UB Insider #9: Why Minor-League Sports Are Big in Utah
About this episode:
In this episode of UB Insider, Utah Business’ Adva Biton talks to Rick Berry, general manager of the Orem Owlz, about how going to a minor league baseball game is about more than just the sport and why minor league sports do so well in the Beehive State. Check out our May issue for more on this issue, and subscribe or download this episode on iTunes or Stitcher.
Adva Biton: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. My name is Adva Biton. I’m the assistant editor here at Utah Business magazine. Today we’re here with Rick Berry, general manager of the Orem Owlz. And we’re going to be talking a little bit about the health of minor league sports here in the state of Utah. If you’ve read our May issue, we have a feature on it called “Playing to Win,” and we’re going to be talking a little bit more about minor league sports. Rick, you’re the general manager of the Orem Owlz. For people who are not familiar with minor league sports, can you tell me a little bit about what a general manager of a minor league team does?
Rick Berry: Well a general manager in minor league is completely different than I think what most people really realize. You know, you always think of a GM, and you see, you know, Epstein with the Cubs. He used to be with the Red Sox. And pretty much, their responsibility is player personnel. And that’s really their main emphasis – putting the team together on the field.
Adva Biton: Of course.
Rick Berry: A general manager of minor league sports wears many, many hats. Because we are an affiliate with the Angels, they control the roster. They hire the managers and the hitting instructors and things. Those are given to me just, seriously, a week before the season I know my roster.
Adva Biton: Wow.
Rick Berry: So, when I get the roster then it’s my responsibility. We make sure that when the kids arrive, the players, that we have host families, places for them to go. We have orientations, you know, we get them to the physicals. We do all of the things that are behind the scenes that day to get them ready. And then we start a little mini-camp as soon as they get here. And it’s just, basically for me, it’s to make sure everything is ready for the season to begin. So that means during the off-season I’m out getting partners, sponsorships, people who are going to support from a business standpoint. Selling season tickets.
Making sure anything we’re going to do at the ballpark, you know, the beauty of minor league baseball is it’s not just baseball. There’s all those baseball purists that just absolutely love baseball. But then there’s people who want to be entertained. So that’s why we do Star Wars nights and zombie nights. And we have the fireworks and we have Disney princess. We try to do a little bit of everything for everybody to be very well entertained. Families can come for less than a movie and spend three hours at the ballpark and enjoy baseball, but enjoy other things. And interact with the mascots and the kids can be in the jump houses. So it’s my responsibility to make sure that’s all set up and prior to. So a lot of time is spent in the off-season, you know, like this year for example, we’re redoing all of our menus. So we do everything in house.
Adva Biton: Right.
Rick Berry: So all of that is left on my shoulders and a small little staff that we do have. So, many different things other than just baseball and having the players’ responsibility.
Adva Biton: You know, that’s a really interesting point. A lot of people think of minor league baseball as, just as you were saying, more than baseball. They think of it as kind of a community thing. You’re talking a little bit about how much you have to do in order to get sponsors and do themed nights and things like that. Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like reaching out to a community and really intertwining yourself with that community so that people continue to come to the ballpark and embrace the Owlz?
Rick Berry: Well, I think that’s the beauty of minor league sports. And I think that’s why it’s so successful in Utah. Because people are looking for something to be attached to. You know, you take community pride, and having the Orem Owlz there, it’s for all of Utah County, it’s not just Orem. And we reach, you know, really from Draper all the way down into St. George because that is the closest team that they can come watch. Utah is a sports town. You know, it’s been very successful. It doesn’t matter if it’s baseball or football or basketball, a lot of talented kids come out of the state of Utah. I’ve been able to coach college football and high school football for many, many years. And to see the quality of kids that come through there, and then to watch our little league baseball programs. A lot of talented kids. Therefore, people love to come. They love the attachment.
