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Home Biz of Baseball - Interviews Interview - Pat O'Conner - President, MiLB

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Interview - Pat O'Conner - President, MiLB PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Maury Brown   
Thursday, 21 February 2008 08:33
Pat O'Conner When you think about it, Minor League Baseball isn’t "minor" anymore. The 160 clubs that comprise MiLB have seen revenues increase 64 percent over the last 8 years (2006 gross revenues were just under $560 million. Projections for 2007 revenues should approach $610 million, according to MiLB), while seeing a fourth consecutive record year for attendance at over 40 million. To place that figure in perspective, the NBA set an all-time attendance record for the 2005-2006 season of 21,841,480.

This past December, Mike Moore stepped down as president of MiLB, and former COO and VP of Administration, Pat O’Conner was elected to replace him. O’Conner has been with MiLB for 15 years prior to his election as the 11th President of Minor League Baseball, their highest position within the organization.

He has served as general manager of the Greenwood Pirates of the South Atlantic League before serving as assistant general manager of the Beaumont Golden Gators of the Texas League from 1982-1985.

O’ Conner then became head of Florida Operations for the Houston Astros and served as general manager of the Osceola Astros of the Florida State League from 1986-1993. He was named the Florida State League Executive of the Year in 1988 as Osceola posted the best record in the league at 83-54.

His achievements under Moore include overseeing the negotiations between the Association of Minor League Umpires (AMLU) and the Professional Baseball Umpire Corporation (PBUC), helping to end a 67-day Minor League umpires strike which began on April 6, 2006 and ended on June 12.

The following interview covers the addition of former Houston Astros general manager, Tim Purpura as Executive VP and COO of MiLB,  initiatives that MiLB is working on, possible realignment within Minor League Baseball, his thoughts on competing with Independent leagues, whether AAA baseball will be returning to Canada after the Ottawa Lynx relocation, MiLB’s visionary plans for the Durham Athletic Park, what issues will be discussed when the agreement between MiLB and MLB expires, the growth of Minor League Baseball as a brand, and much, much more. – Maury Brown

Select Read More to see the interview with MiLB President, Pat O'Conner 

Maury Brown for the Business of Sports Network: You were elected as President and CEO of MiLB in December after Mike Moore stepped down after 16 years. How does your style differ, if at all, from Moore’s?

O’Conner: It probably differs quite a bit. That may be why we’ve had a pretty good run together. I was here for 15 of Mike’s 16 years as his COO and Vice President. I think I’m more engaged and hands-on. I’m not a micro-manager, which Mike taught me very well not to be. I think I’m probably a little more involved and engaging. Mike was one of the best thinkers I was ever around. Not that I’m not a good thinker, but when Mike and I worked we had the ability for him to get out in three to five years, and for me to follow up and do it. So when we got there we knew both already knew what to expect. So I think the difference is I’m probably a little more hands-on, a little more involved in the day-to-day than Mike tended to be.

Tim PurpuraBizball: Shortly after taking over as president, you added former Houston Astros general manager, Tim Purpura as Executive VP and COO of MiLB. What does he bring to MiLB that will assist you?

O’Conner: We think he was a great hire. I think in that role, Tim brings a lot of things. He brings a wealth of experience. If you go back and look through his history, he brings interaction with minor leagues at virtually every level, be that involvement with Fall League or involvement with the farm system. Under his tenure, especially with the Astros, they owned and operated minor league teams. I’ve known Tim for a long time, and I’ve watched him interact at all of those levels. So I felt very comfortable that he brought a wealth of experience to the staff. It’s critically important for me to have someone, not only that I trust, but I trust their skill set, and I can communicate with and I can have the confidence that there is progress being made and things are getting done. I feel very, very fortunate to have Tim on the staff because I think he brings exactly that to me personally and to the staff in the short time he’s been with us. What’s very important to me, Maury, when we add to the staff…skill set is a given. Your abilities are evident. What is important to me when we hire people; one is chemistry. We’ve got 35 people here, it’s critically important that the one blend with the 35 and I’m not turning the company on its ear to work with one. The second is upside potential. We want to hire people who have the ability to advance MiLB. Do the job better maybe than we’ve had it done in the past, either by ourselves, or by others. When you look at Tim he slides right into that slot at the top of the class, and we feel very fortunate to have him with us.

Bizball: You had been MiLB’s COO since ’93 and VP Administration since ’95, so you understand where Minor League Baseball has been. What initiatives do you see MiLB moving on early in your tenure as its new President?

