What would it cost?
Last week, at The Athletic, Brittany Ghiroli filed another story in what has become a familiar theme. Ghiroli’s article focused on housing conditions for minor leaguers. Players are sleeping in their cars, living in roach-infested apartments, and sleeping on pool floaties. That’s the reality of life for a majority of minor league players.
I’ve read a lot of these stories, and been on my own little campaign on the matter over the years, but Ghiroli’s story included this quote that haunted me after I read it:
“The game is in a spot where it’s catering only to the wealthy, the people who have enough money in their family or in their draft pick (bonus),” said one Mets Double-A player. “That’s extremely disappointing for a game that’s America’s pastime. It shouldn’t be [a] rich, White person’s pastime. Most of the guys I know have parental support and the guys who don’t either have a big signing bonus or have left the game.”
There’s the social equity piece of that statement that jumps off the page, and indeed, MLB teams are largely run by college-educated—often Ivy League educated—people who were financially capable of handling working for free as an intern for a year or two. It would be a shame to think that the entire sport might fall under the same spell.
If your screening system for your front office comes up with the same results time after time, you have to question what it’s screening out, whether intentionally or not. If baseball teams are inadvertently doing the same with their minor leaguers, it’s worth asking whether they are possibly throwing away players who could help their organization before they get a chance to fully develop.
So what would it cost to change that?
The organization Advocates for Minor Leaguers put together a seven-item list of actions that MLB organizations could take to improve conditions for minor leaguers that would not involve raising salaries. They’d all have costs associated with them, and a final price that would probably have seven digits in it. But, if we’re going to do a proper cost-benefit analysis, let’s at least figure out what sort of costs we’re talking about.
And I’m going to admit something before I jump headfirst into this article: This one’s a little outside my area of expertise. I’m a doctor, not a travel agent, but I’m going to rely on publicly available information (i.e., some well-placed Google searches), and the reality that if I’m off by a bit, I’m really only looking for an estimate at this point. If you are someone with some specific domain knowledge and you want to correct me, feel free to yell at me in the comments.
We’re going to look at both the raw cost for these ideas and the net cost. Teams already do pay out some money to address some of these issues, though clearly what they pay out isn’t buying a lot. But let’s move along to the part where I say…
Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
Going in order from Advocates for Minor Leaguers:
1) Pay weekly salaries all year round – no more periods of free work.
The request here – I assume – is aimed at the fact that minor league players are only paid during the minor league season. Spring training doesn’t count, and so someone on a minor league deal isn’t getting paid for February and March. I suppose that Major League teams could have the payroll department issue weekly or bi-weekly checks, but I’m not sure what that would really solve. They’d probably just issue smaller checks, but more of them, that would add up to the same amount.
Unless this is a sneaky way to ask for a raise. The easiest way to ease minor league wage woes is to simply increase the wage. Players might still be on the hook for finding their own housing and buying their own food, but right now the standard wages for a minor league player is somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000. The U.S. Federal poverty line (as of 2021) for a single adult is $12,880. Players can work in the off-season and add to their bank accounts, but they’re also supposed to be training in the off-season. And again, they’re not being paid by the team for any of that training.
What would it cost teams to simply bump minor league salaries to say, the average salary in the United States ($51,916.27 in 2019, the latest data available)? Or perhaps the median ($34,248.45)? Let’s round those to $50,000 and $35,000, respectively, and assume the current average minor league salary is $12,500.
Minor league roster sizes actually increased in 2021, with 28 players per team on the active roster at Double-A and Triple-A and 30 in A-ball (both low and high). It used to be 25 per team down the line.
|Salary||Raw Cost||Current Cost||Net Cost|
|$35,000 * 116 players||$4,060,000||$1,450,000||$2,610,000|
|$40,000 * 116 players||$4,640,000||$1,450,000||$3,190,000|
|$50,000 * 116 players||$5,800,000||$1,450,000||$4,350,000|
A $50,000 salary is not the lap of luxury, but it’s enough to not have to worry about going to the grocery store or securing a decent place to live. Those net cost numbers have seven digits in them, so I don’t want to belittle them. There are already people firing up the comments about how franchise owners are often worth billions, and while I am personally sympathetic to those arguments, reality doesn’t work like that.
