Located in the heart of California wine country, Sonoma is the quintessential American small town. It lists a population of about 11,000, but draws large crowds for the annual Fourth of July parade that runs through its main streets. One of the most popular group of marchers in that civic experience is the Sonoma Stompers (independent; Pacific Association). When the Stompers go marching past, they draw booming ovations.
The Stompers, the 2016 Pacific Association champions, are woven tightly into the community, and when the team was put up for sale, one of Sonoma’s favorite sons saw his chance to give back.
Jon Sebastiani is a Sonoma success story all unto himself. The former president of Viansa Winery and managing partner of wine.com, Sebastiani’s entrepreneurial spirit led him to found the Krave Jerky company in 2009. In 2015, Sebastiani sold Krave to The Hershey Company for about $220 million.
Now, Sebastiani is bringing his business vision and savvy to the world of baseball, having purchased the Stompers in February.
“It was absolutely serendipitous,” Sebastiani said. “The day my phone rang and someone told me that the owner of the Sonoma stompers was going to sell the team and would I be interested, I felt like a kid for that instant. It was meant to be and I truly feel blessed that I was in position to do it.
“I remember when I went to my first [Stompers] game two years ago, I was struck at how cool it was. The fans were into it, the players were into it. It was a well-played game. It was something that our town was proud of. And when the opportunity to buy them came our way, I took the time to talk to a lot of folks in the community about their love of the team. The overwhelming response was, this was good, wholesome family fun in our town that we’re proud of to call the Stompers home.”
Although the Stompers is Sebastiani’s first foray into sports franchise ownership, he is no stranger to the intersecting worlds of sports and business. A lifelong San Francisco Giants and Golden State Warriors fan, Sebastiani followed up his sale of Krave in early 2016 by creating Sonoma Brands, an incubator for packaged goods brands, including food and beverage and health and beauty products.
The first product to emerge from Sonoma Brands last July was Zupa Noma, an individually bottled vegetable soup brand for on-the-go consumption. Two of the equity partners and brand ambassadors for Zupa Noma are Ayesha Curry, the food blogger and wife of Warriors superstar Steph Curry, and Ironman champion Meredith Kessler. Former 49ers tight end Vernon Davis was a shareholder in Krave, which had deals with the San Jose Sharks and USC Athletics as official Jerky products.
“I’m a sports freak,” Sebastiani said. “I draw so many analogies to sports in leadership and teamwork and I enjoy the human element of sport. My real motivation for [buying the Stompers] is on behalf of the community, to keep the ownership here, to invest to the team and the fan experience. We want to take our partnerships and bring more awareness to the games.”
Sebastiani is fully aware of the impact the Stompers have had on society in ways that have little to do with balls and strikes. The Stompers had the first openly gay player in professional baseball history in 2015 and last year made professional baseball history again with the first all-female battery in 70 years.
It was filmmaker and winery owner Francis Ford Coppola who made last year’s groundbreaking moment possible with his sponsorship of the Stompers. Sebastiani would like to take things a step further as owner of the team.
“The Sonoma Stompers, with the assistance of Coppola, has generated some groundbreaking changes to sports with gender equality, and I’m a big believer in that. I support that. So long as we put the best game possible on the field the leadership of the Stompers will continue to be charged with continuing to break down these barriers. I feel a responsibility of the team in this community to continue to do so.”
The Stompers have already taken a concrete step in that direction. In late February, the team hired assistant general manager Jen Ramos, who is the first openly non-binary executive in professional sports, meaning Ramos does not identify as being a man or a woman.
“I want to put people in there that know what they’re doing, because I’m not going to pretend for a minute that I know how to run a professional baseball team,” Sebastiani said. “I don’t want the sports team to be some form of ego for me, where I think I know what I’m doing. There’s an art to running a baseball team. My day job is running our food and beverage brands and investing capital. I think what we’ve done is brought a lot of talented people to the table to make sure what we put on the field is a good product and people are going to show up and have a good fan experience.”
Sebastiani said one of the first major projects for the Stompers is creating and developing a smart app which will allow fans to buy tickets for games, then facilitate the purchase of concessions from their seats.
“The app becomes a vehicle to communicate coupons or promotions,” Sebastiani said. “That’s a pretty cool, big step. Those are the kind of things I hope to bring to the table as a new way of doing things, bringing access to new sponsors and creating a broader fan experience.”
Sebastiani will get to experience his first game as both Stompers fan and owner in late May, when the team begins its defense of the Pacific Association title. Already, he sees the parallels between his experience as an up-and-coming entrepreneur and the players who dream of moving up from the independent leagues to the majors.
“As an entrepreneur, where there are insurmountable amount of obstacles to make your idea work to reach the promised land,” Sebastiani said. “It’s the simple messages of hard work and faith and belief and trust and teamwork. So absolutely there’s tons of parallels to draw from. Those principles exist.
“I think that drives the players, it drives entrepreneurs, it drives companies that I’m investing into. It’s what life is all about. It’s about hard work and going beyond ourselves to grow and achieve what we aspire to do.”
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