Professional Conference Call: David Wright, Chief Commercial Officer, MiLB

Our latest guest Thursday afternoon as part of the Sports Business Chronicle weekly conference call was David Wright, Chief Commercial and Marketing Officer at Minor League Baseball.

Wright discussed beginning his career in graduate school at UMass, a 15-year run in fan development, marketing and sponsorship at Major League Soccer, transitioning to MiLB in January 2016, how the property and its 160 member clubs have embraced technology to super-serve their fans, the Copa de la Diversion program, most memorable marketing initiatives and more.

In case you missed it, here are prior calls with professionals from Instagram Sports, Bleacher Report, New York Yankees, The Athletic, Courtside Ventures and Vegas Golden Knights, among other organizations. View our upcoming schedule, too.

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On his early career path…

I grew up in the Midwest. I went to Indiana University for undergrad. Was very fortunate to play soccer there and upon graduation, had a little bit of an opportunity to play professionally. This was right when MLS was launching. At the time, I had my first real life decision to make. Did I want to go play for the Rockford Raptors and live out of a suitcase or did I want to go get a real job? Fortunately, I chose the latter. I pursued that real job. It took me to Connecticut. I was at GE Capital, the headquarters at Stanford for about a year. For 11 of those 12 months, I was focused on getting out. I absolutely hated it. 

I thought I wanted to coach collegiately and to coach collegiately, it really helps to have a graduate degree. Heck, what if I was able to combine my passion to coach with my desire to get a graduate degree and get it paid for? What a novel idea. What I didn’t understand was how difficult that actually is. To go get a graduate assistant position. They’re few and far between. I sent out hundreds of letters. I said it, letters. Not emails. I kept getting rejected. One after another. I was like, ‘Man, what the heck? I just graduated and played for one of the top programs in the country.’

It was really frustrating that I wasn’t getting a nod and fortunately, my relationship with my head coach at Indiana University led to an introduction with the late Sam Koch, who was the coach at UMass at the time. One thing led to another, and I was fortunate to go on as a graduate assistant. At the time, didn’t realize what I was walking into. I didn’t realize the stature and the quality of the University of Massachusetts sports business program. Candidly, I was very fortunate to get in, but I think the soccer piece may have helped. I was there for two years. Incredible on-field practical experience. Coaching, recruiting, sponsorship marketing, but also obviously the ability to have the in-class work with some of the best professors around.

One of which, Dr. Ben Sutton, who is a legend. Glenn Wong, who is another big name in the industry. It was an unbelievable two-year experience, and over the two years, I started to really take an interest in the business side of sport. While I love the coaching side and have absolutely no doubts that I would have succeeded in that space. I was now five years into a relationship with my now wife. I’m starting to think about lifestyle. I’m starting to think about the financial side of the business and ultimately made the decision to migrate over to the business side. I think it might’ve been a pretty good decision.

Over the course of two years, I had met an individual named Mike Noonan, who at the time was the head coach of Brown University. Mike is now the head coach at Clemson. Mike introduced me to his brother, Mark Noonan, who had recently been hired as the VP of Marketing and Fan Development at MLS and one thing led to another. I was down interviewing with Mark Noonan in April of 2000 and got the job shortly thereafter. I graduated from the University of Massachusetts with my graduate sports business degree on May 19, 2000. I started at MLS on May 22. As I tell people, it’s not very common. I was, again, very very lucky. Was able to transition to the business side of sport. That led to a great 15-year run at MLS, which I know we’ll dive deeper into.

On what drew him to getting a sports management graduate degree…

I think a couple things. One, back then there were only 25, 30, maybe 35 schools that offered a graduate sports business degree. Now, you look. There’s well over 300. It’s become quite saturated. For me, I was razor focused on coaching. I was razor focused on furthering my education, and it was a perfect marriage. The ability to do both and have my education paid for was an unbelievable opportunity. I get asked all the time, ‘Should I go to grad school? Should I get a job?’ My answer is, ‘do both’.

