Why raising Minor League player pay would be good for baseball

There seem to be many more important topics that Congress should be tackling right now, but the House of Representatives has seemed to have finally found something that both sides of the aisle can agree on: Minor League baseball players should live below the poverty level.

Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D-Illinois) and Congressmen Brett Guthrie (R-Kentucky) introduced the ironically named “Save America’s Pastime Act,” last week. The goal of the bill is to exempt Minor League baseball players from federal wage requirements to keep them from eventually unionizing or successfully suing for fair wages.

While many will likely cheer the concept (or not care) because, in a world where professional athletes make millions and millions of dollars, nobody wants to ever feel sorry about a professional athlete not making enough money. Except these aren’t the guys making millions and millions of dollars. In fact, 99% of them will never make much of anything from baseball.

Minor league baseball salaries start at $1,150 a month for short season A ball player and goes as high as $2,150 per month for a first year Triple-A player. Keep in mind that that’s not an annual salary rate either, they only get paid for the six or seven months of their season. Players also receive $25 per day in meal money while on the road. Just for comparison, umpires get $50 per day and college athletes get $36 per day.

Representatives Bustos and Guthrie would tell you that requiring Minor League teams to play their players fair salaries would doom the finances of minor league teams, many of them in small towns around America. What they don’t tell you is that the Minor League teams don’t pay the player salaries, the Major League club does. The revenue that Minor League teams do bring in are used to maintain facilities and pay front office staff, not the players.

One could actually argue that requiring Major League teams to pay their Minor League players a fair wage would actually be a positive economic step for small towns where these Minor League organizations are located. Young players with more discretionary income being brought in from outside the local economy. It would be great.

The bill is clearly a response to a lawsuit filed a couple years ago that alleges that Minor League Baseball violates federal wage laws with their pay structure. Last October, a federal court ruled that it can be expanded into a class action lawsuit which now includes a couple thousand players.

Current Minor League players will be silent on this. Why wouldn’t they? They have more to lose from speaking up than anyone. Most of them are in the situation where they need baseball more than baseball needs them. It’s why the Minor Leagues haven’t unionized.

The MLBPA, the player’s union for Major League players, have routinely negotiated away the rights and pay of Minor League players to benefit themselves. That seems unfair on it’s own. But in the Majors, paying your dues and grinding through the Minors is as much a rite of passage as having the skills to get to the Majors.

Many will say that they find it difficult to get worked up over the payment of Minor League players. After all, they are playing a game for a living. Except this isn’t a game and it really isn’t a living. Not one that anyone would really want. This is a job. This is work. The vast majority will never make it and you’ll never know their name.

But beyond all of this from a political, economic and moral standpoint, keeping Minor League salaries down is exactly the opposite of what baseball should be doing. Instead, baseball should be addressing the fact that the finances of the game turn young athletes away at a young age.

Young athletes are asked earlier and earlier to specialize in a sport so that they have the best opportunity to develop as a player and compete at a high level so they can make it to the professional level. So you have high school aged young men making the decisions that will shape their lives, which sport will they dedicate themselves to?

These decisions are made with family members and coaches and the decisions are driven by opportunity, odds of success, and, in many situations, finances.

There are many gifted athletes who go play basketball or football because they can find money sooner. The minimum rookie salary in the NBA last year was about $525,000. In the NFL it was $435,000. The rookie salary in Major League Baseball was $507,500, but that’s in the Majors. If you’re a typical prospect, you’ll get your five figure signing bonus and then get assigned to A ball where you’ll make $1,300 a month for a six month season. In other words, just a hair under $8,000. You can make $6,600 in one week on an NFL practice squad.

If a family’s finances are a concern, a young player won’t even consider playing baseball. Get drafted, continue to be poor, play a few years of minor league baseball, and maybe, if you’re lucky, be part of the 5% that plays a single day in the Majors or the 1% that strikes it big. Or go play football where, even if you go undrafted, end up on a practice squad and you can pull in $100,000 a year.

I know what I’d choose.

Combine that with us having seen football players retire young because of fear over the long-term effects of head injuries. So many players don’t want the risks of football and there are much fewer opportunities to play basketball, enter baseball with a perfect opportunity to capitalize on it and steal away young talent.

And baseball has the money.

Over the last 10 years, baseball has gone from the major sport where players get the largest share of revenues to the lowest. In 2015, players got less than 40% of revenues. In bargaining between owners and players, leagues usually shoot for a 50/50 split of revenues, so if that’s the case, of the $10 billion in revenue that baseball will acquire this year, that’s $1 billion that needs to be redistributed to the players.

With roughly 6,000 professional baseball players across all levels of associated baseball, that works out to over $150,000 per year per player.

But Major League players still get paid well and their contracts are all guaranteed.

So how about we give all 4,500 or so Minor League players a $50,000 per year salary. That would cost $225 million a year total, right now teams pay about $60 million in payroll for Minor League players, but that’s a drop in the bucket on $10 billion. That’s an increase of 1.6% of revenues.

It would also be great for every aspect of the sport.

First, more young athletes would choose to play baseball, so you’d have more talented athletes flowing through the Minors.

Second, that talent would then be able to spend more time preparing and fine tuning themselves and their skills to unlock their talent rather than having to take odd jobs over the winter to support themselves and living off fast food during the season.

And third, with better prepared players, the fans should see better baseball across all levels. Better baseball will make more fans and bring more revenue to the sport.

So there are ways for everyone to benefit from paying Minor League players better wages. It doesn’t need to be exorbitant, but it should be enough that they can focus on their craft and actually become professionals at the sport rather than just “seasonal apprentices” as Major League Baseball puts it.

Paying Minor League players more isn’t just a payment to the players, it’s an investment into the future of the sport in so many different ways.

And as a post script, it is worth noting that Congresswoman Bustos abandoned her support of the legislation this afternoon saying that she was withdrawn her support because she’s learned some things over the last 24 hours. Perhaps she should have Googled “who pays minor league baseball players” before deciding that this was an issue that needed to be solved with a law.