MiLB’s O’Conner to seek fourth term as president

Minor League Baseball (MiLB) executive Pat O’Conner has notified the board of directors of the affiliated minors that he will seek a fourth four-year term as president when elections are held this winter. But that term will be his final one as he begins to wind down a decorated career in the sport lasting more than three decades.

O’Conner, 60, has been MiLB president since 2007, and prior to that was the organization’s chief operating officer for 14 years and additionally spent more than a decade in various minor-league roles at the team level. He previously considered stepping down from the president post this year as his third term concluded. But the board asked him to reconsider, and he has notified them of his intent to stay on, as well as MiLB’s corporate partners during a sponsor summit held this week in New York.

“It’s time for the organization to look for its next set of leaders,” O’Conner said. “I’ve had a long, good run, and there’s a lot still to do. This will give us ample opportunity to set ourselves up for the long term.”

During O’Conner’s tenure leading the affiliated minors, he has sharply elevated the group’s commercial activity, particularly through a series of league-wide efforts that have sought to elevate MiLB far beyond a collection of individual, locally driven teams into a unified group with a truly national profile. Over the past decade, MiLB has pooled its digital rights in partnership with Major League Baseball and through that alliance developed a series of digital products including live game streaming, built a fast-growing national sponsorship business, and struck its first league-level ticketing deal with MLB-owned Tickets.com.

MiLB has also developed a successful Hispanic outreach campaign, the Copa de la Diversión, that helped fuel the organization to a record level of $73.9m (€65.8m) in retail merchandise sales in 2018.

O’Conner’s next term extending through 2023 will carry a series of pressing issues, most notably a new Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) that will govern the overall operational and economic relationship between MLB clubs and their minor-league affiliates. 

The current deal runs through the 2020 season, and O’Conner promised significant changes in the next agreement as MLB clubs continue to de-emphasize veteran free agency in their roster development in favor of prospects rising through their own minor-league systems.

“This next deal will not be a rollover [from prior agreements] like the last three,” O’Conner said. “Changes are definitely in the offing. A lot has changed throughout the industry in terms of what big league clubs’ needs are, what our needs are, what the facilities needs are, and so forth. We’re committed to providing the best facilities we can and finding an equitable solution that will allow us to keep working with the [MLB] clubs and continuing to provide affordable family entertainment.”

Change is also coming with regard to minor-league player pay scales, which can run as low as $1,160 a month for a five-month season and are paid by the MLB parent clubs. 

MiLB successfully lobbied to keep the minor league clubs exempted from US overtime regulations, wanting greater cost certainty around their operations. But both O’Conner and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred have publicly acknowledged that the next PBA deal between the two organizations will likely involve pay increases for players. And even before that, the Toronto Blue Jays on their own have elected to raise the pay of their prospects by half.

“When we did our lobbying [around the overtime statutes], it was important to develop that cost certainty. But we also did so with the understanding the players would ultimately be getting a raise,” O’Conner said. “We will look for MLB to change the pay scale. The players deserve and will get a raise.”

MiLB average attendance among its US and Canada-based clubs, meanwhile, is flat through the end of June and with additional games played, total attendance is up 1.5 per cent, trends that run counter to MLB in which they are headed toward a sixth drop in the last seven years. O’Conner credits efforts such as the Copa de la Diversión, MiLB’s affordability advantage compared to other US pro sports, and some stretches of more favorable weather. During a recent five-day period in particular around the US July 4 holiday weekend, MiLB drew more than 2 million fans.

MiLB, which draws an audience of about 42 million in total each year, is still pushing to boost that attendance number to 50 million by 2026.

“I feel good about where things are headed there,” O’Conner said. “It’s been a good year that is conceivable to end up as a very good year. When the weather cooperates, we’re going to draw.”