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Owners discuss art of business at Diversity Summit

HOUSTON -- A handful of prominent baseball executives opened themselves to the public Wednesday as part of Major League Baseball's second annual Business Diversity Summit.

The owners' panel -- dubbed "The Business of the Game" -- was the first major event at the Summit on Wednesday, and hundreds of job-seekers and potential vendors sat in rapt attention at the George R. Brown Convention Center, soaking in every word from some of the industry's leaders.

Jonathan Mariner, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Major League Baseball, served as the moderator, and he deftly kept each of the participants involved in the conversation.

Jim Crane, owner and chairman of the hometown Astros, was part of the panel, and he was joined by Milwaukee Brewers chairman Mark Attanasio and Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg. Bill Bartholomay, chairman emeritus of the Braves, was also involved, as were Derrick Hall, chief executive officer of the Diamondbacks, and Minor League Baseball president and CEO Pat O'Conner.

Each of the executives spent time talking about baseball and the unique challenges faced by their respective teams. But they all shared a few things in common: An appreciation of the bottom line in business, but also a love of the game and a hope to see it grow more diverse in the future.

O'Conner tied it all those together by saying that those interests impact each other over time. The audience at the Business Diversity Summit, he said, was proof of the sport's most firmly held convictions.

"We realize that the demographics in this country are continually changing, and they're swinging away from white males to non-white and gender-based diversity," O'Conner said. "I never want to downplay the social and moral obligation. The Commissioner reminds us constantly that we're a social institution and caretakers of this great game. But for me, as a CEO, it's very much a business decision. For us to be competitive, we need to be reflective of the community and the areas in which we desire to do business. ... We're very committed to it. We think it's a long-term play."

Hall, recognized as one of the game's fastest rising executives, spoke about serving his community and making sure that his team's customers are always happy. That's reflected in many ways in Arizona, from family-value pricing and allowing fans to bring in outside food and water.

Hall said he wants his organization to reflect the diverse trends in society, but he said it's even more important to be focused on the job at hand. The D-backs have a system called the circle of success, and Hall described it as a guiding philosophy that touches everything they do.

The most important part, said Hall, is to focus on five specific areas: Financial efficiency, on-field performance, the community, culture and fan experience. If those five areas are addressed, he said, then the D-backs can be sure that they are giving fans the best product possible for their money.

"If we're not focused on those five areas, we're not doing our jobs," said Hall. "We have to realize we're not going to win every year. You hope to win and you expect to win, but the reality is you're not always going to. You have to get lucky, you have to stay healthy, etc. So for us, we challenge ourselves to win off the field as much as we can. We always say, 'Let's find a way to win even when we lose.' How do you have a fan leave your ballpark after a loss and say, 'That was so great. I can't wait to go back the next day'? And it's very challenging. But you're not going to win every game."

Crane, whose Astros moved to the American League this year, said that it's been an interesting time to be MLB's newest owner. Crane, a former college pitcher and a scratch golfer, said that he's been able to learn a few things in his short time in the game.

"Baseball catches a lot of attention," Crane said. "The surprise from last year [was that] the media is very intense. You really have to be focused on how you're handling things. We've certainly made some mistakes in taking over the Astros, but that's kind of the biggest thing. I think the other thing is just to get each part of the organization communicating with each other and getting the baseball operation working with the business side and back and forth. But it's been a lot of fun."

If Crane were looking for inspiration, he could find it sitting just a few seats away. When Sternberg took over the Rays in October 2005, Tampa Bay was a perennial last-place team. But that turned around under Sternberg, and the Rays have made the playoffs in three of the past five years.

Part of that resurgence has been attributed to the business backgrounds of Sternberg, club president Matthew Silverman and executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. The three came into MLB with no baseball experience, but they relied on business savvy and know-how from their previous careers on Wall Street.

"Because of where we stood in the league at the time -- sort of the whipping post, we had the worst record in baseball the first two years -- we came in and it led to a lot of success," said Sternberg. "I know Jim is preaching a little patience here and there's no question it's going to be rewarded in Houston in the not-too-distant future. We had an explosion in 2008, went from the worst to the best. It can happen, but there's some patience and some work involved getting there."

And once you get there, said Sternberg, you have to continue to innovate.

The Rays are constantly on the lookout for new ideas in the front office, and manager Joe Maddon is famously progressive in the way he utilizes his players on the field.

In Milwaukee, Attanasio has tried his own hand at strategy. Many small-market teams have been content to trade their best players as they approach free agency, but in recent years the Brewers have signed Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart and Yovani Gallardo to long-term contracts.

Milwaukee also tried to re-sign Prince Fielder as a free agent but wasn't able to reach an agreement, and Attanasio wants his employees to never think like a team that has limited resources.

"I'm an investor in my other business and I try to look at things [differently]," he said. "I wouldn't say from a contrarian's standpoint, but I know I try to bring a unique perspective. We are the smallest market in baseball in Milwaukee, but I never let anyone in the organization call us small-market. I want us to call ourselves mid-market. There's always going to be a biggest and smallest, but if you're in the middle, you should be able to compete. We've actually drawn three million fans several years now and we're top 10 in baseball, and that puts you as a mid-market even if you're in a smaller city."

Bartholomay, who has been associated with the Braves for five decades, didn't talk much about the inner workings of the baseball industry on Wednesday. Instead, he offered the panel's audience a lesson on the finer points of introducing themselves and getting people to remember them.

"There's nothing better than a calling card. A business card," said Bartholomay of the business world. "Valentine's Day is still running pretty good in this country and around the world. A business card is a reminder. I tell my grandkids, 'Don't send me an email. Send me a card or write me a note.'

"If somebody here gave me their card today -- and I got about 15 last year -- and said, 'I want to be associated with the Braves,' or 'I've got something to sell,' I'd say, 'Thank you for your card. Here's our H.R. leader. Get in touch with her and send me a copy of what you're proposing to her.' "

One of the day's most interesting points came from Hall, who said that television provides both a significant revenue stream and a competitor for fan attention. Teams have to work with their broadcasts, he said, in order to show fans that they can have a better time at the ballpark.

"The fact that you can sit at home and have the best seat possible sitting right behind the pitcher -- in high definition on a TV that didn't cost you that much -- that's a challenge for us," Hall said. "We have to do our best job to make sure that we're very unique and that your experience at the ballpark is better than the experience you can have at home.

"That's why we're constantly coming up with new technologies. ... You can actually order food from your seat, and they'll let you know through a text when your order is ready, and you go to a special line to pick up your food. You can look at highlights. You can see replays, stats and bios that you can't get at home. We have to constantly challenge ourselves to make that experience even better."

Sternberg, chairman of the MLB Diversity Oversight Committee and a member of baseball's On-Field Diversity Task Force, got in the final word. Sternberg said that thanks to Commissioner Bud Selig, baseball is healthy and vibrant and reaching out to all segments of society.

The RBI program -- Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities -- and the league's Urban Youth Academy initiative are making an impact on the game. And with events like the Diversity Summit, said Sternberg, baseball will grow even more diverse behind the scenes.

"Commissioner Selig's focus on this is as strong as on any other issue that I see," he said. "The people and the amount of effort and resources that go behind it -- the extraordinary work of Wendy (Lewis) and her staff, and Jonathan working with it -- and the commitment of all the owners is way more pure and strong than I ever could've imagined. I just want to tell everybody it's in great hands, and there's no question that no other sport is doing anything close to what baseball is doing in this regard."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for