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Champions 2017: Bill Giles
The Phillies’ Bill Giles: A historic mix of marketing genius, on-field success and league influence
Published April 3, 2017, Page 1
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|Bill Giles followed his father Warren (in the background) into baseball and became one of the prime movers in the game’s business history..
Bill Giles has always had an ability to envision the game of baseball in the future.
While an undergraduate at Denison University in Ohio more than a half-century ago, Giles wrote a senior thesis titled “A Study of Some Economic Aspects of Organized Baseball.” In it, Giles predicted that “television will mean more to baseball in 1956 than ever before,” veering away from conventional thought at the time that televised games would cut into attendance, and “baseball is growing with enthusiasm on the international scene.”
In the paper, Giles also outlined several other historic changes coming to the game, including franchise expansion and relocation, and the impact of ever-rising player salaries.
“But even I didn’t predict what would happen with cable television,” Giles says now, with a touch of regret. “It’s changed so many sports, but none more so than baseball.”
Rather than that thesis simply existing as an academic exercise, though, Giles went on to play an instrumental role in making many of the changes he forecast happen.
With the exception of playing or managing, there is virtually no role in baseball Giles hasn’t handled at some point. Over his nearly 70 years in the sport, Giles has been a radio broadcast and scouting assistant, public relations man, traveling secretary, marketing executive, vice president of business operations, team owner and now occupies his current position as chairman emeritus of the Phillies.
Giles, 82, typically isn’t name-dropped as a prime mover in the business history of baseball, like his close friend and MLB commissioner emeritus Bud Selig, original MLB Players Association executive director Marvin Miller, late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and others typically are.
But often operating as a behind-the-scenes player, Giles has been a key fixture in shaping how baseball is presented both in ballparks and on television, how tickets are sold, how the sport is marketed and even how MLB teams are organized and scheduled.
First Look podcast, with discussion of Bill Giles beginning at 19:50 mark:
The Phillie Phanatic, wild ballpark promotions such as Karl Wallenda walking a high-wire across Veterans Stadium, the widespread advent of ticket mini-plans, MLB’s current six-division format, interleague play, baseball’s national TV contracts, and the creation of the Astrodome and Citizens Bank Park are just a handful of the things with a direct tie to Giles.
“Bill’s truly a lovable guy who has had some big, big ideas, and is a natural marketer,” said longtime sports industry executive Dennis Mannion, who worked for the Phillies for 16 seasons in the 1980s and ’90s. “His personality as a business executive was really constructed with a fan’s eye, and he always has seen the game through that prism. You combine that with a great business mind that skews toward the creative and a guy with absolutely no fear, and you’re talking about a true trailblazer.”
Added Selig himself: “Bill was well ahead of his time in so many ways. He particularly understood the power of TV and the power of marketing and what that would do in baseball long before many others did.
“When I first met his father, I remarked that Giles was Selig spelled backwards, and that was the beginning of a long connection with their family, and Bill specifically.”
Of course, Bill Giles had an enviable head start on that Denison thesis and, more broadly, his life in baseball.
His father, the late Warren Giles, was a baseball industry icon for more than three decades, first as general manager and president of the Cincinnati Reds, winning the 1940 World Series, and then as president of the National League en route to enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The National League championship trophy is named in honor of the elder Giles.
Bill’s godfather was the late Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager instrumental in helping Jackie Robinson break baseball’s color line.
“I always knew I had a little more of an opportunity than many kids,” Giles said, and indeed, in addition to growing up in and around Crosley Field, he spent several summers during high school and college working for the Reds.
Giles’ ties to his father had been further tightened early on when his mother died in 1942, when he was 7, leaving just the two of them as Bill grew up in Cincinnati.
“He was literally born into baseball,” said Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, like Giles one of MLB’s elder statesmen. “It seems like Bill and baseball were joined at the hip. And with all the time Bill spent with his dad, he couldn’t help but absorb all of that.”
|Giles, at Citizens Bank Park, has been at the center of the Phillies’ success for the past 47 years.
But while Warren Giles provided a unique childhood to his son, he refused to allow Bill to coast or trade simply on his last name, while at the same time not forcing a life in baseball upon him.
“He did not push (baseball),” Giles said of his father. “He said to me, ‘Bill, I don’t care what you do, but be the best in whatever you do. Even if you’re a garbage collector, collect more garbage than the other guy.’”
Giles did choose a life in baseball, wanting to be a general manager like his father. But a conventional path toward that during his early adulthood — some time in military service, working in the minor leagues, becoming a traveling secretary for the Reds — took a marked turn in late 1960 that would fundamentally reshape the rest of his career.
Giles was tapped to help start up the expansion Houston Colt .45s, who were renamed the Astros in 1964, working for the flamboyant and colorful team owner Roy Hofheinz, a local judge, developer, businessman and former Houston mayor. A key part of the successful expansion bid was the creation of the Astrodome, the industry’s first multipurpose domed stadium.
