Touch all the bases

Written by Ian Portsmouth

Enthusiasm permeates the offices of the Toronto Blue Jays this spring, and it’s due not only to the team’s off-season acquisition of several star players. Staff are also excited to be part of a small-business turnaround story that’s developing a very happy ending.

Small business? It’s not a phrase usually associated with the Jays, which generated 2004 revenue of US$137 million and this year will pay their players US$72 million, more than the average entrepreneur will spend on salaries in a lifetime.

But the Blue Jays face many entrepreneurial challenges, such as the battle with bigger rivals for the best employees and attracting loyal customers who have too many spending options. On the latter front, the team could do no worse than from 1993 to 2000, when attendance plunged by 55% and the Jays dropped from fifth to 23rd place in Forbes’ annual revenue ranking of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams.

The turnaround effort began in the spring of 2001, soon after Rogers Communications Inc. (which owns PROFIT) acquired the team. “At the time, much was made of how the team was performing on the field,” says Rob Godfrey, the Jays’ senior vice-president of communications and external relations. “But the biggest problem was off the field.” He offers this example of the Jays’ woeful operations: from 1977 till the Rogers takeover, the club didn’t place a single outbound ticket-sales call.

Unlike too many sports franchises, the Jays haven’t tried to spend their way out of trouble. Instead, they’ve spent the past five years getting the little things right-just like any small business should. Merchandise sales are up, customer satisfaction is higher and attendance-the bellwether of the baseball business-topped two million last year, up 23% from 2002. Here are four lessons from the Blue Jays’ off-field comeback:

Control your product

Purchasing SkyDome (since renamed Rogers Centre) in January 2005 allowed the Jays to make fan-friendly (and revenue-generating) improvements to the stadium and take over control of customer-service functions from the former landlord.

Manage expectations

As the team rebuilds on the field, its advertising strategy de-emphasizes winning and positions the team as underdogs worth supporting. For instance, this year’s slogan is “You gotta believe,” and its 2003 “Baseball North” campaign played the Canada-U.S. relations card by claiming, “It’s a different game up here.” (Sample ad: when players try to dump a jug of water on their manager, it falls out as a block of ice.)

Appeal to key influencers

Hook one kid on baseball, and the whole family comes to the game. That explains the Jays’ expanding youth marketing efforts, which now include Little League sponsorships, kid-focused concessions and Jays@School, a series of Blue Jays-infused elementary-school books.

Look your part

Unveiled in 2003, the Jays’ new logo reflects the team’s edgier branding. It has also spawned profitable new apparel lines, including hip streetwear and ladies’ fashions, which helped sales of Blue Jays merchandise rise 57% over the past two seasons. Put a Jays logo on this turnaround story, and maybe you can judge a book by its cover.

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