2018-19 Q&A With Minor League Baseball President Pat O'Conner
Every year at the Winter Meetings, Baseball America sits down with Pat O’Conner, the president of Minor League Baseball, for a wide-ranging interview. This year’s sit down was conducted on the final day of the Meetings, at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay hotel. It covered how Winter Meeting sites are selected, the future of MiLB. TV and MiLB’s Baseball Internet Rights Company and the upcoming Professional Baseball Agreement.
BASEBALL AMERICA: When looking at where to hold a Winter Meetings, you have a limited slate of possibilities I would imagine. There aren’t many places in the country that can host this now are there?
PAT O’CONNER: Here’s some perspective for you: On peak night, we need 2,900 hotel rooms. To execute the Meetings we need 600,000 square feet of meeting space—300,000 for (Major League Baseball), 300,000 for (Minor League Baseball). We need about 125,000-150,000 square feet of trade show space. There aren’t many places (that can host the Winter Meetings). This is a massive place, but we are technically in two hotels—the Delano and the Mandalay Bay—they just happen to be connected.
BA: This works out well because it’s all connected. You feel like you’re at an Opryland or something.
O’CONNER: And Opryland is one that can handle it. People thought Opryland was too big. I’ll be interested to see (after the Meetings) what they think of Opryland nowadays. The difference between the two is that we’re in Las Vegas and there’s a multitude of things to do if you leave the property. In Nashville, you’ve kind of got to go downtown.
BA: Dallas is the same way.
O’CONNER: We’ve outgrown Dallas. When we go back to Dallas (in 2021), we’re not going to be at the Hilton Anatole because we can’t fit everybody in it . . . (MiLB) is going to be in one hotel, (MLB) is going to be in another, and it’s a measurable drive, it’s like 10 minutes apart.
BA: Even in Orlando you’re in two hotels, it’s just that you’re so close together.
O’CONNER: When we go back to Orlando, (MiLB) is going to be at the Swan and Dolphin and (MLB) is going to be at (a different hotel). And when you stop and think and you walk around this place, it’s not as noticeable because of the massive size, but you need like five or six TV setups, and those take up a considerable amount of space. You need all these radio setups, and that can be a table and a chair, but you need that kind of space. You’re right. There are only a few places that can handle this event.
BA: And you have a very fixed time (of when to hold the Meetings).
O’CONNER: We really do. You could change the constitution, but our rules requires the Meetings to be in December . . . You could move deeper into December, but do you really want to do that with Christmas right around the corner? No. So, the first two weeks, to begin and start within the first two weeks, take five or six days in there and that’s the sweet spot. To your point, we get the prospectus and there are a lot of cities that like the idea until they see the prospectus. We probably have six or eight legitimate cities to continue to work with, so when you consider a rotation. This part of the industry, this part of our business, it’s a rates and dates business. The further out you can go, the better your choices and dates, the better your rates will be. If you wait until this time this year to book your next year’s event, you’re not going to get dates and your rates are going to be through the roof. We know we’re going to San Diego next year, we’re going to Dallas the year after that and then we’re going to Orlando. We have, probably over the next six or seven years, probably two open dates that we’ll work on, and I can’t honestly tell you that I’m confident there will be a new city in one of those open slots.
BA: To pull back here a little bit, as you look back at 2018 what worked well, and will fans going to a game in 2019 see anything different than they saw in 2018?
O’CONNER: We’re probably going to do some tweaks to some rules. In the extra-inning rule, the batter who makes the last out in the previous inning starts on second base. When two National League teams get together, pitchers hit. We’re going to probably look to tweak the rule that, if the pitcher is the last out, he stays in the game and he doesn’t go and run. We’ll figure out what to do. It’s not conducive to have pitchers running bases, running extra. So that’s something you might see. I don’t anticipate any change to the 15- and 20-second time limits . . . One of the great indicators for us is: What did they do in the (Arizona) Fall League? Because that’s the first true test, and we’re almost the secondary validation test over a longer period of time. There wasn’t really anything new coming out of the Fall League, so I think from the game itself you’re not going to see a whole lot of changes.
BA: One thing obviously in 2019 that could be a concern is that you have two lame duck teams (in Mobile and New Orleans).
O’CONNER: We’ve got some parks that are going to open in the next few years, and when you go spot to spot and year to year you’re going to have those influences. And I think I spoke with you about 2018 from an attendance standpoint and I shared with you that I’m not overly concerned about the dip from last year when you think about some things. We started 73 games in April with game-time temperature of 40 (degrees) or less. You don’t cancel that game, you play it, but you don’t play it in front of anybody. More cancellations that we’ve had in April than we’ve had in 15 Aprils. When you look at that and we come out of April 500,000 people behind. We also had two leagues play two fewer games (apiece), that’s another half a million fans. To finish 3.5 percent down, and then you look around at other pro sports leagues where weather isn’t as big a factor, I wasn’t overly concerned about the dip.
And then I called probably two dozen owners who have been around a while and have seen springs like we had and asked their year went and how much of their decrease was weather and how much was a product problem. Do we have a problem with the product? Did our pace of game rules turn people off? No, it’s nothing like that. When we got good weather and played, we did very, very well.
So, unless there is a perpetual or a repetitive weather problem, I think we’ll be good. In addition to my lack of concern over the product, when you talk to them about the revenue, they’re not proportionally down.
BA: One thing you’ve grown in is national sponsors. You have more national sponsors now than you did a few years ago. I would imagine that’s been pretty significant.