It does give us a pretty good baseline for the easiest way to improve minor league working conditions. Not living at the poverty line would help, and it could all be done for something around $4-ish million per year.
2) Provide or cover the cost of in-season housing.
Now the game is afoot. The request highlights two paths for teams to take on this road. They can provide the housing themselves, or they can subsidize or cover the cost of rent that players incur on the open market.
Minor leaguers have some fairly unique housing needs. The minor league schedule usually starts in early April and ends at the beginning of September (playoffs usually end mid-September), meaning that players need to secure housing for those six months. A lot of the rental market often requires at least a year-long lease term. There are apartments that will do shorter-term leases, but building operators usually demand higher rent payments per month than they would for a longer term.
There is a bit of a counter-balance here. Minor league teams tend to play in cities that aren’t as populated (or expensive) as their Major League parent clubs, so they might save a little bit on rent that way. (Someone from the Brooklyn Cyclones just read that sentence and just coughed up a peanut butter sandwich.) Although many minor league cities are also home to another type of organization that draws a lot of 18- to 24-year-olds in need of non-year-round rental housing: colleges, and especially large open-enrollment state colleges. Minor leaguers are moving in around early April when classes aren’t yet out, and may need to extend their stay to mid-September when classes will likely already be back in session. A building operator may decide that if they are going to rent to college-age kids with limited credit history, they might as well rent to the students who are guaranteed to be around and paying rent for nine months, rather than the minor leaguers who would only pay for six.
But of course, the other problem is that minor leaguers can get reassigned at the whim of the organization, which usually means a journey to another city, sometimes in a different part of the country. In addition to figuring out where they’re gonna live when they get there, they have to figure out who is going to take over their original lease, sometimes in ways that aren’t fully in line with the lease contract. It’s a rough position to be in, and that’s before you begin to factor in the paltry wages that they are living on.
I assume by this point, you all know about the stereotype of six players living in a two-bedroom apartment. It’s common. When you don’t have much income, roommates make an efficient way to bring down everyone’s effective rent. But it can also mean living in a busy, noisy apartment where you don’t get a lot of privacy. And if someone gets promoted, you might be out their share of rent. So there are two sets of worries among minor leaguers. One is “How am I going to afford this?” The other is “What if I or one of my roommates gets transferred or released?”
My colleague Jeff Long wrote a piece suggesting that one way teams could handle this is to simply purchase (or build) housing that they own and allow the players to live there free of charge. This sidesteps the need for players to worry about things like leases and when new players come to town or transfer between affiliates, they have a guaranteed place to live that they don’t have to stress about. In this set up, teams could do things like setting up the team apartment complex to include space for team meetings and activities. It also guarantees that players are living in housing conditions that are hopefully healthier than six players in two bedrooms. More if you count the roaches.
Alternatively, they could lease apartments already on the rental market or give players money to find their own housing. That would solve the “How do I afford this?” problem, though the question of figuring out transfers still remains. (Some teams actually solve this by backstopping leases and taking them over if a player is transferred.)
Here, we’re going to get into trouble when we try to estimate costs. Housing costs vary a lot depending on where you are living, even within a city. (Shout out again to all the Brooklyn Cyclones reading this!) But let’s do our best.
Before we jump in too far, how many apartments will we need? If players are commonly living six to a two-bedroom apartment, then theoretically 116 players across the whole system could fit in 20 apartments. But… perhaps we want to decrease the crowding. Let’s keep it to two players to an apartment, and round to 60 apartments.
The Do-It-Yourself Option
Teams could buy some land and build something customized to their own needs. It gives them the most control over the project, but it’s going to be expensive. And again, I’m about to totally gloss over the very real differences in the real estate markets of cities around the country. I’m also glossing over what I assume would be the usual zoning/permitting red tape that goes with literally any construction project.
- Four parcels of land in four cities. I did some snooping around on LoopNet, which is like Zillow, but for commercial and multi-family properties, and looked for land parcels that are a reasonable size (thanks, I don’t need 80 acres…) just to get a general idea of price. I saw prices around $600,000 to $800,000. It’s not that I would recommend buying anything off LoopNet for this project. An organization would want to pick a good site that made sense logistically. But, let’s just say that for four affiliates, we need $3,200,000 for land costs (and possibly some land preparation costs.)
- In looking around for how much it costs to build an apartment, I’m taking the internet at its word, but I found estimates around $200,000 per unit. I have to imagine there’s a lot of wiggle room in that price, because you can build with cheap materials or more expensive stuff, but I’m going to run with that. Sixty units would run the organization $12 million.
We’re in the $15 million range, but before you freak out, let’s recall that this is a one-time initial construction cost. (We’ll get to on-going costs in a minute.) And buildings can be financed. Even assuming a four percent mortgage rate, over a 15-year term, the average annual payment on $15,200,000 is $1.35 million per year.
The cool thing about this option is that the team owns the building and the building is a tangible thing that retains value. You can sell it and get most or all of your investment back. Also, the building wouldn’t be needed for players from October to March, and there might be some room to rent out the units on a short-term basis to defray some costs.
Ongoing costs would include property taxes, which again will vary from place to place, but will average about two percent of the property value. We’ll call that another $304,000 for tax on the land and building. On top of that, someone’s going to have to manage the building. Often, management companies will work on a commission model from the rent, taking around 10 percent of what the lease-holder puts in. Because teams would own these buildings and specifically not charge rent to their players, they’d have to come to some other accommodation. The COVID pandemic has had the side effect of increasing rent nationwide, and the average apartment rental nationwide checks in around $1,200 per month. Sixty units at $1,200 per month would normally produce $864,000 per year in revenue, so let’s allocate $86,400 for management fees per year.
We also need to allow for about five percent of the property value to cover building repairs, which is another $760,000 per year.
Our yearly cost for this option comes to $2,500,400. I want to put some big error bars around that number, but we’re also “only” in a seven-figure range. It’s real money, though not cost-prohibitive on the baseball scale.
The light version of this would be to buy an already existing building and take it over. Seeing that the building would be used, rather than new, it wouldn’t command the same money as new construction. It also wouldn’t run into the same administrative problems as new construction, because the building is already literally right there. In looking through LoopNet, I found apartment complexes for sale, with prices that were around $75,000 per unit. Sixty units would cost $4,500,000, though depending on the condition of the units, they might need refurbishing. We’re probably still talking in the seven digits for an amortized cost, though we’d likely come in under the $2.5 million figure above.
Renting Already Existing Apartments
We’re going to use the national median rent (as of the end of 2020) for our calculations on this. Teams could simply rent out a series of apartments for players and fill them as players come and go. Even if they had to eat the cost of a 12-month lease on them, how much would that run them?
|Scenario||Apartments Needed||Cost per Apartment||Total Cost|
|6 players in a 2-bedroom apartment||20||$1,370/month||$328,800|
|2 players in a 2-bedroom apartment||60||$1,370/month||$986,400|
|Each player in their own 1-bedroom apartment||118||$1,120/month||$1,585,920|
Again, teams could try sub-letting in the off-season to recoup some of those costs, but the costs are roughly comparable to the do-it-yourself model. There’s nothing that says an organization has to do the same thing for all of its affiliates. Pick the best option for the available circumstances.
