course — Bill James among others has railed against it — but now it’s such a part of baseball that no one even thinks about it. People will go to minor league games — more than 41 million did in 2013 — but it’s much more for the experience, for something to do on a summer night. Few follow the team closely, rabidly, because there isn’t any real point in it. The team will do things every single game that they would not do if winning mattered. These are essentially exhibition games. it used to be different. In 1949 — when the country was about half as populous and minor league teams had a lot more autonomy — more than 40 million people attended minor league and Negro Leagues baseball. That’s about the same as this year. There were many more teams, and there was community pride locked up in it, and PEOPLE CARED ABOUT BASEBALL.

It’s just not like that now. There’s little drawing a person in Charlotte to baseball. The Charlotte Knights are trying to sell tickets to their new stadium — what can they sell? They don’t know who will be playing for Charlotte. If they get a good player, they know he won’t be here long. They aren’t trying to win, so they can’t push that angle. They can try to sell baseball, but many, many more kids are playing soccer than baseball. Instead, they do what minor league teams are stuck doing — they create a new logo, offer the widest videoboard in minor league baseball and promise a great experience for you to make business deals. The minor leagues used to create baseball fans all over America. But it has been a long, long time since that was true.

Compare this to football or basketball. Obviously, those sports don’t have a huge organized minor league system like baseball. But that’s OK — they don’t get their talent from the minor leagues. They get their talent from colleges. And, to state the obvious, those colleges are actual teams that try desperately to win. Alabama … Ohio State … Oklahoma … Florida State … Notre Dame … they obviously aren’t controlled by the NFL. They run their own programs and they have gigantic fan bases who are every bit as passionate about their team as Steelers or Packers fans are about their own. Perhaps more.

Kansas … North Carolina … Michigan State … Kentucky … Gonzaga … they obviously aren’t controlled by the NBA. They run their own programs and they have gigantic fan bases who are every bit as passionate about their teams as Knicks or Lakers fans are about their own. Perhaps more.

The point here is not to get into the issues of college sport but to point out that through college sports (and, in many places, through high schools sports) people learn to LOVE THE SPORT. They learn to love the sport not through binoculars focused on a distant professional team but through something that is right there in their own backyard. It’s something baseball simply does not have. Yes, there is college baseball, but the best high school players almost all go to the minor leagues, and the college game is played with aluminum bats, and it simply does not have anything close to the reach or pull as college football or basketball. Heck, this year, the Little League World Series drew almost as many viewers as the College World Series.

I personally think that the people charged with baseball’s future should think very hard about all this. I’m not saying there’s an easy solution. The minor league system is firmly entrenched, and I suspect the major league teams like it just the way it is, and there is so much history of overcome. They’re not going to just completely overhaul the system to give minor league cities the freedom to make their own choices, run their own teams, play to win and become real, live baseball teams.

But there must be some ways to give SOME autonomy back to the minor league teams and allow them to matter again. There must be some way to give cities in America their own baseball teams that they can follow and passionately support. The system right now is set up so that much of America is given no reason whatsoever to love baseball. And you get the sense that much of America is responding and watching something else.

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46 Responses to Rule change: Free the Minors

  1. oira61 says:

    Interesting piece, Joe.

    How is attendance for the independent leagues? We know the players are trying to get back to organized baseball, but are the teams truly trying to win?

    My own take on lower Series ratings is the expansion of the playoffs. When there were fewer rounds, it was more special. Now it’s like the NHL, it just goes on forever. I’m a huge baseball fan, but the teams I like are gone and I’m not watching this Series because I lost interest in the playoffs along the way. Before there were 3 rounds, that wasn’t possible.

  2. One more thought — other sports are facing a problem of a significant portion of them not trying to win for seasons at a time. Half the NBA teams are spending this year positioning themselves for next year. It’s not quite as bad in the NFL, but still probably a quarter of the teams did not enter this year hoping to make the playoffs.

    In baseball, the Astros have done this the past few years, but it hasn’t become widespread.

    The only thing that matter is championships. If you don’t have a realistic chance of winning a championship, you may as well tank the season and position yourself for a championship later.

    In my opinion, this will become a significant problem in sports in the next few years. The product is competition, and a significant number of the teams aren’t really trying to win.

    What if we had EPL-style relegation? What if Charlotte could build a team that could take a place in major league baseball? What if the Astros risked going to the minors by losng triple digit games several years in a row?

    This would require owners volunteering to enter a scheme that would put their investments at much more risk than they currently have (essentially none), but I don’t think a model where a number of teams aren’t trying to win is sustainable.

  3. Freeing the minor leagues would make for a very similar system to the Football League in England. And I think that would be AMAZING – consider some of the massive fan bases even lower-tier teams in England have. Maybe you could even toy with adding relegation, at least in the lower leagues. Major league teams could still draft the top players, but then they would send them out on loan to small teams to get playing time, bringing them back when ready. If the player never got ready, they could be sold to the small team on the cheap and keep having a career in the lower leagues. The trick to all this would be figuring out how to implement it – obviously the MLB teams have footed the bill for all the minor league rosters to this point and you couldn’t very well just strip them of their players. But it would be so great if it could happen somehow.

  4. njwv says:

    As a Bay Area native, it’s interesting to think about how the San Jose Giants (and any other minor league clubs which share the same regional fanbase as the parent club) fit into this. In the case of the Little Giants, they’ve built a lot of the fan appeal into seeing future Giants stars TODAY.

    • owenpoin says:

      I think there’s a lot of potential in somehow encouraging minor league teams to be physically proximate to their parent club. That way the fans have some investment in the players being good. It’s not always possible, but it does change the experience. I used to love playing amateur scout at Pittsfield Mets games. (I just remembered that I used to have the autograph of every Pittsfield Met.) It’s only a partial solution, but it could help. Thing is, any encouragement to do this with any teeth would involve more control over the minors from above, and most other solutions will go in the other direction.

      • njwv says:

        Granted, keeping all minor league teams physically proximate to their parent clubs totally screws over everywhere which isn’t close to a major league club.

        I’m wondering if it’s even possible to have a mix of affiliated clubs and independents in the minors. Maybe it’s impossible to do relegation with the majors. But if you had relegation in the minors and a mix of independent and affiliated teams, the affiliated teams would have to win in order to keep playing the other good teams.

        Spanish soccer (and some other countries too) actually does this where the youth teams (B teams) are in the same tiered structure as the A teams. The only rule is that an A team can’t be in the same league as a B team.

  5. Eric says:

    Fascinating. I’ve been to 2 San Jose Giants games this year. I went specifically because i could get a ticket for half price of the SF Giants Bleacher price and be closer to the hitter than the first baseman. I also go for the good food, easy access, day out of the house. SJ Giants pumps the crowd up between innings, does lots of kid centric activities and seems like a very sweet deal for a family of 4.

    As far as the baseball purest in me, I go for watching players like Mac Williamson and Kyle Crick, two prospects hot on the SF Giants prospect lists. Will they make the majors? Will their pictures be up on the SJ Giants walls like Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Matt Cain, Pablo Sandoval and others? For fans in Charlotte, i imagine not caring as much about feeding stars into Chicago. Also the White Sox farm is considered miserable.

    For a family day out, I don’t think it gets much better than BBQ, cheap beer, cheap seats, and engaging your kids on a nice summer day outside. For a stat head, it really is cool seeing a player developing and wondering if those same skills will make it all the way to the top? Maybe scouting and farm development needs to go more main stream? Everyone likes to say they say Lebron in HS, or Payton at Tennessee, or Andrew Luck at Stanford. Why not also Buster Posey at San Jose?

    To counter the pulling pitchers out in the middle of an at bat. I never saw that. Bunting when it doesn’t make sense? I never saw that either. Maybe PH a guy to get a bunt attempt in, when it did make sense, maybe. The arguement it isn’t “real” baseball is shallow to me. I don’t remember the scores, but I do know the 1 game the SJ Giants won, of the 2, was a lot more fun to be at.

  6. I think Keith said the 79 series between Baltimore and Pittsburgh had an audience of 37 million people. This with the same minor league system in place. I believe you said that in 49 the minor league attendance was 40 million with half the population we have now. There were also way more minor league teams in those days. I would like to know how many people were watching when the world series was strictly day time. Football was not as big a deal in the 50’s. The NFL season started a little bit later back then. They might have played 3 or 4 games by the time the series was over by then. There were no Monday, Sunday or Thursday night games back then. The home games were all blacked out then. The NBA and the college was not a big deal either. There weren’t games on every other night. The NBA was over by the first couple of weeks of April as was hockey. The NCAA basketball tourney was 8 teams. It is just a different world today.