We love to see the little league teams come into our ballpark. The kids get to run out and have the starting lineup with our players, which is a highlight for them. Mom and dad are in the stands taking pictures of it. There’s so many fun things that we can attach. We try to get in with the schools and reading programs. We do a lot of different things. There’s probably not a day that goes by that we don’t have a call request for a donation for a charity or a school or anybody like that. So we do a lot of that. Two of our Star Wars nights, for example, are tied in with two charities – Utah Special Olympics and Utah Diabetic Foundation. And then we also do a paint the park pink, which is breast cancer awareness. So we try to really embrace the community, therefore the community embraces us.
Adva Biton: That’s really fascinating. Can you tell me a little bit about your theme nights? How do they go down? What do you guys have available at the ballpark for people who come out to see, you know, either one of the Star Wars nights or even the more seriously themed nights like the breast cancer awareness nights?
Rick Berry: Well, we try to really have something every single night. And it might be a Star Wars night where we actually sign a contract through Lucasfilms and so it’s kind of a process that we have to go through. And we actually have the characters from the local chapter there. And they’re in character and the kids are able to take pictures with them. And we’ll also do promotions during the game that those who are dressed up in their favorite costumes or characters will win prizes. And there are on-field promotions. The beauty of minor league baseball? It’s not just the baseball. We kind of talked about that. But it’s on-field promotions. Kids get to go down and they’ll have opportunities to win prizes and do things. We’ll have a sing for your supper. We may come and bring the mic to you during the game and say, here are the lyrics on the scoreboard. You sing it and we’ll give you a gift certificate to Outback.
Adva Biton: Oh wow.
Rick Berry: The fans may boo you, they may cheer you. You never know, but that’s the beauty of it. It’s to come have fun. It’s a relaxing atmosphere. Have a nice dinner, relax with your family and be entertained. Both on the field and off the field.
Adva Biton: That’s amazing. And that’s definitely not something that I’d want to be a part of, singing in front of all those people.
Rick Berry: We may pull you out of your comfort zone. But that’s good! That’s the beauty of it. Just come have fun.
Adva Biton: Is it the 7th inning stretch? Do you sing Take Me Out to the Ballpark?
Rick Berry: We do that. And sometimes, depending on the game, like we have a very special military night where we’re going to be passing out the 50th anniversary Vietnam book to all of the vets that will be there. So nights like that will be God Bless America. And we have a lot of performers that perform in theaters who will not only be singing our national anthem but doing those as well. So a lot of really fun, special nights at the ballpark.
Adva Biton: So affiliates being what they are, from the business side of things, are you beholden to the sponsors that the Angels have, or is the ownership situation completely different between the Owlz and the Angels?
Rick Berry: Very good question. It’s completely different. Now there’s certain things we tie in with the Angels. We go by some of their bylaws of what we need to do and how we need to go about it. But as far as sponsorship, we are completely independent. So it’s different ownership. So every minor league team is owned by an individual or entity. Then we go out and find our own corporate sponsors and advertisers and that’s all upon us. So that’s the big emphasis in the off-season. And one thing we’re doing a lot this year is corporate nights. To give you a prime example, Ancestry.com will be bringing all their employees and families. So we will have anywhere from 1,600 to 2,000 people at the ballpark prior to and having a nice catered meal. All of the activities are catered around them. So they will be throwing out the first pitch, singing the national anthem, on-field promotions, their employees will be down there doing that. And then a big fireworks night, just for them at the end of the game. So a lot of opportunity for corporate events and for their families to come. Because you really can do it less expensive than a lot of the other places, plus it’s three hours of entertainment. And there’s something for everybody.
Adva Biton: You know, that’s really interesting. There’s a fairly long history, I guess, of minor league teams folding. You know, we used to have the Utah Flash as a D-league affiliate before the SLC Stars came back here. And there’s generally been a lot of moving and shaking, kind of, in minor league sports. But minor league baseball has done particularly well here in the state. Do you think that baseball has more staying power, and that’s why people enjoy it? We’ve talked about, you know, being part of the community. Tut do you think of Utah as specifically, you know, there’s not a major league franchise here, but do you think of Utah as specifically a baseball-loving town? And that’s why the teams have had so much success here?