I think the reality is, and I learned this the hard way when I started at MLS, there’s absolutely no substitute for experience. I came out of UMass all high and mighty with this great degree from one of the top programs in the country, but at the end of the day, the sports industry, which is hyper-competitive and evolving by the second, a graduate degree is nice. It’s a great feather in your cap. It allows you to do things like teach as an adjunct professor, which I did at NYU, but it doesn’t guarantee you a job. It definitely doesn’t guarantee a certain hierarchy. It’s not like in the finance world, where if you’re in management consulting and you have an MBA from (NYU) Stern or Kellogg (Northwestern), you’re going to come in at a different price point. You’re going to come in at a different level.

In our industry, it is so, so competitive. It’s a mile wide and an inch deep. Experience really matters. I think for those that are on the paw and those that might be waffling in between, do I go to grad school? Do I go get experience? I’ve got to tell you, if you do both, that is the optimum situation. I give credit to Bill Sutton and many of the other graduate programs. In the case of USF, they’ve structured it so that you can do both. So that you are in classes on Tuesday and Thursday, and then you have a resident position with folks like Minor League Baseball, the Lightning or the Bucs, where you’re with that organization Monday, Wednesday and Friday. You’re furthering your education at a great school, working towards your graduate degree, while you’re also getting practical experience, which is so critically important in an effort to break into this industry.

On coursework at UMass…

I think it was fairly broad. You had all your core classes. Finance, stats, marketing. I tended to gravitate more towards the commercial, the sales and the marketing side, but all the primary disciplines were offered. They also did an incredible job of incorporating small and group projects, which is very real world. How often do you actually do something in a silo? Typically, in today’s world, it’s very integrated and involves folks from a myriad of different backgrounds and departments. Project work. Real hands-on practical experience that you could translate to the real world later on. It was a great experience. One that I cherish to this day. I think it’s the model that many others have set up to follow.

On the differences between his undergraduate and graduate school experiences…

I don’t know if there’s one way that’s better than another. What I can tell you specific in itself is my approach in grad school was vastly different than my approach in undergrad. Undergrad, you’re 18 to 22 years old. Let’s face it. Your look on life is a little bit different. I was also an athlete, so I was very very focused on that side of my time in Bloomington. Oftentimes, I’ll say it, you want to get from A to Z as quickly as possible. In grad school, you’re looking at it differently. You’re obviously more mature. You’ve got a better perspective on the real world. I found myself taking a step back and not necessarily wanting to get from A to Z as quickly as possible, but understanding the process and truly wanting to learn at a level that probably was a little bit higher than my undergraduate days. It really just depends on the individual. Again, I was incredibly fortunate to graduate from IU, have a couple years in between, then go to UMass. Obviously, there for two years and then go right into a full-time gig. Very, very atypical. Something that to this day I was very fortunate to stumble across.

On first career position at MLS…

It was fascinating. I started May of 2000. The league was only four years old. When you say keeping the lights on, it was all about keeping the lights on. It had 12 teams. There literally wasn’t a day that went by where people were questioning the viability of Major League Soccer, if they even called it Major League Soccer. They sometimes called it Major Soccer League. It was that new. It had no brand recognition. The quality of the play on the field was incredibly subpar. It was in the formative stage of its life cycle. Again, looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing, because it exposed me to so many things that, to this day, I think have contributed to my look on the business and overall experience.

I came in as Manager of Fan Development, and I was primarily charged with connecting MLS to a lot of different constituents throughout the soccer world, whether it’s the hardcore fan, supporter groups, the multicultural consumer, the youth segment, families. We had a lot of different programming that was catered towards connecting with each one of those constituents. I ultimately entered a department that was focused on being that conduit and really focused on educating people on what MLS stood for, where it was going and why they as soccer fans should support their hometown team. It was tough. It was challenging.

The next guest for our weekly professional conference call is Bryan Srabian, Vice President of Brand Development/Digital Media, San Francisco Giants. It’ll be Wednesday, July 11 from 1:00-2:00 p.m. ET.

