It did not take long for the economy to make its way into discussions at the Winter Meetings. In fact, the recession that resulted in minor league baseball's first season without an attendance record in five years was the first subject addressed by Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner during his remarks at the opening session.
"Despite the economy and tough weather we battled all season, 2009 may very well be one of the best seasons we have had in many years," O'Conner said in a Indiana Convention Center ballroom packed with league and team officials. "The financial statements may reflect otherwise, but I can honestly say I have never been more proud of what minor league baseball stands for, what we can do, how we developed our sense of community, than I am over the 2009 season."
It would be difficult to argue with O'Conner on both points. Though the sport as a whole saw a 2.5 decrease in attendance and teams almost universally speak of even harder-hit sponsorship sales, the model of affordable, family-friendly entertainment prevented the drop from being even worse–like the 6.5 percent experienced by major league teams.
"As an organization, we embraced our communities, offered that safe place for social gathering and fine-tuned our operations to deal with the unique circumstances of 2009," O'Conner continued. "Despite some financial hardships, in no way did we back off our commitments to major league baseball, our players, and most importantly, our fans. Our preseason struggles of a year ago were overcome with perseverance, strong game day ticket sales and healthy in-park attendance figures. The fall off in corporate support in the suites, groups and picnic areas were offset by the grassroots fan support and recognition by our fans that we offer the best value for the entertainment dollar of all family options."
O'Conner also issued three initiatives designed to help clubs through the continued recession and also help expand the sport's growth. The most noteworthy was a diversity initiative the league office first introduced a year ago. The five-pronged plan focuses on diversifying ownership, executive level management, staff level employment, the fan base and the corporate community with whom teams do business. "Each prong relies on and prospers from the development of the other aspects of the plan."
The league office will guide teams, O'Conner said, through a voluntary best practices program that will help clubs diversify internally and externally. Minor League Baseball will also set up a relationship with a series of historically black colleges, and their alumni, that should provide a more diverse stream of candidates for all levels of employment. The sport will also work with Major League Baseball and those responsible for its recent diversity initiatives to create "a solid blueprint, proven methods and and access to the business network of proven diverse business suppliers."
"If we are to change how our game looks," O'Conner said, "we must change how we look at our game."
Minor League Baseball will also partner with the Hall of Fame and will begin a season-long initiative to help unite the hall with minor league teams and their fans. "Starting at the Baseball Trade Show (today), we will have the opportunity to interact with the Hall of Fame with memberships at a special rate, special offers to fill your 2010 promotional caldendar back home and unique once-in-a-lifetime premium gift opportunities for you, your sponsors, season ticket-holders and corporate partners," O'Conner said.
The last initiative focuses on Minor League Baseball's operation of Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., and Durham Athletic Park (the former home of the Bulls) in Durham, N.C. The league will provide a variety of "turnkey programs for leagues and clubs to use across the country," O'Conner said.
Minor League Baseball chief operating officer Tim Purpura announced in an earlier speech that the league office is in the process of designing a youth nationwide tournament that can be hosted in ballparks across the sport, with a championship event to take place at Dodgertown. Durham Athletic Park has already hosted a groundskeepers conference and will later host an umpiring clinic.
The opening session also recognized each league's executive of the year. They are as follows:
International League (AAA): Lehigh Valley general manager Kurt Landes.
Landes guided the IronPigs through their second season and oversaw a streak of 26 consecutive sellouts.
Pacific Coast League (AAA): Salt Lake GM Marc Amicone.
Among other things, Amicone secured the team a naming rights deal for the ballpark despite the down economy.
Eastern League (AA): New Britain GM John Willi.
Willi helped the team a set a club record for attendance for a third consecutive season and tied a club record with 22 sellouts.
Southern League (AA): Birmingham GM Jonathan Nelson.
Guided the Barons to a second-place finish in league overall attendance as the team welcomed its highest total since 2001.
Texas League (AA): Midland GM Monty Hoppel.
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