Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Send in the S.W.O.T Team (Part 4)

Well the Luke Hughes watch fizzled out from about the time the Defensive Specialist hit the “post” button on the last offering. You’re old pal isn’t suggesting that he put the kybosh on Luke’s push to make the Twins big league roster but if you reflect back on the Defensive Specialist’s efforts to pick winners and forecast the future you’d see a trail of despair and destruction. The good news is that Hughes is one twanged hamstring away from a call up to the Big Leagues!

Today’s post is the final instalment of the SWOT analysis the Defensive Specialist has been working on for what seems like the past 8 weeks. The topic for consideration on this occasion is the threats to the growth and success of the ABL. The Defensive Specialist isn’t one to typically dedicate a post to anyone, but today seemed an appropriate time to recognise arguably the most unpopular man in Australian baseball – Matt Tolbert, the guy who beat out Hughes. Here’s to you Matt!

Arguably the biggest threat to the success of the ABL is a lack of fan support. Without punters coming through the turnstiles, the league will never be self-sustaining and eventually Major League baseball will grow disgruntled, cutting the cheques and severing the purse strings.  Individual teams and league administrators have to build on year 1 attendance figures and drive customers through the gates with creative marketing and solid on-field entertainment. MLB cannot and will not play the role of sugar daddy forever so it’s imperative that teams set up solid fan bases and generate consistent revenue streams to ensure long-term viability.

Recently the Defensive Specialist received a friendly email from Sydney Blue Sox administrators informing him that foundation members had to re-up their memberships before April 30 if they wished to maintain their existing seats. The reason for the push so early in the year? Apparently demand for memberships is so high that there’s a chance all seating will be taken up by members in 2011 / 2012. While the Defensive Specialist is sceptical of the demand for memberships after seeing a multitude of empty seats during the playoffs, it does pose an interesting question: “Is it a good thing to use up all seating on members?”

On one hand the franchise is guaranteed revenue (even if the total amount is less than what would be generated if seats were sold to casual fans) for the season which allows efficient and accurate budgeting and franchise management from a financial perspective – you have a fixed revenue stream from the outset of the season even if people don’t show up to the game. On the other hand, you are denying the casual fan who shows up for a game a premium experience because they’re likely to land a seat in a less than optimal position down one of the baselines (for those unaware, the Blacktown Olympic facility does not have seating down the foul lines). Would this experience result in them not returning?

Personally the Defensive Specialist would take the guaranteed full house and a thriving membership book any day of the week!

While expansion is most definitely an opportunity for the ABL, it also poses a serious threat. The thought of taking the game to different markets (NZ, regional Australia) is exciting but also fraught with trouble. While baseball fans would love to double the numbers of teams in the competition, serious questions have to be asked first:
  1. Can the location support the team from a fan and spectator perspective?
  2. Will local sponsors get on board?
  3. Can the Australian pool of talent support more teams? 

Obviously the first 2 points relate to the financial wellbeing of clubs. The last point is just as salient as the availability of quality Australian players is finite and if clubs cannot field competitive teams then fans and sponsors will not show up.

Adding additional teams also increases cost – travel and accommodation being the most significant. While it sounds great in theory to have a team in New Zealand, the cost of getting a team there from Perth is substantial (mind you the strength of the Australian dollar reduces accommodation expenses!). The same can be said for having teams in Asia or tougher to reach Australian locations. Careful consideration has to be given to a multitude of factors before any new franchise can be added.

While every existing team was able to secure their own home, questions have to be raised over the quality and location of some of them. Quality plays a role not only in fan experience but also in determining whether or not MLB teams will send down their better prospects. The higher quality prospects we have in Australia, the better the standard of the game and the more fans that will be drawn. There is no way that a Major League team would look at the Melbourne Showground sandpit and sign off on one of their upper echelon prospects playing on it – there is simply too much to risk health wise.

Location is surely a factor in attendance. In places like Western Australia and NSW the facilities are located some distance from the CBD, which works for part of the general public, but add in lack of public transport and it causes problems for the remainder. Crowd numbers may be strong at the moment, but location may impact each franchise’s ability to increase these figures.

While it was important to have a MLB representative heading up the new ABL in year 1, eventually the lack of Australian leadership may prove to be detrimental. It is yet to be proven that an Australian can effectively administrator a competition like the ABL. At some stage Major League Baseball is going to want to take the training wheels off and see if this thing can walk on its own. While the jury is out on the management style of the current regime, the fact remains that the league got off the ground and ran successfully in its first year. Moving forward and to be truly self-sustaining, Australians need to step up in to management roles and administer the league in a profitable manner and the biggest threat is that they’re not being groomed and prepared to do so.

If you see any potential threats that the Defensive Specialist may have missed, add them in the comments section below.