  7. likedoohan says:

    Holding up the corrupt and soon-to-be greatly altered college systems as something to aspire to is nuts. Young athletes should have a right to advance as their talents merit. No player will stay with a minor league team to win a minor league title if he has the option of making the show. The NBA and NFL are colluding with the NCAA to artificially limit the earning potential of adults, who have their rights restricted despite having committed no crime. MLB still seems to making a ton of money, so is it really a problem if its fan base isn’t what sports media and marketing would like it to be? It is a peculiar character of sports writers to posit that if a sport is not “popular enough” (eg soccer), it is somehow the fault of the public.

  8. Jim Devlin says:

    A cursory glance at the ratings for the NBA Finals show that they have dropped about 50 percent since the mid 1990’s, but I don’t see the same hand-wringing that we get every year with the baseball ratings.

    • TV ratings across the board have plummeted. Joe negatively comparing the World Series ratings to the Big Bang Theory was a bit misleading, I thought: The Big Bang Theory is one of the most-watched shows on TV, but even its ratings pale compared to the top rated shows 15-20 years ago.

      There are more distractions now. Our standards for high ratings, aside from football, have changed.

  9. DjangoZ says:

    The solution: build soccer stadiums in all those areas without MLB teams. Oh wait, they’re already doing that.

    I watched baseball as a kid, but you’d have to drag me to a game now. It’s time much better sports stepped to the forefront. I’ll be happy when baseball as a major sport in America is but a memory.

    • If you read the article, you’d see that that’s not gonna happen. Baseball is no longer a national force like it once was, but at a bare minimum it’s going to stick around as a sport with fierce regional loyalties. Baseball clearly appeals to areas with major league teams. It’s expanding that interest that Joe is talking about.

  10. dominicancamp says:

    Great article and brings up a lot of thoughts:

    1) I would like to see baseball find a way to do some things that are being done in Premier League. Particularly 1) have a way to introduce relegation and 2) have an FA Cup type tournament that may involve big league teams, minor league teams, college baseball teams, local men’s league teams, Cuban teams…that would be awesome. I think the big league schedule should include an off-day every week that, occasionally would be used for the FA cup game.

    2) I had a friend who played about 6 years of minor league ball in the Yankees system and then, after being released, played two years in the CAN-AM league (an independent professional league). He said he much preferred the CAN-AM experience because it was more fun, all about winning and nobody was constantly tinkering with his mechanics.

    3) I do believe in the free market economy and there is nothing stopping independent teams from forming in Charlotte or any other town. There is a team called the River City Rascals that plays in the Frontier League. The Sugarland Skeeters (Houston) plays in the Atlantic League. I’m not sure how well these teams do for attendence…etc. These happen to be cities who have an MLB team so a little different than the Charlotte example.

  11. BeninDSM says:

    Presenting why it feels like in my neck of the woods people have more fun with the NorthWoods league than with the minor league teams. Granted we’ve got a major league club to spur love of the game.

    The Northwoods league is a summer wood bat league for current college players looking to keep playing after their season ends they are unpaid though the teams help them find jobs in the area and exchange student style housing. It’s actually a lot of fun.

  12. “Well, everyone has a theory. And one of those theories — one I personally agree with — is that baseball is just not a national game anymore. It is doing brilliantly well regionally.”

    I think this is pretty well beyond dispute at this point, Try and look at it another way: There are a lot of people who will tune into Sunday Night or Monday Night Football, almost regardless of who is playing. There are considerably less who will do the same with baseball. There are more “NFL fans” than there are “MLB fans.” In fairness, there are several reasons for this, not least of which is that football is a spectacle far more condign to television viewing than baseball is.

    I think the difficulty, Joe, is that you’re asking the question “What is best for baseball?” MLB owners – and, indeed, perhaps union representatives as well – are framing their question differently: “What is best for my franchise” – or, at best, “What is best for MLB?” Which is not the same as “what’s best for baseball,” however much these owners assume the two are synonymous, And *that* has been going on for a long, long time.

    And it is unlikely that they will re-frame that question, as you yourself seem to recognize. Without we relegate the anti-trust exemption to the scrap heap, nothing much is going to change. There are 19 affiliated minor leagues, and eight independent leagues out there right now – and the latter are, for the most part, scrabbling to get by financially. So long as the best talent can be locked up by major league franchises, it will be a struggle for those independent leagues to avoid the fate of the Northern league or a hundred others like it over the last 140 years. In the mean time, people *will* still flock to affiliated minor league games in sufficient numbers, despite the fact that there’s little investment in team fortunes: they come to catch a glimpse of future MLB stars, or just to have an affordable and fun night out for the family.

