A Whole New Ballgame

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted August 01, 2000

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by Davis Propson

It's raining in Toledo. An April sky is dropping puddles into the outfield at Ned Skeldon Stadium, and the thunder is rattling the rafters. Scott Jeffer, one of the Toledo Mud Hens' assistant general managers, looks out on the field from the press box behind home plate. "We may not play today," he says. But that doesn't mean that business will stop.

These days, baseball is big business. More than 35 million fans attended minor-league baseball games in 1999, according to the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (www.minorleaguebaseball.com). Many teams have renovated their facilities and updated their technology to meet new opportunities.

So the Mud Hens are planning a new stadium, scheduled to open in 2002. They've automated ticket sales and hooked up with a nationwide sales network. The Mud Hens have also launched a Web site to advertise the team and sell merchandise with their logo on it ­ they're the most well-known team in the minors, according to the NAPBL.

The business of minor league franchises isn't fielding a team ­ the players and coaches are all chosen and paid by the major-league affiliates ­ it's sales. Tickets, merchandise, food, the billboards in the outfield, the sponsored sideshows: Each has a price, and it all has to be moved. Now the Mud Hens can sell to anyone, anywhere in the world, even during the offseason ­ even in the rain.

At the same time, the Mud Hens share the predicament of many small businesses: They've made progress in some ways ­ especially on line ­ but still lag behind in others. Until the team moves into the new park, they're making do with a fragmented internal network. Wires run through ceiling panels and around walls to connect computers in the administrative office. The ticket booth runs off a different system. And because Jeffer has his offices in another building, he isn't networked at all.

Building the Future
What's the problem? Partly legacy systems, partly legacy. The stadium is actually an old horse-racing track, converted for ballplaying purposes back in the 60s when county commissioner Ned Skeldon assisted in bringing the team back to town after a brief stint in Wichita. So the player's locker rooms are in a separate building nearby, and they take batting practice in what they call "The Barn," which is exactly that. The Mud Hens employees (which number anywhere from 12 in the offseason to 60 on game days), work wherever they can find room.

In any business, current constraints can slow down the process of building the future. Is their current situation somewhat inconvenient? There's no doubt. That's why one of Jeffer's main missions right now is to raise money to build that new stadium. "Minorleague stadiums are like miniature major-league stadiums," Ferguson says. "They have all the same stuff in them, they just seat fewer. Of course, it also costs the operator a lot more money to maintain."

The Mud Hens' new stadium will cost an estimated $37 million. "That's a lot of $5 tickets," Jeffer says. That kind of cash can only come from local corporations, which have to be wooed into buying luxury boxes. Many of those same corporations are the source of the team's main revenue, which it brings in through advertising and sponsorships.

Making the Pitch
The fans in the bleachers and players on the field make the game great, but business is business. The players play as they always have ­ in the Mud Hens' case, often not very well ­ but these days it's all about luxury boxes, fan contests, and T-shirt-launching bazookas. Even in the minors.

Local corporations and their sponsorship money are essential to the Mud Hens. That means Jeffer has a lot of names, faces, and lunch preferences to keep track of. He uses a simple ACT database to keep files on the prospects he talks to, jotting down notes while he talks on the phone or after he comes back from a meeting.

"There's been lots of new ways to advertise that have been developed in the last five years," Jeffer says. These days, there's more than just Hat Day and Hall of Famer Bob Feller Night. One of the billboards in the outfield has a hole in it, and if a Mud Hen player hits a home run through it, a member of the crowd gets to split a $1 million prize with the United Way. In between innings, staff members slingshot baseballs into the crowd, and whoever catches them also gets an Applebee's coupon.

"For minor-league teams to be successful, they have to be very family-oriented and geared toward family entertainment," says Jim Ferguson, the public relations director for the NAPBL. "You have no control over the kind of talent that's on the playing field, but you can say 'Even if we lose, we're going to have a good time. We're going to entertain you before the game, we're going to entertain you after the game, we're going to entertain you between innings."

"We try to sell to every company in town," Jeffer says. "My main responsibility is to meet as many people as possible and try to figure out how they can advertise with the club."

Still, if he wants to share the files he keeps with his fellow assistant general manager, Neil Neukham, or with a staff member charged with staging the actual promotion, he has to put it on a diskette, walk all the way across the stadium, and hand it to them. Plans for the new stadium include modern offices, and a complete network.

Filling the Seats
But there's a good reason the Mud Hens are cramped in their current quarters: Business is booming. The Mud Hens' total attendance was more than 250,000 last year. Overall, attendance at minor-league games has just about doubled from what it was 15 years ago, according to the NAPBL's Ferguson. It's now more than the totals for both the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.

"It's a pretty staggering figure," Jeffer says. "You would never think of minor-league baseball in the same breath as the NBA or the NFL."

Of course, the minor leagues have six times as many teams, but they also charge much less. The Mud Hens, for instance, charge an average of about $5 for a seat. Compare that with about $15 for the average major-league ticket. "As salaries at the major-league level have exploded, the disparity of prices has increased also," Ferguson says.

