The Debate Between MiLB and College Baseball is Now a Little Simpler

Weighing the impact of the new Supreme Court decision on baseball.

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) recently gave hundreds of “student-athletes” hope by affirming a district court’s decision that “the NCAA was violating antitrust law by placing limits on the education-related benefits that schools can provide to athletes.” In fact, SCOTUS ruled 9-0 in favor of former collegiate RB Shawne Alston and the rest of the plaintiffs, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh eviscerating the NCAA’s business practices in a separate concurring opinion. 

SCOTUS’s decision deals another heavy blow to the NCAA’s current business model, which labels student participants as amateurs and forbids them from receiving any financial compensation related to their athletic participation. For example, athletes are not allowed to earn a salary or any extra benefits that come because they are an athlete. This rule is tied to the guise of amateurism, which means that athletes play in the NCAA “for the love of the game” and not for financial compensation. “Student-Athletes,” as they are officially labeled in the NCAA’s very thick rulebook, are ‘compensated’ with a collegiate scholarship and a “valuable college education.”

However, several states have recognized that lost in the shuffle of the commercialization of collegiate sports (the NCAA generated $1.18 bn in revenue in 2019) are the students themselves, and have attempted to rectify that by passing bills that allow athletes to generate revenue off of their name, image, and likeness (NIL). In fact, as of July 1, 2021, at least 5 states will have instituted bills that allow students to make revenue off of their NILs, with other states close behind. These bills allow students to license out their likenesses for things like apparel, video games, and so on. It’s important to note that these bills only allow students to make money off of their NILs and do not advocate for students to receive a salary or a stipend. SCOTUS’s recent decision expands the ways in which students can tie various expenditures into the costs of collegiate education, but it still doesn’t allow players to be “paid to play,” as it is commonly known. However, the combination of state-level bills and the enthusiasm to change the NCAA’s business model will ultimately end collegiate ‘amateurism’ and begin a new movement towards appropriate player compensation.

This movement towards fairer compensation means more athletes should choose to spend four years at a collegiate baseball program over jumping straight to the minor league system, as the time in college will help athletes develop in a friendlier, more comfortable environment than the minor leagues, which will, in turn, alter the way teams approach their drafts and player development, significantly changing MLB’s player landscape (and your Dynasty team) for the better.


The Minor League System


The minor league system (MiLB) allows hitters and pitchers to make skill adjustments in a low-pressure environment and gives big-league clubs a chance to control each player’s development. Even the most major league-ready hitters on draft day, like Bryce Harperrequire some time to adjust to the high-quality play of MiLB and MLB. Some form of MiLB experience is necessary for 99.999% of all prospects, making the minor league system crucial for player development.

The issue with MiLB is that players are treated as if they should just be happy to be playing baseball and not as real employees of the club. According to the site Advocates for Minor Leaguers, the average annual salary for a AAA player in 2019 was just $10,040, roughly $2,000 below the federal poverty level. It gets even worse as you go down the ladder; Class-A players get just $6,000 for a year of work. It’s not uncommon for minor league players to work another job to make ends meet financially. But, it’s not as if these athletes receive many other benefits. The per diems for road trips evidently are not even enough to cover basic player expenses, with incidents like this happening too often:

Thankfully, Orioles executives “stepped in” to try to help players absorb some of the costs:


In fact, some minor league players haven’t been paid at all since early 2020, if not before that. Big league clubs — the ones generating millions of dollars — decided that it would be too big of a hassle to pay their minor leaguers their ’salaries’ with no minor league games to be played. So, some players have made as little as $5,800 across the 2019 and 2020 seasons in the MiLB system, hardly enough to live off of.

As many of us can attest to, money struggles can begin to weigh heavily on our mental health, especially because it can affect personal relationships, mood levels, and even tangible things like food, clothing, and shelter. How are athletes supposed to develop into the best versions of themselves when they are also stressed about making a living? The great promise of playing professional baseball is simply not enough to keep athletes from going hungry at night, sleeping in their cars, and losing sleep because of second jobs or financial stress. The competition is certainly beneficial for building up skills, but it can be hard to build up the skills necessary to hit big-league pitching when there are so many other stressors present.

Some players, especially those drafted in the early rounds, are able to make ends meet during these minor league years using their draft bonuses. Players selected in the first two rounds of the MLB draft are able to get one-time signing bonuses for as much as $1 million. Once teams start to go past the fourth or fifth round, though, those players start to sign for one-time bonuses that won’t cover more than a couple of years of minor league baseball living expenses. And, for players who need to send money home to support their families, that bonus covers even less of their own expenses.

