With the new Fox TV deal paying out a reported $5.1 billion dollars for 2022-2028, MLB will be getting a nearly 30% boost from their existing broadcast agreement.
A lot of the early reaction to this news focused on whether these new dollars would be leading to bigger free agent contracts, or whether it would (more likely) just increase the bottom line of wealthy team owners. It’s hard to find baseball commentators or fans who hope to simply see richer owners, and obviously Fox isn’t paying to broadcasting 3 hours of Joe Buck discussing Art Moreno’s winter home.
The game is exciting because we are living in an age where some of the best athletes that have ever picked up a bat or a ball have lived, and we get to watch that in stunning high definition.
But this debate presupposes that baseball wealth can go in one of two directions: enriching free agents or enriching owners. That often is the case with discussions about the anticipated upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) fight: it’s either the owners just pocketing money or free agents getting that money, with no real middle ground.
What rarely gets discussed is everybody else who plays baseball.
With that in mind, I have a much better use for that money than securing 35 year old veterans an extra $10 mil at the back end of their career, or adding another yacht to John Henry and the Steinbrenner brother’s personal fleets.
Properly fund the minor leagues.
Pay living wages to the minor league players.
With the extra $189 million per year it reportedly earns out of the new FOX contract, MLB could give every single minor leaguer a roughly $25,000 annual raise so they make living wages. SPOILER ALERT...— Ted Berg (@OGTedBerg) November 15, 2018
Baseball is somewhat unique among the major sports in having an extensive minor league system, with multiple levels, teams, and players, all of which each major league team has to fund.
For the Rays, that means:
- Class-A Advance
- Class A
- Class A short season
- Rookie League
- Dominican Summer League
Aside from the top end talent and elite signing bonus prospects, the vast majority of players in the minors are badly underpaid, the sheer number of players and fixed costs in the minors adds up.
Compare this to the NFL, where a sweetheart and hyper questionable deal with the NCAA allows for a defacto collegiate minor league system. Instead of the NFL having to pay for player development during the player’s formative years, they pass that responsibility down to the NCAA.
Of course, the NCAA also doesn’t want to pay for these players so they get to claim all sorts of “reasons” for why athletes cannot possibly be given money. So athletes are “paid” in the form of scholarship money, and some costs of living, which hardly compensates them for the hours of work and risk to their health. Basically in lieu of a paycheck you get a gift card to the company store.
At least baseball considers its trainees to be professionals, but MLB teams still need to take more responsibility for the working conditions of these professionals.
The MLB Players Association is interested in securing as much money as possible for their union members. This is why Arbitration, Service Time Manipulation, and Free Agency spending are the biggest topics that get discussed by the MLBPA and its leader Tony Clark. The reason they don’t mention MiLB often (or at all) is simple: they aren’t part of the union yet.
And so long as minor leaguers are not part of the agreement with the MLB Players Association, they have no voice, and baseball owners will be able to keep the minor league operating costs as low as possible without recourse.
This is overly simplistic, but the MLBPA has a responsibility to secure the best deal possible in the new CBA for its members. Sacrificing money or perks of it’s members so non-unionized minor leaguers get a benefit is not exactly their role. This is not to excuse the MLBPA for not stepping up and fighting for the rights of players in their labor market, but it’s the context for why they don’t.
So there are plenty of reasons why the Owners and the MLBPA aren’t going to be focused on taking a piece of this very big pie and giving a slice to the MiLB. But that just means it shouldn’t be up to the owners or the player’s union.
In the new CBA, earmarking at least a portion of this new revue from the Fox broadcasting rights specifically for minor league player salary and benefits would be useful for both the Owners and the MLBPA even if they have other dreams for that money.
First, paying the minor leaguers isn’t just something the league should do because having a huge swath of your future players earning barely enough to pay for ramen noodles is a weird and bad look (it is a bad look, but that’s not the biggest reason they should do it). They should do it because you are increasing your investment in your future workforce.
Consider this from firebrand Dirk Hayhurst, an honest, brash voice even if he’s an unpopular one:
In Low-A ball, I lived without a refrigerator. I had a Styrofoam cooler in which I put milk and bread with ice I took from hotels. I didn’t have any means by which to cook raw food—no range, not even a microwave. I lived entirely off of peanut butter and jelly simply because it wouldn’t spoil, and it’s what I could afford.
During spring training in minor league camp, I bought a glass bowl with a lid and used it to make pasta in the hotel microwave or reheat the food I snuck from the complex.
In spring training, you were given only $120 per week in meal money, no paycheck. That $120 was gone in three nights at a sit-down restaurant—or you could stretch it by eating fatty fast food all week. Ironic, since there are rules about proper diet and being in shape; they go out the window when you’re barely paid enough to eat.
Developing young athletes should be eating a great diet, and top notch nutrition is not cheap. Piece of mind isn’t cheap either.
The particulars of minor-league life alone are exhausting: Clubs typically provide players hotel rooms for the first few days of an assignment, but minor leaguers need to find their own housing beyond that. Trades, promotions and demotions can come with little warning, forcing players to scramble to find places to sleep or new roommates to cover the rent when someone else leaves. Air mattresses are ubiquitous. Johnson prefers playing road games, because road trips come with real beds in hotel rooms and $25 of per diem meal money.
If players are forced to work extra jobs to be able to keep living their dream and support their families, they are splitting their focus from becoming better at baseball.
Second, this is an easy way for the league to be pro-labor where it truly counts.
Free Agents, huge signing bonus prospects, ownership profits, all of those things are doing fine. They really are. Yes they all believe they could be getting more, and they are probably right. Baseball is a cash cow. But the league should be mandating that the new money being spent by Fox to cover this game should go to all the players who are not household names yet, even if those players may only reach as high as being the back-up catcher who comes through with an amazing RBI single in the ALDS.
Maybe they top out with a cup of coffee and a long Triple-A career. Maybe they’re the next Jose Ramirez. Maybe they never leave Double-A. Each person has dignity and worth, and MLB should be ensuring the best care for its minor league players.
It would be a rising tide that lifts all boats, increasing the quality of life for many to allow more to succeed. People taking care of people, no matter who they eventually become. It would be the most pro-labor thing MLB could do.
Finally, and simply, team’s don’t want to spend huge on Free Agents anymore. I mean that’s a wild over simplification, but expensive, 30-year old+ FA are not exactly what the market craves. That trend is going away, and paying a living wage to minor leaguers fits in that trend.
It’s a reality facing all major league teams. Free Agency is icing on a cake. Young and cost controlled talent is where that delicious cake comes from!
By shifting new revenue towards the minor leagues rather than being dumped into the team’s major league budget with the expectation (or requirement) to spend more on major league players, it allows teams to continue to operate by utilizing their budgets to the best of their ability, investing where investment is required. The future of baseball will be built on investments in the future of baseball, not the aging past.
There are 5.1 billion dollars Fox has agreed to pay in order to broadcast Major League Baseball, and it’s not for the old vets who are well past their prime, or to create personal wealth increases year over year. It’s also a bid for the future of the sport.
MLB should in turn invest further in that future — the next wave of young players — allowing them to develop their talent without the restrictions currently faced by minimal salaries and wealth concerns. MLB should make these investments intentionally, and with clarity, not for publicity but because it’s the right thing to do.