Authors: Mark Mitchell, Jacob Voegel, and Sara Nimmo
Mark Mitchell, DBA
Professor of Marketing
Associate Dean, Wall College of Business
NCAA Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR)
Coastal Carolina University
P. O. Box 261954
Conway, SC 29528
Mark Mitchell, DBA is Professor of Marketing at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC.
Jacob Voegel, PhD is Assistant Professor of Management at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC.
Sara Nimmo is a 2022 Honors Graduate of Coastal Carolina University. She served as a Marketing Intern during the 2021 season of minor league baseball, the first season after the 2020 cancelled season.
Ensuring the Business Sustainability of Minor League Baseball After the COVID Global Pandemic
The COVID global pandemic greatly impacted the sports industry as leagues had drastic budget cuts and were forced to compensate for the lost revenues. The purpose of this study is to examine the strategies used by Minor League Baseball (MiLB) teams and leagues to ensure their survival in the short-term and to sustain their operations in a post-COVID environment. Consultation with officials of a local minor league team, in addition to extensive information search, identified the strategies used by teams and leagues. A cluster analysis was then performed to classify the strategies into categories of similar topics. The results suggested teams and leagues took an “Income Statement Approach” to ensuring their survival. That is, they focused on: (a) maximizing revenue and finding new revenue sources; while (b) finding ways to reduce operating expenses. Minor league baseball teams navigated the loss of the 2020 season and the adjusted operations of the 2021 season to return to more-normal operations in the 2022 season. Lessons learned during the COVID period were applied to streamline their operations in the short-run and to ensure the sustainability of their business in the long-run. Coaches seek to develop an ‘adjust-and-adapt mentality’ in their athletes. The COVID global pandemic forced all of society to adopt this approach. Minor league baseball leagues and teams adopted this approach and they successful sustained their operations. Today, the industry continues to be a vital source of family entertainment and community pride while concurrently serving as the primary development path for the Major League Baseball (MLB) players of the future.
Key Words: minor league baseball, business sustainability
Professional baseball was not immune to the effects of the COVID global pandemic. In June 2020, Major League Baseball (MLB) canceled the 2020 season for minor league teams when they alerted their minor league affiliated teams that MLB would not make players available for the 2020 season (3). At that time, the CEO of Minor League Baseball (known as MiLB) Pat O’Conner described the situation as follows (26):
“These are unprecedented times for our country and our organization as this is the first time in our history that we’ve had a summer without Minor League Baseball. While this is a sad day for many, this announcement removes the uncertainty surrounding the 2020 season and allows our teams to begin planning for an exciting 2021 season of affordable family entertainment.”
For their 2020 season, Major League teams played a 60-game schedule with an increased focus on the geographic proximity of teams (16). The league’s Division Series, League Championship Series, and World Series were contested at neutral site locations in Texas (Houston and Arlington) and California (San Diego and Los Angeles) (17).
In Spring 2021, Major League Baseball announced a restructuring of its Minor League system beginning with the 2021 season. The new model provided for increased player salaries, modernized facilities, and reduced travel time and costs. A new Professional Development League (PDL) was organized with four partner leagues: The American Association, Atlantic League; Frontier League; and Pioneer League. The Triple-A affiliate teams (its highest level) were reassigned to be closer to their major league clubs (18). The restructuring reduced the number of affiliated teams from 160 to 120 (12). Rob Manfred, MLB Commissioner, described the changes as follows (18):
“In modernizing our Minor League system, we prioritized the qualities that make the Minor Leagues such an integral part of our game while strengthening how we develop professional athletes on and off the field.”
It can be argued that the above changes to Minor League Baseball helped to sustain the longevity of the industry (e.g., its sustainability as a business) in the short-run and may be invaluable in sustaining the business over the long-term. This study examines the strategies undertaken by Minor League Baseball teams and leagues to survive the COVID pandemic and to ensure their long-term viability as business entities. First, an overview of the organization of Minor League Baseball and their affiliates is provided. Second, a review of the actions taken by minor league teams and leagues to ensure their ability to operate is presented. Finally, key take-a-ways from minor league baseball’s experience are advanced for athletic administrators to consider as they seek to shepherd their organizations through the (assumedly) post-COVID period.
