“You’ll have to forgive me,” said the woman at the register
“We just got here, and I am trying to remember where everything is.”
I smile and assure her it is no problem. She smiles back as she moves her finger to her chest and points to the logo for a local youth sports club on her shirt. “We’re working concessions to raise money for our kid’s team” she says before turning to the woman next to her to tell her my order. Each spring and into the summer, community organizations volunteer their time working the concession stands at L.P. Frans Stadium in Hickory, North Carolina. In exchange for a couple of hours each week organizations from across the community can enjoy a slice of the Crawdad’s concessions plus whatever money they raise in tips. For programs like youth football leagues, dance programs, Boys and Girls Scouts, and Church groups the money can cover an upcoming trip, new equipment, or provide the revenue needed to help administer programs that give back to the community. “I recall cutting checks for $15 to $20 grand at the end of the season for organizations [that participate in this program]” says Rocky Mountain Vibes President and General Manager Chris Phillips. “If we go, so do all these opportunities.”
Each summer in towns across the United States, Minor League teams partner with local community groups and charitable organizations to raise funds through concessions partnerships, 50-50 raffles, promotional jersey sales, as well as partnering with national organizations like the American Cancer Society, the ALS Association, and the BairFind Foundation to locate and rescue missing and exploited children. In 2018, Minor League Baseball donated a total of $19.5 million dollars in cash to local charities as well as $25.5 million dollars as in-kind gifts. This figure includes a total of $6.7 million dollars donated back to the communities by the 42 teams slated to be eliminated by Major League Baseball as part of the new PBA to go in effect prior to the start of the 2021 season. It’s also hard to ignore the less tangible impact that these teams have on their communities. Programs like the Great Falls Voyagers’ “9 Innings of Reading” reading program reached 2,500 students in a community of less than 60,000, while a similar program operated by the Columbia (S.C.) Fireflies reached 65,000 students in 153 schools during the Spring of 2017, and an additional 25,000 students in library and YMCA programs that summer.
Looking beyond charitable work, the impact that this will have on local economies will be immediately felt if Major League Baseball’s attempt to reduce and restructure the Minor Leagues in its current form takes place. Teams such as the Norwich Sea Unicorns employ 10 full-time staff members and several dozen seasonal employees, while its short-season counterpart in the Pioneer League, the Rocky Mountain Vibes, employ 15 full-time staff members and an estimated 140 seasonal-employees who run promotions, serve as ushers, as well as manage concessions and work the gift shop. This move to cut the 42 teams will cost the Sports and Leisure Management field an estimated 500 full-time positions and result in the loss of thousands of seasonal jobs. It will also mean the loss of local contracts for food and drink vendors, local purchasing agents, printers, and other groups that regularly pump millions of dollars per team back into the local economy.
Finally, there are the sunk costs that communities have poured into facilities to help keep Minor League facilities up to spec based on Major League Baseball’s requirements. Prior to the 2019 season the community of Elizabethton, Tennessee allocated $1.5 million dollars in funds to stadium upgrades to ensure that the ballpark met the growing requirements placed on Minor League clubs by Major League Baseball. In a community of under 15,000 where nearly 1 in 5 people live below the poverty line the investment of $1.5 million dollars reflects both the importance that this team has to the community and the function the team plays in its local economy. The University of Vermont leased Centennial Field to the Vermont Lake Monsters for $1 a year for 20 years in order to allow the team to allocate funds for renovations. Given the current value of the land in the region and UVM’s recent history of growing their campus, the decision to rent the ballpark to the Lake Monsters at the cost of a McDonald’s soda is indicative of the importance the team plays to the people of the Champlain Valley.
Major League Baseball’s decision to allow communities such as Elizabethton, T.N. ($1.5m in 2019), Burlington, N.C. ($1.3m in 2019, $3.5m since 2014), and many other communities across the country like Billings, M.T. (new ballpark within the last 20 years) and State College, P.A. (the first LEED-certified ballpark in the country that isn’t yet 15 years old) to invest millions of dollars into facilities that could be gone within the next 12 months reflects a bad faith effort by Major League Baseball (a league that generated a record $10.7B in profits in 2019) to make reasonable deals with the communities that support their organizations.
As I am writing this piece, I think about the woman in Hickory, the family working together in the concessions stands in Princeton, W.V., my friends who have spent their adult lives keeping baseball alive in communities across the Northeast, and the millions of people who rely on these teams to provide affordable family fun each and every summer. I also think about the college students studying sports management who are about to enter a job market that is about to be reduced by hundreds of full-time positions, and will now have to compete in a shrinking field against competition with years of experience who will be scrambling to find a job in their industry. The decision by Major League Baseball to reduce these 42 teams will be felt wide-and-far across the country and will likely have a trickle-down impact that will hurt the organizations and businesses that partner with these 42 clubs each year. It especially pains me to see the look of disappointment on the faces of people who look forward to the start of each season, the promise of a new team, and a shot at a league title when a multi-billion-dollar a year industry decides to cut ties with their community.
What we can do:
- Participate in our Opening Week Campaign to tell Major League Baseball owners, Commissioner Rob Manfred, Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem, and the sports world that we demand to keep Minor League Baseball alive in our communities.
- Participate in our future campaigns and use the hashtags #SaveMinorLeagueBaseball and #SaveMiLB
- Tell your Mayors/City Councils, Members of Congress, and Senators to support Minor League Teams and participate in programs such as the Mayor’s Task Force to Save Minor League Baseball and the Congressional Task Force to Save Minor League Baseball. It’s a cause that has been supported by both major parties as well as independents.