Francisco Mejia was in his fourth season as a minor league prospect with the Cleveland Indians when his mother fell ill back home in the Dominican Republic. Money was required and fast to fund medical treatment. That was when the 21-year-old sat down with the people from a company called Big League Advance who loaned him $360,000 against 10 per cent of all his future earnings as a professional. They were taking a chance he'd make it to the show one day, he was doing what he could to help his stricken mom in that particular moment.
By the time Mejia made the majors, he realised the folly of the contract he signed and engaged lawyers to try to wriggle out of the lopsided deal, alleging the predatory outfit took advantage of the fact he left school at 14 and spoke very little English.
He eventually abandoned the litigation and $50,000 of the half a million he will take home as a catcher with the Tampa Bay Rays this season goes straight to Big League Advance. And it will be like that for the remaining years of his time in the pros. Ten per cent of everything. For maybe another decade. The morality of the arrangement he entered into back in 2016 may be questionable. The legality isn’t.
Big League Advance is the brainchild of Michael Schwimer, a relief pitcher who made 47 appearances for the Philadelphia Phillies in an injury-truncated career before being released at just 27.
Befitting somebody who interned at a hedge fund while studying at the University of Virginia, he recognised the sport’s exploitative minor league structure, predicated on paying wannabe stars the minimum wage, offered a potentially lucrative business opportunity.
His idea was simple. Identify those most likely to succeed and advance them money when they are broke, on the way up and need it most. Or, as critics might venture, hit them when they are most vulnerable and easily duped so they don’t quite grasp the punitive interest rate being charged.
Established in 2016, the company has so far signed contracts with around 350 players whom predictive analytics reckon are likely to reach the major leagues and so are worth a punt. All perfectly legal and above board except for the troubling fact of luring hard-up young men (some still teenagers) into usurious arrangements that could end up costing them many multiples of the advances received smacks of money-lending.
No amount of referencing their use of algorithms to measure talent can disguise that stench. Especially when an inordinate amount of their “clients” are Latinos trying to lift themselves and their families back home out of terrible poverty.
Schwimer’s defence of the business model usually involves pointing out he doesn’t get a cent if somebody fails to graduate from the minors. True, but the company is playing a shrewd numbers game. Like a Premier League club bringing 100 promising kids into its academy knowing just a handful need to succeed to recoup the outlay.
So it has proved. Earlier this year, Fernando Tatis Jr, a 22-year-old shortstop, signed a 14-year $340m contract extension with the San Diego Padres. An estimated $30m of that will be going to Big League Advance over the duration because he took a six-figure sum from them when he was 18 and newly-arrived in the minors.
“When we did a deal with Fernando Tatis Jr, he wasn’t a top 50 prospect on anybody’s list,” said Schwimer. “And here our numbers said he was the second-best player in the last 15 years….That’s what our modelling told us. It was actually a really scary thing investing the amount of money we invested in it. It was a sizable portion of our fund. But at the end of the day we decided to trust the numbers and trust the process and it really, really worked out.”
Tatis Jr said he spent the money on a “personal trainer, better food and a better apartment”. That sounds plausible enough. Around the minors, many players throw down on inflatable beds in cramped bedrooms in overcrowded apartments every night in order to subsist while keeping their sporting dream alive. They bring home food snaffled from the post-match buffet, eat off ironing boards, and piggyback the neighbours’ WiFi. Anything to make a buck stretch further. Think of a J-1 summer except where you play baseball every night instead of wait tables.
At Triple-A ball, the level just below the majors, the salary for a five-month, 144-game season is $14,700. At Single-A, the lowest rung on the ladder, they are earning just over $10,000 to play 132 times. Startling numbers that make it easy to see why Schwimer finds so many of the brightest talents in the sport amenable to his sales pitch, a persuasive argument that enhanced financial security can help the mendicant athlete fulfil his potential.
Certainly, an individual no longer worried about paying for food is likely to eat healthier, be stronger and play better, while a higher standard of accommodation means improved sleep and preparation. Not to mention either that knowing the family back home are in improved economic circumstances due to a fresh cash injection will make any youngster more relaxed and able to concentrate on honing his skills.
All of these make some sense until you consider Tatis Jr will pay back $30m for an initial loan estimated to be $500,000. Big League Advance. Major league scam.