    It seems like the only real alternative on offer is the one noted by other posters here – something like the EPL/TFL promotion-relegation system. I’m open to that, but it’s less clear to me how the current system could be adjusted to give, say, a team in Mobile or Boise any chance for promotion to any significant level. And it would be one heck of a painful and chaotic transition to such a radically different world.

  13. Wilbur says:

    It’s interesting, when it comes to minor league autonomy, the “good guy” was Commissioner Landis, who foresaw that having minor leagues under the control of the major leagues would ultimately destroy them. He was right, in the sense that they would essentially not exist without complete subsidizing by the majors.

    The “bad guy” was Branch Rickey.

  14. NevadaMark says:

    Why would the minor league owners want to change. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t the salaries of all the players, the manager, and the coaches of the affiliated minor league clubs paid by the pertinent major league team? Any businessman with half a brain is going to make some money on a deal like that.

  15. TomC says:

    Nice post Joe. I can cut to the chase, and it also was mentioned by Olbermann. When I was in Little League, and even through high school, I was an Angels fan and a baseball fan. Meaning, I would watch games, especially the playoffs, that didn’t feature the Angels (well, in most of the 80s and all of the 90s, the playoffs never featured the Angels). I used to play fantasy baseball. I don’t play it anymore. Now, I only watch games that the Angels are playing. I had some interest in the playoffs with the Pirates because of family, but after they were eliminated, I didn’t care anymore. Sadly, in our house, the TV was tuned to the awful Bucs-Panthers game instead of Game 2 of the WS. Why? There was more interest in Cam Newton’s fantasy stats than Boston or St. Louis. I can’t really pinpoint a reason I don’t care to watch MLB (again, unless the Angels are playing) much anymore, it just faded away. Olbermann showed a poll that said 50% of MLB fans only watch their own team. Well, actually, I thought of one reason: Clay Buccholz. Seriously, how long does it take to throw one pitch?

  16. Alternator says:

    The Pawtucket Red Sox are consistently successful at drawing fans into the stadium, something in the 800k range a year, and one of the biggest draws is that the major league team is nearby: plenty of those fans are there to see future Boston starters.

    If Charlotte was affiliated with the Braves, maybe they could build from there, but with the more mercenary come-and-go affiliations, it’s a lot harder.

  17. Matt Janik says:

    There are many, many good points here, but there are a couple things I take issue with:

    – I think it does a great disservice to the work some minor league front offices are doing. Don’t get a general manager trying to build a winner, or a manager trying to get the most out of his team? I venture almost every minor league GM or manager would vehemently disagree. They’re all trying to make their way up the ladder the same as any player; ditto broadcasters and groundskeepers, et al. As for connecting with the community, being from Connecticut, I always think about Bill Dowling, president of the New Britain Rock Cats (and somebody who would make for a heck of a profile piece, I think), holding court on the concourse during a game, always willing to talk baseball with whoever happens to be in the stadium on any night. I know the Eastern League better than any other minor league, and teams in New Britain, Conn.; Manchester, N.H.; and Richmond, Va. are always among league leaders in attendance, even though their MLB affiliates are hundreds of miles away. Or there’s the Red Sox model: they have a short-season Class-A team, a Double-A team and a Triple-A team all within a two-hour drive of Boston. Sure, it can be “just something to do” on a summer night, but it’s also a cheaper alternative for the family of four to see future MLB players (particularly at the Double-A level). I don’t think most MiLB people have nearly the disdain for the affiliation system you suggest.

    – While some reform may be in order (nothing’s ever perfect, if it can be made better, let’s go for it), I think the differences in how baseball talent develops preclude a useful comparison with basketball or football. Even after a college baseball career, almost nobody who goes into professional baseball is considered ready for MLB baseball at that time. While being a world-class athlete in any sport involves thousands upon thousands of repetitions, for whatever reason (I think it’s the “individual sport within a team sport” framework baseball is via the hitter/pitcher showdown), baseball seems to require thousands MORE reps than the other major team sports. Just to pick a few superstars currently in the World Series: David Ortiz has over 2,200 career MiLB plate appearances, Carlos Beltran has over 1,500 MiLB plate appearances, Adam Wainwright has thrown nearly 800 MiLB innings, Jon Lester has thrown nearly 500 innings. Baseball, for whatever reason, is just different, and I don’t know that it lends itself to a more independent operation. I think we’d end up with a lot FEWER minor league teams if the structure was broken up (and surely a lot fewer TALENTED minor league teams).

