As we have extensively covered, MiLB teams insulate themselves against the variable quality of the product on the field with fun, affordability, customer service, and unique promotions and giveaways. And if your team wins, hey, that’s an added bonus. Given this focus on fan experience over on-field success, there are many subtle roles in a minor league ballpark that are essential to keeping the organization afloat. Frankly, it is kind of scary how a part-time staff member could have such a strong impact, but that’s similar to most retail businesses.
Baseball is aspirational: kids grow up idolizing players, picking up the sport to emulate their heroes. Theo Epstein brought in a new wave of non-players to run his front office, making every sports fan aspire to that route to the Hall of Fame. Rarely, however, do kids grow up wanting to be an usher, a ticket director, or a clubbie.
I always tell people that want to break into sports to learn as much about the business as possible, to learn what they like. A teenager wanting to be a doctor could learn that there are thousands of unique streams they could enter, like being a surgeon, dentist, physical therapist, or a pediatrician. And while you might not get this impression on first glance, MiLB also has something for everyone, with many important roles behind the scenes of every great ballpark experience. So let’s detail a few of the unsung heroes that make the MiLB world go round.
This is someone that fans do not see, but who is nonetheless invaluable. The Clubbie runs the players’ clubhouse and rarely has any formal interaction with the front office, as they are player- and coaching staff-facing.They ensure food is served, laundry is done, the place is clean, and all the details in between — like making sure the coaching staff has the right beer, sewing new jersey numbers, making sure the toilets and showers are well-stocked and clean, and making sure new players have the right size pants, socks and BP hats.
It is a tireless and thankless role that cannot be understated in its magnitude, amount of work, long hours, and dedication to the game and team. The clubhouse manager will ‘sleep’ at the stadium the night the team comes home from a road trip, and the night before an afternoon game. ‘Sleep’ is used lightly, as they are lucky if they get more than two hours’ rest on these game days.
The clubhouse manager’s hours are spent worrying about the happiness of others, and ensuring all the little things of the clubhouse are taken care of — all this despite the fact they don’t get to watch any of the games. None. They are busy cleaning and planning to feed players, and the role they play is of the utmost importance. The comfort of the players and coaching staff is at stake, and a bad experience for them definitely gets around the MLB complex, hurting your team’s credibility and endangering your relationship, which as we covered, is extremely sensitive and valuable.
A nice experience from a friendly face as you enter a ballpark and find your seats thoroughly reinforces the warm experience teams work very hard to build throughout their entire organization, in and out of the stadium.
Teams need to be armed with two types of ushers:
Friendly and Fuzzy
These are the celebrity ushers, in the sense they know all the season ticket holders, have been there for years, and are often literal celebrities in their stadium. These are the people teams want schmoozing with fans, helping the elderly to their seats, giving a foul ball to kids, dancing during the pitching breaks, helping people move seats, and taking care of all the little things that create stories and memories. Think of going to a diner and seeing your favourite server that exudes the emotions you feel when you are there — that’s this usher. They make fans feel like summer.
The Good Cop
Having said that, the stands are not all fun and games. There are situations that require a stern, forceful presence and voice. These ushers are typically retired police officers or teachers, and can sniff out a bad scene from a mile away. They command respect, and are the ones teams want to deal with unruly, foul-mouthed fans, those have smuggled drinks into the stadium, are trying to run on the field, and are creating a bad experience for other fans.
Think of this comparison like parents. One parent is the one that typically dishes out the punishment, while the other takes you for ice cream past your bedtime. These ushers don’t generate the same daily admiration from fans as the friendly and fuzzy ones, but they are problem solvers and are invaluable to the team. They discreetly save other fans from bad experiences by diffusing negative scenarios.
One type of usher is no more important then the other, but smart teams have about a 80/20 split of the former to the latter, as the majority of all ballpark interactions require warmth and fuzziness. That’s not to say the latter can’t be nice and welcoming, but their main strength is keeping the peace.
Box Office Staff
Many people will tell you the first interaction with a team sets the tone for their entire experience. I think this holds true for MLB teams as well, but their interactions are predominantly based on what happens on the field. The currency of a major league team is wins and losses, so a trade, injury, or free agent signing sets the tone. Fans talk about the scores of the game at the water cooler, on texts, and on their way to the stadium.
MiLB teams’ currency, in contrast, is customer service, so to have a warm friendly voice on the phone or at the box office is imperative. When factoring in that these staff members deal with money, it is a very important position. Teams have gone away from dealing with Ticketmaster and other larger ticket companies in favour of controlling the fans’ experience and discussion — people at Ticketmaster don’t know your stadium as intimately as your staff does. Where the sun sets, where foul balls land, near the beer stands, where the loud fans are and where the parking resides are just a smattering of things that someone on a team’s payroll could help fans with that make a difference, and those differences go a long way.
Everybody has a horror story dealing with large ticket companies, from buying the wrong tickets, to their exorbitant fees, to their faceless, impersonal demeanour. Ticket managers are constantly dealing with issues from ticket buyers, and they have to remain calm, while solving the problems with a smile on their face and creating a memory. And while nobody has ever gotten goose bumps ordering tickets from Ticketmaster, they sure have from a friendly face or voice to guide them in the right direction and help create a fun outing at a minor league ballpark.
No sport or entertainment is as tied to food as baseball, except maybe popcorn at a movie theatre. Food service at the ballpark has to be quick and delicious. There is no excuse for waiting in line for a few innings for a beer and a hot dog, and efficiency, ease, and customer service are essential. Fans typically don’t mind paying a higher price for good ballpark food, because they view it as a luxurious night of indulgence. (This is to say nothing of the unique food items that are the hallmark of MiLB.) That said, they better get their food on time and not have to wait in lines.
An element of this relationship that fans don’t see is teams getting sponsorship dollars from food vendors. Teams need to get all their vendors to spend money with them. Revenues are scarce, and they need to leverage their strengths, which are their buying power, and allowing those companies to associate themselves with a popular sports team. This does not just apply to larger, more notable concessions like beer and soft drinks, but also smaller ones like freezer repair, linens, accountants, lawyers, and pest extermination companies. The smaller vendors might have a smaller budget, so they could buy tickets or a suite.
It is imperative the concession director understands this relationship and works hand in hand with the team. They can’t be fighting with the team over wanting to work with a certain bread company when said bread company doesn’t want to buy tickets. The concession director has to maintain the integrity of the business model, or other vendors will learn that they actually don’t need to pay, and the team will suffer, both financially and socially. Whether they are third party or part of the staff, I have seen concession directors try to be autonomous. It does not end well. The food industry has razor thin margins so the team is not expecting much, but there must be some reciprocation and partnership.
Just like a team on the field needs unsung heroes to pull together and come up with clutch moments, so does a team off the field. There are many aspects of the business I miss, but the people that help create the atmosphere and subtly set the tone for the team are high up on the list.
Lead Photo © Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports