GREAT FALLS — When it comes to the Great Falls Voyagers and the future of the Pioneer League, more is unknown than is known.
Here’s what we know: At the end of the 2020 season, the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) between major league baseball and minor league teams, which is renegotiated every 10 years, will expire. If a new MLB proposal were to be accepted, more than three dozen cities with affiliated minor league teams will lose those teams a year from now, including the Great Falls Voyagers.
A previous proposal that was denied by the offices of Minor League Baseball down in St. Petersburg, Florida would have eliminated the entire Pioneer League and 42 other communities. That’s 25 percent of minor league baseball. While it’s the goal of the Minor League Baseball office to avoid such losses, the possibility is still not entirely off the table.
“Business is complicated, and it’s always a negotiation process,” said Voyagers Team President Scott Reasoner. “Typically the history is that it’s done on 10-year deals between minor league and major league baseball, and everyone is looking out for their best interests and what they think is best for their individual businesses. Obviously, for us it’s a bit more community oriented and a little more focused because we are Great Falls through and through, locally-owned here. I’ve been here almost 10 years now and not going anywhere so we love Great Falls. The whole point for us is saving baseball in Great Falls, and if people are kind of confused, it’s something that happened before, if you can go back through your history. I know I was a lot younger then, but in 1990 there was a similarly contentious negotiation between the two sides.”
The ”why” for this whole ordeal is a bit more intricate. In theory, Major League Baseball is not proposing to cut a large number of teams just because they feel like it. MiLB is and has always been an extremely valuable asset to the MLB. Not only does it bring in money and provide entertainment for fans around the country that might not be able to experience Major League games very often, but it’s also the most in-depth, comprehensive farm system of any sport in the country.
The NBA has the G-League, the NHL has the American Hockey League, and there are many other unaffiliated professional and semi-pro leagues through the sports world, but none are as complex and important as Minor League Baseball. It would be impossible to fully explain how valuable the MiLB is to Major League Baseball, but feel free to check out this article by former Yankee Doug Bernier, who does a wonderful job of breaking it down for Pro Baseball Insider.
Back to the “why.” The MLB has a desire to rework several aspects of the baseball farm system. Among those goals in their vision are reworking the Player Development Contract (PDC) process to ensure that minor league teams align better geographically to their major league affiliates. They also want to increase the amount that minor leaguers are paid. A good idea in theory, considering the average salary for a player in the minors is anywhere from $1,100/month in short season and rookie leagues to $10,000/month in Triple-A. The problem is that there are two avenues to get to this goal. Option A is minor league teams put out more of their own money to cover the increased salary costs. Option B is the MLB covers most of the cost, but eliminates a handful of minor league teams to lower the amount that they are paying out to minor league players.
The same concept can be applied to the plan for stadium renovations across the country and the desire to improve the overall minor league experience for fans. The MLB wants it, but they know it would cost too much to foot the bill for those changes for all 261 minor league teams across the country. Hence the proposed solution of cutting teams.
The Voyagers are just one of many teams across the United States currently involved in this “fight”, if you will. The good news for Great Falls and the other cities in Montana that may be at risk of losing their team is that they’re not fighting this battle alone.
“There was a Congressional resolution that just went out, and we were excited to have Representative Gianforte supporting that action,” Reasoner said. “I know both Senator Daines and Senator Tester have been very active in opposing this and working directly with the Commissioner’s Office in Major League Baseball and supporting keeping baseball here in Great Falls and the other communities in Montana, and even most recently there was a mayoral task force announced as well. We were very excited to have our Mayor, Bob Kelly here in Great Falls, as well as the mayor in Billings has already signed up to help lead that effort, not just as the 42 communities affected, but everybody’s realized what the impact of this could be for 160 communities and all the states around the country.”
While this battle threatens to hang over Minor League Baseball into the 2020 season and beyond, Reasoner and the rest of the Voyagers front office are more concerned with making sure this upcoming season, which kicks off on June 25th, is the best one yet.
“We’re very excited for 2020, we’re very hopeful that things are going to remain as is, and we’ll just take this challenge as it comes,” he said. “June 25th will be here before you know it, and as soon as the fans roll in and remember what they love about Voyager baseball, that’s what we're excited about.”