    Think of it this way: a vast, vast, VAST, overwhelming majority of minor league baseball players have jobs as baseball players solely to provide teammates, opposition and competition for the handful of minor leagues who will someday contribute at the Major League level. There’s something noble about that, I think (and something less than noble about how the MiLB industrial complex handles those filler players, but that’s another essay for another time).

  18. BGA says:

    Sort of weird that nobody has mentioned the hockey minor league system, which works almost exactly how Joe would like baseball to work. For example, the Washington Capitals are affiliated with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League, and the Bears have their own general manager who (in addition to the NHL-controlled prospects) signs players to minor-league contracts who are then not controlled by the NHL club unless it chooses to sign the player to a major league contract (of which it is only allowed to carry 50 at one time). The Capitals may request that the Bears use a certain player in a certain role, and they may have a say regarding overall coaching philosophies, but they don’t interfere with the day to day workings of the team. The Bears are committed to winning (they have won 11 Calder Cup championships in their history) which allows the team to survive and thrive in the tiny town of Hershey, PA because the residents there love their team and support it.

    Does that sound like what Joe is going for?

  19. Alejo says:

    You have a point. Think of baseball in the Hispanic Caribbean: baseball is followed all over the region because we have local teams to root for and rivals to hate with passion. These teams HAVE to win, much as the Yankees or the Red Sox, to keep selling tickets, to attract TV viewers and because of simple pride (which is the whole point of sports in the first place).
    Talent goes on to play for MLB teams and people watch MLB to follow local players and because they learn to love the game from childhood.
    But baseball is making lots of money, so why change?

  20. I see the world has rotated away from the way I like to live life. I enjoy a conversation that involves listening to fairly long-winded points and then receiving rebuttals, usually over a delicious beverage. I like to sit outside and watch the trees blow in the wind. I like hand-drawn comics better than Bad Luck Brian memes, hand drawn Disney movies better than Pixar. I enjoy Apocalypse Now Redux and the original Harakiri much more than Michael Bay shlock. Music inspired by the Blue Ridge Mountains with real instruments, rarely EDM, never top-40. And I love sitting down and watching the game of baseball. The problem with all of these things is that they are the functions of a slower, more thoughtful way of life, not a smartphone life. Everything today is whiz-bang-bam and doesn’t even account for thoughtful consideration. If it can’t be consumed WITHOUT DEEP THOUGHT, it is not interesting. These things are just not here for this generation. I could write a whole book on why this is so, but not here and now. I have to go.

    • Ed says:

      You may have some points (although you are painting the world with a massively generalized brush, and there are millions and millions of people who like all the things you are saying AND also like other things), but I don’t think baseball fits into your narrative. Baseball doesn’t require deep thought… if anything, baseball has the least strategy of any of the major sports. It’s slow, but it’s not because it’s exceptionally thoughtful… it’s slow because of numerous things that have nothing to do with actually playing baseball.

  21. Wilbur says:

    There appears to be little incentive for MLB to change the current system. It would have to be forced upon them, beginning with legislatively removing their antitrust exemption.

    I don’t see a groundswell for that.

  22. John Leavy says:

    Relegation, huh? Yeah, that would fly.

    Magic Johnson’s consortium paid $2 billion for the Dodgers, but if they have a bad stretch a few years from now, and finish in last place (not at all impossible), Magic will be perfectly happy to let the Dodgers drop down to Triple A ball, while the Columbus Clippers come up to the big leagues.

  23. Brett Alan says:

    Joe, as with so many questions of baseball on-field strategy that you deal with, it seems to me that the way to answer this question is with the numbers. And the first numbers I can find don’t support your thesis. I Googled up ratings for the Series by city, and I found this, from Forbes:

    “St. Louis led all markets with a 42.0/61, its best MLB postseason rating since Game 7 of the 2011 World Series, followed by Boston’s 37.3/57. Providence (33.8/49), Hartford (21.1/32), Kansas City (13.9/22), Fort Myers (12.3/19), Richmond (11.7/18), Memphis (11.0/16), Detroit (10.0/16), and Greensboro (9.8/14) round out the top ten markets for Thursday night’s broadcast.”

