Bernie Sanders loves baseball. He loves it so much, that when he learned of Major League Baseball’s decision to phase out 42 of their 160 minor league teams, he called for the government to pressure the MLB to keep the teams, protecting the jobs of minor league players while raising their annual salaries. He has suggested using the government subsidies to professional sports stadiums to compel the League to submit to his demands. But his goal is not to reduce corporate welfare (is it ever?) — he merely wants a business to maintain its unprofitable branches.
It should be absurd enough — even to people who subscribe to Sanders’s socialist ideas — to say that the government needs to protect the jobs of people who play games for a living. Sports entertainment is certainly a valid economic good, but the most faithful apostles of state omnipotence should be able to recognize that salaried professionals for games is a remarkable luxury that few people can realistically expect to enjoy in any economy. Sanders also cites the community value of minor league baseball teams — romantically referencing his own personal memories — failing to realize that profits from attendance are the signal of how much a community values the franchise. It is as if Sanders is a better judge of what communities value than the citizens themselves.
These obvious objections aside, Sanders thinks he is working to save baseball, but if he gets his way, his plan is actually likely to accelerate baseball’s decline (unless the government beefs up its subsidies for professional sports, which Sanders would undoubtedly support). The reality is that the minor league system is a relic of a society that consumed sports very differently from the way modern spectators do, and the decision to phase out minor league teams reflects these changes.
Two American Pastimes
Baseball’s popularity steadily grew throughout the late nineteenth century, leading to the development of several professional leagues. Athletic competition waged within each respective league, and economic competition waged between them. At the turn of the century, the two dominant leagues — the American and National Leagues — came to an agreement that allowed them to maintain some independence but brought the economic and athletic competition together. The leagues would continue to compete athletically in isolation, and the annual champions of each league would play each other in the World Series (the mid-season All-Star game was added in 1933, but interleague play in the regular season did not begin until 1997). Other leagues who failed to match National and American on the economic front survived as farm teams — the minor league feeder system for the majors.
Although baseball continued to grow in the first two decades of the twentieth century, popularity exploded after rule changes shifted the dominance from the pitcher to the hitter, leading to power hitters such as Babe Ruth, who drew fans hoping to see him knock the ball out of the park. But fans had no way of witnessing these feats from home. If you wanted to watch the game, you had to buy a ticket and travel to the stadium — a significant barrier even for those participating in the automobile boom that was already underway. The best teams naturally made their homes in America’s largest cities where fans could walk to the stadium, and minor league franchises found a market in smaller cities whose populations still enjoyed baseball but were not large enough to support a major league team. Attendance was crucial to making the sport economically viable.
The earlier football leagues attempted to follow baseball’s model, some even enjoying the backing of the MLB. But unlike with baseball, the market was tight. Contrary to popular conception, it was not so much that Americans had no taste for the sport, but that the dependency on ticket revenues limited leagues’ expansion. Football players were far more likely to sustain injuries during a game, and even when they didn’t, the sport was more taxing, so it was impossible to play one hundred forty games in a season, as baseball teams did in the early twentieth century. Playing a fraction of the games, football teams could not be profitable from home-game ticket sales, so leagues were small and geographically constrained to allow competing teams to share a field.
However, while professional football was limited by these economic barriers, the sport was perfect for students. Universities are not unlike small cities, giving college sports teams an association to develop a fan base around. Baseball fans saw their team as representing their city; college football teams did the same for universities. The growth of college football mirrored that of baseball much more closely than professional football did, if on a smaller scale. The limitation here, of course, was that, prior to World War II, few Americans attended college. Football was by default a sport for economic elites while baseball was the populist pastime.
In the 1950s, economic changes disrupted this trend. In the postwar economic boom, millions of middle-class Americans bought mass-produced homes outside of major cities, giving rise to the suburbs as a type of community that did not fully resemble the city or the country. Although the proliferation of automobiles made trips to the city more accessible, baseball had fewer fans in walking distance of their stadiums. For major league teams, of course, this was a less pronounced problem — more people were willing to make the trip to see a major league game, but minor league teams felt the change more dramatically.
Television, though, most helped launch football to the top of the sports hierarchy in the United States. Football may not have been the most economically viable sport when revenues had depended primarily on live attendance, but the sport was perfect for television, whose revenue came from advertisements. Suburbanization and home television ownership grew in tandem. In 1950, Bob Levitt — a pioneer suburban developer — started advertising his $7,995 homes as including not only a refrigerator and a washing machine, but also a personal television. In 1948, less than two hundred thousand television sets were sold. In 1950, the number had grown to five million.
By 1958, forty-two million households had a television set. This year proved pivotal for football’s popularity, as the championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants — played in Yankee Stadium, indicating baseball’s surviving dominance — ended in sudden-death overtime, following an exciting eighty-yard drive to the winning touchdown for the Colts. The game earned the enduring title “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” and it did for football what Babe Ruth had done for baseball in 1919.
Minor Leagues, Major Waste
Baseball certainly benefited from the new medium as well, but it had developed in a way that made it comparatively less suitable for televised sports. Minor league teams were financially viable when live attendance was the only way for most people to enjoy a game, but televisions made it too easy for audiences to watch only the best athletes. The (modern) 162-game season also meant that fans were saturated with games, analogous to taking a popular Broadway show and televising it on repeat. Baseball’s live-attendance model was not built with the expectation that the same fans would attend every game. But TV made this possible. Television, combined with the high number of games in the baseball season, made it easy for fans to virtually ignore minor league baseball.
The minors, of course, still served as a necessary nursery system, preparing players for the major leagues. Football, however, having grown predominantly through college sports, had a natural feeder system that required no financial support from the National Football League. The growing university system evolved as a de facto nursery that still enjoyed the live-audience support from students and local fans, and because both college and professional football played fewer games, each could attract a marketable television audience.
By the 1980s, when college baseball started to enjoy its own rapid rise in popularity — even earning modest television coverage — minor league baseball began to look increasingly unnecessary. In fact, as Sanders himself inadvertently hints, government subsidies (including, significantly, support from municipal governments) have helped prop up both major and minor league franchises. Sanders fails to recognize that the necessity of these subsidies undermines his claim about the community value of the sports teams — if communities value them, they’ll buy tickets to the games.
Apparently, what people really value is the ability to watch the greatest athletes from the comfort of their homes for free instead of paying to watch second-tier athletes live.
The MLB is merely responding to customer demand by phasing out minor league franchises, and if Bernie gets his way — short of doling out more government largesse to franchise owners — his plan will not save baseball; it will help kill it.