Ep.5: How Minor League Baseball Sets Fan Engagement Records with Pat O’Conner

Ep.5: How Minor League Baseball Sets Fan Engagement Records with Pat O’Conner

In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.


Pat O’Conner, President & CEO at Minor League Baseball, joins Rob Cressy to talk about the mindset behind how Minor League Baseball elevates the fan experience.

How has Minor League Baseball established fan experience as a priority and point of differentiation? From a fan retention standpoint, what is critical to get fans coming back to a game? How have they used food and concessions as a way to celebrate the experience? Since Minor League Baseball teams don’t have as many resources as professional sports teams, how do they do more with less?


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Rob Cressy: (00:04) Welcome to the Gameday Playbook presented by FanFood, a discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently. I’m your host Rob Cressy and joining me today is Pat O’Connor, president and CEO at Minor League Baseball. Pat, super excited to have you on the show.


Pat O’Connor: (00:31) Well thanks for having us. Rob, it’s good to be here with you.


Rob Cressy: (00:34) There is so much that I’m looking forward to diving into with you and let’s start with what I believe Minor League Baseball is best at, and that is fan experience. How have you established this as a priority and point of differentiation? Does it start at the top and trickle down to all the other teams?


Pat O’Connor: (00:56) Well, I would like to think so, but I think it’s kind of in our DNA. Rob, you know, I started almost 13 years running ball clubs in minor league cities throughout the association. So I would like to think that at the top we have a mindset that is time tested and proven. In minor league baseball there are three things that really determine what kind of season you’re going to have. One is the weather and lord knows we can’t control that. And in many cases, Mother Nature’s won the last two, April and May’s. The second is your ball club. Today we get our players from major league baseball, so we really don’t have control over the quality of the product that’s put on the field, which is a unique circumstance. So the third thing is that makes a season and determines what kind of season you have is a real scientific term I use called “everything else”.

Pat O’Connor: (01:49) And that is the ballpark, the fan engagement, the food, the atmosphere, the safety. So that’s really what we focus on. And fan engagement, fan experience is at the top of that list. Why are baseballs an experiential product? It is best served in person. And when that is the case, you have to engage those fans at the highest level. You have to focus on quality and you have to focus on the things that you can control, knowing that the weather and your ball club are two that you can’t.


Rob Cressy: (02:24) I absolutely love that because really by doing this, the results on the field aren’t necessarily why someone’s going to a minor league baseball game. And quite frankly, it can almost be secondary. And I oftentimes think of this when I first moved to Chicago 10 years ago and the Cubs weren’t any good, but guess what? We loved going to Wrigley, oh by the way, we’re sitting in the bleachers. Sure there’s a baseball game going on, but everybody’s having the time of their life and the Wrigley experience is amazing.


Pat O’Connor: (02:53) Well, Rob, I can tell you that the overwhelming majority of our fans are not there for athletic event. We do have athletic fans — fans who are there to see the best players for their age and experience level in the whole world. And I tell people, you will see a big league play at a minor league game every night. If you don’t, call me and I’ll give you your money back. The problem is that the same player can’t make the same play every night. That’s why he’s in the minors and not in Wrigley field yet, but he’ll get there. So, you know, again, we are not there to provide purely athletic events. We like to think that we have the best block party in town and oh, by the way, we’re going to play nine innings of baseball while you’re there. So we have done some things over time that allow the person who wants to see great baseball: they get their fix. The family who wants to get out of the house, exhale, enjoy the family unit in a safe environment — we check that box. A millennial who wants to come out and have a cold beverage, stand around at a drink rail and do their social media and talk to their friends — and we check that box. And what we’ve been able to do is with our ballparks. We scale the ballparks so that if you want to bring a blanket and bring your family and sit out on the berm and it’s five, six bucks a piece to get in, the kids are free. You can do that. If you want to entertain guests in a club suite with wait service, you can do that and everything in between. And what that does is when you do it at the highest level, it allows you to penetrate 100% of your market. And then that way you’re able to reach the entire community and have the best results.


Rob Cressy: (04:40) So let’s talk about fan retention, which is sort of very similar to what you’re talking about here. So even though I can have an amazing experience once and maybe even twice, what is your mindset for how to increase fan attention so that when I’m making the decision on a Friday night, hey, what do I go do? Where am I going to spend my money? Or I can think about minor league baseball first as the option.

