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017: Buyouts and Beer Nights: What The Future Has in Store for Minor League Baseball - with Aaron Hahn
Aaron is in his 15th season with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and he currently serves as the Vice President, Assistant General Manager of those Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. Aaron himself has actually been with the organization for 15 years starting in 2006 as the seasonal box office employee, which now he currently oversees the team stadium operations and special events.
Where did the name “Timber Rattlers” come from?
It was from a name the team contest back in 1994. The first year we were called the Timber Rattlers was 1995. So they did a name the team contest and that won apparently. They did it with some elementary schools I believe in the area. So Timber Rattlers aren't native to this area, but apparently Western Wisconsin area there actually are some in the state but not locally, thankfully.
What is happening currently in the Minor League Baseball world?
So the landscape has changed a lot in the last year. Basically, the agreement between major league baseball and minor league baseball was coming to an end, which had been a 10-year agreement and been in place for a long time. We just kind of rolled over the last time. In the past, minor league baseball was its own separate organization, and they've been in a partnership with Major League Baseball since the late 1800s, early 1900s. Minor league baseball was basically the farm system for Major League Baseball. There was this long partnership between the two, Minor League Baseball was its own organization and then the partnership with Major League Baseball. So basically when you're an affiliate of an MLB team, like we are with the Brewers and have been, since 2009. But with that affiliation that you have, basically, the minor league team provides the team a place to play, bus to travel, jerseys, that sort of thing. Then the major league team provides the team, players, coaches. The equipment is kind of split between the two. But we were a separate entity with minor league baseball and our own Appleton Baseball Club is what we have been known, which just changed recently. So here, we're affiliated with the Brewers, and people assume we're owned by the Brewers. A gentleman came up one time as like, "I was just chatting with your owner the other day," and actually, we didn't have an owner until recently, we were community-owned, just like the Green Bay Packers where there wasn't one owner, there were shareholders. But basically, if we made any money or lost any money, it just stayed within the organization so that we made money that we could do a little bit more to the stadium and do some things on that. So I corrected him and said, "Well, Mark Attanasio actually isn't our owner," and he said "No, no, no, Yeah, he's your owner," and I'm just like, okay no sense in arguing that. That's really the basic agreement. So if the Brewers send us a team that's terrible we can tell them that these guys aren't very good. But it doesn't matter, they don't have to change anything. Then they can't tell us that our stadium is terrible, or we charge too much for tickets or we run terrible promotions. They can't do anything about that because we operate separately, but we're partnered together. So thankfully, we don't have a terrible stadium and we run good promotions and keep tickets at a good price. So it's been a good partnership there. Basically, this partnership between major league baseball and minor league baseball, where they partner together and work together came to an end, and now Minor League Baseball is kind of finished and Major League Baseball is just going to take over and run Minor League Baseball. There are going to be some changes, some of which we are kind of getting into and knowing about and some are probably going to be a bit of a surprise of how certain things change. We know the basic layout of everything. But we're going through a pretty big adjustment and change as far as how things are going to operate and who's calling the shots and those types of things. Minor League Baseball had a president and currently, we do as we work through some of the transition, but that'll probably change and Minor League Baseball and organizations probably going to pretty much phase out with Major League Baseball taking it over. They're hiring some of the people from Minor League Baseball to smooth that transition from the whole Minor League Offices down in Florida, but really MLB determined everything and they cut out some teams. So we used to have 160 Minor League teams brought minor league baseball, they cut it down to 120. Each MLB team has four affiliates at Low-A, High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A. They do have some complex teams at their spring training sites where they'll have some additional players but they're limited now with the number of teams they can have. They're limited with the number of players they can have where it really wasn't a level playing field in the past. So the New York Yankees go out and sign 30 guys from the Dominican Republic for as much as they want. They didn't fall under some of the salary cap stuff that’s implemented with the draft or penalties or things like that.
Are there benefits of the MLB essentially taking ownership now of the Minor League system?
From the level the playing field perspective, that means something at the Major League level, not so much to us necessarily at the Minor League level. But with Major League Baseball taking over they should be able to streamline some things. So we had a number of people in the Minor League offices that, you know, we paid dues, and things like that, to cover salaries and different things with that, and the physical office as well down there. There were expenses with that and some of that should go away. With sponsorship sales, things like that, where Major League Baseball is going to probably sell naming rights to Minor League Baseball, probably. So we might end up with a jersey patch or something like that, kind of like the G League. The NBA had the D league developmental league back in the day, it changed to the G league sponsored by Gatorade, so they had G on their jerseys. So there are some things there from that standpoint that could help us in terms of more revenue coming in, some expenses cut, a couple of different things with that. We're still kind of early in the phase of all of it and it's almost going to take a year before we realize, okay, we've gone through a season, hopefully, and kind of see how it all shakes out.
What was this last "season that wasn't" like for you guys internally as an organization? What did you do during that time?