THE ORGANIZATION OF MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL
There are currently 30 Major League Baseball teams operating in the United States. Each of these teams has an affiliated Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, and Low-A team. Additionally, MLB operates two leagues for first-year player or rookie players: the Arizona Complex League (ACL) and the Florida Complex League (FCL), where games take place at the Spring Training sites of MLB teams. Additional teams bring the total to 179 teams across 17 leagues in 43 states and 4 provinces (18). The current organization of Major League Baseball and its Affiliated Minor League teams is presented in Table 1.
Table 1: Major League Baseball and Minor League Affiliates
|Arizona Diamondbacks||Reno Aces||Amarillo Sod Poodles||Hillsboro Hops||Visalia Rawhide|
|Atlanta Braves||Gwinnett Stripers||Mississippi Braves||Rome Braves||Augusta GreenJackets|
|Baltimore Orioles||Norfolk Tides||Bowie Baysocks||Aberdeen IronBirds||Delmarva Shorebirds|
|Boston Red Sox||Worchester Red Sox||Portland Sea Dogs||Greenville Drive||Salem Red Sox|
|Chicago Cubs||Iowa Cubs||Tennessee Smokies||South Bend Cubs||Myrtle Beach Pelicans|
|Chicago White Sox||Charlotte Knights||Birmingham Barons||Winston-Salem Dash||Kannapolis Cannon Ballers|
|Cincinnati Reds||Louisville Bats||Chattanooga Lookouts||Dayton Dragons||Daytona Tortugas|
|Cleveland Guardians||Columbus Clippers||Akron RubberDucks||Lake County Captains||Lynchburg Hillcats|
|Colorado Rockies||Albuquerque Isotopes||Hartford Yard Goats||Spokane Indians||Fresno Grizzlies|
|Detroit Tigers||Toledo Mud Hens||Erie SeaWolves||West Michigan Whitecaps||Lakeland Flying Tigers|
|Houston Astros||Sugar Land Skeeters||Corpus Christi Hooks||Asheville Tourists||Fayetteville Woodpeckers|
|Kansas City Royals||Omaha Storm Chasers||Northwest Arkansas Naturals||Quad Cities River Bandits||Columbia Fireflies|
|Los Angeles Angels||Salt Lake Bees||Rocket City Trash Pandas||Tri-City Dust Devils||Inland Empire 66ers|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||Oklahoma City Dodgers||Tulsa Drillers||Great Lakes Loons||Rancho Cucamonga Quakes|
|Miami Marlins||Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp||Pensacola Blue Wahoos||Beloit Snappers||Jupiter Hammerheads|
|Milwaukee Brewers||Nashville Sounds||Biloxi Shuckers||Wisconsin Timber Rattlers||Carolina Mudcats|
|Minnesota Twins||St. Paul Saints||Wichita Wind Surge||Cedar Rapids Kernels||Fort Myers Mighty Mussels|
|New York Mets||Syracuse Mets||Binghamton Rumble Ponies||Brooklyn Cyclones||St. Lucie Mets|
|New York Yankees||Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders||Somerset Patriots||Hudson Valley Renegades||Tampa Tarpons|
|Oakland Athletics||Las Vegas Aviators||Midland RockHounds||Lansing Lugnuts||Stockton Ports|
|Philadelphia Phillies||Lehigh Valley IronPigs||Reading Fightin Phils||Jersey Shore BlueClaws||Clearwater Threshers|
|Pittsburgh Pirates||Indianapolis Indians||Altoona Curve||Greensboro Grasshoppers||Bradenton Marauders|
|San Diego Padres||El Paso Chihuahuas||San Antonio Missions||Fort Wayne TinCaps||Lake Elsinore Storm|
|San Francisco Giants||Sacramento River||Richmond Flying Squirrels||Eugene Emeralds||San Jose Giants|
|Seattle Mariners||Tacoma Rainiers||Arkansas Travelers||Everett AquaSox||Modesto Nuts|
|St. Louis Cardinals||Memphis Redbirds||Springfield Cardinals||Peoria Chiefs||Palm Beach Cardinals|
|Tampa Bay Rays||Durham Bulls||Montgomery Biscuits||Bowling Green Hot Rods||Charleston RiverDogs|
|Texas Rangers||Round Rock Express||Frisco RoughRiders||Hickory Crawdads||Down East Wood Ducks|
|Toronto Blue Jays||Buffalo Bisons||New Hampshire Fisher Cats||Vancouver Canadians||Dunedin Blue Jays|
|Washington Nationals||Rochester Red Wings||Harrisburg Senators||Fredericksburg Nationals||Fredericksburg Nationals|