Rick Berry: That could be a part of it. I guess, I mentioned earlier, I think Utah is a very sports oriented state to begin with. And I think some of the things you’re reffering to, really have to do with population. And I think today is a lot different. You know, you’ve seen the influx of how strong our economy is in Utah. And how much of the tech businesses come here, and especially in Utah County. And I think it has diversified the state, where those teams would have a lot more staying power today if they were here today. And we’ve seen that. But on the baseball end, you’re probably right. Because you do have the universities, you have Utah and BYU and UVU and then some of your smaller schools, but you don’t have anything past that other than the minor league teams. You know, you’re not competing with a major league team. So I think that staying power there is very strong. Plus, little league baseball in the state of Utah has always been huge. And I think that’s going to stay that way. I don’t see that going anywhere.
Adva Biton: When you’re going out and you’re looking for sponsorships, do you find that it’s a pretty easy sell? Do you find that people are interested in affiliating and sponsoring the Owlz? Or is it something that you kind of have to put your hard hat on at the beginning of the off-season and really go out there and find those people?
Rick Berry: Very good question. You know, we really do work hard at that. For the most part, people are very receptive. They want baseball to stay. And they understand, if the Orem Owlz are going to stay and have staying power, we have to have that sponsorship and we have to have that support. That’s how we stay in business. Corporate sponsorships and obviously fans in the seats. Everything goes hand in hand. But it’s like anything else, you know, people’s budgets are limited and there’s a lot of people knocking on their doors. We need to be creative in how we present it and what we can do. And I think we’ve taken that step this year, even more so in the past of opportunities, not just at the ballpark, but outside.
You know, all of our 76 games are going to be broadcast on ESPN. That now gives an opportunity for people who want to reach outside of just the baseball, at the home of the Owlz on the radio and MIX and different publications and more of the way we’re going to market the team is going to be a little bit different. And like I mentioned, our emphasis this year is really putting corporate nights together, where it’s not just for the employees but for the employees and their family. And the more that we can do that, and people out to experience what the ballpark really is, because I’ve had a lot of people say, you know, I’m just not a huge baseball fan, but I came and we were so entertained. We had so much fun. We didn’t realize what we were missing. And that’s what we really want to do is make sure that people get there and have a great time. It’s affordable entertainment and they walk away saying, you know, we had a lot of fun. Everybody in the family, not just us.
Adva Biton: Let’s talk a little bit about the home of the Owlz. You play on a field that is not solely for the Owlz. When you get on that field, and it’s your night, it’s the Owlz night, how do you swap that over so that when people come in they know they’re in the home of the Owlz?
Rick Berry: June 1st is really when we take over from UVU. It’s a beautiful ballpark It seats 6,000 people. There’s not a bad seat in the place. So we’re very fortunate to have a facility like that to play in. So playing there, at the home of the Owlz is a perfect place for us. There are some challenges. We have to get along with each other. You know, our staff and administration with UVU, and then also with UVU baseball. Eric Madsen, head coach of UVU is a great coach, great person, and he and I get along fantastic. And that makes life a lot easier. But as soon as June 1st hits, the stadium becomes ours. So that’s when we transform and it becomes the home of the Owlz. And so all of our marketing material goes up, all of UVU’s comes down. So when people come to the ballpark they do see that it’s the home of the Owlz. And we have that period through our full season.
Adva Biton: Oh really, that’s great. A minor league team has to deal with a lot of roster turnover. That’s just one of the realities of minor league sports. Can you talk a little bit about the challenges of dealing with that kind of roster turnover?
Rick Berry: Yeah. In minor league sports, it’s a situation where you love to see the player progress. But it’s also hard as an organization. You know, last year we had a number of players that were called up during the season. We won the first half of the season and then lost a lot of those players, either to call ups or to injuries. So when we got to post season, we really weren’t at full strength. And those are the kinds of things you have to accept. You know, as you go through the years we’ve probably had 75 kids from the Orem Owlz go into Major League Baseball. Whether with the Angels or somewhere else where they were traded. And that’s the beauty of it.