O'Conner quote - MiLB and the InternetO’Conner: We’re already moving on a couple issues. We are trying to come up with a comprehensive Internet strategy. We’re working very, very closely with our board, with our leagues and with our clubs to come up with a strategy to bundle our Internet rights. I’m a firm believer in the power of “one”, and the need for us to consolidate where we can consolidate without homogenizing the entire MiLB state, and Internet is one of them. We could key and partner amongst ourselves and then out with Major League Baseball Advanced Media to create not only a baseball engine, but a sport engine, that would have few rivals. When you think that we have collectively drawn 110 million plus fans the last few years, we cover such a long time on the calendar in-season, and then with Hot Stove…. Spring training starts today, I mean this is a twelve-month season. When you think of all that, we have the ability to create an engine. So, the Internet is one initiative we’re working on.

Another thing is we are, for the first time in many, many years, in a position as a company and as a body, to get outside of the day-to-day. So we’re going to do some things that are just the right things to do. We’re going to get back into the communities. Not that we haven’t done this, but we are going to take a national approach to our charities, a national approach to our diversity, we’re going to take a national approach to recruiting, finding, training people who want to be in this business. Not that we haven’t in the past, but we are going to be able to focus on that on a national level. I think the clubs and the communities are going to benefit from those actions.

Bizball: Baseball, at all levels, is vying for fans. With its popularity, there has been a growth of Independent leagues with varying degrees of success. How do you see Independents in terms of competition with MiLB?

O’Conner: In our structure, as you well know, with your history and background, we just can’t be everywhere. I am a firm believe that all baseball is good, if its good baseball. My concern with our leagues, and our clubs, and any league or club that interacts with a community -- whether that community puts money at stake, or that ball club does business with those commercial enterprises -- is that we’re good cooperate partners. I’m a firm believer that the market place is where we determine the winners and the losers. I believe our product is a good product. I personally believe it’s a superior product to any alternative, but it can’t be everywhere. I’m not going to be a hypocrite and say that, “Since you can’t have us, you can’t have baseball”. So I think there probably is a place for it. The term I have is slicing the pie too thin, where no one does as well as they could. That’s ganging up on markets, and that’s a concern. Market share is important, and I stress to our clubs, “Look if you go out and do a good job you are going to get market share, you’re going to dominate the market place in a free enterprise system.” And that’s the way it ought to be. But I’m very concerned that our clubs, as well as anybody, any sports entity to be honest with you, get outside of baseball. You can’t go to these communities and have the cooperate community embrace you and extend you credit and do things that they want to do because you have this niche in the community, and then you betray that trust. You can’t ask for civic dollars -- public dollars -- in stadium constructions or renovations and then betray that trust. We hold ourselves to a very high standard. I can’t speak for what the other folks do, I can only speak to what I see and read, and that’s what concerns me. Because at the end of the day, to be very honest with you, when someone goes down, it doesn’t matter if it's one of ours or one of theirs. If somebody has an unpaid bill, it’s “that minor league team”. And we all catch a black eye, and that’s just the way it is and we understand that. We’ll do what we can do; we try to be good partners. Good partners with major league baseball, good partners in our communities, good partners within our leagues, and most of all, most importantly we try to be good namable partners with our fans.

Bizball: Realignment seems to be an oft talked of subject with Minor League Baseball. Are there currently any considerations to realign any of the teams?

Pat O'Conner on realignment of MiLBO’Conner: Yes. It would be premature to discuss them at length now. I will say this, to answer your question, because it’s a very fair question: You have to go back a few years, you have to go back to 1990 and look at the change in the Professional Baseball Agreement and the facility standards and what that meant to us. That created a decade of movement seeking facilities to meet those standards. You have communities that are willing and able, and unwilling and unable. What you have to do is separate the wheat from the chaff in those situations so that if the community is unwilling to put a facility up, that’s totally different than unable. You tend to work with a guy who really wants to do it, but the reality is I cant. The ones that are unwilling, we had to make some moves. Those moves, didn’t have the luxury of doing them all at once, you had to do them as they became available, and we got a little astute.

Now back to the question, yea we constantly look at what the geography means on several fronts. One, to our major league partners and players, and player development aspect. We never lose sight of the fact that we are a service provider to Major League Baseball, and their primary goal is to develop players and we can’t lose sight of that. So what does our geography and our scheduling and our alignment do to that process? Secondly, what’s its do to our clubs internally, because we’ve got to haul those players around? Are we traveling distances that are not economically just feasible or don’t make good sense? Are we driving through to many towns to get to the ones we go to? So we always look at that, and we are looking at it now. I think that the relocations and the facilities, and all of that, kind of shook out in the late ‘90s and through the first few years of this decade. So we’re kind of at now, it’s hard to put the puzzle together without all of the pieces together on top of the table. It’s much harder to hit a moving target than it is a stationary target. For years, we’ve looked at realignment, and about the time we thought we had a solution to consider, the club had to move. So now were looking at this again and were trying to get ahead of the curve and forecast, “Ok if there’s going to be a move, can we make that move part of a solution, instead of making the move, and then looking for a solution?”

