Why minor league baseball faces even bigger challenges than the majors

If the question of when, where and how Major League Baseball begins its 2020 season is still completely up in the air, just imagine how the 250-plus minor league teams across the country must be feeling right now. Unlike the majors, there seemingly are only best- and worst-case scenarios for minor league baseball in terms of the potential for a season this year.

Either all levels -- including Class A, Double-A and Triple-A, as well as short-season teams -- begin play by midsummer, in front of packed stadiums, or there's likely to not be a minor league season at all, at least according to people around the game.

As MLB tries to figure out ways to play its season with either few or no fans in attendance due to the coronavirus outbreak, minor league baseball can't simply follow that path. In-house attendance is critical to farm teams' finances. There is no national television contract and little if any local broadcast revenue. Simply put, major league baseball could exist for one season without fans; minor league baseball could not.

Let's examine both scenarios.

Best-case scenario: A September boost

If the medical professionals clear the country for mass gatherings come June or July, then the minor league season could simply mimic the major league one, as it always does, with some limitations on how many games could be played.

"Everything is obviously so fluid," one minor league team owner said. "Whatever prompts MLB to play will prompt us to play."

Under a June or July start-up, minor league baseball would likely play through September, trying to get in as much of its normal 140-game schedule as possible. It's actually not an awful situation, at least in the opinion of the majority of people interviewed for this story. Minor league baseball could make the best of a bad situation because of one word: weather.

"If games are lost into May, our teams wouldn't mind playing through September," said Jeff Lantz, senior director of communications for Minor League Baseball.

Remember, minor league baseball normally ends its regular season at the end of August, with playoffs being played in early September. In 2019, the average national temperature in April was just under 53 degrees. In May, it was 59 degrees. By contrast, last September saw an average temperature of 68 degrees. Of course, playing in September brings another challenge that the major leagues know all about: the return of football. But some believe the improved weather -- and the desire for fans to come out to games after the long shutdown -- would offset the attention football would draw.

"As popular as football is, baseball on a September night is very appealing for family and friends, rather than staying at home watching a football game," one optimistic minor league team owner said. "People will be starved to get outside. I'm not worried about football."

Lantz took a more measured approach.

"The nights we do well in the minor leagues are Fridays and Saturdays, but once you get into September, you're battling high school football on Friday, college football on Saturday and the NFL on Sunday," he said. "However, even if you have a couple thousand in September, it's better than zero in April and May."

One minor league team owner took it a step further. For several dozen minor league clubs that play in or near college towns, such as Indiana's Class-A South Bend Cubs, playing in September would mean students and faculty would be back in town, providing the potential for a boost in attendance from what the teams would see in April or May. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish might draw a huge crowd every week, but there's hope the spillover could benefit minor league baseball, as well. And it's not like football plays home games every week.

There's even a potential bright spot for players on the edges of professional baseball. Their careers could be extended or revived as a result of the 2020 draft being shortened because of the pandemic.

"With the limited draft this year, you would probably see a lot of players who would have been released at the end of spring training kept around this year," Lantz said. "Hold on to those guys and play out a short season then."

But even the above scenario is far from perfect. The lost home games would hurt -- if any games are played at all.

Worst-case scenario: 'Some really tough decisions'

Because in-park attendance is the lifeblood of minor league baseball, losing games would be a devastating blow. In fact, a shortened season, even with the benefit of playing through September, would be tough enough.

"Minor league teams are open 70 days a year and have to make as much money as they can in those 70 days," Lantz said. "They budget for four or five rainouts a year, but once you get into the seven- to nine-rainouts range, that can be the difference between being in the red or being in the black for a lot of minor league teams for a year.

"When you start talking 20 to 30 missed home games, that's when things get real tight and teams will have to make some tough decisions. We hope it doesn't come to that."

Those tough decisions could include layoffs or furloughs, as minor league teams are seemingly in the same situation as thousands and thousands of companies across the country.

"Our clubs are the definition of a small business, really," Lantz said, echoing a sentiment expressed by others. "Most of them have local ownership. In some cases, they have an individual owner. ... The money you make in those 70 home games carries you through the seven months you're not playing.

"It's putting a lot of people in a really tough spot. And team owners have already made some really tough decisions."

Teams could find some relief with the government now funding loans for small businesses that qualify. It's no small thing.

"We do have the ability to take advantage of the CARES Act and other loans that are being made available through the stimulus package," one minor league team executive said. "I have been navigating through that rabbit hole over the last two weeks. But yes, absolutely this is an option for us."

That might help the short-term survival for teams, but if a season is not played, minor league players would be back to square one, with the only silver lining being the potential expansion of major league rosters. Teams would likely need to have a small pool of players at the ready, in case of injuries or illness at the big league level.

"Each team will have to be allowed to have enough players on hand to provide depth," one major league executive said. "Probably the 40-man roster plus a selected and relatively small group."

It stands to reason that highly touted prospects would find their way into the mix no matter what level of baseball they were going to play in 2020. Spring sites would house the players -- potentially with the major league team -- but how the minor leaguers would stay sharp is unclear. Everything is still very murky.

"They would have those players available at the spring training complex, I imagine," Lantz said. "If we're not playing and they are, there will definitely be players in Arizona and Florida getting ready. But nothing has been determined yet. Everything is on the table."

And of course, having no season is on the table, as well. The people in minor league baseball remain hopeful: "What else can you do?" one team owner said. But best-case scenarios for 2020 are less likely to occur without dramatically better news about the spread of the COVID-19 virus across the country. Like millions of other people, those around minor league baseball wait for news, hoping it's good when it comes.

"For now, we're selling merchandise to make money and help fans lounge in a stylish way or go out and exercise in a stylish way," one minor league team owner said only half-jokingly. "It's all we can do."