During fifteen years working in leagues ranging from the National Hockey League to the Appalachian League and the Coastal Plain League, I’ve have a front-row seat to the sale of lots of teams. I’ve been involved with absentee owners, community–minded local owners, and even community-owned teams. There have been some of the finest people I’ve ever known, and some have been crooks and bums. Most achieved some level financial success in some other field, but still dream of being directly involved in sports.
But, they all began as new owners. And, most of them followed a remarkably familiar set of often expensive “rookie mistakes” as they learned the ropes. They are listed below in no particular order.
- Spend Too Much Money on New Toys. If you are looking to boost the bottom line to help pay for your new acquisition, an expensive new sound system, computer point-of-sale equipment, and a new team bus aren’t going to turn the tide, unless you’re shooting for a tide of red ink. Invest in people that can sell something, whether it’s giving more bonus money to the good salespeople you have, or hiring addition sales staff.
- Make Your Team Staff Do Things “the Way We Did It At My (insert one; Law Firm, Ad Agency, Accounting Firm, Car Dealership, etc.). Sports, especially at the minor-league level, is a unique business. Spend a year or so seeing how things run and trying to understand why they are run the way they are. Don’t dismiss everything that was done before out of hand. It may not have been right, but there was some reason it was being done that way. Don’t be afraid to have a dialogue with the staff; you might learn something.
- Play Financial Hardball. Sports is a goodwill business. If you go after a small business owner who didn’t pay for their half-page ad last year or the season ticket holder who didn’t finish paying for their tickets, don’t you think they’ll tell everyone they know that you are a no-good, carpet-bagging jerk? Will that really help your business? Work out a payment plan that wraps the balance into this year’s package, and if that’s not possible, chalk it up to community goodwill and move on.
- Go Hard After Ticket Revenues. So, your predecessors gave free tickets to all the Little Leaguers in town one Sunday every season, and you feel like they gave away $5 for every ticket used. Unless you sell out every game, that’s not lost revenue, that’s more people in the park, seeing your sponsors’ ads and buying your hot dogs. Don’t clamp down on the freebies, just make sure they are targeted and not spread all over town, and get someone to sponsor them. Would you rather have a local fast-food restaurant spend $500 to sponsor Little League night and get an extra 300 kids in the park on a free ticket, or sell an extra $500 worth of tickets and get an extra 100 kids in the park? If you chose the second option, please return to #2 and start reading again. A ticket in hand is the best advertising your money can buy, and all it costs you is printing.
- Spend a Boatload of Money on Traditional Media Advertising. Most new owners think the team “hasn’t been marketed correctly.” That may be true, or it may be what the person selling it told you, to help justify the asking price. In either case, throwing money at TV and radio advertising isn’t the solution. Trade your inventory for their inventory, beef up your website and e-newsletter, and create events and sponsorships that your local TV and radio stations will beg to part of.
- Run off the Existing Staff. Want to see someone headed for the unemployment line? Go visit a GM whose team just got new owners. He’s got until the end of the upcoming season to find his next job, because he will be fired. Why? Because the new owners have unrealistic expectations that will not be met by season’s end.
- Pour Money Into the Ballpark. Investing in the facility is a great long-term goal, but impatient owners often spend their own money on things that their landlord would do for them if asked. Many new owners are not accustomed to the complex and often slow-moving process of getting ballpark improvements done by their municipal landlords. Isn’t it worth waiting a few months to save thousand of dollars?
- Coddle the Players. While many of these new owners are making life miserable for their front-office staff (see #’s 2, 3 & 6), they are also intoxicated by their association with the coaching staff and players. They wanted to buy a team because they are fans. As fans, they want to be buddies with the people in uniform, and are often talked into extra player perks. In short order, these perks are taken for granted, and you become an easy mark for the next luxury item your players or coaches want. Stay out of the locker room, and let your general manager, who is qualified for this type of work, deal with the team.
- Neglect the Community Except as a Source of Cash. Get your mascot to every charity event in town, even if it costs you some money. Donate tickets to anyone who asks, and, as Bill Veeck used to say, send out a team representative to speak to any group of 2 or more people who will listen to you. Bring a different charity group to the ballpark every night, and don’t worry if they solicit donations or sell a 50/50 raffle. The goodwill is worth the couple dollars it might cost you. Buy local; don’t print your program in another county to save a nickel a copy. Serve local food, even if it costs a little more. Remember, this isn’t a “market” to the people that live there, it’s their hometown, and for however long you own the team, you are the steward of a public trust, not just another businessperson. Everything you do is under the microscope, and your efforts in the community will be noticed, and bring you benefits in ways you can’t even predict and may not even realize.
- FORGET TO HAVE FUN! New owners should spend their time chatting with fans, sipping a cold beer, and enjoying the action from a front-row seat. Instead, most spend their first year in perpetual state of agitation, since what they see doesn’t match their wildly optimistic expectations. You are in charge, and everyone knows it, but you can move things toward your vision with a gentle hand. Many new owners so terrorize their staffs that they no longer have fun doing their jobs. In the sports business, that’s bad. You need your full-time staff to be having fun, and the game-night people having fun, so the fans see smiles and have a good time. Don’t get me wrong, everyone needs to get the job done, but an uptight operation is no fun for anybody. Loosen up! It’s not warfare or brain surgery. Relax and enjoy yourself!
About the Author: Mark Cryan spent four years as the general manager of the Burlington Indians, the Cleveland Indians affiliate in the Appalachian League. Under his direction, the Indians were honored by Baseball America magazine as the top franchise in short-season baseball in 2004. He is the author of Cradle of the Game; Baseball and Ballparks in North Carolina, and has been a presenter at the Minor League Baseball Promotional Seminar.
Cryan currently serves as the Athletic Director for the Burlington Recreation & Parks Department. He also teaches at Elon University and Greensboro College. He was one of the founders of the Coastal Plain League, and has also worked for the Raleigh IceCaps minor league hockey team, the Fayetteville Generals minor league baseball team, heavyweight boxing champion Riddick Bowe, and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils.
A graduate of Hamilton (NY) College, Cryan played tight end for the Continentals. He also holds an MBA from North Carolina Central University. He lives with his wife Dale and their two sons, Sam and Ty, in Burlington.
Cryan is available for management consulting as well as sales and community relations training. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.