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Volume 21 No. 13

Franchises

In a move believed to be unprecedented in major sports, the Baltimore Orioles will offer free admission to Orioles Park at Camden Yards to any child age nine and younger all season, part of a larger youth outreach program the club is developing.

 

The effort arrives as teams and properties across sports wrestle with how best to attract youth audiences. The issue has been particularly thorny in baseball, which has seen its average TV audience rise to 57 years old, according to data from research outfit Magna Global, and frequently is tagged as having a graying audience.

But the Orioles, which have seen home attendance slide each of the last three years, have developed a dramatic plan of their own to engage kids, even if it ends up costing them revenue.

The “Kids Cheer Free” promotion offers two free upper-deck tickets for children nine and under with the purchase of every full-price adult ticket. The offer can be multiplied, allowing a family with four kids age nine and younger to attend for free with two regular adult tickets. The free tickets will be subject to availability on a month-by-month basis. The lone initial blacked-out date for “Kids Cheer Free” is Opening Day on March 29.

The free tickets are part of a series of youth-driven efforts.
Photo: baltimore orioles

The offer represents one of the most aggressive marketing and sales efforts of any type in the industry to attract younger fans.

“Our goal is nothing less than to make Camden Yards the most kid-friendly and budget-friendly ballpark in the game,” said John Angelos, Orioles executive vice president, who led the internal development of “Kids Cheer Free” over the past several months. “Outreach to youth is obviously a big priority across baseball, and we’re trying to go above and beyond and get more kids in the ballpark.”

“Kids Cheer Free” is part of an enhanced series of youth-driven efforts the Orioles are pursuing including a remodeling and expansion of its kids’ play area, adding more fireworks nights to its promotional calendar, and working with concessionaire Delaware North to offer more variety in the sizes of food and beverage items. A second play area at the ballpark is being planned for a 2019 opening, with the Orioles in discussions with Populous on the project.

Kids under the age of 9 can sit in the upper deck for free this year at Baltimore games.

Other existing programs, such as kids running the bases after Sunday home games and youth-focused giveaway items, will continue in 2018.

Camden Yards’ capacity of 45,971 is MLB’s eighth largest, and the Orioles topped 40,000 in attendance just seven times at home last year as the club sagged to its first losing season since 2011, suggesting there should be plenty of ticket inventory available to accommodate the ambitious program. As a result, Angelos said it is possible the program could turn out to be a moneymaker, particularly once concession and merchandise sales are included. But again, their primary goal is to remove barriers to fandom.

“The first group of people typically priced out of a ballpark is kids, and we’re trying to attack that,” Angelos said. “Whether this turns out to be a net negative [financially], cash neutral, or cash positive for us, I don’t know. But the important thing is that we’re reaching out and being as accessible as we possibly can.”

The Orioles’ move expands significantly upon many other youth-driven team promotions in baseball such as kids’ clubs that typically offer a few free tickets as part of an annual membership, or free and discounted admission offers tied to a particular game or series. MLB clubs also typically offer free admission for infants and toddlers but require them to sit on a parent’s lap.

At the league level, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has made youth outreach a priority in his tenure, believing participation will drive interest and attendance.

The league has focused on several programs, including the three-year-old Play Ball, which encourages participation in baseball and softball.

The efforts are believed to have helped spark sizable increases in baseball and softball participation. Data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association for 2016 showed a 7.7 percent increase in overall baseball participation, an 8.1 percent increase for slow-pitch softball, double-digit percentage increases among casual play, and baseball and softball combining to rank as the most-participated team sports in the U.S.

“We’ve made some solid strides in this area. The recent data has been really encouraging, and we’re looking forward to more good news,” said Chris Marinak, MLB executive vice president of strategy, technology and innovation.

Many of the MLB programs such as Play Ball, Reviving Baseball In Inner Cities and others are focused primarily on non-ballpark settings. Angelos said the club’s efforts complement those programs by focusing on the in-venue experience.

Owner Robert Pera must decide whether to buy out his partners or sell team.
Photo: Getty Images

The two top limited partners in the Memphis Grizzlies plan this week to deliver their long-expected valuation of the team to the owner, multiple finance sources said, bringing the uncertain state of the franchise one step closer to clarity. 

 

Team owner Robert Pera must then decide whether to buy out the two partners at that price, or sell to them at the value.

 

Steve Kaplan and Daniel Straus, who triggered the buy/sell option in November 2017, will value the club at just over $1 billion, the sources said, which essentially places a floor of $1 billion on all NBA team prices.

 

The sources would not go on the record because of the private nature of the transaction but were familiar with the sales process.

 

The Grizzlies declined to comment.

 

The Grizzlies are viewed as one of the least valuable NBA teams, so the Memphis price is akin to the minimum now for a team (the Forbes rankings, for example, lists the team 29th out of 30 in terms of total value, slightly ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans).

 

First Look podcast, with Grizzlies discussion at the 16:25 mark:

The NBA is awash in national TV money and rising popularity, the key underpinnings to the valuation of the team, which one source who had seen the team’s financial records said loses $20 million annually.

 

“Revenue growth, value growth and prestige are the three drivers for why it could be worth a billion,” said Don Erickson, managing director of Mercer Capital, which values sports teams.

 

When Pera bought the team in 2012, he valued the club at $377 million. The NBA had concerns about Pera affording the team on his own and suggested the unusual buy/sell option between Pera, and Kaplan and Straus.

 

At the time of the purchase, Pera put in $38 million of equity, and Kaplan and Straus put in $25 million each, a source said. Local limited partners put in $78 million, a source familiar with the deal said. The total purchase price includes equity plus debt.

 

The buy/sell option could be triggered after five years, and Straus and Kaplan did so in November. It was not clear why they decided to do so. Now, the next step occurs this week when they set a price.

 

Kaplan is represented by Inner Circle Sports, and Straus by Jac Sperling of Grit Rock Ventures, sources said. Inner Circle declined to comment, and Sperling did not reply for comment. 

 

Pera is reportedly represented by Evolution Media Capital. EMC did not immediately reply for comment.

 

Pera is founder of telecommunications firm Ubiquiti Networks. Shares of the company traded around $12 in 2012 when he bought the team, and last week were near $70. Pera owned 56.2 million shares, as of the October 2017 proxy. Those shares would be worth nearly $4 billion today.

 

Pera has been largely an absentee owner in Memphis, leading to local concerns he might try to move the team after its lease runs out at the FedEx Forum in a few years.

 

Most observers of the Grizzlies process expect Pera to buy out Kaplan and Straus, but not necessarily at the value they place on the team. If he instead sells his interest, then Kaplan and Straus would have to decide between them who is the control partner.

 

A source said there is a process already in place to determine which of the two would become owner of the team if Pera sells his team shares.

 

It could not be determined how much time Pera would have to decide to buy out his limited partners or the timeline to any decision.

Mount Union senior Steven Phipps (left) is interviewed by Nolan O’Connor of the Miami Dolphins. Phipps later accepted a position with the team.
Photo: hope kadlecek

There aren’t many career events that can alter the perspective of a college upperclassman. But on a snowy February day in Cleveland, Slippery Rock junior Quiona Glover found one of them.

 

Glover attended the 14th annual Mount Union Sports Sales Workshop and Job Fair at Quicken Loans Arena as part of the curriculum for her sports sales and fundraising class. Glover already had an interest in the sales industry as a whole, but the event showed her all that sports sales specifically has to offer.

 

“I was already excited about sales,” she said, “but it definitely changed my perspective and made me give it a little more emphasis and thought into the sports side.”

 

The Mount Union workshop and job fair is different from other career events. Rather than meeting with potential employers briefly and handing them a résumé, or listening to lectures about the industry, students are trained for more than three hours by the same professionals with whom they have the opportunity to schedule sit-down interviews.

 

“‘Conference’ implies I’m a tape recorder [just taking notes from lectures], but I’m not active,” said Jim Kadlecek, the workshop director and a University of Mount Union sport business faculty member. “We want students to leave with an appreciable sense of what sales feels like.”

 

The other rare aspect about the event is that it is sports sales specific. So even though it takes place in Cleveland, recruiters from teams nationwide pay their own way to attend and are willing to participate to find the next generation of salespeople.

 

“Being in New York and being at Madison Square Garden, we’re never short on applicants,” said Ben Pincus, manager of group sales and service at Madison Square Garden. “What we’re short on is people with the drive and talent, desire, not because it’s Madison Square Garden, but because this is the way they want to make their career.”

 

Origin story

 

The event began when Kadlecek spoke with his friend and well-known sports sales trainer, Charlie Chislaghi, about a workshop for college students who were looking for sales-specific instruction beyond their curriculums.

 

Chislaghi came up with the idea for an interactive day of training while Kadlecek worked on the logistics.

 

“My idea always is to provide opportunities for young people,” Chislaghi said. “If they don’t have the opportunities, how are they going to know whether or not that career field is appropriate for them?”

 

Scott Hebert of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx conducts an interview.
Photo: hope kadlecek

Now, Kadlecek says that students email him looking to register for one of the 120 available spots at the Cleveland event more than 10 months out. Kadlecek and Mount Union also have added events in Portland and Denver due to high demand.

 

In January, they capped the first-year Portland event at 30 students to maintain a good ratio of students to trainers. The Denver event takes place on March 23. Last year, 57 students attended, and according to Kadlecek, they are pacing ahead of that number as registration remains open.

