Saturday, July 4, 2009

King of Diamonds

By Tom Hawthorn
Douglas: Victoria's Business Magazine
July 2009

Long, narrow boxes containing a ready-to-assemble batting cage lean against a wall. Other boxes litter the floor. Someone has stretched a bundle of greyish cloth across the cardboard, like a bath mat put out to air.

The press box at Royal Athletic Stadium looks like moving day at a frat house.

Holding a chair overhead as he searches for a clear spot amid the debris is Darren Parker. He finds a spot, collapses into the chair, exhales. Before a question is asked, he leans forward to deliver his pitch. Parker, 38, has a boyish demeanor, expressed by a quick smile and a salesman’s eagerness to share with you good news before clinching the sale. With his slicked hair, all he needs is a sharp office suit to look like a character from Mad Men.

A few steps below the press box, the front office staff of the Victoria Seals baseball team are holding a brainstorming session at a round table. Their meeting can be overheard by anyone stepping into the V-shaped room at the top of the rear of the grandstand at the corner of Caledonia and Vancouver. At the reception desk, a plastic candy dish shaped like an oversized plastic baseball offers treats for those who drop by. The space is separated by room dividers. Even Parker, the president and co-owner of the team, does not have a private office, which is how we ended up in the messy press box. We are a long way from baseball’s major leagues.

The Seals are the latest sporting entry to compete for entertainment dollars in the capital city. Parker is certain residents will greet his expansion team with enthusiasm.

“Victoria is a baseball town,” he insists, “without a baseball team.”

It was six weeks before Opening Day. Much still needed to be done. A diamond-shaped infield had been cut from the Royal Athletic Park lawn, but a city crew had yet to build a pitching mound, or install home plate. The outfield needed a fence lest right field be a cow pasture as long as a city block.

A $400,000 US scoreboard was on order from Daktronics, a manufacturer based in South Dakota that this season alone placed new boards — sorry, “integrated baseball systems” — in a half-dozen major-league parks. They’re also responsible for the displays at GM Place and BC Place. The purchase excites Parker. “It offers full video capability! We can show players’ headshots!” He could hardly have been more excited had he just signed a slugger. Parker sees the outfield display as “part of the entertainment package” and “an important part of the baseball experience.” Left unsaid is its role in offering sponsors as a state-of-the-art way of reaching the paying customers.

The to-do list was daunting. Parker is negotiating with a local former major leaguer he wants to hire as a coach. The team is looking for host families with whom the athletes will board. There were sponsors to find and tickets to sell.

Some of the typical sporting advertisers are aboard — McDonald’s and Coca-Cola — as well as some of the more prominent local companies in B.C. Hydro, Thrifty Foods and Vancouver Island Breweries. A downtown budget hotel — Best Western Carlton Plaza — will be playing host to visiting teams in exchange for signage at the park. In a tourist town, summer accommodation is pricy.

A baseball team’s debut brings with it a lineup of one-time expenditures. A check has to be done for possible copyrights on the selected name; a logo needs to be created and colours chosen; after which letter head, business cards and souvenirs can be printed and manufactured. “I’m writing a lot of cheques,” Parker says. About a million dollars will be spent to get the team on the field for its inaugural campaign.

A lot of tickets will have to be sold to cover those expenses. The top ticket at Royal Athletic Park costs $16 with general admission set at $12. Seniors get a $2 reduction on all tickets, while children under six enjoy free admission. A pair of season tickets in the grandstand cost $1,080. The Seals enjoyed early success selling “Eight is Enough” packages of tickets for $80, redeemable for any game.

With 44 home dates, the team seeks an average attendance of about 2,000. The greater the number of customers the more revenue the club will enjoy from its share of concession sales in the city-owned ball park. “It’s up to us to get bums in seats,” he says. The Seals will add to revenues through souvenir sales. A month before Opening Day, the cub offered just two options — a ball cap at $19.95 and a toque at $14.95. (And if there’s a summertime demand for toques, one suspects attendance figures will be on the low side.)

While Parker is confident the Seals would be a success on the field as well as at the gate, longtime fans recall the checkered history of minor professional baseball on Vancouver Island. The Tyees went out of business in 1954 after nine seasons. The Mussels folded in 1980 after three seasons. The most recent entry, the Capitals, appeared in 2003 as part of the Canadian Baseball League, a venture in which the league owned all eight clubs. Jeff Mallett, who grew up in Victoria before making a fortune as president of the online outfit Yahoo!, signed the cheques for a league in which the great pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, the only Canadian in the Baseball Hall of Fame, served as commissioner. The Capitals lasted just 35 games before the entire league shut down, as Mallett closed his wallet. The final indignity was an auction of the league’s possessions a few months later. Even today you can buy a Victoria Capitals souvenir blue-and-white baseball on eBay for $7.99 US.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s one, two, three strikes.

One observer who thinks the Seals can succeed is John Meldrum, an assistant professor at the University of Victoria with an expertise in sports marketing. Minor baseball retains a homey reputation unbesmirched by steroids, questionable sponsors (remember Enron Field?), and aloof athletes. The Seals do not have much competition for sports dollars in the summer and a family can attend a game for about the same cost as an outing to the movies.

On the other hand, the Seals are starting from scratch.

“They’re new and anything new is tough to sell,” he said. “There isn’t a league history, or anything like that to connect them to the community.”

Victoria also has a reputation for being a walk-up town. Tickets are bought as a last-minute decision. This is also a city in which there are many outdoor attractions to be enjoyed on a glorious summer day.

Meldrum, 43, who counts old Tiger Stadium in Detroit as his favourite baseball park, thinks the club has a winner in its flex-pack of eight tickets. “You get a better price,” he said, “and you go to the game when you want.”

Parker himself believes he can succeed because the game is in his blood.

“I grew up around the ballpark,” he said. “It was my babysitter and my playground.”

He was just a boy when his father bought his first baseball team. Russell Parker was one of 13 children born to a family at Moosomin, Sask., 225 kilometres east of Regina on the Manitoba border. As a boy, Russ played catcher and second base at a time when the prairies were a baseball hotbed. In summer, such National Hockey League stars as Gordie Howe and Terry Sawchuk traded lace-up sweaters for baseball flannels.

Russ Parker came to Calgary as a young man. He sold typewriters and office supplies, soon opening his own business, Calgary Copier. He and his wife were joined by a single employee. The oil boom created a demand for photocopy machines and the Parkers built a family fortune on black gold, only in their case it was toner, not oil. The company had 130 employees when he sold in 1989.

In 1977, Parker launched the Calgary Cardinals, an expansion team at the lower levels of minor baseball. Seven years later, he spent $1 million for the Salt Lake City Gulls, a franchise in the Pacific Coast League, a Triple-A circuit just one level below the major leagues. He moved the team to Calgary, where the Cannons became a model of smart marketing. The team spent money to improve the city-owned ball park, making more pleasurable the experience for the ticket-buying public.

If he wasn’t in class, little Darren Parker could be found at Foothills Stadium. He was a bat boy, an usher, a vendor. The proximity to young pro athletes provided some unexpected lessons. He learned to better catch and throw, as well as how to “swear in Spanish and English,” he said with a laugh. Marketing became his forte.

“You need to offer more than just a sporting event,” he said. “We’re able to make it more of a carnival atmosphere. That’s the key, getting them to leave the ball park with a smile on their face.” Win or lose.

The product on the field is important, but with the players lacking in familiarity, not to mention with lesser skill than can be seen on any game on television, it is the experience of attending a ball game that will lure the crowd.

“The sights. The sounds. The smells. The hot dogs. The onions. The Coppertone in the stands.”

Baseball’s leisurely pace (surely you mean “boring”? — ed.) allows for built-in promotions at the beginning and middle of all nine innings. On Sundays, children will run the bases after the game with Seamore the Seal mascot. Midway games will be available behind the stands, allowing children to test their skill at throwing a baseball. Rare is the child able to sit through a game’s umpteenth pitching change. All sorts of tomfoolery can take place. In Calgary, Conehead Day was popular. “You want to preserve the integrity of the game,” Parker said, “but you also want to do something off the wall.”

The Seals are an expansion franchise in the Golden Baseball League, an independent circuit now in its fifth season. The league, based at Dublin, Calif., was founded by Dave Kaval, who conjured the league as part of a class project while attending the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The league originally owned all the teams while accepting investment from the likes of game-show host Pat Sajak.

Now, the league sells franchises to businessmen such as the Parkers. (“It was like communism,” Darren Parker said of the league’s origins. “In theory it makes sense, but the reality is something else.”) This season, the league has teams in three countries (Canada, the United States and Mexico), two provinces (Alberta and B.C.) and three states (Utah, Nevada, and California). None of the players in the 10-team league are the property of any major-league clubs. Many are undrafted American college players, or young Latin Americans whose skills went unnoticed by birddog scouts.

The league enforces a salary cap, so Parker has $84,000 US to divvy among 22 players for four months of play. That’s chump change to the likes of New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez, who will make $33 million US this season, a payday $203,703.70 for each of 162 games. A-Rod earned the Seals’ season payroll by about midway through the third inning of Opening Day.

Every Golden team seems to sign at least one former big leaguer, including even former stars deluded enough to think they have a chance to climb back up baseball’s ladder to what the players call The Show. Rickey Henderson, known as The Man of Steal for his record-breaking base thefts, played for the San Diego Surf Dawgs back in 2005. The former stars are a draw both at home and on the road. Earlier this year, the Seals signed pitcher Jose Lima, who spent 13 seasons in the majors with five teams. It is possible the Seals’ biggest drawing card will be manager Darrell Evans, who hit 414 homers in the bigs. Safe to say none of the Seals will ever wind up with his credentials.

Not that the Golden league has failed to produce prospects. One of the more unlikely journeys was taken by Scott Richmond, a Vancouver-born right-handed pitcher who was undrafted. He spent three years as a shipyard labourer, got signed by Edmonton of the Golden league, worked his way up until at last making his debut with the Toronto Blue Jays last July a month before his 29th birthday. That’s the kind of story the league will promote to lure fans into the park. You never know which kid will actually prove to have the right stuff.

On closer inspection, the grey cloth stretched out in the press box turned out to be the mascot’s costume. Soaked in sweat after a promotional event, it needed to be aired out. To Parker’s horror, the whiskered head had been placed on the shelf in front of the window, where it was on display. He placed the head out of sight. A mascot depends on mystique.

The success of the franchise will depend on such attention to detail. Is the food good? Is the park a friendly venue for families? Do sponsors get full value for their money? Will Victoria’s notoriously finicky ticket buyers become reliable fans?

The Parker family believes if you market it, they will come.

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