Host families, for example, all of the players and coaches stay with these host families. They have an opportunity to follow these kids as they progress throughout the chain of baseball. So they’ll watch them go into AA and AAA and make their major league debut. And a lot of them still stay in touch with them. So that’s so fun for them. And from an organization, the same thing. You hate to see them go because it creates a little bit of challenges in the roster, and some big news coming in. But then you see them progress and that’s the beauty of minor league baseball. You’re giving those kids the opportunity to fulfill their lifelong dream, and that’s to get to the major leagues.
Adva Biton: Absolutely. I think that’s also probably part of the joy of being a fan of a minor league team. Is if you get to see that success story throughout the various levels, you get to feel like you got in on the ground floor and you got to see a guy progress. The minor leagues are so much about development, that I think, from my perspective at least, it seems like there’s a lot more emphasis on the experience. And not just the experience of being at the ballpark, but also the experience of watching that development if you are a baseball purist rather than just looking at the wins and losses in the columns.
Rick Berry: You’re right. And you look at it from two different standpoints, at least for me. You have the baseball end of it, which are the purists that you’re watching the fundamentals. And you love watching minor league baseball because you watch the players – they’re putting their heart and soul into it. They’re not playing for that big check yet. You know. They’re playing for an opportunity to get to the next level. Therefore, it’s a completely different attitude, you know, that you see. You see the emotion and the hard work that gets put into it. And, you know, they want to fulfill that dream. And so it’s fun as a fan to be able to sit back and watch that and see the passion that they have for the sport. Then the other side of it is the families that come that like baseball, but maybe it’s not their favorite sport. Or maybe they don’t even understand it but they come and have a great night at the ballpark. They have a hot dog or a brat or a specialty burger or whatever it might be that’s there and the kids are playing with the mascots and they’re in the jump house. And mom or dad gets called down to the field to do a promotion and there’s just so many things that are going on, they walk away and say, you know what? We were really entertained and we had a great night.
Adva Biton: Talking about those promotions down on the field, I’ve always wondered, who thinks those up? They’re always so entertaining to watch and they’re always so different. Who thinks of those?
Rick Berry: That’s our small little office. It’s myself, Brett Stevens, who is our marketing director, and Julie Hatch and Sean. So there’s really only 3-4 of us. And we spend a lot of days and a lot of nights thinking about what we’re going to do for promotions. And we really want to tie it back to our client. How can we, not only have fun on the field, but how can we promote them? So it’s fun and creative and, you know, there’s a lot of fun ideas and late nights that we do putting those things together.
Adva Biton: That’s really amazing. When you have a corporate night, does the corporation ever tell you what sort of thing they’d like to see? Or is it 100% just you guys digging in?
Rick Berry: We’ll ask their input, but usually we already have things put together and we’re choosing some of their people from their business or their families to come down and participate. We may tweak it a little bit to make it fun for them.
Adva Biton: That’s fantastic. Well thank you so much, Rick Berry, again, the general manager from the Orem Owlz for coming and speaking with me today. Go see the Orem Owlz on their home opener, which is going to be June 24th. Just as a kind of farewell here Rick, can you tell us a little bit about what’s coming up for the Owlz?
Rick Berry: Well as you mentioned, June 24th is our home opener. And that’s always a fun night. You get to really meet the players and see what roster and get to know a little bit about them. And obviously home opener is always fireworks night. And you mention fireworks, and everyone wants to come to the fireworks night. It’s a great night and that’s a Friday night. And then we turn around on Saturday and play and that’s Star Wars. So we’ll have two huge crowds back to back on those two nights. And opportunities for families to come and enjoy baseball. And enjoy, like I mentioned before, come have a brat and check out our new ice cream parlor and things that are going on at the ballpark and just come enjoy the night with us.
Adva Biton: Ice cream and fireworks sounds like a great night to me. Thank you again so much for speaking with us and we’ll go see the Owlz on the field.