 

It cost $99 per student to attend. Mount Union’s focus is not to churn a profit from the event, but simply cover the costs of food and the venue. The event is open to any students willing to register, and at some colleges, it’s become a competition. At Central Michigan University, it’s invitation only for students in the sports management department. At the University of Iowa, students have to apply to be considered to make the eight-hour trip.

 

“We always hire from this event. It’s a good place to find good young talent,” said Bob Sivik, vice president of ticket sales and service at the Cleveland Browns.

 

The sales version of the NFL combine

 

During training sessions, attendees are split into nine groups consisting of eight to 20 students, with three or four trainers assigned to each. Students from the same schools split up to get them out of their comfort zones.

 

A total of 80 trainers attended the most recent event, but not all train during every session. The ones not assigned to a specific group are free to roam in and out of training sessions, observing students and creating a bustling environment.

 

Participants return as trainers, employers

The Mount Union Sports Sales Workshop and Job Fair sees former students who got their first taste of the industry at the event returning as trainers looking to hire.

That includes Nolan O’Connor, who in 2014 accepted a position as an inside sales associate for the Miami Dolphins following an on-site interview. For O’Connor, having experienced the workshop as a student helps give him perspective as a trainer.

“I’ve been in their shoes, I know what they’re feeling, I know what those nerves are,” he said.

Steffin Bader also got his start at the workshop, as he came to the event as a student at Central Michigan. Despite completing an internship with the Detroit Pistons prior to attending, he said it still played a vital part in his career path.

“Without this event I don’t know if I would even be in the industry to be completely honest,” he said. “The connections that I gained through this have really springboarded me to where I am today.”

Carly Salerno, the manager of inside sales at Monumental Sports and Entertainment, got her first exposure to sales training at the workshop before accepting an entry-level position with her current company.

“It was a wake-up call for ‘Wow, I can actually do this,’” Salerno said of the confidence training provided her.

Having trainers come back — at their own expense — to teach and ultimately hire students is a point of pride at the workshop. During the introductory session on the arena’s practice court, the trainers who received their first job offer from the workshop stood up to be recognized. It’s an aspect of the event that the current students have an appreciation for.

“I feel like that’s the biggest motivation for me, honestly, to be sitting where they are in a few years and helping other kids,“ said Adam Smith, a senior from the University of Iowa.

— Ashley Bastock

The first training session began with icebreakers. From there, students took part role-playing in pairs with a sample script that they would use on the phone to try to stand out with prospective buyers, and they received real-time feedback from their trainers.

  

In the second session, students participated in more role-playing that focused on building rapport while on the phone, active listening and asking open-ended questions to build trust. Instead of using scripts, in many cases students had to think in real time, spontaneously asking trainers questions, mirroring the ticket sales process.

 

The final session had students learning how to handle more difficult situations, with trainers lobbing objections and concerns to the students, as well as the importance of face-to-face appointments.

“We’re training them on the same things that I would train my staff when they first start,” said German Montero, the manager of new business for MSG Sports.

 

Rather than focusing on which students were technically sound, trainers repeatedly said they were more focused on who participated.

 

“What I look for is the people that are going to be active, they’re going to participate,” said Nolan O’Connor, manager of membership development for the Miami Dolphins. “That’s really what the event’s about.”

 

“I look at this event the same way as the NFL combine,” said Steffin Bader, an account executive on the Detroit Pistons’ sales team. “It’s a chance to get out there and make a name for yourself.”

 

Actual job interviews came in the late afternoon in a large banquet room. The room buzzed with conversation and nervous energy, as students sat down for their 15-minute appointments.

 

Kadlecek said about 50 percent of graduating seniors leave the workshop with at least one job offer each year. While the interview portion of the day is the most nerve-wracking part of the workshop for the students, the trainers watch how they comport themselves throughout the entire day.

 

“This is ‘let’s get to know each other and let me reassure myself of why I want to hire you, because you just interviewed in a training session by asking questions, and showing that you’re coachable,’” Bader said. “When I was here as a student, [the interviews] were all that mattered. Now being on the manager side of it, I see what truly is the most important part.”

 

The entire day can push students out of their comfort zone, serving as a confidence-booster in an intimidating environment. For the 20-year-old Glover, it gave her the confidence to potentially go down a different path in sales.

 

“I came in not ever really having to interview for a sports job,” she admitted. “So getting all the tips and tricks on consistency, and selling, and coachability and passion today really helped me put into perspective how I approach certain situations, and how I approach the sport industry itself.”

 

Ashley Bastock is a writer in Cleveland. She can be reached at ashleybastock@gmail.com.

In this week’s First Look podcast, SBJ’s Abe Madkour, Bill King, Dan Kaplan and Eric Fisher discuss this week’s edition, including stories on the Orioles’ new youth ticket promotion, valuation of the Memphis Grizzlies, and our newest Champion, Sal Galatioto.