In a few hours, owners from Minor League Baseball (MiLB) will meet a deadline that will determine the future of baseball.
If there are enough teams to meet the 90% acceptance threshold that MLB by way of its media lapdog, MLBAM, have established, then a holding company called BIRCO, the Baseball Internet Rights Company LLC, will come into being that is scheduled to move all teams and leagues websites into the domain of MLB.com. It is likely to sweep away the last bits of independence of MiLB and, its masters hope that it will largely turn the now nearly 44-million-fan strong minors into a digital conduit by which MLB will attempt to sell more of its new Baseball Channel by both television and digital delivery through the Internet.
If, however, there are not enough teams, especially Triple-A teams, to make up the alliance, it is possible that a very ugly turf war in the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (The NA, parent of MiLB) will break out. Aside from a big shake-up in the organization that has served as MLB's master of the minors since the 1930s, the shape of the farm system as we have known it for more than seventy years may change.
The amazing thing is that, beyond the fads and fashions of the major league media, the steroids, and the various petty crimes and misdemeanors of this or that athlete, the mainstream media has missed the battle for the soul of baseball that has been brewing since the NA decided to launch its Internet presence back in 2001, and the Baseball Channel became a drawing-board plan in late 2003. BIRCO is not a household name yet. Whether it lives or dies a corporate death, it will affect the game.
The world has changed around the game over the last 15 years. Big companies now make their homes in Round Rock, Redmond, Cupertino, and a hundred other cities that once were sleepy cow towns. The Internet and overnight delivery have diversified where we live. It has also meant that people making these small towns into mini metropolises have a desire to see better quality live entertainment and sports. Look at the large number of concert venues that have also sprung up in cities that never saw a major act, even passing through, a decade ago.
MiLB owners are feeling rather bold. Many of them out-seat some of their major league cousins. Travel to Memphis, Sacramento, or even Florida's Albuquerque Triple-A affiliate, the Isotopes, and you are likely to see more fans in their parks than you are in Dolphin Stadium on any given night. Or Pittsburgh. Or Milwaukee. Or...
People like to go to their live hometown games in clean stadiums with great things to do for the whole family much as any major league fan enjoys a night out at their ballparks. The clubs, which have become rich catering to those fans, are not about to give up their fat incomes to MLB lightly.
MLB, rather than adapt to the new realities of that expanding audience, which would force them to make some better deals to capture some of the more successful minor league markets as major league, and send some of the overpriced has-been cities of the Rust-Belt back into minor league status, has sought to "capture" the minor league audience in the grand tradition that it once did in the 1970s: Ignore what is going on in your home town, watch our superstars on television instead.
This time, though, instead of allowing ABC, NBC, and CBS to make millions, and hand a small percentage over to the owners, Bud Light's grand video empire envisions fans around North America shelling out for the Baseball Channel package, with a a secondary eye towards what is going on in their home town.
This is why minor league clubs have been shuffled around, as best as possible, to enhance these television empires. Why the Norfolk Tides dumped the Mets to take on the lowly Orioles Triple-A farm club, with the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) waving riches in their faces.
The questions are many: Will it work? How will the MiLB owners cash in on it, or will they become the victims of it? Will the world just outmaneuver MLB, or will MLB, with its antitrust exemption, be able to bully the world into its own point-of-view.
The stakes are large, and the story is fascinating for the true baseball fan, as history is being made. If a game-changer in MLB baseball interests you, then I suggest you read the article that all of the MiLB owners are talking about: Keep Your Ball on the I. It's at MLN Sports Zone, the digital magazine where I work. I would highly recommend the read.
Fair warning, as I know how fussy some of the AGM-ers get about not knowing where links go: Most of the content of this article is under subscription. If you use the code BMR though, you will get 50% off of the already cheap annual price. It's not a bad read for the cost of one issue of the average paper sports rag. The article, for the genuine baseball fan, is worth the read alone.