It wasn’t shortly after I joined that we went from 12 teams down to 10. We contracted Miami and Tampa. What was already a somewhat challenging scenario with only 12 teams just got a little bit more challenging because now you’ve got 10. It’s really tough to be a national property when you’ve got 10 clubs. Oh and by the way, only three owners. It was a really tough business model. Not many people know it was a click away from folding. There were some pretty tough times in late 2001, early 2002. Fortunately, the late Lamar Hunt, and Robert Kraft believed in the sport, believed in MLS and got together and made a commitment to double down and really build the league and it was at a time, they also saw an opportunity to aggregate some of the more powerful soccer properties under one umbrella and that’s when Soccer United Marketing was formed in 2002, 2003.

The rest is history, so to speak. It was a slow build, and it took a long time. It’s really a credit to Commissioner (Don Garber) who had joined in the fall of ‘99, who is obviously still there. He was the mastermind that led the charge and had the vision for growth and kept everything on its rails at a time that could’ve been very easy to fall off. Incredible experience and one that I cherish to this day.

On navigating those first few years in the sports industry…

First, I was a sponge man. Eyes wide open. I had the dream job. I was in the big city. First real gig. Really just being a sponge and absorbing everything that was going on in a pretty fast-moving environment. I was also incredibly fortunate to have, and we’ll touch on this towards the end, some really powerful mentors. The guy that hired me, I mentioned, Mark Noonan. He’s still a really good friend today. He took me under his wing. I think he saw potential, and he saw passion, and was a big part of my development in those early years. He then moved onto bigger and better things. I was very fortunate to meet up and work closely with Kathy Carter, who is without question one of the best in the business. She, as well, for whatever reason, saw potential in me and took me under her wing. I was with her for the better part of 12 years. Every stop along the way there’s been a mentor that I can lean on.

Among a couple things that people take away, relationships really matter. Aligning with people that take a vested interest in your development is really, really important. I look back to my playing days as a club player in the Midwest, in high school, in college, my coaches served as that. They saw potential and commitment and passion. They took me under their wings, and that’s transferred over to the business side. That’s really important, and that was really critical to my development in those early years. I’m very fortunate for all of those folks that I still consider dear friends and close colleagues in the industry.

On early marketing strategies at MLS…

We had a lot of programs that were designed to connect with those constituents. We had an MLS camp program that had 300,000 participants throughout the country. We had Dribble, Pass and Score, which was our version of Punt, Pass and Kick. We had a 3-v-3 event that we staged. We had supporter group initiatives. We had a hispanic advisory board. I helped launch the first-ever fantasy game, called MLS Fantasy Challenge. Back when it was inconceivable to think you could be traveling and managing your fantasy team on a phone. Who would ever think of that? All of that was part of my job in those early years. It was really interesting.

I had made the transition from the marketing and fan development side to more of the commercial side shortly after Kathy had returned. It probably would’ve been 2004ish. Primarily because I was interested in that side of the business, but when we contracted two teams in late 2001, early 2002, and my department went from three to one, I later learned the reason I was the one among many things was because I managed a program called the Pepsi MLS Dribble, Pass and Score program. Pepsi had invested significant resources into supporting that program. Heck, if Dave isn’t around anymore, who is going to manage that business? A light bulb went off and I said, ‘Huh, there’s probably some value in being tied to the revenue side of the business’. It was shortly thereafter that I made the transition and the rest is somewhat history. The early days it was all about grassroots and program development. Probably the last 11-12 years of my 15-year run there, it was really focused on driving and maximizing revenue for MLS.

On transitioning from fan development to the commercial side…

The transition was a little bit fortunate, but also somewhat designed based on that little light bulb. As we talk about all the time here, it doesn’t matter what position you’re in. Every single person is selling. Whether you’re in partnership marketing and you’re selling the next great activation concept or you’re in our corporate communications group and you’re pitching a story, every single person is selling at some level. That’s a really important thing for everyone to embrace, because the ability to develop your own persuasive voice that is authentic to you is really important, and I think can help get stuff done, whether that be internal or external, because let’s face it, not everyone thinks like you do. Not everyone is going to have the same opinion. It takes a little bit of nudging or coercing. Having that convincing voice can be really powerful.