According to a deep dive conducted here at PitcherList, for collegiate players drafted in the first 100 selections, it takes an average of three years to reach the major leagues. For prep (high school) players drafted in the first 100 selections, it takes an average of four years to reach the majors. So, assuming that the top 100 players selected are privileged enough to be able to keep their entire draft bonus and not have to use it for anything other than living expenses, that money could be enough for players to survive until they reach the major leagues (if they even reach it). But, that’s often not the case, and the draft money ends up being insufficient to set the player up financially for the foreseeable future.

It becomes even more difficult to make ends meet for players selected in later rounds, as the draft bonus money decreases. Plus, those players often spend longer in the minors than their top-100 counterparts. They often have to spend more time developing their baseball skills, whereas top-100 players are usually a little more major league-ready on draft day. And, this all assumes that these draftees end up reaching the promised land of a major league minimum salary. It’s incredibly difficult to do so, as only a small fraction of all players drafted even make it to The Show, let alone play well enough to stay there. For example, Billy Beane:



More Players Should Choose College


But, what if players were to spend more of their developmental years playing collegiate baseball? Instead of jumping straight from high school to the minor leagues, where living conditions can be quite poor, what if athletes were to choose to spend four years at a university before entering the minor leagues for a short time? It could go a long way towards turning more players into the best versions of themselves, players that can compete at the major league level.

SCOTUS’s decision to allow unlimited benefits to “student-athletes,” provided they are tied to the costs of education, will certainly benefit students. Students can now receive laptops, tutoring, and other compensation from the school that will aid their education and, in turn, alleviate some financial stresses. Unfortunately, the NCAA is still allowed to prohibit schools from doling out Lamborghinis to athletes, but the ruling can still help athletes that need basic materials for their education but cannot afford them.

Furthermore, the new laws that allow collegiate athletes to profit off of their name, image, and likeness should help athletes improve their financial situations tremendously. Thanks to these new laws, athletes will be able to leverage their following (for example, social media influence) to make money while in college. According to a study by ESPN, the “All-American Athletes,” like Zion Williamson, Trevor Lawrence, or, in baseball’s case, Jack Leiter, can leverage their large followings to make as much as $1 million per year while at school. And, while $1 million seems generous for any collegiate baseball player, even for superstars like Kumar Rocker and Leiter, any amount of money made in addition to their scholarships is money that they didn’t have before.

There are still some drawbacks to these new NIL bills, as they generally favor superstar players. For example, if you’ve paid even one iota of attention to the 2021 MLB draft class, you’ve heard of Jack Leiter. But, chances are, you haven’t heard as much about pick #30, let alone pick #300. Those players likely don’t have a large following (social media or otherwise) and can’t make anywhere near as much revenue off of their name, image, and likeness as Leiter, Rocker, or another top-10 pick. Of course, that would make the revenue situation similar to other professional sports, where the most popular athletes make the most money both on the court and off the court.

But, what’s to stop minor league athletes from building their brand as minor leaguers? The collegiate stage — including events like the College World Series — provides a larger stage for athletes to stake their claim as the best in their class, as the CWS is now pushing nearly 2 million viewers annually. A larger stage means more exposure and thus more opportunities for athletes to expand their followings and rise to relevance. Also, some of collegiate baseball’s top teams — Vanderbilt, Georgia, LSU, and UCLA — have social media footprints (according to the number of followers on Instagram and Twitter) greater than or equal to the most popular MiLB team of any level, the Indianapolis Indians. So, it would appear that collegiate athletes could still build their personal brands without the low pay and quality of life that comes with the minor league system.

It seems as though athletes like Leiter, Rocker, and other top selections have more to gain from the new, relaxed restrictions on student-athlete revenue. They are likely on full (or, if not, close to full) scholarships at their universities and have their education finances covered. They will make even more money come draft day, with large signing bonuses and an easier path to the big leagues as a top pick. The money generated by licensing their name, image, and likeness is (well-deserved) icing on the cake.

But, I believe SCOTUS’s decision and the movement towards player compensation will have the greatest positive impact on the “Average Joes” of baseball, who will soon choose to play collegiate baseball in greater numbers.

These “Average Joes” are the guys that have enough talent to be selected in the late rounds of the draft as prep players. They have little bargaining power over signing bonuses (because they’re selected so late) and must weigh the cost of college against the minor league system more carefully. It’s not so obvious for these guys whether they should take the thousands of dollars being waved at them in the present or go off to college with the promise of improvement, a college degree (if they choose to stay that long), and more money on a future draft day, if that ever comes.

