Will labor peace bring major MLB changes?
One man’s look at pro baseball’s future
Good morning, all. Some musings about baseball’s future, as an escape from a world on the cusp of destruction.
The venerable Vin Scully tweeted out “finally,” after labor peace was reached between Major League Baseball and the Players Association last week. That about sums it up. As predicted, the frenzy of free agent signings, trades and other roster machinations has begun, and it is fun to watch.
But what of MLB’s future? The new deal runs through 2026. Hopefully labor peace will last longer than that. Call me stupid (many have) but I believe baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, when he says he will attempt to forge a better relationship with the association. I also don’t believe he is the ogre some have painted him out to be. This maybe a naive statement, but I maintain being a commissioner in any sport requires performing a high-wire act, while juggling several balls in the air and attempting to appease numerous constituencies. Now that a new deal has been reached, the commissioner deserves the chance to live up to his promise.
That said, I am predicting major changes in MLB’s structure over the length of this new deal. I have no inside information on which to base these predictions, just the gut feeling that comes from having followed the sport since I was a kid and worked in it for nearly four decades.
For sure, you will see rules changes at the top already incorporated in the minor leagues, such as banning shifts, reducing pick-off moves, a pitch clock, larger bases and robo umpires. But from my vantage point, that will be just the tip of the iceberg.
Beginning in 2023, MLB’s schedule will change. Clubs will play divisional opponents less (No more Yankees vs. Red Sox for 19 games each season, thank goodness.) and every club will face every other club in both leagues at least one series. Do not underestimate this change. I believe it is a prelude to adding two more MLB clubs and breaking up the American and National Leagues as we know it. In other words, expect major alignment with divisions such as the American and National Divisions, the Jackie Robinson Division, the Babe Ruth Division…you get the idea. League designations will be abandoned, as the game is played under the MLB banner. And the owners will get their 14-team playoff field, once two more clubs are added.
Look for a massive change to minor league baseball too, now that MLB has total control over that entity. The present system will be extinct sooner rather than later. Again, I have no inside information here, just the notion the minor leagues will be reduced to a AAA and AA affiliate for each MLB club and summer camps at each club’s spring training home. Affiliated High-A and Low-A leagues will go the way of pitchers hitting.
The current blueprint is no longer financially viable and is a drain on club owners’ coffers. Look for the owners to turn more to college baseball as a farm system, much as the NFL, NBA and NHL utilize colleges. Collegiate baseball has improved tremendously and many college baseball facilities are on par if not better than ballparks in the low minors. Look for MLB to toss money the colleges’ way to convert to wooden bats.
What of the current High-A and Low-A clubs? They will have to become independent or go out of business. The system will revert to 100 years ago, when major league clubs, which did not have affiliates, bought players from a minor league club or paid a minor league owner to place one of its players on a team. Such an arrangement is more financially beneficial to the owners. Combine that with what I believe will be unionization of the minor league players, and the owners are not going to want to deal with four unionized affiliates; two maybe but not four.
How we view and hear our games will also change. MLB is already announcing numerous streaming deals, including with Apple-TV and Peacock. ESPN+ is also in the mix. All of this, by the way, is at the expense of the clubs Regional Sports Networks, because the streaming deals include exclusivity. In other words, if the Mets are on Apple for a Friday night game, Mets fans won’t be able to watch them on SNY. That means fewer games on the RSNs.
It also means more fans will tune to radio and social media to follow their favorite club, if they don’t want to fork over money to subscribe to Apple, Peacock or ESPN+. But how the play-by-play will be delivered will include more than radio and social media. Each club and their radio affiliates will depend even more on their smart phone apps to deliver content, including more interaction with fans, especially as a game is broadcast. Having a club provide more than one feed per broadcast will also occur.
Of course, wagering on games will take on an even bigger role. In fact it will be more than just games. You will be able to wager on the outcome of a players’ at bat, etc. and in many cases be able to plunk down that wager at a sports book located within the ballpark. And don’t forget bets via phone apps.
Social media - pick your platform - will play an even more prominent role in a ballclub’s coverage. Heck, you can follow your favorite team’s spring training workouts on Twitter right now, watching players take batting practice, pitchers warming up, etc. The New York Yankees already have more than one person posting on social media and it is a given each club has at least one person running its social media account. Look for that department to expand for every club.
Again, this is just my forecast. I have no inside information. Provided we are all here in five years, we can look back to see how close I came to these predictions.
As always, thank you for your support and pray for peace.