    Well, obviously St. Louis and Boston would draw the highest ratings. The next two cities are clearly within Boston’s fan base. But of the remaining 6 cities, only two have major league teams. Richmond, Memphis, and Greensboro are exactly the kind of places you’re talking about , where there’s no local major league team, and they drew some of the best ratings for the game.

    I don’t know if you have access to more detailed ratings, which of course would tell us a lot more. And of course even if the minor league system isn’t responsible for the bad WS ratings, there still might be other good reasons to change the system.

  24. The lack of national popularity, which I agree is a problem for baseball, has nothing whatsoever to do with the minor league system. The system hasn’t changed in a long time, so it’s preposterous to draw a cause effect relationship to it.

    What has changed outside baseball, with the Internet and the popularity of football, is largely outside of the control of baseball…. Though it does have an impact as potential fans spend their time elsewhere.

    But inside baseball, there are things that have changed that impact popularity, which are entirely fixable by baseball. Pace of the game is well documented. I’m a baseball fan, and I simply will no longer devote 3+ hours to a game that features lengthy delays between pitches and multiple “matchup” pitching changes. The games go way too late for those of us that work.

    The playoffs and World Series are the worst. You have to be uber invested in the teams to watch with the games passing midnight. I distinctly remember the last World Series that I watched with interest. That was the series between the Angels and Giants 10 years ago. Even interested as I was, the games were just too late. I was falling asleep during exciting games. The biggest game, obviously, was game 6, when the Giants appeared to be closing out the Angels, when the Angels rallied (Rally Monkeys!). I saw all the big plays on replay, awoken by the rise in volume of the announcers and the crowd.

    After that, I decided it was no longer worth it to stay up and watch World Series games. Then I just got tires of the length and tedium of most games. Now the only baseball I watch is Braves games on DVR using the fast forward liberally. But I end up deleting most games without watching. I’ve just lost most of my interest in watching.

  25. Steve says:

    First I will disclose that I am a Canadian, and my interest in hockey has decreased the way many of the commenters have described their baseball interest decreasing.

    I think hockey and baseball are the two sports to compare to each other because of the similar minor leagues, relative lack of college attention and regional aspects. Obviously hockey has always been regional in the US. A case could be made that baseball at the MLB level has always been regional too. How many MLB teams were in the Mountain time zone 50 years ago?

    Relegation is a nice thought to have as long as it’s not your favourite team. It will never happen. Boston finished 12th in the AL 2012 regular season, Would they have been relegated?

    IMHO, how MLB and NHL games come across on TV are their biggest issues. MLB is too slow and has not enough replay for 25-and-unders today. How can you explain to a non-baseball fan that a ‘strike’ on the TV grid is really a ball, and vice-versa? With the NHL, the effort/flow of the game is not captured, some of the rules are confusing and the puck is difficult for a beginner/non-fan to see.

    Both MLB and NHL would have to look at complete overhauls to change this situation. And since both are multi-billion-dollar enterprises now, I don’t see it happening.

  26. I agree that TV is a problem for baseball… although it’s more TV with the current pace of game, lateness of the game, etc. I agree on hockey too. Live hockey is great…. I went to a lot of games when we had hockey in the area, but we don’t any longer. So since, to me, hockey is unwatchable on TV, I don’t follow the game any longer.

  27. Tampa Mike says:

    I think playoff fatigue has a lot to do with it. On the AL side you had a tie breaker game, then the wildcard game, then the Division Series, then the Championship Series, and finally now the World Series. Unless you are a big fan, who is going to watch all of that. Baseball plays 162 games to determine who is the best. You don’t need all these playoff on top of it.

  28. Wayne Bugg says:

    I predict a point or two improvement in next year’s World Series viewer ratings based entirely on the fact Tim McCarver is retiring. I have to watch with the mute on for much of the broadcast.

  29. boats says:

    I know this idea won’t work for most teams/regions, but for some it could be really interesting: instead of trying to change the minor league system to make teams “matter” more, why not just have major league teams play one or 2 series a year in the smaller markets.

