No Juice Podcast #27: Dave St. Peter
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No Juice Podcast: Is baseball dying? In August this year, the New Yorker ran a Ben McGrath article that proclaimed baseball was dying for the one billionth time. The crux of his argument seemed to focus around the fact that Major League has struggled to connect with the younger fans -- they’ve been saying it for years -- they cited something called Mike Trout’s Q-score which showed that he wouldn’t be recognized by the average American.
Dave St. Peter: I think baseball certainly has some challenges and the Mike Trout example is a great example that in today’s world our best young players -- Mike Trout, who’s maybe a historically great player -- does not have the recognition in this country that baseball players once enjoyed. I think as a new commissioner comes on, that is a critical task in terms of how we as an industry do a better job of promoting our star players. I think baseball, for whatever reason, good or bad, has focused much more on the promotion team-brands versus players and I think there are positive and negatives to that. It’s unlike an NBA model that tends to exclusively on their stars.
Beyond that that, in relative to baseball dying, I think baseball has shifted. It’s clearly much more - where as I think it still has a very great national following - there’s no doubt that it has become more regional in nature. I think regional sports networks have had a lot to do with that and of course the amount of baseball that’s now available to people. But we have to remember, we basically drew 75 million fans across 30 ballparks this year. when you look at minor league baseball and independent league baseball and the attendance at that level, to suggest baseball is dying? When you look at the television rating info at the local markets, it’s far from dying. It’s a very healthy business. It’s shifted a bit and I think we have work to do to make sure that we continue to become and stay relevant to the younger demographic and ultimately grow it back. And one of the ways you will probably see us try to that is with the promotion of star players and the Mike Trout example is probably a pretty good one.
NJP: How about the interest locally? You were saying it is more regional -- got the rating, got the attendance and general fan base -- the interest of the Twins is down right now. Is there concern with the increasing apathy?
DSP: Obviously there’s a concern. That’s not lost on anybody inside the Twins organization and I tend to think the glass is half-full versus half-empty. There’s never been a baseball team in the history of this sport that has drawn more fans than we drew in 2014 in the fourth consecutive 90-loss season. That’s not a record I want to have but it does speak to the fan base here. This is a good baseball market. All of the metrics have shown that historically. Attendance was depressed in the Metrodome era not because of the team or the marketing but because of the facility. Where we have stubbed our toe mightily is we finally were able to present the game the way it should be presented, our product has gone south in historic proportions. I will tell you that I have great confidence in this market, it’s a very competition sports marketplace and I can tell you here that fans are going to want you to be relevant. You have to be competitive, when you are not you are going to pay the price in terms of the turnstiles.
It’s all relative. We outdrew this year the Royals, we outdrew the Indians, many other markets that had far better success on the field than we, we outdrew. We have to win games. As Bud Selig always champions, you have to be able to sell hope and build faith in that marketplace. We’ve been here before but it’s not lost on us and it’s going to start with reconnecting a level of credibility with our fan base in terms of the manager, the coaching staff, the players -- all those things add up to it.
NJP: I want to go back to when you said you “outdrew” these teams. Is that based on who came through the turnstile or is that tickets sold?
NJP: Both? Because I think for those people who are watching those games could say that you hear the announced attendance and then look at that crowd...
DSP: I just tell you, our no-show percentage this year at Target Field was 15 percent. The league average is north of 20 percent. We outperformed the metrics with the 90-loss team we had. All of those things for me are very strong, positive indicators that as we right our ship on the field, we can routinely not only draw the league average of 2 million but hopefully push towards 3 million. The only thing holding us back on all of our market research is the obvious: It’s the on-field product and it’s level of disdain for that. And if that happens time and time again, it leads to a level of apathy which creates a bigger challenge. Needless to say, we understand that, we get it, but I think the story should be the number people who are still coming to Twins games, despite consecutive 90-loss season compared to those who aren’t there. And I don’t think that those fans, our season tickets holders, have gotten enough credit for being very loyal to the brand much like other great brands in baseball like the Red Sox or the Cubs. It’s a good baseball town.
NJP: Do you feel like you are working hard more this offseason because of the loss of the All-Star Game?
DSP: No doubt. I lobbied Commissioner Selig and the new Commissioner Rob Manfred to give us the All-Star Game again in 2015.
NJP: How’d that go?
DSP: I failed. It’s going to Cincinnati. Make no mistake, it’s much more difficult. Again, our fans have been great but when you go through the type of season we did just in 2014 and failed to take the meaningful steps forward in terms of the won-loss record that can take a toll. There are incrementally more dialogue or discussions taking place with season ticket holders. We certainly are dealing with accounts that are probably not necessarily cancel but downsize. It just becomes more of a show-me type situation. We understand that when we go into the offseason, we are not blind to it. we feel like we still have a great value proposition and we also understand we need to take steps forward on the field.