Attending school with a partial scholarship (as many athletes do) means that this player will likely take on collegiate debt before being drafted and then spend a few more years toiling in the minor leagues before being called up to the show, assuming that they make it that far. If a player incurs debt in college and then makes their measly Class-A or AA salary for a couple of years, that’s going to take a heavy toll on their finances.

But, the new, increased benefits afforded collegiate athletes and the potential to be compensated with revenue, a stipend, or an outright salary (assuming the NCAA bends in that direction) tips the scales in college baseball’s favor. Why would athletes choose to toil away for a few more years in the minors when they could attend college, get a college degree, and live in better conditions? The vast majority of young baseball players are not going to sniff the big leagues nor do they have the talent to warrant life-changing draft bonuses, so they would be better off pursuing a college degree, which will benefit them more in the long run.

The players going through college (assuming they attend a Division I institution) will have access to high-quality facilities and will have basic needs (a real food stipend, at the very least) met by the program. Can we say the same of MiLB athletes?

The collegiate baseball system still has its fair share of drawbacks, though:

  1. The minor league system, especially the higher levels, is a step up in quality from collegiate baseball. Even highly-developed collegiate athletes, like Spencer Torkelson and Adley Rutschman, are still spending time in the minor leagues before facing major league pitching. We will come back to this later.
  2. Not all collegiate athletes receive full scholarships. In fact, collegiate baseball players rarely receive the full amount necessary to pay off their tuition, living expenses, and other costs incurred while receiving a collegiate education. Athletic departments often choose to split their scholarship money among several athletes to give them each some form of financial support, instead of concentrating more support on a small handful of athletes.
  3. The value of a college degree has diminished as more and more people attend universities. Studies have shown that it is still mostly worth the time, money, and effort to get a Bachelor’s degree, but the value of a degree is not what it used to be.
  4. There is a significant opportunity cost in picking college baseball and the promise of future money over guaranteed slot money out of high school. For players of privilege, there are fewer concerns about financial concerns. But for those players who need money immediately to provide for their families, the guaranteed money is an enticing option. As beneficial as a Bachelor’s degree from a reputable institution can be, I would not blame players one bit for choosing the immediacy of a smaller signing bonus over the uncertainty of future injury and 3-4 years of collegiate baseball. If there is an opportunity to set your family and future generations of your family up for life right out of high school, you take it. It’s obvious to us now, weeks before the draft, that the top players in college baseball are very talented and will have a deserved shot at making the pros. But, not all athletes are that talented as prep players. Some players go through growth spurts and make massive development strides during college competitions that make them more appealing to professional teams. These are the athletes that end up becoming superstars in college but would toil in obscurity for years in the minor leagues.

In the long run, the math doesn’t favor players who choose the smaller, one-time draft bonuses out of high school, especially if they’re drafted in later rounds. The odds are stacked against these players to make the majors as it is. They would be better off trying to develop in collegiate baseball and earning a degree that would serve them better in their post-baseball career.




Collegiate baseball is not an apples-to-apples substitute for the minor league development system. At some point, players will outgrow their competition and have nothing left to prove in college. So, both systems will probably need to exist in the future.

The best solution would be a balance between a better-funded minor league system and a healthier collegiate baseball network. Since players are thought to be more polished products coming out of college, they have less time to spend in the minors and can help their big league clubs quicker. It’s not as if a strong collegiate baseball system would erase the minor league development process completely, as both are necessary to prepare players for the professional leagues.

But, if the minor league system remains the way that it is, collegiate baseball should be heavily considered by every high school athlete. The costs of attending a reputable institution will decrease for collegiate athletes, while the potential to earn more money while training at high-quality facilities outweighs many of the benefits that come with jumping straight to the minor league system. This system will not work for everyone — those without the privilege of a choice will rightfully pick the immediate draft money, as will those with the talent to move quickly through the minor league system — but it will work for a larger portion of athletes in 2021 and beyond, making the choice between college baseball and the minors a little easier.

Of course, Major League Baseball could choose to end this debate once and for all by simply paying athletes a true living wage, but that’s a discussion for another time.


Photos by The Tennessean, Jorge Salgado, and MLB Photos | Adapted by Aaron Polcare

Adam Sloate

Die-hard Angels fan since birth; misses the good ol' days of Vladdy, Kendrys, and Weaver. Temple University alumnus, UCLA Law student.

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