There is perhaps no name more associated with innovation in sports promotion in the United States than the name “Veeck.” The Veeck family started in baseball nearly a century ago when William Veeck Sr. was president of the Chicago Cubs. During his tenure, William, Sr. gained fame as the person who first decided to grow ivy at Wrigley Field among other things thought to be nontraditional amongst baseball cognoscenti at the time. His son Bill followed in his footsteps, becoming a Hall of Fame owner with the St. Louis Browns, Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox and the then-minor league Milwaukee Brewers. Famous for so many occurrences at the ballpark, Bill Veeck will always be remembered for signing Larry Doby, the first black man to play in the American League and for sending 3 foot, 6 inch Eddie Gaedel to the plate for the Browns in a 1943 game against Detroit. The Veeck ownership and promotion tradition continued on through Mike Veeck, a longtime baseball executive and current owner of no less than seven minor league teams with various partners (including the Goldklang Group and actor Bill Murray). They include affiliated clubs like the Hudson Valley Renegades the Fort Myers Miracle, and the Charleston RiverDogs to Independent clubs like the St. Paul Saints and River City Rascals. All along the way the Veeck family has brought fun, innovation and free thinking to baseball, along with millions of fans who came for a game and left with a special experience. The Veeck family tradition is also entering another generation, with Mike’s son William “Night Train” Veeck, now a rising executive with the Chicago White Sox.
Most recently the RiverDogs grabbed international headlines by staging the South Atlantic League Home Run Derby onboard the flight deck of the USS Yorktown in Charleston harbor, the latest in a never-ending series of promotions tied to the Veeck name, and those who work with him.
With summer now here, we caught up with Mike Veeck to talk baseball, sports business and homers on the Yorktown.
There is now more competition than ever for the entertainment dollar, is minor league ownership still a fun business?
It is a business for sure…it always has been…and yes it is more fun than it ever has been. It has great tradition, a great experience for the fans and has people with tremendous passion for what they do. Competition is also a very important thing in any field. It keeps you sharp and makes you find new ways to innovate what you do. There was a time when the minor league boom came along and people came out of the woodwork to buy clubs, but it is not an easy business and it’s not one where you can just print money as some may think. The sport really attracted people of wealth who wanted baseball as a novelty. But it’s not, it is a business, and as a result there were many people who were not very talented that tried to make a go of it. Most of them are now gone from baseball, and today’s environment has really brought the talented and the passionate people to the forefront. I also think that the business today has given way to a lot more diversity than ever before. There are eight or nine female general managers now and lots of other talented people from various backgrounds doing some amazing things and that is very refreshing. This is a business of fun and of passion and that’s what I have loved about it and I don’t think that has changed much.
What MLB owners do you think are doing the best job in addressing their fans needs and interests?
I think there is more positive and fun promotion going on around MLB today than maybe ever before, which is very refreshing. Because of that, there has never been so many people migrating up the ladder from minor league work to MLB teams and that’s very good news in my opinion. I was at a Twins game last month and was impressed by what they are doing, I felt like I was at a St. Paul Saints game which is one of the teams we run right across the river so that was really good to see in my opinion. Overall I think one of the teams that does the best with promotion is the Detroit Tigers. Every night there is something of great value for the fans, and they have Ron Wade on their staff, who I think is the next superstar in sports promotion and marketing in the business. They seem to really understand their fans.
You have always been an innovator in terms of fans engagement, with the new trends in technology what do you think is on the horizon for teams?
I think that social media has really enhanced the fan experience and the outreach ability for minor league teams, and that is not something I really saw coming. Many teams have done a great job over the years in giving the fans a good time and taking care of them at the ballpark, but social media gives teams the ability to broaden their marketing and engagement outreach and really speak to fans almost one to one with promotions and engagement when they are far away from the game. It is great for the teams to reach new audiences and learn more about the people who are also coming to see them.
Any regrets about not being involved with an MLB team these days?
We had put together a group with my partner Bill Murray to go in with the Ricketts Family on the purchase of the Cubs, and that would have been a lot of fun, especially with my son working for the White Sox and my family history with Chicago, but that didn’t work out. I really enjoyed the experience I had with the Marlins and the Tigers, especially working with Dave Dombrowski, and you never say never, but my focus and my love is still in the minors, especially with what we have done in St. Paul and some of our other clubs.
Any interest in expanding into other sports at any point? if so which ones are on the list?
Not really. I have been involved in baseball since I was five and it is what I have the passion for, so there is nothing like the baseball business for me. I did look at Jai Alai at one point…the cesta looks and feels like a baseball glove, and the guys in St. Paul had me involved with hockey for a little bit, but I’m a baseball guy, that will never change.
What brands do the best job of consumer engagement in general and where can sport learn the most?
It may sound obvious to most but I really love Apple, and this is coming from a guy who has had the same bike, the same guitar, the same glove since he was a kid. They build things the way we like to promote; create a high quality, effective product that appeals to the masses and is fun to engage with. It is a passion, not just a brand for the company. I have 35,000 songs on my iphone and it is something I don’t think I would do without these days, and that is not something I ever thought I would say about a gadget.
From a team standpoint I think the St. Louis Cardinals do an amazing job. They have created the safest, kindest and most fan friendly ballpark experience out there. Their fans are amazing and they support the Cards with great passion, but even with all that support you never feel threatened when in the stadium no matter who you root for. A first class organization and experience.
The latest promotion you helped stage was this past week’s home run hitting contest on the USS Yorktown in Charleston Harbor. How did it come about?
Dan Migala is one of the smartest people in sports promotion, and he comes to visit us in Charleston about four times a year. On one visit he was telling us about a promotion he did with Taylor Made and the Padres, hitting balls off a carrier in San Diego. We were hosting the South Atlantic League All-Star Game and realized that we had a carrier sitting right here in Charleston harbor, the Yorktown, which is a museum, and it went from there. The people at the Yorktown could not have been nicer from day one, and we worked with the South Atlantic League to stage the event. What was even more satisfying was that we sold the title sponsorship of the event to Miller Beer, and everywhere it was called the Miller High Life Home Run Derby, so our brand partner got great exposure too, and that doesn’t happen all the time. It also helped draw attention to the All-Star Game, which is not a sure fire sellout at this level like it is in the Majors, and that helped really push our walkup and the attendance for the game the next night. The Yorktown did not charge anyone to come on and watch if they mentioned home run derby, so we probably had 600-700 visitors to the ship as well. It was a great promotion and most importantly it was a great collaborative effort by all involved.
However even more importantly than the derby, we think we came up with another good idea going forward. John Fogarty is a longtime friend and supporter both of baseball and of his special cause, which is assisting Vietnam Veterans. We are working on an idea to take this event on a carrier concept and work with John to do a series of concerts and other things in different locations in the coming years. It would be an amazing venue to do events on as we have seen, and as others have done in San Diego, and it would help a very noble cause with veterans. We have seen how to do it now and I think it can work.
With all the time and sacrifice and effort you have put into the business, what is the most important thing that keeps you going?
I think I have learned to strike the balance between business and a personal life, and that is really important to me and should be to everyone. We can have passion for work, and it has to be fun, but you need to have a life away from work as well, even if they do mix together well. The other thing is really the fans. We take care of each and every fan, sometimes one at a time, and make sure that what we are doing has a positive impact on them. It’s a great opportunity to have and it remains more rewarding than anything I could have done with my life.