Minor League Baseball was cancelled for the 2020 season. This closure left teams with very little revenue with no games to play and no tickets to be sold. Then, teams saw reduced revenues in 2021 while playing a reduced schedule in front of smaller numbers of fans due to both social distancing requirements and fear among some possible ticket-buyers about attending events with large numbers of people present. Faced with this unprecedented situation, teams and leagues had to undertake strategies to ensure the viability and sustainability of their businesses. At that time, no one could accurately predict the length of the COVID pandemic and the extent of its impact on their business and broader society.
Consultation with officials of a local minor league team, in addition to an extensive information search, identified the strategies used by teams in the industry. A cluster analysis was then performed to classify the strategies used into categories of similar topics, such as ‘ticket revenues’ or ‘game scheduling strategies.’ What emerged were patterns of behaviors across teams and leagues.
Financial statements present the operating characteristics of an entity for either: (a) a specific date in time (such as the Balance Sheet); or (b) a period of time (such as the Income Statement). The Income Statement reports revenues and expenses for a period of time and provides an overall view of a firm’s operating performance (24). The results of this cluster analysis suggested leagues and teams took an “Income Statement Approach” to ensure their survival. That is, teams had to be creative in developing new revenue streams and cutting expenses just to survive during the COVID pandemic. These strategies are summarized in Table 2.
Table 2: Overview of Minor League Baseball’s Survival Strategies
|Developing New Revenue Streams||Identifying Cost Reductions|
Broadcasting and Media Rights
Monetization of Activities
Hosting Non-Sporting Events
Salaries and Staff Sizes
Reduced Roster Size and Player Compensation
Developing New Revenue Streams
Minor League sports and their respective teams have put numerous practices in place to develop new revenue streams to counteract the adverse effects the COVID pandemic. The three key revenue streams for any minor league sports team tend to be: (a) ticket revenue; (b) sponsorship; and (c) broadcasting and media rights. Additional revenues can come from naming rights, monetization of the experience, and the hosting non-sporting events and facility rentals. Teams focused on growing their traditional sources of revenue while concurrently learning how to generate new revenue in ways new to them.
Ticket Revenue. Ticket sales are often the most significant revenue driver in sports, especially in Minor League sports that do not have as large a fan following and play in smaller stadiums compared to their Major League parent clubs. On average, the top 20 MiLB teams pulled in $9.8 million in revenue per team, of which 49% (approximately $4.8 million) came from ticket sales (20). Minor League teams do not have the television and sponsorship monies of the major league parent teams. They must play the games, sell the tickets, sell the merchandise, sell the food & beverages, and entertain the fans to earn their revenue.
Sponsorships. Sponsorships in Minor League Baseball have been a local tradition as local businesses proudly affiliate and sponsor their local teams. Now, sponsorships in Minor League Baseball have become increasingly important as a means to grow team revenue. Minor league baseball clubs can make between $3 and $25 million a year from sponsorships, according to the MiLB (19). With the COVID pandemic, these numbers fell during 2020 but rebounded in the 2021 season and 2022 seasons. Digital media sponsorships also proved beneficial, particularly during the COVID pandemic when teams could not host fans. Many teams offered their sponsors the opportunity to continue promotions through the teams on their websites and social media.
