Friday, July 21, 2017

LMB to play two seasons from April to November in 2018

LMB Assembly (with Javier Salinas on microphone)
The Mexican League has formally announced that it will be playing two shorter seasons during the 2018 calendar year, beginning in April and ending in November.  The announcement came at the Liga's Assembly of Presidents meeting Thursday in Mexico City. The plan is for two separate 66-game regular season schedules with playoffs, bridged by a one-week rest in July during which the LMB's All-Star Game (there'll be just one of those) is played.

While the move, approximating the country's popular Liga MX soccer circuit's Apertura and Clausura tournaments (which drew crowds of about 27,000 per match for its 2016-17 seasons), represents a radical departure from baseball orthodoxy, Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Connor was in attendance at Thursday's meeting and endorsed the move.  O'Connor, you may recall, was compelled to call an emergency meeting of LMB teams in February when internecine squabbling threatened to tear the 16 teams into two leagues or cancel the 2017 season altogether.  Instead of two leagues, now we'll see two seasons for 2018.

Currently, the Liga plays a single 112-game regular season schedule from early April to mid-August, followed by a three-tiered, eight-team playoff lasting about a month into mid-September.  The new format will include two 66-game regular seasons followed by playoffs, with the LMB's "Apertura" lasting from April to July and their "Clausura" running from August into November.  The notion of a two-season format was floated last month in a reference made by incoming league president Javier Salinas, whose background has been (not so ironically, apparently) entirely as a Liga MX marketing executive.  There was no word whether Salinas was going to divide the LMB into eight-team Premier and First Divisions with promotion/relegation playoffs for 2018, but it's only July.

Salinas, who will replace retiring LMB president Plinio Escalante at the conclusion of the current season and has been serving as a de facto co-president, addressed the addition of 20 games and a separate playoff to a league in which half its teams are teetering on economic collapse.  "The cost is relative," he said.  "You can raise or lower it.  If you qualify for the playoffs, it decreases.  If you manage your team better, the same. Each team is independent and will have the economic strategy that suits them best."  Salinas and the LMB team presidents will be relying on added sponsorships next season to help offset the added expenses accrued from lengthening the overall season two months for teams like the Tabasco Olmecas, who had 178 warm bodies rattling around Estadio Centenario 27 de Febrero for a game against Yucatan earlier this month, and the Durango Generales, who've had some players refusing to play because they hadn't been paid in weeks.

Prior to Thursday's press conference from the Assembly meeting, the two-season proposal had drawn almost universal skepticism from Mexican baseball's print commentators, but the move may ultimately draw the strongest reaction from the Mexican Pacific League.  While the LMB has eleven teams drawing fewer than 5,000 fans per night (seven clubs are bringing in fewer than 3,000 per opening), the MexPac has built itself into a juggernaut with a leaguewide attendance average of just under 10,000 per game, a figure that dwarfs every league in organized Minor League Baseball.  The LMP season traditionally opens in mid-October, meaning the LMB's Clausura will overlap the MexPac schedule by about a month.  

According to Beatriz Pereyra of Proceso, the LMB will require players to sign contracts for both seasons, thus cutting the player pool for the MexPac.  Thus far, LMP president Omar Canizales has been silent on this topic, but it's expected by some that his league will respond by opening their rosters to more imported talent from the United States to fill the void while the Liga plays out its Clausura season.  In effect, the LMB's lengthening of its schedule is a declaration of war on the LMP, which has in the recent past explored expansion into Liga cities like Monterrey, Tijuana and even Mexico City. 

Whatever happens, the LMB will likely have the backing of Major League Baseball and commissioner Rob Manfred, which recently gave the Liga their version of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval despite the financial mess many Mexican League teams are in.  According to Pereyra, three teams (Durango, Leon and Saltillo) each owe the Liga MX$15 million in assessments for 2017, with Leon owner Arturo Blanco owing another 900 thousand pesos toward the purchase price of the former Reynosa Broncos, while several other LMB franchises owe MX$2.5 million to the league office. 

One of those teams, the Veracruz Rojos del Aguila, are looking to move, possibly to Nuevo Laredo. The Eagles are currently eleventh in the LMB attendance derby with a per-game average of 2,647. Team president Jose Antonio Mansur backtracked a bit by later stating he would keep the team in the port city if attendance improves over the rest of the current season, during which the 40-49 Rojos del Aguila have been a playoff contender in the weak South Division.  

The club has been a past recipient of government subsidies to remain afloat, a common occurance with several LMB franchises.  However, the exiled ex-State of Veracruz governor responsible for recent largesse, Javier Duarte, was arrested outside the country in April after a six-month manhunt and is facing charges of pilfering millions of dollars from public coffers, as are many of his associates.  Duarte was extradited from Guatemala City earlier this week.  In all, eight former Mexican governors have been indicted for similar crimes and their successors have typically reined in past subsidies to sports teams that have relied on them to meet payroll, among other expenses.

In all, the LMB's break from baseball tradition would be fascinating to observe, let alone report on, under any circumstance.  That the Liga is doing so amid internal financial peril to so many of its teams accentuates how badly Salinas and the owners will need this to work in order to bring fans in through the gates and sponsorship pesos to team bank accounts.  We'll be watching.

P.S.  The LMB also announced the return of its Mexican Winter League for a third season, opening on October 20.  The six-team LIM, considered Class A in the country's baseball system, is a prospect-oriented circuit that allows only Mexican-born players.  It's presumed the loop will play a single-season schedule.