Pat O'Conner is COO of the NAPBL, the governing body for 19
minor baseball leagues consisting of 214 clubs throughout the
U.S., Canada and Latin America. Since '93, the NAPBL has managed
a coordinated marketing effort for sponsors looking to get
involved in minor league baseball. Office Depot and French's
Mustard are two high-profile NAPBL partners. THE SPORTS BUSINESS
DAILY spoke with O'Conner this week on the state of the minors in
the wake of the MLB strike, and their plans for the future.
THE DAILY: Is there a saturation point near for minor
league attendance and merchandise sales, or can the minors
continue to grow?
O'CONNER: We have had modern day records in attendance the
last few years and our licensed merchandise and apparel sales
have grown exponentially. What do we do to continue it, can we
forecast the continued growth at the same pace, and is there a
ceiling out there? The answer is yes, there is a ceiling, but I
don't think we are anywhere near it. Our ballclubs -- the
owners, executives, and operators -- have developed quite a bit
over the past ten to fifteen years, in the sense that they have
kept their operations modernized, continued to maintain a fan-
friendly approach, clean ballparks, affordable family
entertainment, and make the event an experience and not just a
ballgame. But we see consistent room for improvement in each of
those approaches. Our clubs are much more sensitive to the fans.
They are surveying, doing market research, identifying areas for
improvement and taking corrective measures to make sure the fans'
needs are being satisfied. Whether it is baseball or the
restaurant business or buying cars, a happy customer is much more
likely to return and spread a positive impression.
THE DAILY: How does the NABPL marketing work?
O'CONNER: Each of the 19 leagues has a certain degree of
autonomy to operate its own business. But all subscribe to the
National Association agreement, which is basically the marriage
contract that keeps everybody together and our half of the
industry going. From a marketing standpoint, our approach was
implemented by our president, Mike Moore, in May 1993 with the
hiring of Ron Myers. We are a one-stop shopping opportunity for
corporations or businesses or potential advertisers. Through the
business we do on a regular basis with the leagues and clubs, we
have a built-in conduit, a communication network in place. So
our concept is that if you are interested in all the minor league
clubs, if you are interested in a geographic location, whatever
classification, we have the ability to tailor a package -- in
conjunction with the leagues and club -- for just about every
client's needs. If we can get with them and identify what they
are looking for, what their goals are, we feel comfortable that
by working with our clubs, we can put a package together to
satisfy those needs. It is much easier for a client or agency to
deal with us one-on-one and allow us to carry it down to the
THE DAILY: Are there signs that MLB sponsors are becoming
more active on your level because of the strike?
O'CONNER: I would not attribute it to the baseball strike.
In some instances there may have been funds available that they
were compelled to release, but I think it is the fact that we are
now becoming a much better known entity and are being received
well in the corporate marketing and advertising world. We are
reaching 33 million people, there are an awful lot of options
available and I think most corporations are somewhat impressed or
at least recognize the value of participating in the minor league
program. We try to give people "bang for the buck." But I don't
necessarily think we have benefited as a result of what has
happened at the major league level in hard dollars. When the
major leagues left the scene last August there was a void to be
filled for the fan which increased recognition of the minor
leagues. People rediscovered the minor leagues last fall. ... I
don't think it was anything other than the fact that baseball is
America's game and people wanted to see baseball and there was a
void to fill.
THE DAILY: Will the minor leagues benefit in the lack of
enthusiasm for the major leagues? Will attendance rise?
O'CONNER: It is a little early to say. There are a lot of
things to consider with respect to the reaction to Major League
Baseball's return and the assumption that for every fan that does
not go to a major league game in turn goes to a minor league
game. We have just not been very fortunate this spring, the
month of April was a terrible month for us with weather. Our
attendance numbers are just coming in, and we have not noticed a
tremendous increase or one that would correspond with the
decrease the major leagues might feel. ... In August of last year
maybe we did benefit a little bit more because people were caught
up in it, it was summer and it was time to go. The winter was a
long cold winter in a lot of ways literally and figuratively.
Maybe with some of that frenzy that was there in August, we
didn't pick up where we left off, at the major league or the
minor league level.
THE DAILY: Are there any markets you have targeted for
O'CONNER: We will be expanding in the AA and AAA level in
response to the major league expansion (expansion affiliates will
be announced in the summer of '96). Our process is to identify
the best markets for that through a long, drawn-out process. But
with respect to expansion in general, or where we need to go,
that's best suited for a decision at the league level.
THE DAILY: Are the non-NAPBL independent leagues such as
the Northern League, or possibly the UBL a threat?
O'CONNER: No, competition is healthy. What it does is it
forces us and our clubs to be more effective in the way that we
market and run our ballclubs. We are in the business of
promoting baseball, and promoting the value and the virtues of
the game. Any competition is baseball, and we're in favor of
THE DAILY: Do you think that the anti-trust exemption will
ever be seriously challenged, and what are the minor leagues
prepared to do if it is?
O'CONNER: It will constantly be challenged, I don't know if
it's an issue that will ever go away. Repeal of the exemption,
in our opinion, could have serious consequences to the minor
leagues, or the national association as you know it today.
Elements of our relationship, internally, and with Major League
Baseball, are dependant on certain things that without the
exemption could be subject to challenge, and possibly,
elimination. There are three issues: One, the draft; two, the
minor league reserve system as we know it. So, through
acquisition and retention, you allow players to develop. ... That
is minor league baseball -- player development. Without it,
there is a great disincentive for major league clubs to have a
150 players they're trying to develop. Third, the very document
that the major leagues and minor leagues use as a guideline for
their relationship could be challenged without the exemption. As
I understand antitrust, it is to promote competition and protect
the consumer. With a repeal, I think players lose, because there
will be fewer jobs; and fans lose, because I don't think the
majority of our clubs could economically continue without some of
the benefits of our relationship as it is today. So, I don't
know who wins.