On staying at MLS for 15 years…

When I do something, I’m all-in. I’ve got two feet in to everything I do. In the case of MLS, it was an unbelievable opportunity. I was there at a really powerful time, and every three or four years, when you started to say, ‘OK, what’s next?’, there was always that, what’s next. As I would tell everyone, to the extent that you can align with a growth organization, there’s tremendous value with the fine print being if you’re good, there’s always going to be opportunity. That proved to be the case with me.

At times quite frankly, I was given responsibility well before I probably was ready for it, but I’m a firm believer that you grow the most when you’re stressed and you’re forced to swim and you fall down a little bit and you’ve got to pick yourself back up. That was the environment I was in at MLS that really gave me a front-seat look at how do you grow a business. How do you grow a business in arguably the most competitive marketplace on the planet and to have real, tangible, meaningful responsibilities at a young stage of my career? Was really, really powerful. Coupled with the fact that I was real fortunate to have those mentors. Those people that took a vested interest in my development. That combination was pretty sweet, and it was a 15-year run that literally went like the blink of an eye. You know I also came up and grew up in the game. There’s that passionate side to it as well. All told, it was a great 15-year run, and I think really helped shape who I am today and hopefully, what I set out to do for years to come.

On the benefits of growing up with soccer and then working on the business side…

The fact that I had played at a high level, I was considered a soccer guy. I was one of the first that had played at a high level that had kind of made my way through the organization. There’s now been plenty others. I think that had value. It definitely gave me a lot of credibility. Quite frankly, it also was one of the reasons why I left. Because to my earlier comment about spreading your wings and forcing yourself to swim, I got really comfortable there. I was perceived in the marketplace as being that soccer guy. It was really important to me that I set out to prove to myself, but also to the industry that, ‘Yeah, OK, I may technically be a fan of the game, but guess what? My experience and success is 100 percent transferable’. That was part of the thinking.

I felt like I needed to diversify and set my sights on building another business and the opportunity at Minor League Baseball presented itself. I had four filters that kind of guided my process. One was work with and for incredible people. Becomes more important by the day. Two, to be stretched and unique in different ways. Was really true to my desire to move on. To be part of a build was the third. It’s in my DNA. It’s what I had done for 15 years and then fourth, an opportunity that was equally exciting for my family. Those were the four kind of key pillars or filters that guided my process. By the way, it took a better part of two years to finally get to the point where I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to do this’. It’s worked out absolutely beautifully and both personally and professionally, I’ve found myself in a really good spot.

On how he created his four pillars/filters that allowed him to change jobs…

It was a lot of kind of soul searching. A lot of inward looking in. This industry is really tight, so the more senior you are, the more thoughtful you need to be in terms of outside conversations. It was really over the course of a couple years, taking a hard look at what was important to me as I mapped out the next step. At the end of the day, there’s so many factors that lead toward someone’s career path. You can try to make it as predictable as possible, but you never can. For me, over those couple years, those four filters really bubbled to the service.

I’ve got to tell you, I’ve had a lot of people reach out. When the news broke that I was leaving MLS and going to baseball, I think there were a lot of people scratching their head. Those that kind of knew me were scratching their head. Those that know me, know me, know and once you peel back the onion, said, ‘OK. I got it. Makes total sense. Man, he’s onto something’. But it was really, really helpful. A lot of people reached out to kind of talk through that process. They find themselves in a similar period in their career, and they want to spread their wings a little bit and whether it’s the filters that I named or it’s your own filters, I think it’s really important and regardless of where you are in your career.

If you’re 20 years in or 20 days removed from graduation, really understanding what’s important to you and staying true to who you are, I think is really important. Without going onto a tangent, I’ll skip ahead. One of the things that drives me absolutely insane with people that are earlier on in their career, they make the financial piece of the opportunity priority one, two and three, as opposed to, taking a look at the organization. Is the organization on the rise? Is it a growth organization? Taking a look at the people. Are the people going to take a vested interest in who you are and help you develop personally and professionally? If the economics make sense, great. But to leave a job for $2,000 more or to take this job or that job for $4,000 more in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter if you can’t significantly check those other boxes. I think that ties back to truly understanding what’s important to you and seeing the bigger picture. It’s a bit of a journey. It’s not a sprint.

