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The Toughest Job in Baseball

You think your job is tough? Try selling Oakland A’s tickets for a living. Jim Leahey is up to the task.

Jim Leahey's worst nightmare.
Jim Leahey's worst nightmare.

Think about all the really tough jobs you could have: dental hygienist on the set of “Shark Week,” or methane suppression foreman on a buffalo ranch. Maybe spiritual enlightenment counselor for the Kardashian family, or public relations director for the IRS. Those are tough jobs.

Now think about selling tickets for the Oakland Athletics. Suddenly the gig on the buffalo ranch doesn’t sound so tough, does it?

Jim Leahey is Vice President of Sales and Marketing for the Athletics, the guy most responsible for putting fannies in seats at A’s games. He runs the A’s marketing, advertising, special events, corporate sales, ticket sales and ticket services, and he does so under the following daunting conditions:

  • The A’s play their games in the Oakland Coliseum which no one, not even the ghost of Al Davis, would mistake for Shangri-La.
  • The A’s are second banana in the smallest two-team market in major league baseball.
  • The A’s are confined to a wounded, but perhaps reviving, East Bay territory.
  • The A’s rotate their player roster more often than a NASCAR pit crew changes tires.
  • A sizeable contingent of fans still believe the A’s are purposely tanking sales in Oakland in order to make San Jose look more attractive.

Despite all that, Jim was still willing to answer a lot of nosy questions from me. So where should I begin? Why not with some good news? The A’s attendance is currently 12% ahead of last year, given momentum by last year’s winning effort. In fact, A’s attendance has increased four consecutive years now and is on course for its best year since 2007.

“Our attendance should be in the 1.8 million range, based on the current trend,” Jim said. “When we were winning one hundred games a season, about a decade ago, the attendance was 2.1, 2.2 million. Certainly, I think we can get back to that level.”

And the beat goes on.

“We did have a 35% increase in season tickets this off-season,” he continued. “If we could do that for several more years, that would have a tremendous impact. A season ticket base makes your business operations more predictable.”

Wait! What am I missing? Everything seems to be hunky-dory? Where’s the drama, the conflict, the challenge necessary for a great story? Just to be provocative, I cite the following facts: The population of Alameda, Contra Costa, and northern Santa Clara counties is approximately 3 million. The population of the seven counties surrounding Pittsburgh, PA, for instance, is just under 2 million. In 2012, the A’s won 94 games and the American League West; attendance was 1.6 million. In 2012, the Pirates had their 20th straight losing season; their attendance was just under 2.1 million.

Do those numbers say anything about the market the A’s must sell in?

“Yeah, it says something but it’s hard to make comparisons across markets,” Jim replied. “There are so many factors. The Pirates have a gorgeous ballpark. They’re the only team in their market. And sometimes attendance is driven by not only this year’s performance but by last year’s performance. When you mix all that together, and more, the Pirates’ attendance this year is not far from ours.”

“The White Sox situation is probably closest to ours,” he continued. “The other team in their market has an image similar to the National League team in our market. [Tellingly, Jim did not use the G-word.] The White Sox is the working class team. If you look at our attendance right now, it’s right in between Pittsburgh and the White Sox.”

And so it is. If you look a little closer, though, there’s a little more to the White Sox comparison. In 2011, the White Sox went 79-83 and drew 2 million, 500,000 more than the A’s with a 74-88 record. In 2012, the White Sox drew 1.97 million with an 85-77 record, 270,000 more than the A’s with a 94-68 record. This year, the White Sox stink (39-58, as of this writing) and they are averaging only 400 fewer tickets per game than the A’s. If the A’s had a similarly bad record, their attendance wouldn’t be anywhere near the White Sox’ number.

Frankly, it is hard for me to play interviewer-provocateur with Jim. He parses his conversation carefully, no broad, ill-considered generalizations. (My specialty.) He uses words like “variables” and “regression analysis” like some B-School graduate. As it turns out, he is a B-School graduate, Harvard Business School, where he studied after graduating from Brown University in economics.

(I noted the trend in baseball management towards Ivy League graduates and asked, “Is MLB the new Wall Street?” “I don’t think so,” Jim said. “Major league baseball doesn’t pay as much as Wall Street.” Unless, of course, you can hit homeruns while managing the cash flow.)

After Harvard, Jim went to work for Sony. No baloney. He ended up in South America where he became “Country Manager” for Sony-Peru. In 2006, Jim was looking for a change; the A’s were looking for somebody to run sales and marketing. He knew somebody who knew somebody and, voila! Instead of Sony headphones, Jim found himself selling tickets to A’s fans.

“The biggest difference between baseball and almost any other business is how public and fast-changing our business is,” Jim said. “The perfect example of this is the Home Run Derby. [See below for more about the decision to open the stadium early for batting practice.] We work all day, and go home, then business changes dramatically overnight. Our results on the field, and our attendance, are posted every day. There aren’t a lot of businesses where, every day, your results are made public.”

I try a new line of inquiry. What metrics do the A’s use to measure sales progress? Like his counterparts on the baseball side of the organization, Jim was very circumspect about specific methods of analysis.

“Candidly, ticket revenue is the most important thing,” he said. “Revenue per attendee is important. If you’re selling every ticket for a dollar, you may increase attendance by 35% but that is not a sustainable business model. So, both things are important, the number of tickets and the amount that you’re getting per ticket.”

“And isn’t revenue per attendee one big reason why San Jose is so attractive?” I asked. After about five seconds of silent contemplation, he said, “I’d better not comment on San Jose, but revenue per attendee is certainly one of the attractions of a new ballpark, wherever it’s located.”