The point of teams taking over either ownership of the building or holding of the lease is to free players from having to worry about someone being promoted, but another nice effect would be that teams might be able to provide their players housing in nicer conditions. Perhaps with no leaks or bathrooms that work or places that aren’t in noisy areas so that players can get some rest. Teams could simply subsidize the rental units that players themselves find, but the quality of the housing would likely vary with how much they’re willing to spend.
MLB teams could also do things like cover the cost of utilities for players (and hold the account for the apartment so that the player isn’t on the hook). On average, that’s about $300 for gas, electric, water, and internet per month. For 60 apartments and 12 months, that’s $216,000. Players would be allowed to move about the system without worrying about their credit rating and who’s paying the light bill.
Apartments also need to be furnished by someone. Minor leaguers famously sleep on whatever they can find, whether that’s an air mattress or a throwaway roadside futon. Or the floor. Teams could foot the bill for a bed, a mattress, a chest of drawers, a table, a recliner, and some homewares (dishes, cookware). There are companies that do this sort of thing in bulk, and presumably a team would call one of them. But even paying Ikea prices, you’re still talking about $3,000 per person, which shakes out to an up-front cost of $348,000. You have to figure in replacement costs over the years (college-age folks aren’t known for taking great care of apartments, so let’s assume 20 percent), but that’s an ongoing cost of about $70,000 per year.
All told, MLB teams could build new construction apartments for their players with utilities and furniture included. It would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of about $3 million per year.
3) Provide or cover the cost of three meals per day during the season.
I’ve sorta done this one before (nine years ago?) and came to a figure around $2 million per year, but I want to go a little deeper.
In the same way that minor leaguers have very specific housing needs, they also have some specific nutritional needs. Athletes burn more calories than us mere civilians, and they also need to watch what they eat to promote maximum physical performance. On top of that, minor leaguers are often traveling and when on the road, rarely have access to ovens and stoves or perhaps even grocery stores. And they’re 20. They might not have well-developed skills around meal planning and cooking.
If teams are going to provide meals, they’re going to need to provide them catered. Fortunately, there are catering services just about everywhere. In this case, it’s likely that MLB organizations would probably turn to a major food service company. It’s a tough assignment: Four affiliates would be playing in a variety of cities, though on a predictable schedule, and would need catering service likely delivered to the ballpark on a daily basis. A team could try to work with a patchwork of local options, but that would be a pain to set up. It’s much easier to outsource the brain work on that to a company that literally does this for a living. It’s also the sort of contract that big service companies would line up for and probably give a bulk discount on, especially if as part of their compensation they could claim to be the official food service provider of an MLB team. A lot of teams already have an ongoing relationship with these companies. Someone provides all those hot dogs at the ballpark.
Teams wouldn’t need fine china and linens and bow ties. Paper plates and a couple of steel pans on top of sterno cans should do it, but they’d need food and lots of it. For a contract of this size, food service companies would likely either retain the services of a consultant who specializes in sport nutrition (or already have one of those on staff). They’d probably also want to think about the intersection of culture and food. Food is a cultural product, and what you grow up eating is often heavily influenced by where you grew up, and baseball teams draw players from all over the world.
This is tougher than it looks. But once we have a reasonable menu, it’s just a matter of the logistics of getting it there. I suppose we can use the Chipotle index. They’ll do catering for $13.50 a person. I wandered around and found estimates of $20-$30 per plate for catering service. I’d imagine that delivery costs a little more, although again, with a contract this big, MLB orgs wouldn’t be paying retail price per plate.
Let’s assume that for food that needs to be nutritionally better than just sloppy joes, we’re going to need $25 per plate for lunch and dinner, and $10 for breakfast: $60 per day. The minor league season is shorter than the MLB one, so if teams were providing meals only during the season, they’d need to cover roughly 150 days. Multiplied over 116 players, that’s 17,400 player-days.
