JEERS to the people who run Major League Baseball, who think they can’t afford to keep funding 42 of their minor-league teams, when in fact they can’t afford not to.

Let's not be naïve. Money is as important to organized-sports leagues and their franchises as it is to the rest of us – more, since they are in a competitive situation in terms of their audiences.

But that money is the direct result of having built a devoted following.

Baseball has done well building that following. According to Forbes, Major League Baseball generated a gross income of $10 billion in 2017. That's second in the U.S. to the National Football League, at $13 billion, and ahead of the National Basketball Association, at $7.4 billion.

The main ingredients to income are television, merchandise and ticket sales. Since baseball has by far the most games in a season, you'd expect it to take in the most revenue at the gate.

One of the huge, often overlooked, factors in assessing sports revenue is each one's feeder system: Where do they get their players?

Football and basketball get them for free. They draft them right out of college, where they've been on display for the whole world to see for from one to four years.

Baseball has no such gold mine. General audiences aren't interested in watching college baseball, and, even if they were, college competition isn't a reliable indicator of major-league potential.

So major-league teams must have in place a minor-league system where aspiring big-leaguers can learn and prove themselves. That minor-league system is costly.

Right now, the minor-league system consists of 160 teams, from rookie and short-season leagues to those a step below the big time.

MLB has decided it can no longer afford to support 42 of those teams. It isn't just player salaries, after all (which range from $1,100 a month upward, compared to the starting salary of a major leaguer of $563,500 a season). Expenses also involve travel, meals, living accommodations, equipment and stadiums, among other things.

So it's undeniable that baseball has a very sizable burden in that area.

But consider this: While the minor-league system is developing and providing MLB with the very factors that enable it to thrive – its players – it is also providing it a significant portion of its devoted audience.

The people and politicians who care so much about minor-league teams and fans argue that the communities need the money the games provide. That may be so, but who can reasonably insist that that must be a factor in MLB's decision whether to retain the obligation?

No one.

But here's one thing MLB can't ignore: Minor-league baseball fans the flames of interest in and devotion to major-league baseball. Fans in Burlington, Vt., are more involved with MLB competition because of their minor-league Lake Monsters.

MLB is plenty rich, financially. To remain rich in fan devotion, it had better carefully consider trimming its minor leagues.


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