It’s not just about the future of the West Virginia Power.
It’s not just about the future of minor league baseball in West Virginia.
It’s about the future of minor league baseball, period.
And it’s not a barrage from Major League Baseball that is minor league clubs’ greatest concern. That’s what looked like Public Enemy No. 1 for those teams last year when reports surfaced that the new Professional Baseball Agreement could lead to 42 current affiliates — three in West Virginia alone — losing those affiliations.
Now, the adversary is one that can’t be seen, but its effects sure can.
The COVID-19 pandemic that has halted most of the sporting world for the last few months could swing some of its most costly blows at the minor leagues.
When Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner talked to reporters Tuesday night, a short time after announcing that the minor leagues were in the mothballs for the 2020 season, there wasn’t much he said that sounded promising. Some clubs could be going 17 months without revenue coming in. Phrases like “treading water” and “dire straits” were used.
The full sentences weren’t any sunnier.
“I think the coronavirus really cut into many clubs’ ability to make it,” he said, “and I think we’re looking at, without some government intervention, without doing something to take on equity partners, you might be looking at half of the 160 [minor league teams] who are gonna be looking at some serious problems.
“I’ve had very successful teams with significant gross revenue in any one year tell me this might be two or three years until they can get out from under it,” he added.
Those serious problems? Among them, insolvency.
That’s doors closing, teams disappearing, jobs lost.
In the initial volley from MLB against the minors through the PBA proposal, 138 of the 160 current affiliates were safe. That’s 86 percent, which, while catastrophic for 42 teams — the Power, Bluefield Blue Jays and Princeton Rays among them — kept most of the MiLB structure in the clear.
Now the MiLB president is saying half the teams or more could be endangered. That’s bad for the minors, bad for the majors and bad for baseball as a whole.
There are some things that give O’Conner hope. He praised Congress on Tuesday for working quickly to help minor league clubs. Bills are in the pipeline to provide lifeline loans for financially strapped franchises.
Those teams will need those loans, and possibly some more to weather this storm. They’ll probably need some help from Major League Baseball, too.
O’Conner said Tuesday it was too early to divine whether the pandemic’s effects will hurt any leverage the minors might have in their negotiations with MLB on a new PBA. Even if it swings all the leverage to MLB’s side, Commissioner Rob Manfred and company might be better off not wielding all of it.
The acrimonious negotiations between the MLB owners and players, while ultimately ending with a shortened 2020 season, didn’t do anything for the sport’s popularity. Major League Baseball needs to be in the business of gaining fans. What happens if up to half of the minor league clubs disappear due to financial hardship and any of that can be blamed on the big leagues and their owners?
Minor league teams can offer relatively inexpensive family fun during the summer when not much else is going on. Taking that from smaller communities like Charleston, Bluefield, Princeton and dozens more won’t win anyone over.
So it would behoove MLB to do whatever is possible to keep as many minor league teams alive as possible. The coronavirus has hit those big teams, too, and what they may be able to provide might not be enough to save a decent swath of the minor league landscape. But for its own sake, Major League Baseball has to be able to say it did all it could.