Broadcasting and Media Rights. Broadcasting and media rights have become a fundamental part of minor league sports. Broadcasting rights allow fans to view the game without being physically present, allowing the hosting league to earn substantial amounts of revenue through subscriptions and media deals. Minor League Baseball previously held a media rights deal with TuneIn on the audio side and to MLB (which then puts them on streaming service MiLB.tv) for what John Ourand of Sports Business Journal cites as “a rights fee in the low seven figures,” but that seems set to change, with Ourand reporting that MiLB has now hired sports agency Octagon to shop their rights around elsewhere (9). Ourand also states, “Given the number of direct-to-consumer services currently in the market, that fee easily could double, even as Major League Baseball has discussed contracting up to 42 minor league teams (9).”
Naming Rights. Naming rights to stadiums has been a solid revenue stream for sports teams for generations, the first being Budweiser Stadium of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1953 (25). Currently, naming rights can bring in revenues of up to $5 million for a 20-year naming rights deal for a minor league sports team (15).
There are many advantages and disadvantages to brands buying the naming rights of sports stadiums, which has both revenue and cost implications. Some teams have even decided not to renew their naming rights deals, specifically the Frisco RoughRiders, after being named Dr. Pepper Ballpark has been renamed Riders Field in 2017 as the team didn’t want to spend the money to replace stadium signage (7).
Since the COVID pandemic, some teams have opted to auction their naming rights in more creative ways to increase fan engagement and to further their community connections. For example, the Beloit Snappers said goodbye to their old Pohlman Field by auctioning the naming rights for every home game in the 2021 season before the team’s new downtown ballpark opened. The winning bidder for each game was able to choose the ballpark’s name for the night and received eight tickets to the game, two vinyl signs displayed at the stadium featuring their stadium name, public address announcements throughout the game, a radio interview during an inning, inclusion of their stadium name on the team website, the opportunity to lead the singing of the seventh-inning stretch, and a group photo with team mascot Snappy (22). All the proceeds earned from the naming rights auction were donated to the Stateline Boys and Girls Club, and though it was not an additional revenue stream, it did allow them to engage more of their community and bring in other fans throughout the season.
Monetization of Activities. Many minor league teams have developed creative ways to find additional revenue at each event when games can be played. Some strategies for monetizing the in-game experience include jersey auctions, 50/50 raffles, and theme nights, all which bring in additional revenue that can be used to support various departments, especially marketing and fan engagement.
Teams have long utilized jersey auctions to generate revenue, specifically on themed or promotional nights. Jersey auctions allow patrons to bid and purchase game-worn jerseys, most going above the average price of a jersey sold in the team Pro Shop. Jersey auctions begin at a set price, which is usually slightly below the price for a custom jersey to be made, but as the game proceeds, bid prices rise to often double the price of a regular jersey. Many teams have multiple jersey auctions throughout the season, which bringing in thousands of dollars in revenue.
Most minor league teams utilize another strategy during games: holding a 50/50 raffle. Again, it is not a substantial revenue stream, but it helps to support various departments in their day-to-day activities. Tickets for a 50/50 raffle are typically sold for $5-$10, depending on the level of the team, with the potential to generate at least $1,000 per game. With larger audiences and fans willing to pay higher prices, the payout for minor league teams can increase substantially. In addition, since 50/50 raffles are held at every home game, the profits multiply throughout the season and can be used as supplemental income for various departments.
Lastly, theme nights can draw increased fan support, thus raising revenue through increased ticket, merchandise, and food and beverage sales. MiLB teams use a combination of specialized jerseys and merchandise, in-game experiences, and themed attractions, food and drinks to provide unique themed gameday experiences.