Right now, minor leaguers get roughly $25 per day in meal money.
|Scenario||Raw Cost||Current Cost||Net Cost|
|2 Burritos a Day ($27 per player-day)||$469,800||$435,000||$34,800|
|Double the meal money ($50 per player-day)||$870,000||$435,000||$435,000|
|Catering ($60 per player-day)||$1,044,000||$435,000||$609,000|
|Catering ($80 per player-day)||$1,392,000||$435,000||$957,000|
What if they also included Spring Training, including 42 extra days (bringing us to 22,272 total player-days)?
|Scenario||Raw Cost||Current Cost||Net Cost|
|2 Burritos a Day ($27 per player-day)||$601,344||$556,800||$44,544|
|Double the meal money ($50 per player-day)||$1,113,600||$556,800||$556,800|
|Catering ($60 per player-day)||$1,336,320||$556,800||$779,520|
|Catering ($80 per player-day)||$1,781,760||$556,800||$1,224,960|
There would probably be some consulting fees in there, and the team would probably have to employ some sort of Coordinator of Culinary Logistics, and an employee like that, fully loaded (salary, benefits, and overhead) would probably cost a team in the neighborhood of $80,000 to $100,000.
Again, it’s not free to do, but not cost-prohibitive. It becomes a question of policy. Do teams want to spend their money here?
4) Provide multiple buses on road trips and sleeper buses on overnight road trips.
What players are really asking for here is a little bit of legroom and the chance to stretch out while traveling. I’ve always found it a little weird that while major and minor leaguers play the same basic “three games then switch” format for their schedules (this changed to six games on, one game off in 2021 for the minor leagues), with “switch” often meaning a switch in cities often several hundred miles away. While major leaguers get to take an aeroplane to their next destination, minor leaguers are usually on the bus. Sometimes, that’s where you’re sleeping overnight. If you thought six players in a two-bedroom apartment was cramped, wait until it’s 30 in a metal box.
Well, one reason is that charter fees for buses are in the low-four digits while an airplane, even for a short flight, will cost something in the mid-five digits. Flights are much quicker and therefore, get players home (or to the next hotel) earlier so that they can rest, but they are more expensive. There’s the compromise solution where players accept being on the road, but perhaps with a second bus, they might have a little more room to snooze or just not feel so close to their teammates.
The Advocates for Minor Leaguers proposal also mentions sleeper buses. These are common in the entertainment industry, where the road crew and members of your favorite band will often be traveling by bus from city to city to play concerts. Your typical sleeper bus has 12 bunk-style beds in it, so if everyone wanted to take a nap, a team would probably need three of them.
Again, MLB organizations probably have ongoing contracts with transportation providers for bus service in the minor leagues and with a reliable schedule over several months, several of them are probably keen to give them a good deal. We’ll assume that over the course of a 150-day season, each team will be on the road for 75 of them, using the 2019 version of the minor league schedule as a basis. We’ll assume that they need to change cities roughly six times in a month or 30 times in a season, and that five of those will be “overnighters.”
Your typical bus rental runs about $1,200 per day on the retail market (teams might get a better deal). A sleeper coach might be around $2,000. An airplane charter could run you $40,000.
|Scenario||Raw Cost||Current Cost||Net Cost|
|Two buses for all trips||$720,000||$360,000||$360,000|
|Two buses for “short” trips; Three sleepers for overnighters||$936,000||$360,000||$576,000|
|Two buses for “short” trips, Fly for long-distance ones||$1,376,000||$360,000||$1,016,000|
The “fly everywhere” option would probably need some bus rentals to get to and from the airport, and again with a big contract, an organization could probably get a bulk discount. The extra buses would come in somewhere around half a million dollars. Given how important sleep is, and that some percentage of sleep time right now is done in a cramped bus seat (when one is available). You can probably buy players some extra shut-eye.
5) Assist players in shipping their cars to a new affiliate if reassigned and assist players without a car in getting to the field each day.
Now we’re into things that are comparatively a trifle in costs. A sixteen-passenger van is a $40,000 vehicle. There would be operating costs to go with it, but it’s not a huge number. And … the players do need to be at the park to play the game.
Players who are reassigned are expected to be in their new city within a matter of hours. Generally, they get sent to the airport with a commercial plane ticket in hand and might be on the road when they get the news, and so nowhere near their car. The cost of having someone drive a car from place to place is a few hundred dollars.
It’s a small gesture, but it means one less thing for a player to worry about.
6) Cover the cost of offseason training.
I suppose that the $20 per month membership at the local Planet Fitness isn’t exactly what people had in mind?
It’s a little surprising to me that teams don’t cover the cost of training. If there’s literally one thing that a baseball team should invest in, it’s training its employees in the exact skills that they’ll need for the job. The reality is that teams leave players to their own devices. Some have the budget to forgo working and move to be near a baseball-specific facility, and then train there. Some are living in their childhood homes and are going to whatever gym happens to be nearby in between shifts at the local Target.
There’s strength and fitness training to think about, but also baseball-specific training and the cost of nutrition during that time. At the beginning of this article, I noted the quote about baseball catering to the wealthy. Sure, anyone can go run in the park, but is the game subtly discriminating against those who can’t afford to spend the winter at the Texas Baseball Ranch honing their skills more precisely. More importantly, are teams losing out on development that could have been made?
Giving 116 players a training allowance of $2,000 each would cost $232,000.
There’s also the grand option of teams simply opening up their spring training complexes a few months early. Some teams already do this with top prospects, but what if everyone who was affiliated with the team was invited for some winter-time fun? Teams could ensure that players could focus on training, rather than having to work a winter job, and that they were getting appropriate food, rest, and medical care.
If players stayed in two-bedroom apartments, split with one other roommate for three months, that would be a player-cost of $2,505 for housing and utilities, and $5,400 for 90 days of food, supplied by the catering contract, for a player cost of $8,000. If 60 players show up, it would cost $480,000. Even if everyone took them up on the offer, it would be $928,000.
There would be costs associated with having the trainers and coaches there, but… isn’t that the entire point of employing those folks?
7) Adjust salaries and per diems based on the cost of living in different cities.
I don’t know that there’s any math to this recommendation. It’s good advice, because (hello again Brooklyn Cyclones!) there are variations across the country in the cost of living, and players have little geographic control from the fact that they enter the league through a draft system and are assigned to a specific affiliate at the pleasure of organization. If organizations want to ensure that their players are eating, they need to look at the actual cost of buying food in the places where they send their minor leaguers to play.
But now we have a cost estimate of what it would take to fix many of the hidden issues in minor league baseball. Raising wages to the national average would have a net cost of about $4.3 million.
If teams would rather do this “in kind” (again, stressing that these are pocket estimates, but they’re in the right ballpark)
- Teams could provide housing and utilities somewhere around $1 million to $1.5 million per year in net costs. They could build and furnish it themselves for somewhere around $3 million per year, though that would come with the chance to build equity in physical buildings. There may be some ability to defray some of those costs by renting/sub-letting apartments.
- They could guarantee well-proportioned food from a custom-designed menu catered to their needs for around $800,000 net per year.
- Making the travel associated with minor league life a little easier would cost about $600,000 net.
- They could ensure that players got baseball-specific training in the off-season and if they wanted to, could have a place to stay and eat while they did so, in order that they didn’t have to split their attention between off-season job and training. That’s going to be somewhere in the mid-six-figure range.
Teams could effectively wipe out all of the worry associated with minor league life, ensure that their players were safely housed and well-fed, and could transfer easily from affiliate to affiliate, could train in the off-season, and not bail on the dream before the curveball that could have developed ever had a chance to.
Even if I’m a little off here and there (and again, I will gladly cop to the fact that I’m probably in a bit over my head in projecting some of these costs), the answer is going to be something on the order of “a few million more than they are spending now.”
That’s what it would cost. Now that we know that, it means we’re half-way to a decent cost-benefit analysis…
Thank you for reading
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