    I think the team with one of the best cases would be the Royals. Consider the following situation:

    1) Omaha and the states of Nebraska and Iowa(which is just across a river from Omaha) have no MLB teams.
    2) Omaha is less than 200 miles from KC
    3) Omaha has a new (2 yr old) beautiful baseball stadium that was built for the college world series and can hold up to 35,000.
    4)Kansas City already has their AAA team in Omaha so there would presumably already be some interest and there shouldn’t be as many issues with infringing on another team’s area (i.e. whitesox randomly playing a game or 2 in charlotte making braves mad)
    5) Omaha has no teams in the major sports leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, MLS) and might love to have a team to call their own (i.e. OKC immediately embracing the first major team to come to town)

    What keeps the Royals from playing a couple home series there each year? I’m betting that if they move a couple of the lower profile series during the workweek where they would only get 10-15k attendance anyway they would actually have MORE people show up in Omaha for those games because of the special event atmosphere. So in the end you play a few games you weren’t going to come close to selling out anyway in a city only a 3 hour drive away where you probably get a higher attendance. The big plus though is you increase the potential fan base by almost 1 million people, or approx. 50% of the KC market. Those people, once interested, can watch the team year round, buy merchandise, feel the emotional connection to a team from their city, etc.

    Could even try to do the same thing with Oklahoma City (or Des Moines?) and truly try to become a regional team (though the details are more difficult for those cities: smaller stadium, AAA teams for other organizations to compete with, etc).

    Add in OKC and Omaha and the Royals would suddenly shoot from small market to mid-large market team

    The uniform and logo designs could almost write themselves with OKC, KC, and O(maha)

    Why not?

  30. Wilbur says:

    An interesting idea, Mr. Boats. Teams are reluctant to do it because their season ticket-holders lose out on a series at home, and because the track record of such things are not great. The Brooklyn Dodgers, who despite having “the world’s greatest fans” couldn’t draw decent crowds in the 50’s, played some games in Jersey City. The White Sox used to play some games in Milwaukee. Turns out that fans in other cities don’t turn out in droves to watch some other city’s team.

  31. Bob Burpee says:

    Brett Alan thinks he has numbers that contradict Joe’s point that baseball is more a local draw than a national draw. Brett’s numbers actually support Joe’s point.

    Brett listed the top ten markets for ratings of last Thursdays’ game one of the World Series. Of the top ten markets, four are affiliated with the Red Sox and three with the Cardinals. Boston, Providence, and Hartford are in the heart of Red Sox nation; Fort Myers is where the Red Sox play during spring training. K.C. and St. Louis are in Missouri, home of the Cardinals; Memphis is the home of the Cardinals triple A franchise.

    That leaves only three cities not directly affiliated with either the Red Sox or Cardinals. Detroit is a great baseball city still suffering from a baseball hangover. Greesboro has historic ties to the Red Sox and Cardinals, have hosted minor league teams for both though long ago. Memphis has no known ties to either team.

    Seven teams with local ties versus three with “only” national ties. I think that supports Joe. Keep it up Joe. We all appreciate your insight, willingness to delve into a wide variety of topics, and your terrific writing.

    • Brett Alan says:

      Look, I don’t have an agenda here. I went looking for numbers to shed light on the issue, and I felt the first numbers didn’t support Joe’s point. That’s all. One night’s ratings certainly don’t prove anything.

      But your point seems to misunderstand Joe’s. He’s claiming that the current minor league system hurts baseball’s popularity nationwide. If Greensboro watched the series because they long ago had Red Sox and Cardinals affiliates, that hardly supports Joe’s “free the minors” position. What we have, then, is the idea that the local affiliates do a good job of fostering interest in the parent clubs, if not necessarily in baseball as a whole.

      Other than that, well, if you’re right about Fort Myers, KC, and Memphis doing so well because of their ties to the two franchises–and I think you are–then really we’re left with just too small of a sample size to judge anything by. Hopefully someone can come up with more information. Really, if it supports Joe’s point, great!

  32. Rudy Gamble says:

    I live in Austin and the Round Rock team is tied to the Rangers. As a baseball fan (and not a Rangers fan), I’ll take an AAA game over a major league game in a heartbeat. $15 for a great seat. Beer for $5. Good BBQ sandwiches for $5. Cheaper parking. Less traffic.

