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Published November 10, 2003
Howard Nuchow's family and friends thought he was crazy when he decided in 1997 to leave his position as director of business development for the New Jersey Nets to get involved in minor league baseball.
They envisioned him running shoestring operations in one-stoplight towns, selling ads by day, scooping popcorn during games and helping clean the ballpark afterward. It hardly seemed like the right career move for a 27-year-old who was quickly climbing the NBA corporate ladder.
After his first day on the job, Nuchow feared they were right. He collapsed in his $29-a-night hotel room and pondered the $8,000 in damage to his car incurred when he failed to notice a speed bump while driving backroads near Lake Elsinore, Calif.
That's been about the only bump in the road Nuchow has encountered during a six-year stint building Mandalay Sports Entertainment into a major player in minor league baseball. These days he oversees a five-team empire that's quickly earned a reputation for bringing big-league sponsorship, financing and stadium development to the minors.
As executive vice president of business operations, Nuchow manages 750 full- and part-time employees. Mandalay's franchises in Frisco, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, play in sparkling new ballparks and though the company doesn't release financials, it claims the clubs are the highest-revenue-generating teams in Class AA and Class A history, respectively.
"Our philosophy has always been that we're going to run these clubs like major league operations," said Nuchow, 33. "People tended to think of the minors as mom-and-pop operations. But there's no reason why you can't bring those same marketing philosophies to the minors."
Nuchow has benefited from two prominent mentors. As an intern with the Nets in 1991, part of his job entailed driving then-club president Jon Spoelstra to and from the airport. Not long after Peter Guber, the former head of Sony Pictures Entertainment, formed Mandalay Sports Entertainment with three partners in 1996, Nuchow was the first employee hired, initially working in a spare office on a studio lot.
Nuchow, as family and friends predicted, did wear many hats at first, selling tickets at Lake Elsinore and pitching in where needed during games. "I had to establish myself as someone willing to roll up my sleeves," he said. "Gradually, we rallied people around this grand vision we had."
The company bought a Class A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds in 1998 and moved it to a new downtown ballpark in Dayton, Ohio, in 2000. The park, a public/private venture, cost $23.5 million to build. Nuchow negotiated a naming-rights deal with First Third Bank worth about $6.5 million over 20 years, with a 10-year option that could bring the total value to more than $10 million.
In April the Frisco Roughriders, jointly held by Mandalay and Tom Hicks, whose Southwest Sports Group owns the Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars, opened a $28 million, privately funded ballpark that looked far more big than bush league.
Instead of building two tiers of billboards as many minor league operations do, Nuchow took a cue from the NBA and NHL and installed an LED (light-emitting diode) display in the outfield walls. Between innings, the boards allow advertisers to use animation on a pair of 7-foot-high video screens. One stretches 170 feet long, the other 70 feet.
Each advertiser gets the entire wall for a segment of the game, rather than a segment of the wall for the entire game, a strategy pioneered by Mandalay's Dayton Dragons.
Nuchow, who received an equity position in Mandalay in 2000, helped the company secure $40 million in financing for future team purchases. Mandalay bought the Class AA Erie (Pa.) SeaWolves in March and the Class A Hagerstown (Md.) Suns in June to add to a portfolio that also includes the Class AAA Las Vegas 51s.
Once thought crazy for leaving the NBA to work in minor league baseball, Nuchow has lured a dozen executives from Major League Baseball, the NBA and NHL teams to work for Mandalay. He even hired Spoelstra, his former boss.
"The traditional career path was always from the minors to the majors," Nuchow said. "That's no longer necessarily the case, and I like to think I've had a hand in that."
Pete Williams is a writer in Florida.