How To Become A Baseball CEO...
...and Retain Your Identity
by Tim Darnell
Professional baseball team owners have never been very adept at public relations. Otherwise, they wouldn't have developed such an unflattering image over the years. From the overweight, stogie-puffing icons of old to the suite-residing, shrimp-cocktail munching owners of modern times, baseball's CEOs have always received more than their share of bad press, and most of it has been entirely justified.
Now that I'm on the other side of the fence, however, I am starting to change my opinion.
That's right, I'm part owner of a new professional baseball team...in Albany, Georgia. We're a part of a new independent minor league organization that starts play this June, the All American Association. Our league has eight teams throughout the southeast and southwest, and right now all of us are working our butts off, trying to sell tickets and sponsorships.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. How did I, once a mostly unknown journalist, wind up a member of this class of heathen, this brethren of tower-dwelling penny-pinchers who cancelled the World Series for the first time in history?
Actually, the story begins with that wretched event. In 1994, I was working as assistant editor of an Atlanta-based lifestyle magazine. I was assigned to do a story on members of the old Atlanta Crackers baseball team. I had a ball with the assignment; I met the all-time Crackers home run leader and several other players, and spoke with fans who remembered the team. The article turned out great; unfortunately, it never appeared. The magazine went belly-up before the piece came out, and I was out of a job and about to get married.
Right about then, Major League Baseball players went on strike. I needed some income, and after learning how the Crackers are one of minor league baseball's most successful teams in history, decided to take the research one step further and write a book. So I conducted more interviews and did more research...and all the while, looked for a book publisher. After countless publishers rejected the manuscript, arguing that baseball fans in Atlanta only care about the Braves, my wife and I decided to publish the book ourselves. The result, "Southern Yankees: The Story of the Atlanta Crackers," has sold, to date, more than 1,000 copies worldwide. All in all, I've been more than pleased and gratified with the effort.
After the book was published, we began visiting minor league ballparks throughout the southeast. Today, I can safely say there isn't a minor league park south of the Mason-Dixon Line that we haven't visited. Minor league baseball gives you something that the majors abandoned long ago—affordable family entertainment, up close and personal.
After "Southern Yankees," my journalism career continued, with a few bumps here and there. But four years ago, I became enamored with a vision of owning and operating my own minor league team. I can't say where the idea came from; it really just popped into my head one day. So I began learning all I could about the nuances of running my own franchise. A little over a year ago, I learned through a friend of a new league that was being organized by a group of solid, experienced baseball professionals, the All American Association of Professional Baseball Clubs. I also heard about a wonderful stadium in Albany, a 4,000-seat gem that was a little run down but offered a lot of promise. After putting together a group of nine other private investors in Atlanta, paying a small franchise fee and negotiating a deal with the city of Albany, I joined the somewhat elite corps of professional baseball team owners.
Of course, it wasn't as simple as that. First you put together a business plan that hopefully shows your potential investors that you're going to at least break even after your first season. The idea is to sell as much advertising—that is, outfield billboards, other signage through the ballpark (like through the breezeways), radio advertisements, yearbook ads, etc.—to see you through the entire season. That way, your season ticket sales and game day attendance is extra revenue. In Albany, we also created a lot of specialty sponsorships—like for our autograph booth, customer service area, and family section.
Then you fill out a bunch of paperwork with the league and start negotiating with the city in which you want to play. In Albany, much of the local government and citizenry were disenchanted with professional baseball. In 1993, the city built a $4-million ballpark for its then-team, the Albany Polecats of the South Atlantic League. However, less than a year later, the owner (one of those guys who give the rest of my new fraternity a bad name) moved his team to Delmarva, Maryland, and later sold the franchise. To make matters worse for me, the jerk sued a lot of local businesses on his way out of town.
Given the run-down state of the ballpark and the negative political climate, I knew we were going to have to make some concessions to get the city to commit to repairing the facility. All in all, I feel we negotiated a good lease with Albany, and the city has been great in meeting its commitments. We have newly renovated office space, a gift shop, two concession areas, a press box with two suites, and a magnificent electronic scoreboard.
Once you get the lease signed, that's when you begin your affordable family sports entertainment public relations campaign. Our Web site, www.albanybaseball.com, offered fans the chance to name their own team. You also have to get in front of local businesses, especially in a climate of skepticism. In six months of making calls, I met more people than the owner of the Polecats did in the four years he fielded a team there.
Sponsorships help...they're crucial, actually. We have uniform sponsors, mascot sponsors, ticket sponsors—you name it, we have a sponsor for it. Fortunately, Albany has several major manufacturers and businesses, so we have a deep well from which to draw.
You also have to develop a good relationship with the local media, and the Albany press has been great. Of course, we created comprehensive media guides and packets to make their job easier, and having been in journalism for 15 years, I've learned a lot about to get along with the fourth estate. Our first big event will be held on the first day of spring, March 20, when we'll unveil the name of the team, the uniform, the mascot, and the logo on the grounds of the ball park.
All of the steps I've described here don't take place one at a time; usually, a typical workday is filled with multiple efforts and mostly unrelated crises happening all at once. Preparing press releases at the same time as negotiating a billboard deal is just one of many multi-tasking challenges I have faced. Furthermore, I've learned that baseball is, indeed, a business mostly like any other. You have to make more money than you spend to be a financial success.
But one thing I will never abandon is my commitment to make the game affordable for the fans. There's a huge demographic out there who believes that baseball is old, slow, and boring. To that end, our marketing and ad slogan has been, "This Century, The Grand Old Game Gets A New Attitude." This is what our team, our league, and our ownership group are all about: bringing a new, fresh, aggressive attitude to baseball and adhering to the belief that owners should first—and foremost—be fans of the game.
Tim Darnell is an Atlanta native and long-time baseball fan who is finding his love of the game being challenged by approaching the game as a business. He lives in Atlanta's Brookhaven neighborhood with his tolerant and long suffering wife, Susan. Read more about the Albany Alligators at https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Albany_Alligators.