Anyone who ever watched “Bull Durham” or ever read a book about minor league baseball (I recommend Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Barry) knows that the days are long, the nights can be longer, the bus rides are interminable, and the pay is bad.
None of that is apt to change soon, and given the likely passage of new legislation this week, the terrible pay is about to become the law of the land.
A massive government spending bill that Congress is expected to consider this week could include a provision exempting Minor League Baseball players from Federal labor laws….
The league has long claimed exemptions for seasonal employees and apprenticeships, allowing its clubs to pay players as little as $1,100 a month, well under the pay that would be dictated under Federal minimum wage and overtime standards. But with those exemptions under legal challenge, Major League Baseball has paid lobbyists hundreds of thousands of dollars to write a specific exemption into the law.
The text of the “Save America’s Pastime Act” is dry as dust — if you really want to read it, go here — but its impact is a crushing blow to players on the lowest rungs of the baseball ladder who want to pursue their dreams of playing at the highest level while not going broke or into debt in the process.
The application of labor laws to the work of professional athletes is traditionally a difficult process. Generally speaking, anyone who works more than 40 hours a week has a legal right to expect overtime pay. But there are exemptions to that rule, and minor league baseball players are about to join that class of seasonal and temporary employees for whom the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 do not apply.
The president of Minor League Baseball, Pat O’Conner, was quoted in that Washington Post piece explaining why baseball’s overlords want minor league players exempted from basic labor protections. Perhaps not surprisingly, O’Conner makes it sound like the wealthy people who own baseball clubs are actually doing the lowly minor leaguers a huge favor by making underpaying them a legal practice: “(T)he formula of minimum wage and overtime is so incalculable. I would hate to think that a prospect is told, ‘You got to go home because you’re out of hours, you can’t have any extra batting practice.’ It’s those kinds of things. It’s not like factory work.”
(As if Scott Kingery needed more motivation to make the big club. Photo Credit: Kim Klement, USA TODAY)
OK, but it’s not as though minor league baseball players are currently raking it in and baseball has to draw the line or risk going out of business. Maury Brown of Forbes provided some useful numbers for context:
The affiliated clubs of Minor League Baseball where players are developed to hopefully be called up to MLB, attracted 41,832,364 fans in 2017, an increase of 455,162 from 2016, and MiLB’s 13th-straight year over the 41-million mark. Combined with Major League Baseball, total paid attendance was 114,502,787 last year.
Major League Baseball has seen massive revenue growth over several years while ballparks within the league see massive public subsidy. For 2017, gross revenues for the league far surpassed $10 billion and is believed to now be approximately $12 billion.
Meanwhile, the passage of the new law will set the minimum that a first-year minor league player will be paid at $1,160 per month:
If my math is correct, the monthly minor league minimum would be $7.25 x 40 x 4 = $1,160 a month.
Up from the current minor-league minimum of $1,100 a month.
— Mike DeBonis (@mikedebonis) March 22, 2018
You would think it would be difficult for Major League Baseball to see the disparity between its overall business valuation in excess of $10 billion and sub-minimum-wage pay for the players it develops via its minor league system and say that it’s a fair situation that is working well. You would be wrong about that. Major League Baseball President Rob Manfred has been on record since 2016 expressing his support for holding the line on minor league players’ wages:
I asked Rob Manfred about MLB's endorsement of the Save America's Pastime Act & why MLB is opposed to paying minor leaguers minimum wage: pic.twitter.com/MwXPTEyD9S
— Brendan Kennedy (@BKennedyStar) October 4, 2016
“For us it’s really not about the money,” Manfred said.
That’s fantastic. Let me give you some advice: Anytime someone tells you “it’s not about the money,” assume that person is lying to you.
Attorney Garrett Broshuis, who has been representing minor league players in litigation on this issue — litigation that will almost certainly become moot if the new FLSA exemptions become law — expressed the absurdity of Manfred’s stance thus: “This is about billionaire owners using their clout to try to pass something that isn’t going through the normal procedures of legislature and that is only going to make thousands of minor leaguers suffer even more. We’re just talking about basic minimum wage laws here…if Walmart or McDonald’s can find a way to comply with those laws, then Major League Baseball can find a way to comply with them, too.”
Unfortunately for Broshuis and his clients, MLB did find a way to comply with basic minimum wage laws without paying players more money.
Baseball owners didn’t like the law, so they just went and changed it.