So, this title is a tad misleading (hey, we at Standing Room Only can put out clickbait too). For the past several seasons, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has made it a top priority to expand the game of baseball. He has done a fantastic job with the RBI program, creating more opportunities for youth to play baseball. On a larger scale, it is no secret that he has also looked into expanding MLB from 30 to 32 teams. While for a lot of us this seems like a good thing, I believe that MLB expansion cannot succeed….at least under the current system. Before expansion should even be considered, Major League Baseball would need to address key issues to restructure the league before two new franchises could be added.
Player Salary and Service Time
Technically this is a collective bargaining agreement issue, but this is a critical first step for preparing for two new franchises. One of the biggest complaints in terms of salaries is how players are only paid the league minimum for three seasons (unless you have Super-Two status, which is a whole different situation) before earning any sort of leverage for negotiations through the arbitration process. Then, players are stuck in arbitration for three seasons before having an opportunity to even reach free agency.
This whole system needs to be restructured. When you are adding several hundred players to rosters in the form of two franchises and their minor league affiliates, the issue needs to be addressed. Minor league pay is incredibly low and MLB players should be able to earn top dollar for when they are entering their prime, not when they are on the wrong side of 30 and entering free agency for the first time. One of two things need to happen: either pay the player earlier in the process or shorten the service time to allow that player to enter free agency earlier and be paid in their prime.
If salary is corrected in a new CBA before new franchises enter, it will give the players and the league more clarity, especially when entering into a situation where you will have an expansion draft.
This one seems to contradict the point I just made, but hear me out. I know this one wouldn’t go over well with players, but this is something that needs to be addressed for competitive balance reasons. I’m a small market baseball fan, and one of the things that has always saddened me was watching the big market clubs poach players from the smaller clubs simply through revenue. Now, some of it is because the various ownership groups have arbitrary systems that determine how much they want to spend, but my fear is that without hard caps put in place, there wouldn’t be anything stopping a major shift in competitive balance with more teams entering the mix.
My only guess is that the two new clubs entering would be small market clubs, which means that there is a greater risk for competitive balance difference between rich and poor clubs. In terms of how much money teams should spend, there should not only be a salary cap, but also a salary floor so poor teams cannot just deny their players from earning what they deserve. There is no perfect answer, but regardless there needs to be some compromise in order to have some sort of evenness across the league.
One of the things that bothered be growing up was how the divisions were uneven. There used to be 6 teams in the NL Central and only 4 teams in the AL West before MLB announced that the league would be realigned to have 6 even divisions with 5 teams in each by having the Astros move from the NL to the AL. There are pluses and negatives to the switch. With having even divisions, it means that each team had the same percentage odds of winning the division, unlike before the 2013 season. The negative is that the interleague play that had been set up and only took place in June has now turned into an all year affair due to each league having an odd number of teams. Something that was supposed to be special is now routine and it also puts clubs in an odd position with AL pitchers having to hit at random during the season rather than during a structured point in the season.
Adding two new teams to the mix creates an interesting challenge. The divisions will need to be realigned in order to accommodate two franchises, which means that we may no longer have 6 divisions across baseball. This issue, would obviously need to be addressed when new franchises are announced.
The whole playoff system would need to be revamped. This would be tied to realigning the divisions, but the question is how do you keep it competitive while adding playoff teams to the mix. In the NBA, 16 of 30 teams make it to the playoffs which is over 50% of the league. With MLB, only 10 of 30 teams make it to the playoffs. The question will be how do you expand the playoffs without compromising the competitiveness.
On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver exposed how professional sports franchises cry poor when it comes to building new stadiums and then threaten to leave when city officials refuse to shell out millions in taxpayer dollars to pay for them. One of the things that MLB needs to address and be a progressive leader in is how their sport addresses building stadiums. The two new franchises shouldn’t be driving their new cities into debt to build them a stadium. Instead, there should be a true partnership between city officials and ownership where the franchise pays for most of the stadium. MLB needs to find a creative way to shift the narrative of greedy sports owners by finding individuals that could privately finance new ballparks. Once the A’s and Rays get their ballparks, then we can talk expansion.
The Fan Experience
As Scott laid out earlier for us, MLB has some revenue issues to address. While TV deals and corporate sponsorships have flooded the league with cash, attendance is down. This, in my opinion, is the defining challenge of Manfred’s tenure as commissioner. How do you increase league wide attendance while keeping revenue high? My main thing is that it has become expensive for a family to go to the ballpark and it is way cheaper to stay home or go to a minor league game instead. Minor League Baseball has flourished lately because it has become an affordable night out for a family.
The Final Take
Overall, expansion for Major League Baseball would be great for the game. There is no question that expanding the exposure of top quality baseball across the country and around the world would help improve the game’s longevity and youth involvement in the game. My fear is that MLB will rush into a plan to increase the number of teams at the game’s highest level without addressing key problems within the structure of the game could lead to catastrophic issues that could lead to the overall decline of the game. While this article doesn’t address many other logistical issues (including adding spring training facilities, increasing the number of minor league teams by 8 or more, tv contracts for teams in similar regions as other established MLB teams), the issues addressed here is enough for me to say: MLB, take your time and do this right.