What If Minor League Baseball Had Bowls?

A bowl system could be an interesting wrinkle to make watching Minor League Baseball more likely. (via Brian Collins)

This summer, Jackie Robinson Ballpark, home of the Daytona Tortugas, will host the Florida State League All-Star Game. The Jack, as it’s known, got its name because Daytona Beach was the first Florida city to allow Robinson to play in a 1946 spring training game. Over fifty years after that game, the Jack was named to the National Registry of Historic Places.  

The All-Star Game will showcase some of the best and youngest players in the minor leagues, celebrating baseball’s future on a stage remembering its past. Except, while the players may continue onward and upward to bigger stages, Major League Baseball wants to leave The Jack behind. You see, the Tortugas are on the chopping block, one of 42 teams MLB has proposed cutting after the 2020 season in order to upgrade facilities that have “inadequate standards.”

As Dave Heller, president and CEO of Main Street Baseball — which operates four teams, three on the list — told SB Nation, MLB’s justification of “inadequate standards” requires some suspension of disbelief. 

“We are trusting that they’re telling the truth when they say this is really about facilities standards, and the 25 percent — their figure — of minor league baseball parks that are not in compliance with MiLB facility standards,” Heller said. “All four of my clubs are easily in compliance with that.”

The true culprit seems to be money. If MLB teams are going to be shamed into paying minor leaguers a living salary, then they’re going to decrease the number of minor leaguers they have to pay. But what if instead of dramatically decreasing the number of minor league clubs and the visibility of the historic venues they play in, MLB made a small tweak that could generate more profit and engineer some excitement for Minor League baseball? What if the minor leagues instituted a bowl system like college football?

Imagine the Jackie Robinson Classic pitting one team from the Florida State League against a team from the Carolina League. Or maybe two Double-A teams: one from the Southern League and one from the Eastern League? Or even a cross-level bowl game: a Southern League representative against a Florida State League club?

The logistics are complicated of course, but if the idea were to work, it would add some novelty to the minor league playoff system and give teams that might miss the playoffs a marquee event. Every year, the Tortugas could sell tickets and merchandise for the Classic while promising fans a chance to see some of baseball’s future stars that are in other markets. And if we’re going with the cross-level idea, there’s even a built in David-vs-Goliath storyline, the scrappy High-A players taking their shot at the more experienced Double-A group.

In practice, the system would look like this: Every minor league season would finish by September 1, a date most seasons already hit. The top four teams by winning percentage at the highest levels — Triple-A and Double-A — would enter a playoff system like the College Football Playoff. The one seed plays the four; the two plays the three. If we’re really committed to the idea, the games could be held at one location, like how Omaha hosts the College World Series, creating another event to promote.

Other than those eight teams, every other minor league team — from Triple-A all the way down to Rookie League — that finished with a winning record will be selected for a bowl. Excluding the non-United States-based leagues (Mexican League and Dominican Summer League), 97 teams finished with winning records in 2019. Subtract the eight in the playoffs and add one lucky .500 team, and you end up with 45 bowl games to be played through September. 

There could be the Chattanooga Lookout Bowl, the Binghamton Rumble, the Music City Melee. Why not have the Louisville Slugger Classic or the San Antonio Showdown? Add in the potential for naming rights and television contracts, and what seems like nothing more than a simple novelty becomes a business opportunity. 

When I ran the idea by Ryan Keur, president of the Tortugas, he liked it even if he was a bit skeptical it could be implemented. 

“I definitely pride myself on being one of those creative innovators — you know, being somewhat opportunistic,” Keur said. “And I think in this sense it’s a really unique proposition that you’d have to get the player development folks on board with.”

Dave Echols, president of the Charleston RiverDogs, also raised the player development concern. “As a minor league operator, I’m open to any kind of opportunity,” Echols said. “I imagine there could be a certain one-off circumstance that everybody could get behind, but I don’t know from the player development side who would want 18-19 year old kids going against a 24-year-old Triple-A guy.”