    Plus, there’s something great about seeing a prospect before they make the major leagues. I remember seeing a Columbus Clipper game with my Dad (when still a Yankee affiliate) when they had Robinson Cano and Dioner Navarro (both were considered very good but not ‘can’t miss’ prospects). I remember us both thinking: 1) The ball just pops off Cano’s bat differently than every other player and 2) Navarro just seems okay. I remember talking with a scout behind home plate. I remember that game more fondly than the Indians and Reds games we saw before/after that game.

    Would this be the same experience if it was ‘independent’ players? No, it’d be worse. I’ll take higher quality baseball with the conceits that come with minor league baseball than independent baseball where the great players will still get poached.

  33. A couple of things worth noting…

    I’m sure you actually KNOW this but it just slipped your mind and actually relates to your point. There ARE many people in Little Rock who are Cardinals fans. However, a few years ago, the Travelers (our local team) switched affiliations to the Angels. Mike Trout in fact played here briefly (to your point).

    In two different ways, government intervention has contributed greatly to the current state of affairs: first, by allowing the anti-trust exemption, giving MLB control of the sport at the professional level. Second, many local governments have issued bonds and/or raised taxes to pay for those new ballparks, saving the parent teams the money. It’s nice for those of us who are fans, but not really fair to the other citizens whose pockets are being picked to allow us the privilege of nicer seating and better views.

    Semi-related, if we could “free the colleges” as well to actually pay the athletes rather than just keeping all the sports-related profits, we might see the colleges supplant (and surpass, in terms of fan support) the current minor league system.

  34. […] soul-killing intentional walk in baseball. The second was not a rule change at all but a plea to make the minor leagues more autonomous and, in that way, bring real baseball to places all over […]

  35. seahawkgoat says:

    Really wish you would have mentioned Des Moines with the Iowa Cubs. One of the best ballparks in the nation, and not just against minor league parks.

  36. Brian says:

    ” Charlotte, which has the largest metropolitan population in America not served by a Major League Baseball team. San Antonio is right behind.”

    Actually, Portland is right behind, at least for now. San Antonio, like Charlotte just did, will likely pass the Portland area in population soon, but then we’ll all pass Pittsburgh in any event.

  37. Adam Katz says:

    Here’s an implementation idea:

    Limit MLB affiliation to AAA. Other affiliation would be to an AA team, if any. I’d love AA to work the way international soccer does; AA would be defined as the “best” of all available teams, defined every few years. MLB would never subscribe to that at the top level, but here’s a proposal that would be an acceptable compromise:

    1. MLB has AAA affiliates and uses AAA for rehab (AA would have an equivalent to this as well, but we can’t let this interfere with the soccer-like league membership rules). MLB drafts into MLB or AAA or has some kind of sponsorship/dibs on pre-draft speculation in other (non-affiliated) leagues. MLB can not steal these players while the leagues they started with in are still playing.

    2. NCAA needs to figure into the formula. Standardize the rules, limit MLB’s draft to certain quotas of AA, NCAA, and free agents. Ideally, MLB should be giving players collegiate scholarships for first-dibs on the post-NCAA draft.

    3. AA needs to be unaffiliated with MLB so they can focus on winning. Start the season well before MLB spring training and hold the championship series late August (making players available for 40-man roster call-ups). AA would have its own expanded roster to promote NCAA players after the College World Series ends in June.

    4. Put the best AA teams into MLB Spring Training. These exhibition games count in AA ball and they push out scheduled AA-AA games into the space between regular and post season AA ball, to be played only if a team that did not participate in Spring Training is in contention for the AA post season and the missed games could have eliminated them.

    5. The champion AA team, if they were in MLB Spring Training in the past two years and had a winning record against MLB in either year, gets to challenge the worst MLB team during the MLB post-season. This should be really hard, perhaps a ten game series requiring seven wins. If the AA team wins, the teams permanently trade leagues (at least, until the next challenge).

  38. I think one of the reasons that fewer folks are watching baseball on TV anyway, is because of all the commercials. Not only between innings and manipulated breaks, but during play. It is distracting when they interrupt play with inane promos of sitcoms etc.

  39. GMAN says:

    Problem with baseball on TV: 1.) Game should take no longer 2 hours and 30 minutes to play 9 innings. 2.) World Series should conclude by October 15th at the latest. Caution: broadening and extending replay review is going to cause rating to collapse as it extends length of a game and that turns fans away. The goal is to make it more watchable: reduce the time between pitches… keep batters in the box. Open up the strike zone a tad. Keep the game moving and crown a champion by Oct. 15.

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