Well, the agreement was up after the 2020 season. So that was just kind of a timing thing in the way that it happened, but rumors had already come out. There were rumors in maybe September of 2019 that Major League Baseball was looking to cut teams. It kind of came back to the fact that Minor League Baseball players are not paid all that well. So there's been more and more spotlights shown on that. There's been some lawsuits and different things where former Minor League players have sued Major League Baseball, trying to get better pay, better working conditions, different things like that. So Major League Baseball has been under the gun for a while to increase salaries. So really, when they looked at it having a bunch of minor league teams, how many players do you need within your system to fill out a major league roster? So at the end of the day, they looked at it and some of these guys are just filler to fill up teams, but chances of them making the Major Leagues aren't very good. When we look at it from any given year, a roster of 25 on our roster, but we have 35-40 guys come through our team every year. Maybe 10% of our team eventually makes the major leagues and that's only three steps away. The odds aren't in favor of a player making the Major League so the MLB looked at it and said do we need all these teams? Do we need all these players? Probably not, we can cut back on some of that, though, by cutting back on the number of teams and players, if we keep that expense for player salary the same, we can pay fewer players more. So it all kind of shook out that way as well. That was already kind of in the works at the end of 2019 and rumored going into 2020. Then 2020 happened, which obviously didn't help any of baseball. So ultimately it was Major League Baseball's call to cancel the Minor League season because they supply the players. If we don't have players, there's really not a whole lot we can do. Some Minor League teams did start up their own league even. A team in Lansing in our league created two teams just out of local college players, some from further away, and played the Lemonade League.
How does that directly relate to your position with the Timber Rattlers and what does that just do for the health of your organization?
Yeah, it's huge. So as I mentioned earlier, we were affiliated with the Mariners before we were with the Brewers. So we had Alex Rodriguez come through Appleton the last year of the old stadium, the old team, The Appleton Foxes in 1994. A-Rod played, I think, is most games for any Minor League team with the Foxes, like half a season. David Ortiz played here in 1996. So we had some big names, but when we became an affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers after the 2008 season attendance went crazy. We went up 35%, maybe the next year from an attendance standpoint, which is huge. People love their brewers around here, people love their baseball, and when there was just that Brewer tie, it was great timing, because I think the Brewers made the playoffs in 2008 for the first time since 1982 when they made the World Series run. So it had been a while since there had been any success on the baseball field within this state. So to be able to continue that affiliation with the Brewers, for now, a 10 year deal with that whole Major League Baseball- Minor League Baseball agreement, really extending and now Major League Baseball, taking it all over. But now they want to do 10 years so it's not changing every two or four years, like it had been in the past Major League Baseball really wanted to lock in the affiliates for these major league teams, not as much jumping around and really just create a partnership. We've heard good stuff from the fans about continuing that relationship and being in the home state obviously helps a lot too. We used to be the Low-A affiliate, we're now the High-A affiliate so it's one level change. So we're one level, kind of closer to the Major Leagues for these players. So it'll be a little bit better skill level. A lot of guys don't make it past Low-A ball, so it's the next rung to the MLB. We're probably going to see a lot of the guys that we had the last time we played ball here in 2019 at least for the first year. So I don't see a huge change from that end of it. But really that affiliation is still the big thing and to be affiliated with the Brewers is huge.
Do you see attendance spike more from wins, or is it more in relation to the entertainment factor?
Yeah, the joke throughout Minor League Baseball is nobody cares about the game or the team. It's all about family entertainment. We're not competing with the Brewers to draw fans, we're competing with your movie theater down the street or anywhere that families go. We figure probably 90% of the people who come through our gates have no idea about any players on the team, have absolutely no clue what our record is. Really the only people who know are the full-season ticket holders basically who are out here every night and you know kind of live and die with whether you win or lose. But probably at least 50% of the people who come to a game a certain night have no idea if we won or lost that game. They’re coming for dollar beer, they're coming for their company outing, their picnic that their employer is putting on for them and they say "Hey, yeah, I'll have a beer and a hot dog on my place of work if they're gonna pay for it and some baseball." We do different bobblehead giveaways and things like that, people come out to get some of those things. So the baseball is kind of secondary. So yeah, Back to what you mentioned, it's really the Brewers' success that helps create baseball fans in the state and get people hungry for baseball and excited for baseball. If we're playing really well, again, there's probably going to be 10% of the people who even know that we're doing well, and might care but for the most part, they're not. So success at the Major League level is probably more important than us even doing well.
What does selling tickets post-pandemic mean to you guys and what have you guys done internally to prepare for this?
So prior to the pandemic we were selling 40 to 45% of our tickets through groups. So that's these company outings or family outings, anything like that. A group of 20 or more that's coming to the ballpark was 40 to 45% of our attendance. So we did really well with companies in our area, outside of our area. 10 to 15% of season tickets, and then a lot of individual tickets, and that's based on weather, that's based on the promotion that we have, whether it's a giveaway, whether it's that dollar beer, dollar hot dog, former Brewer appearance, whatever it might be. So you have your different groups of people and why they come out. So post-pandemic, we're going to see what that looks like. We figure some companies are going to be a little bit more hesitant to come back and do an employee outing or do a customer appreciation outing or something like that. But a lot of people are chomping at the bit to come out. So a lot of season ticket holders we're seeing re-upping their tickets. Individual tickets we're going to put on sale probably in March. We just got our schedule last week, actually, so we're throwing all our promotions in and it's carrying pretty much all our promotions over from last year. So we had 11 bobblehead giveaways planned for last year so we have them in.
And so much more...