A fair point, and so our first stipulation: No bowls between teams with more than a one-level difference. A Triple-A team can play a Double-A team, but not a High-A team. Easy enough.

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Goodbye for now.

Echols also has more of a hands-on familiarity with the idea than most. For the past few years, the Low-A RiverDogs have played a spring exhibition game against the High-A Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Echols described that exhibition game, called the Battle of the Beaches, as a “win-win for everybody,” adding that the two fanbases enjoy it. Proof of concept! Except maybe not.

Because the Battle of the Beaches is essentially an extended spring training game, it’s not played under rigid competitive rules. If a pitcher strikes out the side but the team wanted him to get some more work, they can just ask for the inning to continue, Echols said. Also, the RiverDogs have yet to win one of the matchups, putting a damper on the idea that cross-level games could be competitive. And Echols noted that any extra travel, even so far as Chattanooga, could be an unrealistic requirement for some teams. 

None of those caveats rule out the idea, though. Just because it hasn’t been tried on a fully competitive level doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work, and the RiverDogs’ 0-for record implicates the small sample of games played more than a mismatch of competition. And if the bowl system is fiscally successful, a little extra travel could be in the best interests of some teams.

As for the logistics for the hosting stadium, it wouldn’t necessarily be too different than what goes into hosting an All-Star Game or other showcase event. According to Billy Ferrante, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, the bigger logistical hurdle is not planning the game itself but setting the groundwork in the city over the course of the year. 

It may just be one football game, but it’s a whole week-long series of events,” Ferrante said. “It’s not just about that one week but about a presence for the bowl in the community year-round because, to be successful, bowls need support from the community in addition to the support they get from the fanbases of the two schools.”

Ferrante said that because there are only two weeks between the Selection Show and the New Orleans Bowl, most of the logistics are finalized well in advance of knowing who the teams will be. Once the teams are set, he added, the challenge becomes one of marketing: convincing fans to travel to New Orleans rather than staying home. 

Technically, the New Orleans Bowl had a down year this year. Fewer than 22,000 people attended the game despite the inclusion a ranked team for the first time in the bowl’s history, while another 936,000 watched from home, according to Sports Media Watch

Now try to imagine a world in which nearly a million baseball fans watching the same minor league game could be considered a disappointment. Football and baseball are different sports, obviously, but the bowl system seems to promote a different kind of experience than the typical playoffs. Fans don’t attend to watch their team raise a trophy as much as they attend for the experience. The opponent often is unfamiliar, and the location can give an excuse to take a vacation. A Jackie Robinson Classic is a convenient reason to take a trip to Florida before the weather goes cold, just as the Music City Melee could convince fans to finally go visit Nashville for a weekend. 

The bigger hurdle would be that colleges, at least in theory, carry much larger and more devout fan bases than minor league teams. While a Wake Forest alum would travel to New York for the Pinstripe Bowl, would a Tortugas fan travel to Chattanooga for a minor league baseball bowl?

That’s where the community work Ferrante talked about would become more important. The bowls likely would need to appeal to the minor league baseball fans in the community more than the specific team’s fans. “This game is your chance to see ‘X’ top prospect,” the marketing would emphasize to the locals.

To Keur at least, that part of the idea holds weight. “I think the novelty of it all would bring fans to the game,” Keur said. “I think if you can bring the highest caliber of baseball, if you can bring Triple-A baseball or Double-A level baseball, I think that’s the draw: bringing some of the best prospects in the game.”

Keur added that he thought the idea could also appeal to a new generation of baseball fans.  “I think baseball has to look at doing things a little bit differently over the next thirty or forty years to change the landscape of the game,” Keur said. 

Would a bowl system raise the same amount of money that cutting 42 teams would save? Probably not, but who knows? The college bowl system has turned into one of the most watched events in all of sports. And at the very least, if MiLB adopts a bowl playoff system, that future baseball landscape still includes the Jack, the Daytona Tortugas, and more baseball for a new generation. 

