How Sherrie Myers Made Lansing Love Her Baseball Team
Excerpts from Women Entrepreneurs Only: 12 Women Entrepreneurs Tell the Stories of Their Success
On a blustery Tuesday evening in December, 1994, a couple in their late
30s sat at a secluded table in an Italian restaurant in Evanston, Ill.
They had a problem. All their money was tied up in a Class A baseball team
that had languished in Waterloo, Iowa, was limping along in Springfield,
Ill., and was going to move -- with bright prospects -- to Lansing, Mich.
The husband, Tom Dickson, wasn't ready to leave his high-paying advertising
job to handle the Lansing startup. He needed someone to run it.
The year ahead, 1995, would be both phase-out time in Springfield and
startup time in Lansing in preparation for the 1996 season. Tom's wife,
Sherrie Myers, who had plenty of experience with the business of launching
magazines, remembers thinking: "I'm a startup person with a successful
track record. I happen to have a break between startups. I can do this."
Tom didn't think of Sherrie -- because she had no previous interest in
baseball and already had, at the age of 36, a successful career -- until
she spoke up: "What about me? I think this is the right time and place
They had invested in the minor league team to fulfill Tom's dream to
own a baseball team. Sherrie understood his hesitation about surrendering
the reins to her, but she was also confident of her skills as an entrepreneur:
After he said, "Maybe you're right," he asked how it would work.
Then I described what I would do to get the startup going. I would finish
writing the business plan and write up the operations plan. I'd do the
initial hiring, organize the retail setup, do all the sales planning, and
train the people. I figured that I'd be out by July. We agreed that when
we started to make money, I would be paid a consulting fee; I wasn't volunteering
my time. So from February, 1995 on, I spent 80% of my time in Lansing.
But by July, there was no way I could pull out. Things got bigger than
we had ever expected.
What emerged is arguably the most successful minor-league team in baseball
history. The Lansing Lugnuts set the all-time minor league record for first-year
Class A attendance by drawing 538,326 fans in 1996 to newly built Oldsmobile
Park (the number has stayed above 500,000 since then.) Among all 156 U.S.
minor league teams, only three had higher attendance in 1996. Revenues
from 1997 sales of team merchandise ranked No. 1 in all of minor league
baseball, even outselling several major-league teams.
Tom took a six-month leave of absence in February, 1996, to help get
the Lansing operation rolling. He was supposed to return to his high-powered
job. His six-figure salary was their safety net. If he quit, they would
become all-or-nothing entrepreneurs. He quit.
Sherrie's and Tom's road to Lansing was no joyride. They had spent a
year networking in the self-centered world of minor-league baseball, learning
its inbred ways, making contracts, and looking for a franchise to buy.
It's very confusing the way it works in the minor leagues. The owners
of a minor league franchise own the operation, the business, if you will.
The contract is with a major league team that has the right to recruit,
pick and train players and send them to us to play. The major league team
pays the players and decides who comes down to us and who goes up to the
majors. We have nothing to do with that. We sell the seats, open the gates,
service the fans. We also pay for the uniforms and bats and balls and for
travel. But we don't have anything to do with the actual baseball side
of the operation.
As a team owner, you market entertainment. We're a single A team,
which is not what you call a very refined level of play. The pitcher could
be fantastic one night and, the next time, unable to find the plate. That's
one reason you can't market around players, not to mention that the major
league team could decide a player is gone, and he's history in 24 hours.
When Tom learned that the Waterloo Diamonds were for sale, the team
drew only 500 fans on a good day, was losing $100,000 a year, and was playing
in a run-down stadium. Despite the team's anemic condition, the lure of
owning a baseball team had attracted nine groups of potential investors
when Dickson rushed in with an offer to buy.
Sherrie and Tom used their own money to make the downpayment (which
they risked forfeiting) and were ready to put all the money they had into
the purchase. The couple talked to everyone in their baseball network in
search of prospects to put on their money list of investors. Nothing was
easy. The financing wasn't nailed down completely until the day the deal
closed. Then, six weeks before opening day in 1994, Waterloo's city fathers
reacted against the idea that the team had been unloaded and would be eventually
relocated. They suddenly announced that the token $1 annual lease for their
rickety stadium was being raised to $500,000. Sherrie remembers it as a
time of panic.