(05:05) Well, I think as a human race, we’re curious. So I’m a true believer that the first visit is the easiest. I can get you to come once. Getting you to come back that second, third or on a regular basis is the real challenge and that’s where our customer service’s clearly important. You know, we don’t go places that we don’t feel welcome or not treated well, especially when we’re talking about spending our discretionary time and our discretionary income. But then we also have to follow up and we have to communicate to you, Rob, as a fan, in the way that you communicate every other day in every aspect of your life. That’s where technology kicks in. We know more about our fans today than we ever have, but only a fraction of what we really need to know. I never understood when I went to radio shack, why I had to give them my telephone number and zip code to buy batteries — I never understood that. I do now because they know exactly where I live, what store I go to, what time I get there, how long I stay and what I spent. And we need to do that in a nonintrusive way so that we can better track you as a fan and serve your needs and your wants and more importantly, your wants, then your needs. Your needs are human and they’ll be taken care of. What we want to do is when you have to make decisions over what you want to do with yourself and your family, we have to be there for you. So that’s where technology kicks in. We engage you on your handheld and on your computers and we can send blasts, we can send specials, we can send all kinds of things that Friday at three o’clock when the decision for the weekend is coming. We can hit you with a blast and say, “hey, oh, by the way, we’re doing this at the ballpark and did you know?” And we can, you know, get in front of you and your wife and your kids in a way that’s not intrusive, that’s inviting and welcoming, and make you have a minor league baseball on the forefront when you start making decisions for your family.


Rob Cressy: (07:00) So given the number of minor league baseball teams in the communication opportunities and knowing how important communication is, it’s something that is a challenge for all brands and being able to communicate in a way that is native to the end user like myself. Because a lot of brands actually think like a brand. So number one for them is buy what I’m selling, buy what I’m selling. And, and certainly the ethos of minor league baseball being experience first, how do you have consistency across the board with the teams knowing that not everybody’s gonna have the same social or communication or messaging mindset. But that’s really such an important thing because it’s going to determine what the customer experiences like offline.


Pat O’Connor: (07:47) This is where I will differ with traditional brands. Okay. We are a series of minor league teams or a series of small businesses: 160 of them all across the country in every possible demographic and geographic location. 42 states. I wake up some morning, Rob, and I feel really smart. You know, I had a good night’s sleep. I get a good breakfast when I come in here, but I know one thing after 38 years in this business, I’m not smart enough to call Chip Maxson in Sacramento, California and tell him what to do. He’s there every day. So we tend to think like 160 brands with the power of one: the umbrella of minor league baseball. I can’t sit here and have my people who’s a very talented staff — one of the best in organized sports — decide what the messaging is for Sacramento or Burlington, Iowa or Omaha, Nebraska. You pick the city. Most people are there every day. They know their fans better than we do. Our job is to create the environment and the tools and the roadmap that lets them execute at the local level because you know our teams are our local and regional at best. So you know we provide platform and we provide blueprints and we provide tools but they need to execute and they can go deeper and broader locally, and we can nationally.


Rob Cressy: (09:15) So minor league baseball games are like a mini amusement park. There are experiences everywhere, one of which is concessions. There are always fun and often outrageous options which are oftentimes very social media worthy. Can you give some insight into your mindset around concessions?


Pat O’Connor: (09:36) Well, it’s a celebration of the experience. I mean it is part of it. I’m a lot older than you are, but when I went to a ballgame years ago as a kid I wanted to know three things. I wanted to know where my seat was. I wanted to know where the concession stand was and I wanted to know where the bathroom was. Those are the only three things that matter to me because I wanted to watch the game, eat the popcorn, and have a hot dog and naturally nature calls. Today it’s a totally different mindset for young parents, for millennials, for kids. Food is part of the experience and we celebrate it. We celebrate it locally, we celebrate it nationally with things like the food fight contest where we’re going to have contests about the most outrageous, the most original, and the traditional.

(10:21) I was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. And to this day, the Columbus Clippers still have “dime and dog night”, where hotdogs are 10 cents. 10,000 people are going to show up and eat way too many hot dog, but it’s part of a “Are you going to ‘dime and dog night’?” White Castles were born by some accounts in Columbus, Ohio. So they’re sliders night and you go and you eat way too many White Castle hamburgers. But it’s the name of the promotion. It’s known around town. It’s the celebration of the night. And those happen all over the place. And what we’ve done is being creative, take this food concept to merchandise and uniforms where the Fresno Tacos. We’re representing and respecting their Southern California and Northern California and Hispanic culture. The Lehigh Valley Bacon, you know, the IronPigs, they have bacon jerseys. So it’s just part of the celebration. And let’s face it in this country: what’s more fun than food?