Damn! I almost had him! Alright, so I asked him flat out, are the A’s purposefully tanking sales in order to make San Jose look more palatable?

“If we were trying to tank sales, my job would be pretty easy,” Jim said. “It’s preposterous to think that, if you look at all the things we do across the whole organization. If I ever get a direction to tank sales, I’ll start taking half-days off.”

To that issue, the tanking of sales, I have to point out a few things. The A’s have 45 people on their staff devoted to sales and marketing. Forty-five! They even have two guys who work as “ticket sales analysts,” numbers-crunchers who look for new ways to retain existing customers and convince them to buy more tickets. Twenty-five percent of A’s home games feature some sort of promotion or giveaway. The A’s modestly increased the prices of their season ticket plans this season, after a five-year span of no increases at all. They sell Wednesday tickets for two bucks! That seems to me strange behavior for people intent on selling fewer tickets.

Beyond that, the A’s run a very thorough sales effort. There are designated teams of salespeople devoted to every segment of ticket sales, suites, sponsorship, group sales, season tickets, single game tickets, in-stadium advertising, etc. The A’s certainly do everything the Giants do to sell tickets, maybe more. If the A’s were throwing the fight in Oakland, why would they hire a guy with Jim Leahey’s credentials? Wouldn’t Lew Wolff just put Stomper in charge of sales and marketing?

The A’s are not taking a dive. They can’t afford to. They are stuck between a rock and Mt. Davis. They have to put a team on the field and pay the bills in an untenable location, in a limited market. Sure, they get a revenue-sharing subsidy from MLB but they have no control over that. Suppose the Yankees and the Dodgers come to their senses and cut their payrolls? Where does that leave the A’s? With one big hole in their profit-and-loss statement.

Despite Jim Leahey’s skill, the A’s can’t promote and hustle their way around established reality. The market for the A’s in the Oakland Coliseum is essentially range-bound. If the team wins, the top-end for attendance is probably around 2.1 million. It can’t go much higher unless there’s a big jump in season tickets, and that isn’t likely in the Coliseum. Revenue is probably capped, too.

If the team loses, attendance will be around 1.4 million. Jim knows this. With their stirring run in 2006, the A’s won the division with a 93-69 record. Attendance was just under 2 million. In 2007, Jim’s first year with the team, attendance dropped to 1.9 million. That wasn’t Jim’s doing; the A’s finished in third with a 76-86. The next year, 2008, attendance dropped to 1.66 million corresponding to the A’s losing record of 75-86. In 2009, attendance descended to about 1.4 million coinciding with the A’s last-place finish at 75-87.

There was a worldwide economic crisis during that period, of course, but that looks like a range to me, folks. That’s a lot of pressure for any organization to withstand. The A’s have to win on the field and sell as hard as humanly possible just to reach the attendance level the White Sox reach with a terrible team. Sure, a new ballpark (anywhere) would change the dynamic but there isn’t going to be a new stadium any time soon, certainly not for five years at least, and probably not for a decade.

That’s what makes Jim Leahey’s job the toughest in baseball. I asked him if that were a fair characterization. Jim himself wasn’t buying it.

“The toughest job in baseball is still one of the best jobs in the world,” he said. “I don’t think anyone working for the A’s, or any baseball team, should expect people to feel sorry for them. Bill Burr, the comedian, says roofing in the middle of July as a redhead is the toughest job in the world. Selling tickets to baseball games is not so hard.”

The Story Behind Opening Early For BP

As a sidebar to the interview, Jim Leahey also me told about the decision to open the ballpark early on Fridays so the fans could view batting practice. That decision was applauded mightily by Athletics Nation. I know many of the front-page writers were impressed by the speed with which the A’s moved to capitalize on Yoenis Cespedes’ winning the Home Run Derby. Here’s what Jim said:

“First of all, it was not something that just came to mind. We looked at it seriously last year. Opening the stadium early is not as straight forward as it seems. When could we do it? We can open the gates early on weekends, for example, but if we have two day games in a row, there may not be batting practice. We would be using up resources to open gates early and no one would come. We also benchmarked all the other teams to see what they were doing. Then Cespedes went on the DL.

“But we looked at it again this year. When Cespedes was announced for the Home Run Derby, we didn’t have an official meeting about it, but all of us were thinking, ‘That would be cool if he wins.’ So, when he won, I texted Mike [Crowley] and Dave Rinetti, our head of Operations, ‘Are we ready to talk about this?’ Mike texted back, ‘I was thinking exactly the same thing.’

“So, the next morning [Tuesday], we went through the options again. It made sense that we would do something the first Friday the team was back home. [July 26.] We had to work with Yoenis to see what he’s comfortable with. So we decided to open the gates early. That was the first step. Once we did that then what could we do for the rest of the season? We talked about weekends but, again, often on Sunday there is no batting practice. We zeroed in on Fridays as being a good possibility.

“David and I talked with Mike, and we went through the numbers and what would make sense. [Opening the gates early means all stadium personnel must report one hour earlier than normal, a substantial expense.] We also involved the PR department, and we checked in with the baseball side, including Bob Melvin. So it was all those groups; it was PR, operations, our President, and the marketing side involved in the decision. That’s how things happened quickly. We had decided by mid-day, and then we had write the press release which we put out the next morning.

“Basically it took us a day and a half to do this, but there was a lot of study behind the decision. We already knew what it would take to do it. If a lot of people come on these Fridays, and people really love the batting practice experience, we’ll continue to do it.”