On the first 90-180 days at MiLB…

Fortunately, I walked into a very well-established organization. Minor League Baseball has been in St. Petersburg for close to 40 years and has been in existence since 1901. I went from an organization that was really in its infancy to an organization that was incredibly established and had an unbelievable foundation, which is really, really powerful to walk into. First and foremost for me, it was taking a hard look and assessing the current structure. Really in some cases, realigning and making some strategic hires, which have worked out really, really well and then working with the other senior leadership on clearly defining the vision of Minor League Baseball.

I’m a true believer that regardless of the organization, the vision drives everything. If you look at those constants, if you look at high-performing companies, there are three things that are consistent across every high-performing company. I challenge anyone to call BS on this. First, it’s the company has an aspirational vision. Second, the company has an industry-leading product or service. Third, the company has placed heightened emphasis on attracting, developing and retaining high-performing talent, so people. I would argue that the first aspirational vision drives everything else. It starts with that. It’s the true north everyone is pointing towards. That’s what is going to enable you to attract and develop high-performing talent, which then enables the company to strive to have an industry-leading product or service. … The vision of Minor League Baseball was very clear. To be a dynamic leader in sport and entertainment, which is pretty powerful. I would say that a lot of our 160 clubs are already operating at that level. They are an industry leader in their market. They are an innovator. They are pushing the envelope, but as an overarching entity, to be able to have an overarching vision that the office wakes up thinking about is the next step. It’s been really fun to see come to life and really drive the business forward. It’s been a lot of good work.

On how often he interacts with MiLB’s 160 clubs…

It’s daily. Hourly. It’s very, very constant. I would tell you, at the end of the day, the rubber meets the road with 160 clubs. The success of Minor League Baseball is driven by the success and the efforts of those clubs, and we’re really fortunate to have some unbelievable organizations that push the envelope every single day. That really is the driver. The connectivity is really tight. At the end of the day, they are autonomously run businesses, so what you see in El Paso may be different than Omaha, which may be different than Billings and Memphis. They are the engine that make Minor League Baseball grow.

We’ve got some pretty lofty goals. Right now, we’re at 42 million people going through turnstile, which is second only to Major League Baseball in all of professional sports. We’re really bullish in growing that to over 50 the next seven or eight years. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. What gives me the most confidence is the fact that we’ve got 160 clubs that are waking up every single day pushing the envelope. I think growth is going to be a big, big priority and something that we’re going to see a lot of over the coming years.

On MiLB’s focus on technology…

I think it was really a byproduct of us taking a hard look. When we went through the exercise around the vision and the commitment to be a dynamic leader in sport and entertainment, as we think about growth, as we understand our consumers today, and more importantly, our consumers tomorrow. At the core of all that is technology. When you think about Minor League Baseball and the many things that serve as a point of difference for us in the marketplace, one of those differences is our ability to do things that quite frankly, other properties may not be able to do.

Our commitment to technology is not by accident. In a very short period of time, we have aggressively pursued strategic relationships in a number of sectors, whether it’s the ticketing space, our great relationship with Rickets.com, whether it’s in the POS and merchant services space with FIS Global. It was the largest company, quite frankly, I had never heard of. A $15 billion company that is a true leader in their space. Whether it’s our great relationship in the AI space with Satisfi and Don White and what they’re doing. It has been a massive priority. Not only on the commercial side, but equally if not more important on the fan engagement side. You probably saw the recent announcement with ISM Connect, which will, through that partnership, enable us to deploy the largest connected in-venue digital network in sport and entertainment that’s largely driven by a desire to engage with our consumers. Technology is at the forefront of all of that. It really starts again with the vision, understanding our point of difference in the marketplace and that we can do things that others can’t and how technology plays a role in next generation fandom and our ability to grow the business around the next generation fan.

