Monday, March 21, 2011

Send in the S.W.O.T Team (Part 3)

Apologies for the lack of activity last week – the rigours of travel and a Luke Hughes vigil consumed the Defensive Specialist’s time and prevented any form of creative output. Hughes is obviously getting a lot of press at the moment with his scorching hot Spring Training (second in homeruns and RBI’s) but the Defensive Specialist wanted to spare a paragraph or two to discuss his plight.  For those of you unaware, Hughes is currently in a battle to win the utility infielder role with the Minnesota Twins.  His plight seems to resonate with the Australian baseball community because we’ve not seen a position player earn a roster spot out of Spring Training for some time and because it would be totally cool to have an Aussie hitter on a big league roster with some regularity!

Ideally what you’re looking for in a utility guy is someone who plays multiple positions (to cover for injury and provide a rest to the regulars) and who can swing it a little. While his manager indicated that he’d never be a gold glover, he’s given Hughes time at second, third, leftfield, first base and short stop to get a real look.  The knock against him is that he doesn’t profile as a guy who could handle shortstop (primarily due to a lack of range and arm) but that may be purely academic as the Twins have other options to mitigate that problem. If you scan big league rosters, the back up infielder is generally an “all field, no hit” type of player so Hughes flies in the face of this by being more offensively minded which provides another weapon to his skipper.
Baseball fans will know all of the above so as per usual, the Defensive Specialist wants to take things a little deeper by discussing just how tough it is to play the role of a bench guy. If you look at Hughes’ numbers this spring, you’ll see that he is at the top end of at bats on the Twins. This indicates that he’s getting plenty of game time and the repetitions necessary to keep his bat going. And herein lies the rub – as a bench guy, he may only play 2-3 times per week meaning that it will be tougher to find a rhythm and stay in tune with his swing. No measure of batting practice makes up for the daily live pitching that regulars see. If Hughes takes an 0-4 in AAA, he’s back in the line-up the next day ready to make amends. At the major league level, he may sit on that 0-4 for a couple of days before he gets a chance to get back out there which makes it very difficult to work out the kinks and maintain any semblance of timing.

The Defensive Specialist doesn’t raise this point to poo poo his effort – the fact is, being a bench guy is a tough job that requires a special sort of resilience to be ready when the manager pencils your name in. Of course, the 400k+ salary makes swallowing that pill a little easier!

All right, lets get back on track and continue the in-depth SWOT analysis that your old pal has been cooking for a few weeks now. Today’s instalment is probably the Defensive Specialist’s favourite section – Opportunities. In this component, its time to look at the avenues the ABL could take to improve and grow the competition moving forward.

The Defensive Specialist has mentioned it repeatedly but it bears stating again – television coverage. Telecasting the Grand Final series and doing it well highlighted the opportunity to take the game to a wider audience if done properly. As much as it pains the Defensive Specialist to say it, its pretty obvious that trying to broadcast every game would be financially ruinous, but strategically showing big games, key matchups or final series is definitely a way to market the competition. The Defensive Specialist has spent plenty of time thinking about the best format to showcase the game on TV and surely it has to be a “game of the week” and then a highlights type show that is lighter on content but higher on razzle dazzle. The benefit of doing something like this is that it reduces the cost (a game of the week requires only one crew and on air talent), which then allows a more polished production. The ultimate goal of this strategy is to capture the casual observer and keep baseball front of mind for the kids who the ABL desperately need to draw into the game.

Expansion. On one of the Defensive Specialist’s many jaunts to New Zealand over the past 6 months there was a back page news story on softball, which referred to Baseball New Zealand’s quest to have a team in the ABL. With 6 teams currently in play in Australia’s largest markets there is a definite opportunity to expand into other regions such as New Zealand, Asia and regional Australia. Logical expansion destinations would include northern NSW and New Zealand (although that would be a killer road trip from Perth). Asia is probably the biggest jewel in the expansion crown due to the passion incited by baseball in that region and the money that sponsorship and crowds could generate.

