As had been expected since last weekend, Congress passed a $1.3 Trillion spending bill in order to keep the U.S. government running. Snuck into that bill like a late-night burglary was a provision to exempt minor league baseball players from legislation concerning minimum wage and overtime requirements.
MiLB has been intensely lobbying Washington for the past several years for such legislation in light of a lawsuit filed by several former minor league players. MiLB President Pat O’Conner predicted a loss in that legal action would be the death knell of minor league baseball:
“If the cost of that talent is doubled or tripled, which could happen under an FLSA basis, MLB is not going to pay that much money for the talent,” he said. “They’re not going to pay. They’re going to do one of two things: They’re going to say, ‘If 160 (minor league) teams is going to cost (this much), we’re just going to cut down on the number of teams. We’re not going to pay for 160. We’ll pay for 80. We’ll pay for 100.’
O’Conner told the Washington Post he’s in favour of salaries going up. But he’s not, really, when he uses a rationale like this:
“We’re not saying that it shouldn’t go up,” he said. “We’re just saying that the formula of minimum wage and overtime is so incalculable. I would hate to think that a prospect is told, ‘You got to go home because you’re out of hours, you can’t have any extra batting practice.’ It’s those kinds of things. It’s not like factory work. It’s not like work where you can punch a time clock and management can project how many hours they’re going to have to pay for.”
Minor league players currently make between $1150 and $2150 per month, depending on the level. They are paid only for the actual season, and not spring training. Their salaries have been stagnant for decades.
The money, of course, is there to pay them more. Minor League teams may operate on thin margins (players are paid by their MLB parent club), but MLB revenues exceeded $10 Billion last year, and all 30 teams ran into some found money when each club received a $50 Million share for the sale of MLB’s digital and media arm, MLB Advanced Media, last year. It’s just that the will is not there – MLB doesn’t pay their minor leaguers more because they don’t have to. For their part, teams likely would point the finger at the MLB Players Association, which has not shown a willingness to include MiLB pay levels in negotiations. MiLBers are not part of their union, and in fact, they’re the competition. There doesn’t not appear to be much incentive for MLBPA to improve these salary conditions.
The bottom line is that a $10 Billion industry doesn’t have to adhere to the same wage regulations that McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and 7-11 do. And their employees tend to make more, on average.
Some will point to the fact that a team like the Blue Jays had $8 million in bonus money to spend on their draft picks last year, and close to $5 million for international free agents. Much of that money, of course, is consumed by the top half-dozen or so picks, or the top-ranked IFA. In a system with about 150 players, close to 4 out of every 5 got a much smaller bonus, ranging from $10 to $100K. While none of us would turn a cheque like that down, it’s certainly not enough to live on for very long. Many international players are sending most of their pay home, while the other players in their situations have to budget their money wisely. That means eating cheaply if not well (teams are doing a better job of feeding their players at home; at $25/day for three meals on the road, not so much), and doubling or tripling up on accommodations. One Blue Jays farm hand told a story of sleeping on a mattress found at the curbside – his bedroom was behind the furnace in the small house he was renting with six other players.
The Blue Jays have invested heavily in their minor league system since Mark Shapiro took over as President/CEO. He instituted a highly regarded sport science department, which oversees all aspects of training and nutrition for their prospects. The team had a fairly significant turnover in its minor league staff this winter, bringing in a number of instructors with extensive college teaching and coaching experience. And funding was finalized this week for the spring training upgrades – three levels of Florida government will cover aout 75% of the expected $80 million cost to overhaul the stadium and minor league complex. That investment does not appear to extend to minor league salaries, however.
Emma Baccellieri, in a piece at Deadspin this week, argued that minor league salaries might be the next great competitive advantage:
There are all sorts of ethical and moral arguments to be made for paying players a fair wage, but let’s ignore those for a moment. (God knows MLB has.) There’s a baseball argument here, too. Say that a club decides to invest here and pay their 200 minor-leaguers a monthly average of $3,000, which would come out to a yearly total of $7.2 million. Not $7.2 million more than what the club is currently paying, but $7.2 million total. Say that this helps just one minor-leaguer tap into his potential a little bit more—the ability to pay for more nutritious food when he’s eating on his own, to work out more during the offseason without trying to make extra cash on the side, to be generally less stressed and focus more on his play. Say that all amounts to one extra win of major-league production once he’s called up. The estimated price of a win above replacement is $10 million. This is a market inefficiency to be exploited, if only baseball weren’t so steadfast in their commitment to exploiting the minor-league players themselves instead.