The facility, featuring the first artificial turf playing surface and animated scoreboard in major pro sports, created a potent combination with Hofheinz’s own outsized personality, Houston’s locale as the centerpiece of the then-burgeoning American space movement, and the longstanding local culture of everything being bigger in Texas.
For Giles, that meant virtually nothing was off limits as he led the early marketing efforts for the Astros. Among the elements of those early years at the Astrodome: a heavy helping of lunar-themed components such as female “spacette” ushers in gold suits and space helmet-wearing groundskeepers, pithy messages on the scoreboard to needle umpires and opposing managers, and even a jet pack-wearing “Rocket Man” who would fly around the inside of the dome.
Giles proclaimed the Astrodome “The Eighth Wonder of the World” as he aggressively promoted the building, joining a long list of other bidders for that unofficial title. But for many years, the moniker stuck as the facility would go on to influence dozens of others to come.
“A lot of the promotional things he did later on in Philadelphia, he learned while he was in Houston,” Reinsdorf said. “That’s really where it all started.”
Giles also booked many pre- and postgame concerts and non-baseball events at the Astrodome, including a Muhammad Ali bout in 1966, years before such things became industry standards.
“That was probably the most interesting part of my life,” Giles said of working for Hofheinz.
The Houston years, however, would also take Giles even further away from baseball. In 1967, Hofheinz sent Giles to Rome to help close a deal to purchase the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which he ultimately would own with Irwin Feld for four years. Giles’ Rome trip helped generate a coveted full-page picture in Life magazine, and soon enough a grateful Hofheinz gave Giles oversight of marketing for many of his other business ventures, including an amusement park, several hotels, a minor league hockey team and an exhibit hall.
“After a while, I started getting really restless,” Giles said. “I still thought of myself as a baseball guy.”
That restlessness brought Giles to Philadelphia in late 1969, where then-Phillies owner Bob Carpenter hired him to be director of business operations, overseeing a large swath of the organization, including sales, marketing, broadcasting and stadium operations. But a key portion of the job was simply selling tickets. The club was preparing to move from Connie Mack Stadium to Veterans Stadium in 1971, but after a long run of mediocre seasons, had fallen to one of the worst draws in the National League.
“I analyzed the Phillies franchise before I moved here and they didn’t do a very good job selling tickets,” Giles said. “They didn’t have an aggressive sales and marketing approach. So I felt it was a good opportunity to change things.”
Giles brought in an entirely new promotional culture to an organization that for nearly a century had been among baseball’s most traditional.
New and often wacky promotions spearheaded by Giles often arrived at a furious pace, including the Wallenda high-wire act in 1972, a long succession of first-pitch stunts involving kites, cannons, parachutes, exploding coffins and trapezes, as well as the creation of the Phillie Phanatic in 1978 (see related story). He also developed a series of promotional souvenir giveaways and theme nights, each with the idea of attracting non-core audiences, ultimately turning casual fans into avid ones.
“Bill knew from the outset that we couldn’t rely just on the baseball purist,” said Phillies chairman Dave Montgomery. “We needed to draw from as wide an audience as possible, and there again was how important that Houston experience was for him. He’s always thought big. A lot of the promotions we did worked. Some didn’t. But they all helped change the way baseball was presented.”
|After being a team executive for a decade, he led the group that purchased the Phillies from Ruly Carpenter in 1981.
The relentless marketing and promotion effectively dovetailed with a competitive rebirth of a team that won six division titles, two pennants and a World Series between 1976 and 1983. Phillies attendance, which had never reached 1.5 million in the club’s first 80 years of existence, surged past 2 million in eight consecutive full seasons during the club’s potent run of the 1970s and early ’80s.
Giles’ partnership with Montgomery, now entering its 47th year, is also a key part of the story of Giles himself and of the franchise. Giles hired Montgomery in 1971 to sell season and group tickets, and over the ensuing two-plus generations they have been colleagues, equity partners in the club and close business confidants.
“The two of them have complemented each other so well,” said Giles’ son, Joe, now the club’s director of ballpark enterprises and business development. “My dad has been more of the risk taker, and Dave the more conservative one. But it’s created a very effective partnership for a very long time.”
Giles and Montgomery also closely collaborated on the acquisition of the Phillies in 1981 from Ruly Carpenter, who had succeeded his father as the club’s lead owner. Despite the Phillies’ standing as defending World Series champions that year, Carpenter was growing frustrated with the accelerating rise of player salaries and was particularly incensed the prior offseason with Atlanta’s newly signed five-year, $3.8 million contract for Claudell Washington, a mid-tier outfielder suddenly making one of the highest salaries in the sport.
“I’ve often said that if Ted Turner hadn’t signed Claudell Washington to that contract, the Carpenters wouldn’t have sold, and my life from then on could have been rather different,” Giles said.