Playing more games is a definite opportunity for the ABL, and arguably it’s the lack of games that currently prevents some of the better MLB professionals being sent down under to get their offseason works in. If the ABL could present 5-6 games per week and effectively recreate a professional environment (in terms of volume of games) then there is significant value to prospects participating in the competition. Obviously there is significant cost and effort involved in staging that many games per week for each team as well as travel and accommodation expenses but the opportunity to be a premier offseason league is not too far off. The benefit of having higher profile prospects taking part is that they bring with them “higher ups” from their respective clubs, which has the carry on effect of exposing more Australians to the eyes of key decision makers.

With year one under the belt and reasonably solid crowd numbers in play around Australia, there is a definite opportunity to ramp up the marketing and suck more and more kids into the sport. Baseball saw fantastic growth in the halcyon days of the first ABL with teeball seeing robust participation rates. Now is the time to leverage the ABL by pumping up the profiles of local talent, promoting our professionals and showcasing Australian Major League players to junior competitions. It’s obviously tough promoting the ABL when the season runs through the school holidays and the offseason (the time when school visits and camps would normally be conducted) sees our talent ship off to their US seasons, but nonetheless, the time is right to promote the game hard and jack up the number of kids taking part.

The carry on effect from this marketing is a growth in crowd numbers. Increased promotion to children as well as a television presence will surely increase the number of punters pushing through the turnstiles. More fans in the stands equals greater club profitability, which allows teams to invest both on and off the field and improve the product.

Leverage the relationship with Major League Baseball and run more sanctioned events like camps and coaching seminars. Flying out a couple of MLB stars, running educational coaching sessions or conducting skills camps is only going to benefit the game. The ABL was successful in using mostly home grown coaching staffs but how much access does the average coach have to their skills and expertise? Imagine having an MLB hitting or pitching coach run a session on their specific skill set and the value it would bring to the Australian baseball community? It’s these big ticket names that will draw more and more people to the ball park and inspire kids, coaches and parents to be involved in the game.

The Defensive Specialist promises to come back with the 4th instalment in a more timely fashion – unless of course Luke Hughes lands himself a starting gig, then all bets are off. As usual, if the Defensive Specialist has missed any opportunities, hit the comments section below.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Send in the S.W.O.T Team (Part 2)

If you’re just tuning in you’ve landed smack bang in the middle of a complex SWOT analysis designed to peer deep inside the ABL after its inaugural season. Before you scramble to click off the page, today the Defensive Specialist is covering “weaknesses” which generally seems to hold people’s attention more than any other part of the breakdown. As with any start up venture, there are ups and downs – before you’re old pal dives into the downs, a couple of strengths were sent in by reader Wagga Mick that the Defensive Specialist kicked himself for missing: 
  1. Internet streaming – the ABL did a great job of bringing real time scores and plays to baseball fans around the country through their own and each club’s website.
  2. Using the MLB website format as a platform for local teams’ sites. The upgrade happened overnight and absolutely took the accessibility and professionalism to another level (although content was sometimes lacking but this can be attributed to lack of resources available to produce content). 

All right, lets roll up the sleeves and get into the juicy stuff…


  • Although another anonymous reader suggested that the marketing was good, the Defensive Specialist has to disagree. Readers only need cast their mind back to mid 2010 when baseball fans were scrambling for information about the ABL and the Defensive Specialist was receiving thankyou emails for speculating on team names. Baseball people were genuinely excited and the ABL could have played on that by strategically and creatively dripfeeding information. It’s undeniable that teams absolutely made the best of a poor situation in terms of promoting themselves but it’s also undeniable that overall publicity and marketing was probably not where it should have been. Having said that, it’s worth considering who the ABL was trying to market to. If the first year goal was to get the baseball community buzzing, then it’s fair to say that was achieved. If the goal was to draw in the uninitiated then the view would be significantly different. The Defensive Specialist is surmising here that the year 1 goal was to get baseball people on board and then leverage that group to attract feeder groups like teeball, softball etc. Once you have a solid fan base then you can expand to a broader market and hope that Joe Public shows some interest and gets hooked on the product, but until you have the baseball community involved there’s no point even bothering for the uninitiated (either way, you’re old pal has just invented a sweet excuse for the ABL if ever questioned on publicity “yeah, our first year goal was to get baseball people….”) 
  • The powerbrokers at ABL HQ have to have concerns about attendance in a number of key states. The Blue Sox failed to sell out numerous games in a final series and attendance appeared to be an issue in Melbourne throughout the season. While franchises like Canberra and Adelaide enjoyed solid numbers and enthusiastic crowds, the league will never be considered sustainable until fan support is consistently high across the board. The only ways for teams to break even is to have sponsors on board and punters streaming through the gates… or a bunch of poker machines. With the two largest markets having splotchy attendance figures, the viability of the league has to be questioned. Speaking as a season ticket holder, the Defensive Specialist can attest to the quality of the product both on and off the field as well as the affordability of the event in Sydney – so there must be other factors keeping fans away (location, brand, venue etc) that have to be addressed. 