Rob Cressy: (11:24) You’re right. It’s a celebration of the experience and it makes everything so much better because I oftentimes mention this when I’ve gone to stadiums before, and I eat before I go to the game. But with minor league baseball, that’s not the case because you’re looking forward to eating something and getting that experience. So the next thing I want to talk about is the key to doing more with less. So what I love about Minor League Baseball is your experience is so good, but you don’t necessarily have the resources that professional sports teams may have. And you’re certainly not the only industry that may have to do more with less. So what is your keys around generating growth? Whether it’s about attendance or revenue with having less but still doing more?


Pat O’Connor: (12:19) Well, I think it’s fan engagement. Customer first, authenticity and transparency. You come to the public, genuine. You come to them with an honest opportunity to come out and celebrate the community. So celebrate the ballparks, celebrate, right? The ball club, you know, so much of what we do in many of these cities is the summer event. It’s what happens in the summer and some of these communities, it’s not just another option on a long laundry list. Some of these clubs have been in these communities for a long, long time and it’s generational. Well, when I go to a ballpark, there are four or five things that I have to do. I see the umpires, I see the managers, I do some press visits with the owners, but undoubtedly Rob, I want to walk the ballpark and I want to see and feel that ballpark on that night.


(13:08) And so many times when I walk around the Ballpark, I will see grandparents, parents, and children, sometimes the same family unit sitting in the same stretch of seats. If that’s not good for that city in America, then I don’t know what is. And so I think when you come to them authentically and you come to them respectfully, and it is their team, I mean it’s the Lehigh valley IronPig. It’s the Columbus Clippers. Now only the savvier fan knows where those players are contracted to Philadelphia or Cleveland. We have 160 of those. It’s that community’s team. So I think you come to them authentically, you come to them. It is their club. You are in that community 365 days a year, 24/7, you’re involved in little league to senior citizen events and charities. We embrace through our diversity and inclusion, the entire community. So I think that’s the drive. And that’s the authenticity. I’ve always been told that when people go to a major league game, you lean back and you can probably feel the exhale when folks come into our ballparks each night. And I think those are the things that, you know, we have 115 million self-identified fans in the United States. 81% of America lives within 50 miles of one of our ballparks. So I, I mean we are the grassroots. We’re fabric. We’re America, and are people in those 160 cities. They take that commitment and obligation seriously and they do a fantastic job of executing.

Rob Cressy: (14:47) I absolutely love that. Lean in versus lean back. That just makes perfect sense because I just visualize myself and you could just picture the lean back ,and you’re just enjoying this summer day in the experience. And there’s a quote that I oftentimes like to use “Smiles don’t lie.” And think about leaning back, I think about smiling and everything. That’s great about the experience.


Pat O’Connor: (15:14) Rob, I can tell you, 75%, 80% of the folks who come to our game don’t know who won or lost. Over 98% of them know they had a good time and they’re going to come back. I would stack our fan loyalty to any sports organization. They always said NASCAR was the leader in fan loyalty. We’re right there with them and NASCAR does a great job. But you know, our fans are loyal. They’re self-identified; they’re consistent in their support. Everything from host families for the players to booster club events, to Chamber of Commerce, all the way across the board. We are part and parcel and fabric to so many of these communities across the country.


Rob Cressy: (15:58) So you’re doing an amazing job now, but of course you’re not gonna rest on your laurels. So let’s start looking forward from a technology standpoint. What has your eye right now? How is Minor League Baseball going to be innovating around the world of technology and fan experience?


Pat O’Connor: (16:13) You know, it’s an interesting phenomenon that’s happening to us. Rob, you know, for years we chase technology, when telecasting was linear and then a little OTT…we don’t play in that environment very well. When it’s come back to us through technology, interestingly enough, through handhelds and those kinds of devices, that’s right in our sweet spot. You know, today we stream more games over the Internet than any other sports organization in the world, over 6,500 games. That will now play very well. And we are in the process of finalizing a deep dive media content strategy. I’m big on the power of one. Okay. 160 clubs combined. That power of one is very difficult to ignore and to deal with in any other way but cooperatively.