Wes Jenkins is a staff writer at Redleg Nation and freelances when he can. You can follow him on Twitter @_wesjenks or check out more of his writing on his website, wesjenks.com.
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2 years ago

A fair point, and so our first stipulation: No bowls between teams with more than a one-level difference. A Triple-A team can play a Double-A team, but not a High-A team. Easy enough.

Completely misses the real problem here. When MiLB says ‘player development’ is a problem – what they really mean is ‘MLB pulls our strings’. Coming up with some stipulation is merely accepting the anti-trust exemption of MLB.

It is that anti-trust exemption that must be killed. With malice aforethought. Once MLB is subject to the same law as everyone else, all sorts of competition can emerge. Absent that, everything that treats MiLB as if it is anything but a poodle is entirely a waste of time.

2 years ago

College football teams have thousands of alumni with strong links to their schools and the games are largely held during the holidays, when people have time off work. Minor league teams have local fans who aren’t (or at least shouldn’t be) too concerned about game outcomes — the players are there to develop, not win games, and the rosters are both outside team control and subject to extreme turnover. There simply aren’t fans who would travel to these games, let alone in September when school has started. (Triple-A Columbus has for years offered free tickets to its playoff games because otherwise the turnout simply isn’t there.)

League all-star teams *might* draw interest from prospect hounds, but I doubt the players’ MLB affiliates would allow such a thing. And as it is, the Arizona Fall League — which is something of an all-star league (although not as much so as it likes to claim) — already exists and does not draw particularly well. Last year’s championship game drew 2500, but the regular games might get 500. Minor League Bowls is a neat idea but I really don’t think there would be any demand for it.

I want to like the Ms
2 years ago
Reply to  ole049

I like thinking outside the box to support minor league teams, but I have the same doubts as ole49. I am an alum who has traveled to football bowl games for Boston College. There is a reason the television broadcast does not pan the fans in the stands. The stands are empty.
I have seen a rise in Independent Baseball Leagues and I wonder if the MLB teams are attempting to transition out of the lower level farm system.
Two revenue generating ideas for the minor leagues are scheduling exhibition games in minor league parks and getting an HOF caliber player to barnstorm the minor leagues. If the Yankees and White Sox can play in a converted Iowa cornfield MLB teams can play at their AAA affiliate or schedule an MLB game at a lower level ballpark. I used to watch the Portland Beavers play exhibition games with their parent team. It was the only sellout of the year. One of my favorite baseball memories was meeting and watching Bob Feller at a short season A league game in Bellingham, Washington – another sellout. In Feller’s case the proceeds benefitted the older players who were not eligible for a pension. Anyone who was fortunate to see Bob Feller will agree he was larger than life and a great ambassador for the game.

Dave T
2 years ago
Reply to  ole049

I agree with these skeptical comments, and I particularly agree with points about the wide differences between the size of college football fan bases relative to minor league baseball. And, even with that large base of college football fans, it’s a real struggle for the bowls to fill stadiums once we look beyond the marquee bowls that feature a combination of highly-ranked teams and attractive winter vacation destinations (Florida, Phoenix, Pasadena, etc.)

As for points like this one in the article: “Now try to imagine a world in which nearly a million baseball fans watching the same minor league game could be considered a disappointment.”

That’s a flawed comparison because the benchmark for college football bowl games should be attendance and viewership for regular season games, which are both much greater than for minor league baseball games. In-person attendance of 22,000 for a lesser bowl such as the New Orleans Bowl isn’t very good relative to the number of people who attend college regular season games.

As for TV viewership, part of what helps even lesser bowl games is the very different schedule of football versus baseball. NFL games are played a few days of the week, and college bowl games get TV viewership in part based on general football fans thinking “it’s Tuesday night, is there a football game on TV that I can watch?” Hypothetical “minor league baseball bowl games” in September have to compete head-to-head for fan attention with major league baseball games that are on TV every night of the week, with a meaningful number of those September games usually having playoff race implications.

2 years ago

I absolutely love this idea. And you could have some really distinctive Bowl games!

You could make the Rickwood Classic a bowl game. Maybe host one at the Field of Dreams site.