Talking Shop: Minor League Life
By Jessica Quiroli
Look for this series to be featured throughout the season! We'll talk to someone in the minor leagues about the business and media, and how those worlds intersect and impact one another.
I'm happy to present the first installment with my longtime colleague and a pioneer in the business of covering MiLB, John Sickels. Now with The Athletic for the 2019 season, Sickels was the mind behind Minor League Ball on SB Nation, where I worked with him covering the minor leagues a few years ago. We talked recently about that website, what interests him most about covering the bus leagues and how the business of minor league baseball coverage has evolved.--JQ
JQ: When you started out covering MiLB, what were fans especially interested in? Because they're so savvy now, how has their interest shifted?
I started doing prospect stuff with Bill James in 1993 then transitioned to the internet in 1996 with ESPN.com. That was 23 years ago and the internet was just getting started, so in that way I was a pioneer.
At the time the main prospect interest came from fantasy players looking for a future edge. That is still true today, although the amount of information available today is far greater and so are the expectations. Back then a Top 50 prospect list was the gold standard. Nowadays you have Top 100 or 200 or 500 lists and information available on high school and international players who are years away from the majors.
While fantasy players are still the main core of the audience, there has been increased interest from general baseball fans and specific followers of the minors.
JQ: When I started my own MiLB blog, Heels on the Field, in 2008, I felt unsure anyone would care about something entirely focused on the minor leagues. We're you skeptical when you began Minor League Ball? How quickly did the idea connect?
By the time I started Minor League Ball with SB Nation/Vox in 2005, I was fairly confident there would be enough interest to sustain daily blogging as opposed to occasional articles.
That was a success and although Vox pulled the plug at the end of 2018 for their own reasons, we ran for 13 years, an eternity in internet time. Our traffic grew every year and I’m proud of what we accomplished.
JQ: Do you think upstarts covering that specific aspect of baseball have a shot at connecting, or are bigger sites monopolizing the market?
I think we are in a consolidation process right now. Digital media continues to grow in terms of traffic but companies are still trying to figure out how to monetize it.
The pure advertising model used by Vox for example doesn’t seem to provide enough revenue, at least if you want to actually pay writers, and we are seeing more companies switch to a subscriber model.
My guess is that this trend will continue. Upstarts are going to have a rough time of it in the short run, but quality material will find an audience one way or another, eventually. It can take time though.
JQ: With so many people jumping to cover MiLB now, and getting more attention because of social media power, what motivates your focus? Why do you still love this?
I still love baseball but if I am completely honest, I was burned out on blogging after 13 years. I’m trying to make a living of course….I have a family to support and my wife and children are my main focus. The work supports them, not the other way around. That said, I have been very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.
JQ: When we worked together at Minor League Ball, we often talked about the kinds of stories readers we're interested in. What pulls you in as a writer? Do you think readers have the same interest as you do?
I have always been more interested in the underdog type prospects, the 10th round or 20th round or non-drafted free agents who work their way to the majors without big hype.
For fantasy owners these guys have value, but on a personal, human level they hold more interest for me than the well-known bonus babies. Those types of stories pull me in, players overcoming obstacles and exceeding expectations.
JQ: How do you think the business of covering MiLB will evolve in the next few years?
I think we will see an increasing focus on players as people. The recent attention paid to poor minor league salaries is an example of that. How the business will evolve as a business is hard to say given the consolidation in digital media mentioned earlier.
JQ: Finally, what do you hope to do going forward covering MiLB? What excites you?
I will be doing a weekly prospect column for The Athletic in 2019 but it is not a full-time gig. I own the rights to the name Minor League Ball but as I noted above, I am burned out on daily blogging and am still uncertain on what I want to do in the baseball world.
Follow John on Twitter @MinorLeagueBall