  • (File this one under minor weakness) The Defensive Specialist lives by numerous credos, none more important than: “the body is a temple”. So you can imagine the Defensive Specialist’s dismay when the healthiest options on a ballpark menu were green apples and bottled water. Seriously, the Defensive Specialist took to packing a picnic dinner so as to avoid greasy burgers, chips and myocardial infarctions. Obviously catering to everyone’s dietary tastes is not the easiest and cheapest thing to achieve but surely you’re old pal isn’t the only person who doesn’t have the tastes of the morbidly obese? Why kill the fans you’re attracting to games? 

  • Professionals on the roster. HOLD UP!!!! Ok, so professional hitters are fantastic to have on your ballclub, it’s the pitchers that seem to cause a problem. Let the Defensive Specialist explain. Professional arms are typically on a fairly strict innings restriction, meaning that by the last month of the season their workloads are being reduced or they’re being shut down. This is all well and good if you’re team isn’t going to make the playoffs, but if the ABL Championship is a goal then not having your best arms available is definitely detrimental. We saw the Perth Heat win the flag on the backs of 2 former pros who were neither restricted by pitch counts nor inning restrictions. There isn’t really any way around this issue unless you play it like the Bite did with Brandon Maurer which was to start him out with a small workload and gradually build him to a 5 inning starter. Fortunately for the Bite they mashed early in the season and had some decent arms to cover the load. So how do you fix it? The Defensive Specialist uncharacteristically doesn’t have a clear-cut answer. If a team brings out an import they are here to get their work in and will do so under instruction from the parent team. Australian pro’s are governed by the same rules so you cant even rely on home-grown talent to fill the innings.
  • Which leads us to the next weakness – imports being pulled from local competitions. Teams will evaluate how the Heat won the championship and see that they relied heavily on imports that came from the local leagues to fill out their roster and play key roles during the finals campaign. While its safe to assume that local teams consented to their imports being made available (its important to remember that the vast majority of local imports are flown out and supported at the clubs’ expense), there may come a point when local teams refuse participation. What we saw with the Heat is that former pro’s are durable, proficient, reliable and a huge asset. Expect franchises to explore this resource in greater detail next year.

  • The number of games played across the course of the year (40 plus finals) was a step up from the Claxton Shield in years past but may actually be counterintuitive to attracting the very best professional prospects to our shores. As baseball fans know, baseball is a sport best played on a daily basis, which means that until the ABL can offer more than 4 games per week, the best talent will elect to play elsewhere. The problem we face in Australia is A) the cost of teams playing 6 out of 7 days per week (travel, accommodation, meals etc) and B) getting crowds to midweek games. If teams could count on solid attendance mid week then the idea of a 60 game season becomes more palatable although it severely impacts the availability of non-professional players who still have to pay their bills by working regular jobs.

  • Finally, a lack of television exposure is definitely a weakness for a professional league trying to get a footing in a busy sports calendar. The Defensive Specialist has discussed on a number of occasions ways that the game could be promoted without televising entire series or multiple games per week (featured game of the week and a highlight show as examples) and while it is unrealistic to expect a huge television presence, it is critical in capturing non-baseball people. The impressive ads that hit the screens before the season commenced really didn’t drive people anywhere and this is where some television presence would have filled the void and allowed those not familiar with baseball to turn.

As per usual, the Defensive Specialist is interested in hearing the readers thoughts on perceived weaknesses from year 1 of the ABL. Part 3 of the SWOT analysis will cover Opportunities – stay tuned.