Ottawa LynxBizball: With the Ottawa Lynx relocating to Allentown, PA, Canada is now without Triple-A baseball. Will MiLB be looking to possibly fill that void in the near future?

O’Conner: Again, a market and a facility will draw attention and draw a club. I think what’s most important is the health and welfare of the franchise and the game and it’s relationship with the community, as opposed to just saying, “We need to get back into Canada.” It’s disappointing for me to not have Triple-A baseball in Canada, it’s disappointing to me not have more baseball in Canada than we do. It’s ironic, we talk about the lag time, we talked about how facilities changed in the ‘90s, that really it took a couple years to get geared up and we saw it through the mid-to-late ‘90s on the move themselves. One of the two major things that drove baseball out of Canada, and they are both economically related, is the exchange rate. I think to some extend, the fan base, the lack there of, exchange rate is now not an issue. There are days when the Canadian dollar is one-for-one [to the US dollar] or better. Back to your point, or question…we will look to place clubs in markets and we will look to move into markets that one, we don’t break a trust getting out of a market, and two, we don’t just make moves for the sake of making moves.

Bizball: For those that might not be following this story, what is MiLB working on in Durham, NC and the Durham Athletic Park?

Durham Athletic Park (DAP)O’Conner: Durham has become a two-headed project for us. What we have done, is we have gone in there and partnered with the city of Durham to manage and operate the Durham Athletic Park. For those who don’t know, it’s the old park from the movie Bull Durham. When the new ballpark was built -- the DBAP (Durham Bulls Athletic Park), not to be confused with DAP (Durham Athletic Park) -- when the DBAP was built, they kept Durham Athletic Park. I have been very impressed with the people -- that is an iconic facility in that town, and in that region. So they made a conscious decision, to not only keep it, but to dedicate public dollars -- four million dollars in bonds, and supplement with an additional million dollars to renovate the facility. That was going to happen regardless of what came to be afterwards, but the old girl just needed to be spruced up. We were invited in there, and we have fallen in love with the place. We’re going to commit not only to operate it, through an operating agreement with the city; we’re going to develop a minor league baseball laboratory for lack of a better term. We’re going to use the DAP, one as the anchor facility for North Carolina Central Baseball. North Carolina Central, as you may or may not know, is trying to elevate to Division I. So we’re trying to help them accomplish their goal of getting to Division I by making the BAP their home facility. NCCU is using DBAP now but will switch to The DAP once the park is renovated, which is currently planned for their 2009 season.

In running that facility, and then running it for a handful of city events, and then other baseball events and other special events we will program, we’re going to create an environment where we can recruit, educate and train people who are in the business, that continue in an education sense, or people who think they want to get in the business. So we’ll bring in people, everything from grounds keeping to umpiring to tickets to concessions to promotions to game operations. We will have a venue that we can bring in people – maybe it’s a one-week session, maybe it’s a two-week session, maybe it’s a weekend – where people can just come in and learn some grounds keeping, learn some umpiring. We think it’s a fabulous opportunity for us. So we’re committed to that, we’ve put a Jill Rusinko on the ground in Durham now. We’ll probably get the facility in the fall, for a soft open and do something special in the spring with the Grand Opening.

What’s developed, is a parallel track to that. We don’t have one place that has captured our history. We don’t have a Minor League Baseball museum, per se. We are working with people in the city of Durham on the concept of the Minor League Baseball Fan Experience and Museum. We are hoping very much to be able to make a campus around DAP – the old ball park that we will run – just for the physical plan aspect of having a campus that will be four corners and a huge city block encompassing the ballpark. To create an environment where, as a fan, you can come learn our history, see our present, and look into our future in an interactive medium.

Bizball: Fascinating.

Pat O'Conner quote on MiLB museumO’Conner: We’re excited about it. In that, there are opportunities for speaker series... We would build the ultimate merchandise shop that serves two purposes: It’s obviously a retail outlet, but then again back to the theme of the library with the ultimate merchandise shop… I can bring all of my merchandise managers from minor league baseball and do seminars on all of the latest and greatest events. Bring all of the vendors in, and they can have an audience with these people. We can do seminars. In addition to providing this interactive -- and when I talk interactive, it’ll be trivia stations --and you’ve got player records for days, that we could capture. But we also want you to be able to virtual setting, be an umpire. See what its like to call a Nolan Ryan fastball, to be able to try to hit a Nolan Ryan fastball. We want you to be able to sit at a simulated radio booth on a big screen, and pull up the game that you want to call. If you want to call the ball going between Bill Buckner’s legs, you’ll be able to do that in a radio environment, and we’ll give you a CD when you’re done that you can take home and have as a keepsake, those kind of things. Physically walk you through a physical plant that puts you out at the DAP where you can now go out and smell the grass, see your sun and relax at the ballpark. Our idea is to walk through the fan experience and museum. If you’ve ever been to one of our games in our of our ballparks, or you’ve never been to a game, or never been in one of our ballparks, when you’re done, you’ll feel like you’ve been to all of them. We pulled the best of every ball club, a lot of fan interaction, a lot of visual. So we’re very excited. It’s a monumental project; it is still in its infancy, embryonic stage almost. But we have a strong commitment to the concept, and we’re just working through the multitude of issues that have to be address to make it happen. Like I said, that is a parallel track, in a perfect world.

