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BOOK EXCERPT

6.4.99  
How Sherrie Myers Made Lansing Love Her Baseball Team
Excerpts from Women Entrepreneurs Only: 12 Women Entrepreneurs Tell the Stories of Their Success

Book Cover 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 for me."

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. She explains:

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 option.

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 fans.

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, or distributed in any manner.
Title available from bookstores, online retailers, and from the publisher at www.wiley.com or by calling 800 225-5945

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