Hosting Non-Sporting Events. Teams are hosting non-sporting events at their facilities to diversify their revenue streams. Winston (27) notes that minor league baseball stadiums offer a cost-effective and unique meeting options for company and community groups:
“From Albuquerque, N.M., to Akron, Ohio; from Lancaster, Pa., to Louisville, Ky.; and from Tacoma, Wash. to Trenton, N.J., minor-league baseball stadiums are proving they can host productive meetings, provide first-class service and offer reasonable rates. And they’re heeding the calls of planners for new types of meeting and event spaces by adapting their facilities for groups or creating new facilities specifically for the meetings trade. There’s something about a ballpark that seems to bring out creativity that might well be stifled in the usual meeting room back at the office. Perhaps it’s the green grass, the field of dreams, the American pastime or the fact that thousands of empty seats will be filled with excited fans in a few hours (27)”.
One team, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, even listed their stadium on Airbnb as a rental to generate income during the COVID pandemic (1).
According to a Sports Business Journal analysis of hundreds of sports venues and musical acts’ schedules and recent box office data from Pollstar, more than 500 concerts scheduled for arenas and stadiums in 2020 were canceled or postponed by the COVID pandemic. The estimated loss represented nearly $1 billion in total projected revenue and now that many restrictions have been lifted on spectator events, teams are taking advantage of this important business category (8).
The most recent figures provided by the 2014 Economic Impact of Meetings to the U.S. Economy by the Convention Industry Council (CIC) estimated a $115 billion value for the events and meetings industry, which account for $10.36 billion in spending on venue rental (21). Additionally, with these events taking place, there is often additional income from food and beverage to be included with many events, which adds to the support stadiums and ballparks receive by hosting these events.
Identifying Cost Reductions
Amid the COVID pandemic, minor league sports teams had to find new ways to cut costs to ensure the sustainability of their businesses while also maintaining functionality to ensure life after the pandemic. The most common of these cost-cutting strategies included reorganizing into smaller leagues, reducing staff size and salaries, and implementing new game scheduling formats, among other tactics.
Smaller Leagues. Beginning with the 2021 season, Major League Baseball reduced the number of affiliated teams from 160 to 120. These remaining 120 teams were reorganized into new, smaller divisions that were geographically clustered, thus offering a cost-effective and efficient mode of player development. Affiliated short-season and rookie leagues in the Northeast, the Rockies, and the Appalachians were also absorbed into collegiate and draft-showcase leagues during the process (16).
Salaries and Staff Size. As noted earlier, the 2020 MiLB season was cancelled. Since the season’s cancellation meant the absence of any ticket revenue, teams were forced to furlough or lay-off employees or to cut staff salaries to survive the pandemic before resuming play in the 2021 season. Many staff positions were at least temporarily eliminated resulting in fewer internship opportunities and more responsibilities added to those employees who remained. With an estimated $12.3 billion in earnings lost during the COVID pandemic, approximately 1.3 million sports jobs were furloughed, reduced, or erased (11). As the effects of the pandemic lessened in 2022, leagues were able to resume play and rehire many employees.
In a study on the popular sports job posting site, TeamWork Online, it is stated that jobs on the site have rebounded over the past three quarters, nearly reaching the average number of job postings within the data set in Q1 2021. The number of new postings increased 67.2% from Q3 2020 to Q4 2020, and then grew by 36.0% more from Q4 2020 to Q1 2021 (14). It can be concluded that the job market in sports has been on the rebound since play resumed, but it will take time for teams in all areas of sports to make a complete comeback after the COVID pandemic.
Game Scheduling. Another result of the COVID pandemic was a reworking of game schedules to reduce travel and (assumedly) try to contain outbreaks of the COVID virus. Minor League Baseball team schedules were regionalized and included six-game series to reduce travel and cut expenses (4). The game schedule structure for 2021 and the league alignment continued into the 2022 season since COVID and its variants are still a threat (4). The two Triple-A Minor League Baseball divisions featured 142 regular-season games per team, while clubs in the Double-A, High-A, and Low-A divisions played 120 games apiece (10). In 2022, the Triple-A schedule would expand from 144 to 150 games to “help Triple-A baseball better align with the Major League season” (13).