You know, I stood at home plate at DAP a few years ago on 9/11. I saw the ball go over the bull from the movie Bull Durham, that hit that building – it needs to be right there – that’s the right place. So that was kind of the epiphany of the concept, that “wow moment”. It kind of got us going, so we’re trying. It’s a considerable task, but so far we’re chipping away at it.

Bizball: When the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) between MLB and MiLB expires in 2011, or extended to 2014, what do you see as some key issues to be discussed and negotiated for the next agreement, and in a larger sense, how do you view the relationship between MiLB and MLB right now?

MLB and MiLBO’Conner: I have the benefit of 15 years, so I know for a fact having been here all 15 of those years, it has never been any better than it is now. I think you’ve got to go back, and really dissect and analyze history to find a time that when relationship has been any better. Not only is it better, it’s a relationship on many, many more fronts. We are working cooperatively with Major League Baseball, umpiring in ways we never have in the development and recruiting and training. Obviously the Internet we have already touched on. We have a relationship with the Commissioner’s Office, that is open – the free flowing exchange of ideas – and we’re looking at things in a pro-active manner and not always reacting to problems, which is really a treat to be able to do that. There have been times in this relationship, where it was fairly acrimonious; there was a little tension there. We don’t have that now, and were looking at what’s good for the collective. If the collective benefits, then each individual will benefit. I think at the club level, we’re finding Player Development Contract (PDC) relationships are strong, and it’s growing. We’ve got 160 on each side, not every facility is what everybody wants it to be. There are some situations of concern, and there are some geographic mis placements that you would like to try and fix. By and large, and on a whole, I don’t know when you could go back and find a time when the relationship was any better. Quite honestly, I think that will continue for some time to come, I don’t see anything on the horizon that would create a risk between these two parties because we are engaged in pro-active measures. We are looking at security and facility partnerships to make sure that we’re all on the same page and we’re doing what’s the latest and the greatest. We’re working on winter league activities. You can run down the list, there’s a lot of things and a lot of interaction. Licensing programs.. I think the relationship is in good shape. As you move forward, I think the issues will be there. I don’t think that there going to be central and critical issues to the core relationship. Economics will be a factor on both sides, facilities will be a factor, I think re-alignment will be a factor. I probably tend to characterize is as tweaking as opposed to reinventing, but there will be issues.

Bizball: Finally, Minor League Baseball is enjoying an incredible growth. You saw a fourth consecutive record year for attendance in 2007 at over 41 million – an attendance figure larger than most every major league sport.. What has been the impact of this growth, and growing MiLB as a brand?

Pat O'Conner quote on MiLB as a brandO’Conner: I wish I could say it was great leadership from our central office. To be honest with you, our goal here is to create an environment for our owners and operators to excel. If we’ve done anything, we’ve created an environment through the PBA and through the relationships and through the economic structures these guys are forced to operate in. The Minor League Baseball brand is a result and an accumulative effect of 160 plus guys and gals taking pride in what they do. It is individually 160, but collectively the MiLB name. I think the quality of operation, the cleanliness of the facility… sell the sizzle; the fan experience, putting customer service number one. MiLB is a brand that benefits from each one of those guys and gals taking that seriously. Not only taking that seriously, but executing it effectively. It used to be, minor leagues had a negative connotation. We’ve outgrown that. You do that by proving to people on Madison Avenue, on Wall Street and in each and every community that you are not minor anything. That’s just a classification, that you’re first-rate entertainment, you’re family oriented, you’re fun, you’re affordable, and the quality will show. That’s what expands the brand. All the things we’ve talked about, being good partners to your fans and to your cooperate community, that will expand your brand. The brand expands because it’s a positive connotation. That opens doors, that puts you in a good light, that expands your brand.

  • Interview conducted by Maury Brown on 2/14/08
  • Interview transcribed by Nick Kappel
  • Edited by Maury Brown 
  • Extra thanks goes out to Jordan Kobritz for helping make this interview possible, and Nick Kappel for putting in the extra effort on the transcription process

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