NJP: You just let Ron Gardenhire go. Ten years ago, you let Tom Kelly go, what it different about this situation? How is this different for 13 years ago?
DSP: The biggest difference is when Tom stepped down it was after the 2001 season and we were in the midst of this whole ugly chapter called “contraction” so that was a huge storyline not only in the marketplace but really across baseball. When the interview process really commenced that fall, it was done in the shadow of this notion of whether or not the Twins would even exist for the 2002 season.
Terry Ryan, then our general manager, now our general manager, led the interview process. I think there are a lot of similarities, there were certainly multiple internal candidates then, there were multiple external candidates. There was a very thorough interview process. It ran really through the World Series and then some. If it had been a more traditional year we would have named a manager probably immediately after the World Series in ‘01. We ended up being a little bit delayed because of the contraction controversy. What I distinctly remember about is when the recommendation was made to hire Ron Gardenhire, ultimately once we got the sign-off from our ownership to proceed, it really was the first time we had a chance to signal to the marketplace that we were going to play baseball in Minnesota in 2002. And that was an important day, yes for our fan base but frankly in my world that day it was more important for our staff. That was a historic day for our franchise and it was actually a very happy day.
I’ve said it before about Gardy, for all the things that was said and written about his tenure, I think that the record ultimately speaks for itself. He won a lot of games here. He was a huge part of a lot of success and I’m hopeful that whomever we end up with as our next manager can have a similar level of success in terms of getting us to a position to compete for a world championship because certainly Ron Gardenhire had a big hand in doing that.
NJP: Changing the managers. My thought has always been if you are going to change to a more analytic manager, you need to change to a more analytic organization. Like the Astros gutted it and started from the top down and everybody’s got a calculator. How much thought was there been in the last year or eighteen months into going that route?
DSP: I think there is a common held belief that some teams are on different ends of the spectrum and some of that comes in terms of their approach, from their willingness to talk openly about their philosophies and what have you. There are some clubs that are much more guarded about it. I think the right approach is one of balance. I have long believed that clearly there is a critical need to have access to a level of analytics and looking at things differently as another filter on making decisions but I don’t think in and of itself it replaces traditional scouting. And I think what you are looking for, at least in my world, is a front office has balance. That has all the access to the latest and greatest. In terms of our own black box, in term of our scouting system -- which is reliant on both analytics and video as well as traditional scouting -- that when we make a decisions, we have a decision-making process that takes those things into account.
So as we search for a manager I can assure you that that is one of the critical discussion points about that manager’s thoughts, that manager’s desire but ultimately that manager’s desire and willingness to be collaborative with a front office, with a minor league department, with a scouting department around all that information and I don’t think there is any doubt that whomever we hire as the next manager is going to be in a position where he is going to be a part of the plan. And I can assure you that every single individual we have interviewed understands that that is another tool, it’s a critical resource. But that can be a challenging thing. There’s kind of an upstairs-downstairs approach between an clubhouse and then welcoming in an analytics team to talk about a batting order, to talk about shifts. To talk about that there has to be a mutual level of respect. What I’m saying is that those are some of the important things with us in the front office and with our ownership to ensure we have that, we have a candidate that can do that, and that we have that solution.
NJP: The line that has been said a lot is 50% of revenue. I think that people hear that and wonder why not more, why not less. How is this decision made?
DSP: I think what we have said, and we have been consistent on this -- and it’s not just the Twins, if you were to look many clubs and not just baseball if you were to look at the NBA and NFL those salary caps are generally set at about 50% of revenue. From a baseball perspective it’s a target and it’s nothing more than a target. There are going to be years in which we spend below 50% and there are going to be years where we spend beyond 50%. So we’ve never said it is a hard and fast number. Within the obsession with payroll we’ve also generally said that I expect our payroll to be comparable. People forget that at one point this year our payroll was in the $90 million range when we signed Kendrys Morales. That’s comparable. So there’s a range there. I can just assure you that Terry Ryan has the flexibility to go into the marketplace to try and make this team better.
People also forget maybe that in this last year that we also tried to sign additional players after we had signed Nolasco, Hughes and Suzuki, we had tried to sign Matt Garza, we tried to bring in Ervin Santana. I can assure you those were not low budget offers. So there is also a part of getting a free agent to come here and we’re probably in the situation right now where we have to overpay. As I’ve said many years, it is not the annual value, ultimately it’s also the years. So I just caution you and fans that the deal has to make sense, not just for the player but for the team. So that’s the evaluation we go through.
We have plenty of payroll here. And I can assure you it is fluid, it’s not a set number. If there’s an opportunity to make this team better, Terry will have the flexibility to go out and do that.
For more from Dave St. Peter on payroll and the future of the Twins, listen to this week's NO JUICE PODCAST.