Business Lessons from the King
Bill Valentine, legendary Arkansas Travelers executive and former American League umpire, was named”King of Baseball” at the 2014 Winter Meetings in San Diego. The day after his crowning ceremony, I sat down with Valentine, now in his 80s, for a wide-ranging interview. This chat has already resulted in one MiLB.com feature, but , as I noted at the time, there was PLENTY more where that came from.
During the course of our very long conversation – if you know Bill Valentine, then you know that he likes to tell stories – I asked him if, as King, he had any advice for his “subjects” now working in the industry. His advice, in so many words, could be summarized as “Keep it simple, stupid.” But I’ll let him tell it. The floor is now ceded to the King, so that he may enlighten the next generation of Minor League Baseball executives on a variety of topics.
Finally, it would be a good idea to listen to this classic Valentine voicemail message before reading the remainder of this post. It really helps to have a sense of his distinct (and often hilarious) manner of speaking.
(Note: This article, in slightly different form, first appeared in the Minor League Baseball industry newsletter The Dugout.)
Bill Valentine on ballpark food
People don’t know this, but when Bobby Bragan was the president of the Minor Leagues I started the Freitas Seminar [a Minor League business seminar held during the Winter Meetings]. It wasn’t called that then, I just had a seminar. I brought the general managers in to speak, but we talked about soft drinks, we talked about food, we talked about promotions, we talked about ticket sales, we talked about the souvenir stand.
You know what people want when they come to the ballpark? Peanuts, popcorn, nachos, hot dogs, a cold beer and a soft drink. They can get a brisket sandwich for lunch or anywhere else. But when they come to the ballpark, even if they’re in $40,000 suites, they want ballpark food. I found that out. And it’s true to this day. You can’t make a hamburger better than Five Guys. There ain’t no way you’re going to do those type of things better than the local guys. You can’t do barbeque better than some guy who owns a barbeque place. But hardly anybody in town is doing peanuts, popcorn, nachos and hot dogs.
You got high profit in it. And I tell people, no one ever said “Hey, let’s go to [the Travelers home of] Dickey-Stephens Park tonight. They’ve got great sushi.” Stick with the basics. Put your emphasis on what I just told you. Keep the popcorn hot, make sure you’ve got an all-meat fantastic hot dog, and the beer should be the coldest of anywhere in town. Seriously, [slapping hands for emphasis] that will make you a lot of money.
On team merchandise
My idea of souvenirs was to have my logo in the community. I wanted everyone to have Traveler ballcaps. I wanted the kids to have Traveler wristbands. I wanted them in a Travelers t-shirt…..So, a $10 t-shirt. They don’t blink. But a $22 t-shirt? Jeez.
The team cap, one size fits all? Maybe $10, $11. The one that’s a real team hat? In the $20s, maybe. Then have a lot of things, like a logo baseballs. You get the damn things for a dollar and a half. Sell it for four. Sell all that stuff, get a nice little margin but try to push it out the by the barrelful.
On customer service
I really think that, every game, there should be someone at the entrances with a club hat on welcoming people. And at the end of the game, same people, saying “Hope you come back.” And I think people enjoy that, they say, “You know, they were really nice.” I think that can go a long way. Just saying thank you.
Every night I would send out ‘mystery people’ to the concession stands. One had a $20 bill, and the other had a $10 bill. And they would go to the stands and buy something, and if the person selling said “Thank you” then the mystery person would give them the money. It really turned them around. Our employees were saying “thank you.” It’s just a nice courtesy. I had everyone around the ballpark saying “thank you.” I did it by passing out some money.
On the primary importance of the women’s restroom
I had never seen a line at the men’s restroom. So when we built [Dickey-Stephens] ballpark I said “We’re going to take half the men’s restrooms and add them to the ladies’ room.” They told me I couldn’t do it, because of federal things. I said, “I get to build this ballpark. The mayor gave it to me and it’s my ballpark.” So I made the ladies restroom twice as big as the men’s room. The ladies restrooms probably had 30 commodes in them. I mean, really.
Opening night, a guy came over from the television station and said “Okay, Mr. Promoter. What’s the one thing tonight you think people are going to notice?” I said “I’m going to tell you something. The first time a woman goes to the women’s restroom, if I’m nearby they’re going to come out and hug my neck and say to me that it is the most fantastic thing they’ve ever seen.”
Well, when Opening Night came and the gates opened [the TV reporter] put me at the exit of the ladies restroom. The first lady came out, ran over, hugged my neck and said “That was the most fantastic bathroom I have ever seen in my life.” And [the reporter], he just threw his hands up and said “You SOB.”