On Satisfi and FIS Global and how MiLB is leveraging those partners to super-serve fans…

With FIS, it really goes back to our desire to super-serve the fan. Traditionally, when you go into a venue, typically a fan engages with that venue across disparate systems. Whether it’s how they purchase their ticket, how they buy their merchandise, how they go get that craft beer. In most venues, those are different systems that aren’t connected. They’re not talking to each other. And ultimately, the venue or the property or the club, don’t have access to that real-time data. In conversations with the senior executives at FIS, they’ve got many of those technologies.

We came up with this idea of creating ballparks of the future. When you walk into a ballpark, like if you walk into the baseball grounds in Jacksonville, home of the Jumbo Shrimp, how a fan engages with Ken Babby’s club is now all fully-integrated on the same system, which is incredibly powerful for in this case the Jumbo Shrimp to super-serve the fan, but also they know and understand the consumer at a totally different level. We’re having great progress with FIS around how do we take that model and replicate it throughout the league with this eye of creating the ballparks of the future.

With Satisfi, it was really interesting. Donny, if you’ve not spoken to him, is an incredibly dynamic, super bright guy. He was leading the AI charge. We’ve launched a great hispanic program called Copa de la Diversion that has had tremendous results. As we were talking to Donny, the need and desire to develop AI, but bilingual, which was a challenge he had never encountered. Through those discussions, we forged a great partnership with those guys and launched several months ago and are the first league to provide the chatbot via Facebook Messenger that is bilingual and super-serves our fan regardless of the language they want to consume, which is super important. It’s not us dictating how we want to interact with the fan. We’re actually giving the fan the choice to interact as they see fit, which seems pretty basic but is really, really important when you think about true engagement with your consumers.

On his most successful marketing initiatives over the past few years…

I would say, on the MLS side, the last number of years I was there, we were really focused on creating own-able platforms. Partners they want to own something. The days for a brand wanting a mile wide, inch deep are long gone. They’d rather be more focused and then go deep with those efforts. Whether it was the launch of First Kick, which was MLS’ version of opening day, whether it was the launch of Rivalry Week, now that’s 20-plus years in, you’ve got clubs that are starting to have organic rivalries and so working with the broadcasters to come up with a schedule that pits Portland vs. Seattle. New York vs. New England. L.A. vs. San Jose.

So, that now you’ve got these rivalries that you can take advantage of on traditional media, but also serves as great content not only was incredibly powerful from a marketing standpoint, but had tremendous commercial value. The likes of Heineken and Audi, big brands, AT&T, saw great value and very quickly aligned themselves with some of those ownership platforms. I think there’s been a number over a short period of time here at MiLB, but the one that really sticks out is Copa de la Diversion, which we started last year as a four-team pilot. It has grown this year to include 33 clubs. Next year, it’s slated to have 65 if not more and really I’ve got to give Kurt Hunzeker on my team a ton of credit. He was the visionary and has done so much of the leg work, along with literally every other department in the organization. The early results of that program and let me be very clear, this isn’t your typical Spanish heritage night promotion. This is a very thought-out, thoughtful authentic connection with the Hispanic consumer, and each of those markets working very closely with the local Hispanic chamber of commerce. It ties in food and music and festive. It’s an identity shift to an identity that resonates with the Hispanic consumer in that market. It’s a fully-integrated platform. The results, I’ve got to tell you, are off the charts.

I’ll give you one little nugget. The San Antonio Missions evolved to be the San Antonio Flying Chanclas, which is a flying sandal. Through their research in the San Antonio community, one of the things that bubbled up was their fandom for their grandparents throwing sandals at them when they were younger. That very quickly became the brand that they chose and the Flying Chanclas were born. They have sold more merchandise through this program than they had sold in the previous 10 years combined. It’s a micro example of the power of something that is well thought-out and authentic and in this case, the Hispanic consumer. It’s going to be something that we’re going to build on for many years to come. At the end of the day, we are keenly focused on supporting our clubs in an effort to be as representative of their local market as possible. My favorite and most obvious example is El Paso. El Paso is a market that is 82 percent Hispanic. The Hispanic fan base of the El Paso Chihuahuas in 82 percent Hispanic, which is exactly what you want. Those are two examples.