Long before bid books and other formal structures for buying and selling sports teams became common, Giles led a much more old-school process to raising the roughly $30 million he thought he needed: cold calling high-net-worth individuals in the Philadelphia area. Giles himself acknowledges there was some flight of fancy to the whole endeavor; his own net worth at the time was $50,000.
“I never dreamed of owning a team, because I didn’t have much money, and my father didn’t make a lot of money,” he said.
|Giles helped build the franchise’s great teams of the late ’70s and ‘80, which included Pete Rose, among many other stars.
Giles and Montgomery ultimately cobbled together a group that included several local businessmen. The effort was essentially saved by a late commitment from Taft Broadcasting, which owned an over-the-air TV station in Philadelphia. The company’s $15 million investment in the club was nearly half the final purchase price and was tied in part to future Phillies media rights.
“We were aided by the Phillies being good at that time, but Bill’s basic pitch on this wasn’t financial or anything like that,” Montgomery said. “He instead positioned this as being a civic institution and asking people to help preserve that institution.”
Montgomery was already a lifelong Philadelphia native, but the deal ultimately has made the city home for Giles for the past 47 years. The acquisition also ended a brief, prior flirtation Giles had with bidding for the Chicago Cubs before they were bought by The Tribune Co.
Under Giles’ leadership, the Phillies on the field went through a fairly typical and cyclical run of competitive success and failure. The club sank to several last-place finishes in the late ’80s, a period Giles calls the weakest of his long baseball career, before winning the 1993 National League pennant. The Phillies faltered again in the late ’90s in advance of becoming a competitive power a decade ago, winning the 2008 World Series.
Another rebuilding effort currently underway has club officials optimistic looking ahead.
But Giles’ primary impact during the past quarter century has shifted away from the day-to-day business of the Phillies. He formed a close alliance with Selig and played an instrumental role in a series of large-scale structural MLB changes made during the 1990s (see related story).
He also was an important fixture as an ownership representative negotiating several national TV contracts, including one with Fox Sports in 1996 that established the network’s presence in baseball and as one of the league’s primary business partners, and ultimately would help spur a long run of technological innovation in the sport.
|Giles was part of two World Series championships, the most recent in 2008.
“Bill was right there in a lot of our big national TV deals, but that was always a very fertile area for him, going back to things like PRISM in the ’70s and ’80s that were a forerunner of the RSN business today,” Montgomery said.
Giles changed his role with the Phillies in 1997, relinquishing the president and chief executive titles, becoming chairman and allowing Montgomery to take on an elevated position. The shift also freed Giles to focus his efforts on replacing Veterans Stadium, by then aging badly deep into its third decade of use.
There had been prior discussion about the Phillies taking over the publicly owned Veterans Stadium, operating it privately and conducting a full-scale renovation. But Giles had taken a trip to Baltimore in 1992 to see the then-brand-new Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and it would be what he now calls a life-changing experience.
“I went down and saw the Orioles play in Camden Yards early that first season, and I came back and told my fellow owners and my staff that we had to do something like that and build our own baseball-only stadium,” he said. “But it ended up taking 12 years until we opened.”
Those dozen years contained plenty of twists and turns. Giles originally sought to have the new Phillies ballpark built downtown but ran into strong political and public opposition. And the state of Pennsylvania ultimately packaged its financing for the project into a single bill with new facility efforts also happening around the same time with the neighboring Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates.
Once Citizens Bank Park finally opened in 2004, it immediately pushed the Phillies past 3 million in attendance for the first time, and the club later sold out 257 straight games between 2009 and 2012, something Giles himself admits he didn’t think possible. The ballpark remains a major part of the south Philadelphia sports complex that also includes Lincoln Financial Field, Wells Fargo Center and Xfinity Live, a confluence of sports and entertainment facilities arguably unrivaled in the business.
“Bill has always been enormously effective,” said Ed Rendell, the former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor who was actively involved in the Citizens Bank Park financing and development. “Under Bill, the Phillies obviously have helped make our sports complex what it is today. But they also moved from an average corporate citizen here locally to a great one, and they really took in particular a leadership role on corporate responsibility. Bill’s a really likable guy, easy to work with. Not a pushover by any means, but accommodating and understanding of your needs.”
Giles’ role with the Phillies is now effectively ceremonial, with his duties focused in part on public appearances and charitable functions. He’s no longer an equity holder in the franchise, having sold his last piece about three years ago as the club’s ownership group has shrunk through the years. But he maintains an office at Citizens Bank Park, and even with John Middleton now as the designated control partner for the franchise, Giles’ spirit and influence remains all over the Phillies franchise.
“He really created a family-style business and an effective work-hard-play-hard kind of culture,” Mannion said. “You look at the team even today, and lots of people are still there in the front office who never have left after many years, and don’t want to leave. That’s because of Bill.”
|At age 82, Giles’ role with the team is largely ceremonial these days.