Being popular is a pleasant problem to have, but it's still a big one. In recent years, the Mud Hens have had to update and automate their ticket sales. For decades, the Mud Hens box office kept track of the tickets they'd sold by hanging bunches of them on hooks, and taking them off as people purchased them. Glenn Sturtz, the box office manager, had been using this system since before the team moved into Ned Skeldon stadium. But by 1991 the flood of fans was too much. They took their systems digital, and Sturtz, a gruff, good-natured man in his eighties, has had to adapt.

The four terminals in the box office now all run software provided by tickets.com, a company which has been purchasing and merging with many local ticketing service providers and now works with many sports franchises nationwide. They now service the majority of all minor-league teams, according to Jim Barczak, the company's regional marketing director for the eastern part of the country. Some teams, including the Buffalo Bisons, choose to outsource all of their telephone sales to tickets.com, but the Hens have decided to keep most of it in-house.

Now, besides being able to print up tickets on demand, they've also learned some things about the people buying them. "When you take their credit card information, you have a whole record of where the people are coming from," Jeffer says. "We actually discovered that thirty percent of our fans come from the state of Michigan." Not surprising, when you consider that Toledo's a border city and the team's major-league affiliate is Detroit ­ but still good numbers to be armed with when meeting with advertisers.

But the team soon may be able to do even more to cater to those out-of-towners: Tickets.com plans to offer individual Mud Hens tickets on line, through its own site. Selling tickets anywhere other than in the box office has been a problem until now ­ it would be impractical to sign up with TicketMaster (who'd pay a $3 fee on a $5 ticket?).

"Minor-league baseball is an underserved market that traditionally has been ignored by the ticketing industry," Barczak says. "No one's too big or too small to enjoy the benefit of online sales."

Fans have become increasingly disenchanted with greedy owners and athletes, according to Jeffer. "It seems like ever since the baseball strike in 1994, that turned a lot of people off," Jeffer says. "Minor-league baseball was the only opportunity to see baseball, and a lot of people became minorleague fans. Once they discover it, we usually see them back a couple times."

So Sturtz no longer sells all the tickets and doesn't have charge of the whole operation, but he's still a mainstay in the ticket office. And he's getting the hang of selling tickets sans hooks. "He does his best with the computer," Jeffer says. "He's actually pretty good at it."

A Home Page Home Run
It's the Mud Hens own Web site, however, that's really extended their reach. They have the most recognizable name in the minors ­ actor Jamie Farr wore the team's regalia for years on "M*A*S*H." All the minor-league teams together sell about $40 million worth of hats, jerseys, and tchotchkes each year; the Mud Hens were the seventh-highest sellers last year. Every team above them had just moved into a new stadium.

"Everybody knows the Mud Hens," he says. "We're the biggest name in the minors."

Mudhens.com exists primarily as an informational site, updated each day with the latest scores and promotions, and as a vehicle for selling licensed merchandise. Since its launch at the start of the 1999 season, it's averaged a little more than 300 accesses a day ­ and 90 percent of the merchandise orders are from outside of Ohio, according to Jeffer.

"It's a percentage that would have been nonexistent," he says. "These are not people that would have stopped by our store."

Because they have a well-known name, the Mud Hens don't have to waste money on unnecessary gimmicks or even spend much money advertising the site. "Budget is a big issue with us," Jeffer says. "We didn't want to spend time with developers who'd offer us the world."Instead they looked for some young talent: A local high school kid set up the site, and Jeffer manages it himself using Adobe GoLive. "We had the whole thing running in two days," he boasts.

The site's a bit homely, but it does the job. A navigation frame on the left controls a larger one on the right, and when users select the "Mud Hens Store" they're transferred invisibly to a catalog set up through Yahoo Stores. Yahoo stores cost anywhere from $100 a month to upward of $300, depending on the number of items listed. Jeffer says their sales bring in about 20 times their investment each month ­ a profit margin many dot-coms would envy.

Of course, Jeffer also made sure the site contains links to local sponsors in the community, a live Web cam of Ned Skeldon stadium that's maintained by a local portal, and plans for the new stadium in downtown Toledo. That way visitors can watch as the team builds on its legacy.

Seeing the Payoff
Jeffer has just returned from a meeting with a local business interested in advertising and possibly contributing to the new stadium. Now he sits at a PC wired into the public address system, playing crowd-pleasing sounds to the empty stands. The rain is still falling. He clicks on a button and "The Chicken Dance" plays, then Queen's "We Will Rock You," then the merengue music infielder Jose Macias likes to hear when he steps up to bat.

In his wallet, Jeffer has a photograph of himself in this same press box, almost a decade ago, when he was an intern. He stands next to a wall of thick cassettes and a stereo system, which he used to cue music manually. "I would be bent over, waiting to press play, and asking people what happened because I couldn't see the field," he says. The current system is the same one used in big-league stadiums all across the country.

The Mud Hens and the rest of the minor leagues have become far more technologically advanced in the past decade. They're not done yet. "It's a small business, but a fun business," Jeffer says. "And when we get this new stadium, it's just going to explode."

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