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Have we seen the beginning of the end of independent leagues?

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The new “partner league” relationship brings up some red flags.

David Samson/The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead

It will undoubtedly be a busy winter for the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball. After a shortened 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic that lead to only half of the league’s 12 teams able to participate, the American Association will look to bring back everyone into the fold for the 2021 campaign. With Minor League Baseball being cut down by at least 40 teams, which has already started, independent leagues could expand by quite a number of teams before spring training.

Some interesting news that came out of three independent leagues last week was the announcement of not only the American Association, but also the Atlantic League and Frontier League, becoming “partner leagues” with Major League Baseball. Unfortunately, not many details were released along with the press release. Members of all sides had the cookie-cutter type of quotes included with the news.

MLB’s Executive Vice President of Baseball Economics and Operations had this to say:

We welcome the American Association and Frontier Leagues as Partner Leagues, and look forward to working with them toward our shared goal of expanding the geographic reach of baseball.

On the indy league side, American Association Commissioner Joshua Schaub was quoted as saying:

We look forward to our partnership with MLB incorporating the American Association into the MLB family. To grow America’s Pastime, it’s critical to bring all stakeholders in professional baseball to the table. We believe this association with Major League Baseball will culminate in a comprehensive agreement that will grow baseball and shine an even brighter light on the American Association. The American Association has already established itself as a premier professional league in North America, this partnership will only enhance the American Association’s stature among the professional baseball world.

Lastly, the Frontier League Commissioner, Bill Lee, said:

The Frontier League is honored to become a Partner League with Major League Baseball. This partnership will be beneficial in growing our great game of Baseball in all of our United States and Canadian markets. Our teams and fans will all be excited to see the League grow in years to come. The Frontier League began in 1993, to have a relationship with Major League Baseball, is one of the greatest moments in League history.

The Atlantic League, who announced their partnership with MLB on Tuesday last week, has been a guinea pig for MLB’s new rules, including robo-umps. So will the American Association see rule changes galore in upcoming seasons?

A bit more information, and yet some more news forthcoming next week according to Schaub. This would fall in line with this week’s dealings, including removing the Appalachian League from MiLB as well as the expiration of the agreement between MLB and MiLB. Undoubtedly, the three independent leagues will absorb some soon-to-be-former MiLB affiliates.

But this “partner league” affiliation with MLB has some concerns along with it as well. As much as this relationship can strengthen baseball in North America, MLB has a partnership with three of the major indy leagues in this part of the hemisphere. So when will this “partnership” become a monopoly of leagues by MLB and its infamous leader in Rob Manfred?

Although Schaub replied to some nobody writer’s Twitter rant about concerns of this relationship, it’s hard to trust leagues that rely solely on fan attendance and concessions for their revenue to not sell out to a corporation like Major League Baseball. It’s hard to trust even more so after the 2020 pandemic restricted the AA to both a shortened season and fewer teams, and to have the Frontier and Atlantic Leagues to cancel their season and effectively earn little to no revenue this year. Is MLB taking advantage of these leagues?

Another concerning point is that these independent leagues are entering into a relationship with MLB, who hasn’t had the greatest of relationships with MiLB in recent times. If MLB is going to treat MiLB the way it has, what will stop it from treating these indy leagues the same way? Will this partnership be detrimental and eventually remove the identity of the American Association, Frontier League, and Atlantic League in the coming years?

One more red flag is that, as mentioned before, the Atlantic League has already become a home to test new rules that MLB would like to apply to its own teams. Now that these leagues are partner leagues of MLB, and although Schaub has been quoted as saying that rule changes will not be implemented in the AA, Manfred has continued to get rules pushed through in MLB, MiLB, and probably now through these partner leagues.

It’s not to say I don’t believe that this agreement will be all bad. Additional teams in each league will be beneficial to keep baseball going in parts of the United States and Canada. However, Rob Manfred and MLB’s track record doesn’t bode well for the life of independent leagues as we know it. Only time - and more details - will tell whether MLB will effectively help or hinder what these leagues have built over the past 25-plus years.