On the evolution of the Copa de la Diversion program in MiLB…

It was a great partnership and collaboration throughout. It was something that, based on research, became very obvious that we needed to double down on. Working very closely with the clubs to craft the platform and then, ultimately supporting them in their efforts. It goes back to at the end of the day, the rubber meets the road with our clubs. We were very helpful in terms of providing the data and analytics. Creating a lot of the promotional elements. A lot of the branding came out of this office. It was a great collaborative effort and overall teamwork to launch what has been an incredible program.

On MiLB’s involvement if a team decides to change its name mid-season…

It’s really driven locally. The clubs have gotten pretty crafty at understanding their market. Leaning on data and analytics to drive many of the decisions. That is largely driven locally and up to them in terms of how they want to manage their brand in a given market.

On favorite MiLB ballpark foods…

It’d be really tough to pinpoint one or two. I’ll highlight one of the more recent ones, which was a cotton candy chili dog from the Seawolves in Erie that went viral and had a lot of people talking about it. It really goes back to what Minor League Baseball is all about. At the end of the day, we’re about making memories and being a communal place for folks to truly have fun and engage and connect with people. Whether it be a father-son, a mother-daughter, college buddies, high school friends, seniors, whatever it may be. Wherever you are in the life cycle, Minor League Baseball can relate to you and so much of it is about that ballpark experience. Food so oftentimes is at the core of that. Our teams have gotten really, really savvy at providing not only an entertaining product, but rounding it out with all the other experiences that create that memory and food and the smells of food and craft beer are all tied into that and are a big part of that success.

On advice to students who want to break into the sports industry…

One, I’ve touched on this a little bit. The difference between relationships and contacts. You hear people talk all the time about contacts. Contacts don’t mean anything. I’m a contact to someone that I’ve met once, but I don’t know that individual’s strengths, weaknesses. I’m sure I’m not going to put my neck out there to recommend them to a job. Understanding the difference and committing to developing as many authentic relationships you can in the industry is really, really powerful. You think back to my track. My collegiate coach, who I had a great relationship with, introduced me to the UMass coach, and through that I developed a relationship with Mike Noonan, who connected me to Mark Noonan. You can start to connect all the dots. Relationships vs. contacts is really important.

I think not being afraid to fall down. I firmly believe, and this is my personal opinion, you grow the most when you’re forced to swim and stretch yourself. I’ve seen that happen time and time again in my career, so for folks to truly embrace and be comfortable with the fact that you’re not always going to get it right. You’re not always going to have this linear path forward and that’s OK and if you embrace it, you’ll get a lot more out of it and probably be much better personally and professionally for it.

Third, I strongly recommend seeking opportunities to develop your own management style. You look in corporate America across the board and a lot of times, people are elevated because they’re doers. They’re workers. They really haven’t developed their management style. They’re thrust into management positions, and they have no idea what they’re doing. I think to the extent you can put yourself in real-world situations ,where you can develop your own management style is really important, and I think is the difference between being here and ultimately being an executive. It’s one thing to manage your singular boat to success. It’s another thing to manage a ship. Someone who can manage a ship to great success has a really, really bright future. The industry needs people who are committed to being effective and quality managers.

Lastly, stay true to who you are. I mentioned it early on. I was in the rat race in New York for 15 years. I commuted two and a half hours a day, an hour and 15 minutes door to door. I was able to make it work. It wasn’t easy, but I can’t tell you how many people I commuted with that didn’t see their family, tet alone their kids Monday through Friday. For me, that wasn’t an option. Staying true to who you are and for me, without question, the No. 1 priority is my family. You would potentially not know that based on how hard I work and the fact that I just came back from a redeye, but it can be done and understanding what’s important to you, being disciplined and staying true to that in this crazy rat race of an industry we’re in I think is really important.

I’ve seen all too many people get sucked in and then 20 years later they’re like, ‘What just happened? My kids are off in college and I missed it’. Understanding what’s important for you. For me, it’s family. For you, it could be your religious beliefs. It could be working out. It could be reading books. It could be eating healthy. Whatever it is, stay true to that because it is possible. You can have both. You can have an incredibly successful career in the sport and entertainment space, while still being true to what matters most, which is being authentically you.

About Mark J. Burns

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