As a kid, I always dreamed of working in a sports team’s front office. I loved the trades, drama, everyday action, chatter, and taking in the full baseball experience at my local stadium. 94% of the hot dogs I’ve eaten in my life have been at baseball parks.
When I graduated from university, I sent my resume to every MLB, NFL, and NBA team in the country. I went to the Winter Meetings looking for an internship. Anything to get in. It took a few weeks and a lot of nervous sweat in my one suit, but I landed an internship (!), moved across the country and undertook every job imaginable. I sold tickets, painted stairs, power-washed picnic tables, dressed as the mascot, did the team laundry, bartered program ads for hygiene products, and sold sponsorships.
I fell asleep at the airport waiting for players so many times that I became good friends with the cleaning staff. I’ve been addicted to Sbarro.
I was in love.
Through hard work and long hours, I became the GM of two minor league teams. It created unbelievable experiences with incredible people, which led to many funny stories and great friends along the way.
How the MiLB-MLB Relationship Works
To fully understand the business of MiLB, let’s first get on the same page: MiLB teams and their MLB progenitors do not work together to draft and develop players. The MLB team makes all of the player personnel decisions for their affiliates. Meanwhile, the MiLB team ensures that players have a place to live, a place to work out, a way to get to games, and that players are properly and consistently fed.
An MiLB organization operates as its own business. It sells tickets and sponsorships while trying to make a profit, independent of their MLB affiliate. The best way to do this is to create value for families and local businesses. In other words, MiLB teams need to insulate themselves from the product on the field because they can’t actually control what happens there.
The MLB team controls the coaching staff, players, and all the player transactions.
The MiLB team has an intern and the GM to take care of player operations like travel, player housing, and assorted clubhouse matters.
When one of my teams won their first championship with myself as GM, my friends thought it was because of me and congratulated me as if I was Brian Sabean. While I never denied it, nothing could be further from the truth.
Let’s look at the relationship between big league clubs and their affiliates as a trade:
The MLB gets:
- A facility, enabling its players to play and be developed into major leaguers.
- A small town connection, which the MLB front office will proudly proclaim as a “great market” for the team and for their players to grow up.
- A lot of mid 20s guys in khakis looking for advice to break into baseball ops at the MLB level.
The MiLB team gets:
- An actual affiliated team.
- Marketplace relevance.
- MLB Logo usage on letterhead and business cards.
- Countless resumes sent to them.
- In the rare instance that the MLB teams wins, they get to bandwagon off that success.
- Staff members with little tidbits of gossip about players so they can pretend to be on the inside and seem important when talking to their friends.
- The ability for its ticket managers to call players by their first name if they make it to The Show: ‘Oh ya, Justin was such a nice guy, really worked hard.’ That would be Justin Verlander, who has no idea who you are.
Little MiLB Secrets
1. Most minor league teams would rather have good weather than a good team.
Nobody will go on record with that statement, but there is no substitute for bad weather. It’s a killer. It’s loading up the bases early, almost knocking their ace out of the game, and then hitting into a triple play.
Teams waste so many resources on rainy games. Teams lose out on revenue from ticket buyers that opt not to attend, potential ticket buyers, and having to reschedule that game. Months of promoting the San Diego Chicken go right down the toilet, only to have this game rained out or start at 10pm when kids have gone home.
Trust me, nothing is more annoying then calling a company for four years, finally selling them an outdoor suite, then having their game rained out.
In these instances, teams are legally covered for the price of the ticket, but that intern/social committee will NOT book their company outing with you again. EVER. It’s too risky being outside. If it’s sunny and the beer is flowing, that person is a hero. If not, you bear the brunt.
2. MiLB Teams are intentionally Anti-Major League.
Creating a successful sports team, business wise, in the four major North American sports leagues is almost entirely dependent on the team’s on field success. Wins sell tickets. If you don’t believe me, research what Fenway Park looked like in 1986 on the night Roger Clemens struck out 20 batters compared to now. Or look at Wrigley Field the day that Kerry Wood matched Clemens’ 20 Ks compared to now. Or even Yankee Stad…you get the point.
MiLB’s business is entirely about the fans. This means fun giveaways, cheap tickets, accessible stadiums, wholesome entertainment, local mascot appearances, unique promotions, and a very grassroots and relatable feel.
MiLB’s unwritten motto is that fans won’t remember who won or who played, but they’ll remember the giveaways, experience, friendly ushers, food, and atmosphere. MiLB teams correctly knows that they can’t control who wins or loses, so they generate interest the old-fashioned way. The industry has a high self-awareness.
This model, born out of necessity, has been so successful that even some teams in the four major sports leagues are transitioning to the warmth and friendliness of minor league baseball. For example, more ushers thanking you for your support, front office’s calling you and building a relationship rather than mailing invoices, and teams more reluctantly raising ticket prices after a good season.
Slowly, the big guys are getting it.
3. Most people in minor league baseball drink after the game and gossip about their bad players.
Hope you were sitting down for that one.
4. Players moving up to the majors are invaluable to MiLB teams.
Unless MiLB teams are assigned a Top five pick, a local kid, or a crazy rehab assignment (think Jeter in TB), current players don’t sell more tickets.
If a player wears that MiLB jersey once, just once, that team controls those IP rights. So get ready for an onslaught of bobbleheads, jersey tees, housing families taking credit for their success, and interns saying they knew all along that, “he was legit.” These players will also appear on program covers, posters and marketing ads for years to come.
What’s Happening in your Favourite MiLB stadium RIGHT NOW?
At this juncture, short season and long season couldn’t be more different.
Right now, short season staff are putting light pressure on potential clients to ‘sign NOW to get in the pocket schedule’, trying to convince new interns it really IS a 12 months-a-year-business, and trash talking their friends before their annual Vegas trip for the Final Four.
They don’t feel the pressure of the season, because it doesn’t start for three months.
They calmly talk to their promotion companies, ensure giveaway deliveries are on time, confirm their shiny season ticket booklets are perfected, and set a lot of self-reminders for early May to get things done.
This is a different story. If you run into a MiLB GM four weeks before opening day, you can probably track the exact moment they realize how much needs to be done. They are behind on the opening homestand, not all game day staff are hired, they’ve yet to get local college teams to play on the field (to ensure the field and stadium are running properly), their mascot hasn’t been hired, nor has the mascot’s outfit been cleaned.
It’s the real life version of this:
Every MiLB GM questions their sanity at least once in their tenure, and wonders how the f*** they’re going to pull the season off. If they seem confident, they’re either lying or they’re born rich, so nothing matters.
Too many things could go wrong:
Big things like a kid getting hit by a foul ball that leads to a public lawsuit, medium things like hiring bad staff, and smaller things like an office romance. Many of these are inevitable.
When you think about it, MiLB teams are like summer camp. You’re together 16 hours a day. Drama happens. People cry. You eat a lot of stadium food and can’t fit into your staff polo by July.
It’s what dreams are made of.
Lead Photo: © Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports