Andy Dolich | Preserving MiLB is integral to the soul – and business – of baseball

Former NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL senior executive Andy Dolich examines the need to safeguard the future of Minor League Baseball.

Andy Dolich

“People will come,” says Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred. 

They’ll come to towns all over the US for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking. They’ll walk to the bleachers and sit in their shorts on perfect afternoons to cheer their young baseball heroes. The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. 

People will come, Rob. The one constant through all the years Rob, has been Minor League Baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But Minor League Baseball has marked the time by accessibility. These fields from coast to coast, these games are part of our past our present and our future. 

Oh, people will continue to come Rob. Millions will most definitely come.

Apologies to W.P. Kinsella, author of the novel that inspired Field of Dreams, and James Earl Jones.

The Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) between Major League Baseball and Minor League teams expires at the end of the 2020 season. Rather than continue on largely the same course for the affiliated Minor Leagues as the past three decades, Manfred is instead leading a strategy to restructure Minor League Baseball. 

If this plan becomes a reality, more than three-dozen cities with Minor League affiliations will disappear along with hundreds of Minor League players and thousands of fans. The plan, if adopted, would remove the affiliations of 42 MiLB franchises and render them independent beginning in 2021.

Having spent 14 years from 1980 to 1994 as the head of business operations of the Oakland A’s, with a son who worked for the Pacific Coast League Sacramento River Cats, along with many colleagues who carved out their own outstanding careers in Minor League Baseball, this contraction plan seems to be an illogical brushback pitch from Manhattan to Main Street.

The proposal from Major League Baseball also dramatically reorganizes the full-season Minor Leagues. While there would still be Triple A, Double A, and Single A classes of play, those levels could be reworked to make the leagues geographically closer. Not all current full-season clubs would survive the restructuring.

The arguments in favor of the plan, from MLB’s point of view, including focuses energies on facilities in better working order, providing better working conditions and player care to prospects, increasing the financial stability of the remaining franchises, and streamlining travel costs. 

But in terms of the arguments against, the questions that come to my mind as a lifelong sports marketer include: Where are the next generation of fans coming from? What about the next generation of players? Or administrators and front-office executives? And how are those questions addressed by reducing the national reach for baseball, particularly at affordable price points for fans?

I have been lucky enough to work on the business and marketing side of teams in the Big Four US pro sports leagues after graduating from Ohio University’s Sports Management Program. My post-graduate education and career advancement came in large part from observing and borrowing from Minor League Baseball many successful promotions, marketing concepts, advertising ideas, logo treatments, and most critically, how to sell tickets. 

Among the now-standard creative industry concepts that emerged entirely or significantly from the DNA of Minor League Baseball: Dot races, kids running the bases, close interaction between players and autograph-seeking fans, creative team nicknames and logos, mascots, and fan affordability.

Minor League Baseball is the most perfect research and development laboratory in sports. No other US pro sport comes close to vetting the future salespeople, marketing, and player personnel experts as the minors.

If you run a national business with more than a hundred franchises, you are going to have challenges, as have been communicated by MLB to MiLB.

I don’t know what MLB’s investment would be to improve, upgrade, innovate and set standards that work for everyone. But if I have a multi-billion-dollar business that is striving to maintain its national DNA, they should also be able to address any shortcomings with MiLB, and not change the baseball way of life for millions of Americans across the country.

The strength, depth, and magic of Minor League Baseball has sustained the growth of the majors for decades. The most important transaction in this baseball off-season is to have MiLB and MLB to figure out how they continue to Play Ball!

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