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The bill always comes due: MiLB in 2021

MiLBAs the MiLB season is set to open next Tuesday, teams are excited to host play for the first time since 2019–but with plenty of apprehension about revenues and new costs pushed on them by MLB, owners aren’t yet out of the woods.

To say the last 20 months have been trying times for MiLB teams is an understatement, thanks a widely unpopular MLB takeover of the sport, new licensing terms that push plenty of new costs onto MiLB and a financially crippling COVID-related shutdown of the 2020 season. And although many team owners saw troubling times on the horizon, the specifics are still being determined.

Yes, the start of play is exciting, and during the first half of May we will see plenty of enthusiasm from fans and teams alike. Still, this is shaky ground. While MLB teams could return to play in 2020 sans fans and live with diminished crowd in 2021 because of TV contracts, no such situation exists for MiLB owners. MiLB teams derive the vast majority of their revenues at the gate and via concessions; some Triple-A teams feature TV contracts, but generally these are not huge revenue sources. With capacity limits still in place for most MiLB teams in the next few months and the added cost of ballpark safety, most teams won’t be chugging at full economic capacity. Add to that likely revenue decreased on the sponsorship side: those local businesses spending their money at the ballpark have suffered the same economic challenges MiLB teams faced in the COVID crisis. And, of course, there are the changing capacity rules found in almost every municipality. Welcoming more fans also means adding more staff to service those fans, making for complicated planning. (On the flip side, there’s the ever-present fear that just because fans can attend a game doesn’t mean they will attend a game.) On that side of the ledger, most teams won’t see a return to normalcy until 2022–at the earliest.

On the other side of the ledger, the cost of doing business for an MiLB team has gone up dramatically, as teams are finding the fine print in the MLB Professional License dictating their assumption of costs traditionally borne by MLB teams. Some of these are relatively minor, like the revamped method of dressing players: past deals have had the MiLB team pay for uniforms and MLB teams picking up the cost of everything else related to the outfitting of players–socks, T-shirts, warm-up jackets and the like–but now MiLB pick up all the costs. Some of these are major, with teams needing to double or triple the number of buses used to transport players, as well as the assumption of airline tickets, for major road trips, as well as mandated mobile-ordering concessions systems.

And then there’s the fine print of upgrading ballparks. When the initial outline of facilities enhancements were first announced, many owners were not concerned. But as the specifics were released, the realization came that MiLB ballpark upgrades were going to be a lot more expansive than anticipated, ranging from little things like new dugout flooring to major clubhouse upgrades. One expense that seems to be irritating many owners: the requirement of Double-A lighting standards at every High-A and Low-A ballpark, even for new ballparks set to open in 2020. Yes, the video feed farmers in home bases love the idea of watching play from remote ballparks with better lighting conditions, and there are player safety arguments to be made for better lighting. But Double-A lighting at a High-A and Low-A ballpark seems to be overkill.

So teams are now adding the costs and not liking the bottom line. At Field, Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Low-A East) GM Ryan Moore says it will could take $15 million to bring the ballpark up to the new MLB specs. The ballpark is now 23 years old, and while the Pelicans are known for a great fan experience, plenty of work needs to be done on the player-development side. The Bowling Green Hot Rods (High-A East) and their landlord, Warren County Downtown Economic Development Authority, are facing the same issues with a wide range of ballpark improvements mandated before the end of 2022: expanded training areas and protected batting cages for players, the aforementioned new lighting, clubhouse improvements, female-only dressing rooms, and more.

One team that successfully planned for the new world of Minor League Baseball: the Portland Sea Dogs (Double-A Northeast), which unveiled a series of ballpark upgrades before the launch of the 2021 season. The biggest change: The Sea Dogs replaced all of the field lighting at Hadlock Field. A total of 112 1500W LED fixtures and 14 TLC-LED Ball Tracking fixtures replaced 192 1500W metal halide fixtures. The new lighting will reduce the kilowatts used from 311.04 to 167.95 while increasing the light levels on the field by 50 percent. The new lighting also features dynamic light shows that can be used for player introductions, home runs, or the seventh-inning stretch.

In addition, the team upgraded the Red Sox Update Board. For the first time, the new board will provide real-time Red Sox game data including the current batter and pitcher, score, inning, outs, count, and runners-on. 

Also new for 2021, in compliance with the new PDL, the team has installed padded outfield walls for player safety.