Can Small-Town America Survive Pandemic's Hit to Minor League Baseball? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

A canceled season means an essential economic and cultural exchange avenue has closed.

By Stephen Starr

  • In June, this year’s season was canceled for the first time in Minor League Baseball’s 118-year history. Unlike MLB, the minor leagues don’t benefit from television revenue.
  • Local economies of multiple towns depend on minor league baseball. They’re now struggling.
  • Minor League Baseball also exposes predominantly small, white communities to global cultures — 48 percent players are foreigners who this year can’t come to America.

From Luis Aparicio to Albert Pujols, international players have always enjoyed a starring role in Major League Baseball. The influence of imports has grown even more in recent years, with 28.5 percent of all players rostered to MLB franchises last year born overseas. But it’s in the minor leagues of small-town America, where baseball is oftentimes the sole avenue for live entertainment, that foreign-born players fill an even more important role. Now the pandemic is threatening that unique bond.

The more than 160 Minor League Baseball (MiLB) teams in 14 regional leagues strewn across towns and cities around America last season had 48 percent of their 4,119 players brought in from abroad. Of the eight teams in the Eastern Midwest League from Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan, immigrants last year made up 34 percent of the playing roster, though those four states have an average per capita immigrant population of just 5 percent.

Without any revenue, you’re seeing baseball parks and cities having to close their doors.

Marissa Kiss, George Mason University

The coronavirus crisis has disrupted that relationship and is bleeding local economies dependent on baseball. In June, this year’s season was canceled for the first time in its 118-year history. While broadcast revenue accounts for an estimated $4 billion of MLB’s earnings, and games in a shortened 2020 season are going out live on TV, minor league teams and communities have no such fallback. They depend on ticket sales and attendance for profits.

“Without any revenue, you’re seeing baseball parks and cities having to close their doors,” says Marissa Kiss, doctoral student studying the issue at George Mason University in Virginia.

Local baseball entertainment is at the heart of countless downtown revivals. The Dayton Dragons, a Class A league team owned by the Cincinnati Reds that holds the longest sellout streak of any sports team in America, draws 540,000 fans to the Ohio city’s downtown every summer. With a little under half the Dragons’ 2019 roster drafted from overseas (MiLB players are employees of the MLB franchises that own the minor teams), foreign talent plays a significant role in that. Surrounded by breweries, restaurants and new apartment blocks, baseball fans contribute $27.5 million each year to the local economy, according to the team’s 2019 annual report.

“A place like Dayton with 70 home games, the downtown area, the businesses, people might go out to eat before the game, go to the bars,” says Jeff Lantz, senior director of communications at MiLB. He says many communities have paid to have the ballparks built in the downtown core, and that teams use a lot of their income to pay rent back to owners of the facilities — oftentimes the city or county — and that quality foreign talent is key to that. “All those other local businesses, they’re definitely counting on those fans to support the businesses that have popped up around the ballpark,” Lantz says. Dayton’s experience is mirrored in towns such as Erie, Pennsylvania; Billings, Montana; Pensacola, Florida; and countless others.

Helping revive small towns isn’t minor league baseball’s only upside.

It helps overwhelmingly white communities meet skilled immigrants face to face — interactions that otherwise wouldn’t occur. Aside from Major League Soccer and the National Hockey League, no other major sport has a higher foreign player participation rate, say experts.

In Bristol, Virginia, a town of under 17,000 people perched on the Tennessee border, less than 1 percent of the population is born overseas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014-2018 figures. Yet of the Bristol Pirates’ 24 rostered players for the 2019 season, 11 were born outside America. The team is owned by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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Outside Bowen Field baseball stadium in Bluefield, Virginia.

Source Andrew Mangum for OZY

Many international players stay with host families for the duration of the season. Hosts offer free room and board and cooked meals in return for free season tickets to the ball game.

“I’ve learned to cook Dominican and Cuban, speak some Spanish,” says Robin Bowman from Bristol, who over the past five years estimates she’s hosted around 15 Latin American players. “[There’s an exchange in] the way they do things and we do things.”

With such a small community, Bowman says Bristol wouldn’t ordinarily have much exposure to international cultures. The baseball players have helped change that. “They’re like superstars for the younger kids. They help the local kids to build their skills up too. We’d be going through Walmart and we’d get stopped by people curious about where they are from,” she says.

It’s an experience that plays out around the country. Teams from Great Falls, Montana, to New York’s Hudson Valley to the Pacific coast rely on their communities to help host players. In all, about 70 minor league teams work with hosts, according to the MiLB.

But this summer the hosts’ spare rooms are lying empty. International players usually come to the U.S. on the seasonal H-2B work visa that broadly runs from February to October. However, in June the Trump White House stopped issuing most H-2B visas, claiming that doing so would help the U.S. economy.

Still, there’s hope on the horizon. The visa freeze is due to expire at the end of the year, and people such as Bowman have vowed to keep their doors open once a new season starts, probably next year. And with MLB promising a wage increase of 38 to 72 percent for minor league players from 2021, the pull to come back to America is likely to remain strong. That’s good for the players — and great for small-town America.

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