If a minor league owner could create a blueprint for success, it would probably look something like this: win games, boost attendance, become more profitable and remain an integral part of the community.
The San Jose Giants have done all those things and more, making them an easy selection for Baseball America’s 2009 high Class A Freitas Award.
After going 85-55 in 2008, the Giants finished atop the California League North Division once again this year with a 93-47 record, the best the California League has seen since the Modesto A’s went 96-40 in 1994. The Giants won the California League championship, defeating the High Desert Mavericks to secure their fourth championship this decade.
The Giants did it with one of the most prospect-heavy rosters in all of the minor leagues. Between trades and promotions over the course of the season, the team featured five first-round picks in catcher Buster Posey, third baseman Conor Gillaspie, second baseman Nick Noonan, righthander Tim Alderson and lefthander Madison Bumgarner.
While the San Francisco Giants have always had a player-development interest in their San Jose affiliate, they gained a financial interest in the club this year as well. Just before the season, San Francisco purchased a 25 percent stake in its California League affiliate and the team has an option to purchase another 30 percent in 2010.
The new partnership made a significant positive impact, San Jose president and CEO Jim Weyermann said.
“You can’t pay for better marketing than that closeness with the parent club,” Weyermann said. “To have those advantages and for them to care about their minor league operation in a way that they would actively promote it within the big league club is just a huge advantage for us going forward.”
When Weyermann was hired in October of 2005, he and his staff sat down and created a five-year audience-development and marketing plan that has helped increase attendance and boost revenues.
Through a campaign called the “park packer program,” the San Jose Giants helped local youth sports organizations raise more than $300,000 this year by selling the leagues blocks of tickets priced at $1 apiece. The leagues would, in turn, re-sell the tickets throughout the community at their own price, keeping 100 percent of the money raised for their respective leagues. The Giants also donated 20,000 tickets to the city council to distribute to underprivileged children.
The strategies worked. The program led to great turnouts—especially on typically quiet Monday nights—and helped San Jose set an attendance record for the fourth consecutive year. The Giants averaged 3,015 fans per night in 2009 (a 14.8 percent increase from the previous year), and drew a total of 211,054.
Weyermann also changed the team’s season-ticket plans after he was hired. In 2007, he made the tough decision to double season ticket prices and move toward more of a single-game approach to ticket sales. While they lost 48 percent of their season ticket holders, the strategy worked and the team made up for the difference in revenues with single-game tickets and group sales.
“We had an inverted relationship regarding the top inventory in our stadium,” Weyermann said. “You can’t give your best-priced inventory at your lowest price point. And our organization, for years, had basically given that inventory away to season-ticket holders.”
The Giants attendance numbers are great on their own, but especially impressive when you consider the team shares its market with two major league clubs, and many other options for family entertainment.
While the Giants don’t use many giveaways, one traditional promotion that fans love is called “Smash For Cash.” Before every game, an old truck is driven out on to the field. Three fans are selected and are paired up with players who throw baseballs with the goal of smashing out the headlights of an old bread truck. If the players are successful, they win cash—anywhere from $20 to $100—and the fans win gift certificates to the team store.
“When that $100 bill comes out and they’re playing for that, there’s some real focus on those throws,” Weyermann said. “Two years ago, (Pablo) Sandoval broke the most.”
The team showed some real focus of its own after the city had to cancel its Fourth of July celebration due to budget constraints.
Historically, the city of San Jose spent between $100,000 and $200,000 for their annual Independence Day festivities. Last April, the city decided it was an unnecessary expense and scratched it from the budget. By mid-June, no one had stepped up, so the Giants took matters into their own hands, raising the money needed from corporate sponsors and planning a replacement event in about two weeks. The event took place in the areas around the ballpark, owned by San Jose State.
Adding to the chaos, the team was home that day. They lost to the Modesto Nuts, 5-4, but it was certainly a win for the city.
“It was pretty intense,” Weyermann said. “But you validate your principles in a time of crisis. If you say that minor league baseball is about the community and about more than just playing baseball, then when you’re confronted with a major community issue that you can solve, I think you have an obligation to validate that statement. We did and we put it on in about 12 or 15 days and it got done and we weren’t the 10th-largest city in the country that didn’t have a fireworks show.”