(17:10) So when we take the massive amount of content that’s currently being produced locally at 160 outlets, 160 teams, and we aggregate that and we package it and we push it back out. That is a monumental content treasure trove. And that’s where we’re headed. We have to, just like you used the term native, you know, we have to speak to people in ways and in places that they’re currently going. They’re not going to step out of the norm or out of their pattern or out of their routine to seek us. We have to comply with their current habits. So technology is our future. There’s no question about it. We have to become more aggressive and easier to access in your social and your viewing. We have to do more with providing informational text and things like that. Right now we were so player-centric in our Internet space. You could go find anything you want to know about any prospect. But when we look at our fan base, our true fan base, there is a huge block of fans who recognize the names are interested in the players. But as we’ve talked about for the last 15 minutes, they’re there for the experience. So we need to highlight the experience and so through communications directly with fans, engagement at the ballpark with fans using this technology that’s available, we think that our future is bright. And there’s potential for tremendous growth not only our fan base, but in every other metrics that you want to look at from a business perspective.


Rob Cressy: (18:56) I absolutely love that. Pat, I love your mindset in the way that you’ve approached everything and you’ve got such a wealth of knowledge and experience and for someone listening right now. Do you have one nugget that you can share with them that might be able to help them on their journey, whether it’s around fan engagement or technology that says, “Man, pat gave me this and it’s something that I might be able to implement in my business”. This can also be a story from your journey. And I know this is kind of open-ended, but I really want to help provide value to the audience as you certainly know what you’re doing.


Pat O’Connor: (19:28) Well, thank you, Rob. You’re very kind. And, you know, a couple of things. My Grandmother told me that you have two ears and one mouth for a reason and you should listen twice as much as you speak. In our business, stealing an idea is not wrong — it’s flattery. Okay? Our clubs in fact, we get together every fall at an innovator summit and we tell stories and steal ideas. And if you don’t, then you didn’t get the most out of the conference. So don’t be afraid to reach out to peers. Never let good get in the way of great. You need to always aspire to a higher level. Never be afraid to work hard. I speak to a lot of young people and when I was a little boy, my grandma Melvin used to tell me, “Jimmy, Pat (my name’s James Patrick), you keep using bad words, I’m going to wash your mouth out with soap.” Well, I tell young people, there are two four-letter words that you can use. In this business, there are two four-letter words that you can use every day and not feel bad about. And that’s “hard work”. Don’t be afraid to work hard. Don’t be afraid to fail. The only way you’re not going to fail is if you don’t try anything. So failure is a part, and all of them guys my age have heard and now we’re telling young people, you’ll learn more from your failures than your successes. It just hurts more, but you will. I mean, look, this is complicated. Okay? Brain surgery and making circuit boards for computers is complicated. This is not complicated. It’s real simple. Welcome people, give them a good product for a fair price and treat them nicely and you will win the battle and the war.


Rob Cressy: (21:20) Well, I can tell why Minor League Baseball has been so successful because you start at the top and Pat, I’ve enjoyed this entire conversation with you because it’s very refreshing to me to be around people who get it. And when you get it with the right foundation, then everything flows downhill and then crazy things happen. You set attendance records, you set revenue records. So I wanted to thank you for taking the time here because I really enjoyed it and I know our audience is going to get a ton of insight from this. Where can people connect with you and Minor League Baseball?


Pat O’Connor: (21:53) Well MLB.com Is our website. We welcome interaction and fan engagement. And you know, one of the things, and I don’t say it to boast, but I answer my own emails. I answer my own texts from my own phone. People will call and say, “Gee, I didn’t expect you to answer”, my reply to them was “Well, then why did you call?” It is a pleasure to want to be with you. It’s been a great ride to be in this business and deal with so many great operators. Now I’ve got a full disclosure, Rob. I haven’t sold a season ticket, a fence sign or a hotdog in over 30 years. It’s the great people in 160 cities, about 5,000 full-time employees and other 10,000 game day employees that make this thing work. My job is to create the environment that allows them to excel and when we can do that successfully in St. Petersburg across the country, you see what you see.


Rob Cressy: (22:51) As always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. Did it cause you to think or take action? And I’ve got a very specific call to action. Tell us one positive experience you have had at a minor league baseball game. We would love to hear about it. You can hit up FanFood on Twitter, @fanfoodondemand; on Instagram, @fanfoodapp or on LinkedIn. And you can always hit me up on LinkedIn by searching Rob Cressy.


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