I remember saying that we had to move the team, and Tom said that
we didn't have the time. I said that the only way to problem solve is piece
by piece. Don't worry about things like the name of the team in a
new location or about selling tickets. We need a roof over out head, and
we can't pay half a million in rent for it. With help from the league president,
George Spelius, we located a roof in Springfield. Tom flew to Springfield,
met with the mayor, and they signed a two-year lease with a third-year
Then we needed a name so we could sell tickets. Tom and I happened
to be into alliteration so we went through the dictionary under S and came
up with the Sultans of Springfield. We got an illustrator to come up with
a logo in 24 hours. I flew down to Springfield and tried to sell advertising
signage at the ball park. I told people they had 48 hours to get back to
us, first come, first served. People laughed at us, but we did sell a fair
amount of advertising, considering the market. Meanwhile, we hoped that
Springfield would wake up and decide to build a new stadium. But within
six months we knew that it was almost impossible. Tom began calling people
and networking. This led us to Lansing's mayor, David Hollister, who said,
"I've got it. I understand. Let's see if we can make this happen."
In Lansing, Sherrie and Tom found a city ready to make a long-term commitment
to a professional team. It's the state capital, large enough to support
a team, and it was hungry for one. While the team played out the 1995 seasons
in Springfield on a shoestring with a skeleton crew, Sherrie geared up
for Opening Day, 1996, in Lansing. There were two years of red ink in Springfield
before the team relocated.
Sherrie ran a "Name the Team" contest in Lansing and created a citywide
buzz about the choice with radio and newspaper ads and stories. The name
Lugnuts came up repeatedly:
We created a community-wide sense of expectation. In May, 1995, when
we opened Nuts & Bolts, our retail store, we had a stage set up in
downtown Lansing, and the streets were closed down. We announced the name
of the team, the mascot jumped out of a box, the mayor spoke, a ribbon
was cut, and customers poured into the store. It was a phenomenal success.
We had lines three blocks long of people coming to buy team merchandise.
We sold an ungodly amount of merchandise in the Thursday, Friday and Saturday
of the store's opening weekend, something like $200,000. We had $1 million
in retail sales in 1996 and 1997. We've sold over 70,000 hats alone and
they're obviously not worn only by kids. We've even sold them all over
the world through out Web site.
Sherrie identifies the business as "event marketing." What happens at
the ballpark is choreographed down to the minute. The happenings between
the innings include slingshots (free T-shirts propelled into the crowd),
mascot races, Frito Lay races, hot dog cannon (wrapped hot dogs shot into
the stands), "Sumo" wrestling, impersonations, and postgame Conga Lines.
(Seven times a season, there are postgame fireworks.) Then, there are the
added touches, like playing Three Blind Mice when umpires appear;
or whipping up the crowd with the theme from Rocky; or the appearance of
a groundskeeper in red mechanic's overalls who shines the plate umpire's
shoes and bald head with a garage rag.
Sherrie and Tom are at the ballpark for almost all the season's 70 games.
Sherrie is out in the stands, wearing her Lugnuts cap and mixing with the
With the Lugnuts, we have forever changed the community. It doesn't
have the same state of mind that it had before the Lugnuts came to town.
I see in kids' faces that they are absolutely thrilled. There's not a boring
moment in our games. You can ask anyone in Lansing.
Gregory K. Ericksen is the National Director of Entrepreneurial Services
of Ernst & Young, which provides tax, business advisory, and consulting
services for domestic and global clients. He is also Chairman of the Entrepreneur
Of The Year Institute and author of What's Luck Got to Do With It?: 12
Entrepreneurs Reveal the Secrets Behind Their Success (Wiley; 1997).
Reprinted with permission from
Women Entrepreneurs Only: 12 Women Entrepreneurs Tell the Stories
of Their Success by Gregory K. Ericksen
Copyright 1999 by Ernst & Young LLP
Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Adapted with permission of the author and John Wiley & Sons,Inc.
May not be modified, reproduced, republished, uploaded, posted, transmitted,
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