O’CONNER: There are two very exciting aspects from the central office that I’m really encouraged about. One is the digital space improvements—all of our sites will be responsive, which to the user is not going to mean anything until (mobile sites) become a lot more effective. We can do things from a tech standpoint to make your experience better, and then HD (on MiLB.TV). HD is going to allow us to stream games and they’re not going to be choppy, they’re not going to be blurry.
BA: As I’ve seen it, there are two issues: It’s been a low-res 240p feed in the past, and as an Android user it doesn’t have scrubbing ability. Those are functionality things that stand out.
O’CONNER: Part of that is in partnering with BAM, they are our tech partners. What we save in the finances or the aggravation of original tech development, we get that advantage. I think going to HD and going to responsive sites, those two issues that just really make your experience less than it should be and more than you can tolerate, they’re going to be addressed in the very, very near future.
BA: That could pay off for the gameday experience too (with video boards)?
O’CONNER: We’re excited about our media content strategy. We have 6,200 streams (roughly). We develop all this content. Our strategy at the national level is to collect all that, aggregate all that content, package it and push it back out to the clubs so their video boards and Websites are better. There is some organization to it, but it’s a better quality product. Then we push it out to social media. From the central office we are developing an over-arching strategy that allows the clubs to send us stuff and to receive content from us to enhance the gameday experience. Fans are going to have a better experience. Teams will have a chance to add local corporate sponsorship and (we) have more national inventory to sell. One of the ethos was to create inventory that teams can’t create and sell it to people they can’t sell it too.
BA: You’re selling national and teams have the right to sell local.
O’CONNER: What this program has done is it has made us less reliant on local inventory. Our clubs don’t have a problem selling fence signs, program ads and season tickets. This allows us to stay at 35,000 feet with inventory that we create and they are never going to use. And we are selling to people they will never get a meeting with. This didn’t exist five years ago . . . I’m really excited about it. I believe the clubs will benefit. I know fans will benefit.
BA: There’s a big event coming up. When a new one arrives it’s a significant event.
O’CONNER: No question. That’s the connective tissue. It’s a big deal. I’ve done three of these. In the last 25 years we did a deep dive, we did a tweak and we really just renewed. We’re probably going to do a deep dive and both sides welcome that. It’s the only fair and right thing to do for the relationship. Facility standards have basically been unchanged in the last 25 years. Now you think about the needs of a major league club. You didn’t have a masseuse. You didn’t have a strength and conditioning coordinator. You didn’t have a videographer. You didn’t have a nutritionist. You didn’t have an extra coach on the staff. Just logistically there is a physical plant need that we need to address.
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BA: That’s not as scary I would imagine as it was in 1992 (the last time facility requirements changed) when many cities thought it was catastrophic.
O’CONNER: It was catastrophic for some cities and that is why we saw so much relocation. I think the way to look at this objectively is, where did you start in 1992 and where are you starting in 2020? You are starting from a much higher place. The core physical plant is much better today than it was back then. So you are only talking about the incremental. You are not starting from zero. We had a meeting yesterday with Major League Baseball operations. We’re going to get together. We’re not under any deadline pressure. We will get together and frame out the process. When you do these, if there isn’t a little friction along the way you probably didn’t do the process justice. You have to dig and find out where your choke points are on issues. The thing I like about this is it’s not a matter of if we’re going to get a deal but what it is going to look like. No one wants it to be like (the) 1991 (Winter Meetings) in Los Angeles, Major League Baseball didn’t show up. They went to Chicago. That’s not going to happen. We’ll do a fair deal.
BA: Is there a concern that MLB is looking for consolidation? I assume on Minor League Baseball’s side, you want to come out of these with as many teams as you came into (the PBA) with.
O’CONNER: Sure the skeletal structure of this game is important to the game. We have opinions beyond the fact that we are not looking to reduce teams. We have concerns about what changes to the structural system will do to the game itself—not the economics of the game, not the function of the game, but the game itself. The bigger question to us is MLB when are you going to expand? If history were to repeat itself, if they add two teams, I’ve got to come up with 10 to 12 cities. I don’t have 10 to 12 cities today. Now I think that subtraction by addition . . . Could it be in an expansion a major league team with seven affiliates says ‘I’m good with six.’ So you don’t add 10, you add nine. You come up with something there. Where do you expand? Where those affiliates will be? Is it truly international? All of that will come out over time. A conversation over affiliates is a very sensitive one. I think it will be handled maturely and cautiously. We’re not looking to reduce clubs.
BA: We’re seeing more and more complex league teams. Is that a concern for affiliates?
O’CONNER: I think that increase is an addition to and not an instead of. I was in the Astros organization running a complex in 1990. I developed a complex league concept for them to consider. When you look now, the game is in a different place. Minor League Baseball does more than just provide venues. We provide umpires. We provide fans. We provide continuity. We provide “Play Ball” outlets. If you want to grow the game, the game’s growth doesn’t rest at the feet of Major League Baseball or Minor League Baseball. It rests at the feet of both of us. We’ve played off of each other very effectively. If we want to go to Congress, we have 86 Senators–we’re in 43 states. We’ve got 75 percent of the House of Representatives. When you talk about Play Ball, there were probably more youth at MiLB Play Ball events than MLB Play Ball events by virtue of our numbers . . . You keep a score sheet on costs. You keep a score sheet of the buckets you want to filled and how you want them filled. All with the idea that we’re going to get to yes, let’s do a good job in getting there.
BA: What kind of timetable needs to happen to have that run smoothly?
O’CONNER: You don’t want to get to the 11th hour. That is when tensions get artificially inflamed. It’s been many years since we’ve gone to expiration. I’d like to have an agreement by the winter meetings next year, which is a full year ahead of when we need to. But these things take on a life of their own and we will get there when we get there. I would rather have a late deal than a rushed, bad deal.