Reduced Roster Size and Player Compensation. In 2020, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) reduced the 2020 draft from 40 rounds to five, deferred large portions of draft bonuses, and lowered the bonus cap for undrafted free agents from $125,000 to $20,000. This change made it possible for teams to save money during desperate times as MLB teams saved a few million per franchise (5). These strategies continued into 2021 when the MLB draft was cut in half, offering 20 rounds to continue the money-saving strategy in a post-COVID world. The 2022 player draft will also have 20 rounds (2).
Team Travel. As previously noted, MiLB was reorganized into geographic clusters to reduce travel costs. Some Minor League teams even changed their parent-team affiliation to further reduce travel costs. For example, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in South Carolina, previously a High-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, were dropped down into the Low-A division, while the South Bend Cubs in Indiana were raised from Low-A to High-A. With the realignment of Minor League Baseball, the few schedule format (6-game series each week with Monday’s off) cut scheduled travel mileage by 28 to 56% and reduced expenses in their first season of operations under Major League Baseball after the pandemic (6). Scheduled games were still played, but it cost less to move, house, and feed the players.
U.S. Federal Reserve economists estimate an extra 200,000 firms were permanently closed in the first year of the COVID pandemic with approximately 600,000 total establishments closing the following year. This number represents approximately 8.5% of all businesses. Further, some businesses survived but had to close selected locations (such as a retailer closing a few stores). The final number of business closures due to COVID will take years to sort out (23). However, to date, no Minor League baseball teams are included on any such closure lists. Team staffing may be smaller and a selection of outside vendors may have closed; However, to date, no minor league baseball teams or leagues completely closed. In the short run, teams and leagues remained flexible to adjust their operations to the new normal and adapt to the new environment.
The COVID pandemic caused a complete cancellation of the 2020 Minor League Baseball season. For the 2021 season, teams played a reduced schedule in front of smaller crowds due to social distancing restrictions and select fan aversion to attending large events. But, all teams and leagues survived. This outcome was not assured as the world began to grapple with the impact and implications of the COVID pandemic.
As the 2022 season dawned, the business entities that own and operate Minor League Baseball teams took an Income Statement approach to their very survival which was to find “NEW REVENUE STREAMS” while concurrently implementing “NEW COST REDUCTIONS.” The tactics needed to ensure their very short-term survival have the potential to ensure the long-term sustainability of their teams and leagues. As a result, Minor League baseball fans can continue to enjoy cost-effective family entertainment while watching the next generation of Major League players work through the player development process with stops in their communities.
APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
Over 2,300 years ago, Greek philosopher Plato wrote in his Republic that (translated) having a problem can foster greater creativity when coming up with solutions. In the 1600’s, an English playwright advanced that “necessity is the mother of invention” (28). The COVID pandemic forced all people to apply this axiom to their personal and professional lives. Unfortunately, many lives were lost. Businesses and careers were altered or destroyed. The true cost of COVID may never be known. Sports teams and leagues learned to do new things new ways. Operating ‘comfort zones’ were redefined. One irony is that many solutions outlined above were always available of teams. However, their motivation to true new approaches was low. COVID changed that antiquated philosophy … it mirrored Plato’s observation that ‘a problem can foster greater creativity when coming up with solutions.’
Coaches teach their athletes to adjust-and-adapt. A baseball player is encouraged to forget a strike-out at a key moment. A basketball player is encouraged to forget a missed game-tying free throw shot. COVID required entire athletic teams, leagues, and, for that matter, the entire sports industry to adopt this adjust-and-adapt mentality to ensure their very survival. Moving forward, this enhanced need to “adjust-and-adapt” will (assumedly) better position those organizations to deal with adversity in the future. During film sessions with players, coaches will often encourage their athletes to remember this play, formation, or situation. Moving forward, all individuals and groups in the business of sport are encouraged to take the lessons learned from COVID to be better prepared for the future. Many new strategies or behaviors will be retained in the post-COVID period. At the beginning of the pandemic, the general public would often note with cautious optimism that “we’ll be better for having gone through this!” That sentiment has been a prophetic and accurate statement. Today, coaches, players, and athletic administrators move forward fortified with the lessons from COVID and the confidence to know they can and will ‘adjust and adapt’ as needed.
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