Chuck Greenberg’s Key to Success: ‘Just Take Good Care of People’

Chuck Greenberg broke into minor league baseball on April 1, 2001, after completing the purchase of the Altoona Curve. A minor league outsider whose experience in sports grew out of overseeing the sale of his hometown Pittsburgh Penguins to his client and friend Mario Lemieux, Greenberg has grown into one of the most successful and influential owners in minor league baseball.

Greenberg1In the 16 years since his purchase of the Curve, Greenberg has grown his minor league stable by adding the Myrtle Beach Pelicans and State College Spikes in 2006, selling the Curve back to previous owner Bob Lozinak in 2008, and buying the Frisco RoughRiders in 2014. He oversaw the purchase of the Texas Rangers out of bankruptcy court in 2010 and briefly served as team president before resigning due to a dispute with co-owner and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.   Greenberg sits on the board of trustees for Minor League Baseball and helped create the Baseball Internet Rights Company (BIRCO).

What follows is my conversation with Greenberg about his path in minor league baseball — which while not traditional, could serve as a blueprint for aspiring owners and executives — as well as his views on the state of the game. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.

It’s been over 15 years since you broke into minor league baseball. Coming from outside of the sport, what was your inspiration for buying a minor league team?

Ironically, today April 1, is 16 years to the day we closed on the purchase of the Altoona Curve. So, it’s been 16 years today. We had our first game on Thursday, April 4, and it was quite a scramble to get ready. I only brought in two people, Parney [Todd Parnell] and Rick Janac, and we got handed this string of keys and we didn’t know which key opened up the men’s room or anything else. But we figured it out and had a great opener with [former Steeler] Jerome Bettis throwing out the first pitch and it’s been a blast ever since.

04-03Bettis90I always loved baseball and I had hoped, going back to when i was in law school, to be involved in the sports industry somehow, but I had no plan on how to accomplish that. But through a series of fortuitous circumstances, I was introduced a couple years out of law school to Mario Lemieux a few years into his career. We hit it off personally and professionally, and it was through that one relationship that almost everything flowed, from then until now.

And what happened is that throughout the 90s, my relationship with people in the sports industry continued to grow and from that came the opportunity to do more and more projects which seemed to be increasing in significance and that reached a crescendo in 1998-99 when the Penguins filed for bankruptcy and I was heavily involved in helping Mario and Ron Burkle and their ownership group put the deal together to purchase the Penguins . . .

That deal in particular was very high profile and my name was out there and for a few years I was one the handful of lawyers who, if you’re buying a team, you should call . And so a couple of year later in 2001, I was in Florida putting together a deal to buy the Florida Panthers and I got a call out of the blue from one of the two owners of the Altoona Curve who said:

‘We’re in the third year of our team. It’s a nice little franchise in a nice little town with a nice little ballpark and everything is great except that we just don’t like each other and we sued each other in federal court and I don’t think there is any way to settle the differences. I think the only solution is to sell the team. I’ve seen your name in the media quite a bit and would you be interested in buying the team.’

So, over the summer of ‘01, we worked out the deal. The purchase terms were easy, the challenging part was that the two then-owners [Lozinak and Tate DeWeese] couldn’t agree on what day of the week it was and it took a federal mediator to decide how the purchase price would be divided between the two of them. Anyway, we shook hands on it just before Labor Day 2001 and while we’re waiting to draft the documents, 9/11 took place. And at that moment, my challenges didn’t amount to a hill of beans compared to what was going on in the world, but for what it was worth there I was with a first time prospective [investment that] you can’t buy it outright you need to borrow funds and all of a sudden I was spitting into the wind of an environment where nobody was investing and nobody was lending. So it was a pretty stressful winter of 2001 and 2002 but we found a way to put it together.

Parney has become one of the legendary figures in minor league baseball, now as the head of the always-creative Richmond Flying Squirrels. How did you two end up together?

I had been around and advised franchises for over a decade by the time I had a chance to buy the Curve, so I always found myself imagining what I would do if i were in the position of the decision-maker, if I was the owner. It’s not that I necessarily thought I ever would be, it’s just that I couldn’t help myself from playing what if. So from that, and having gotten a read on the community in Altoona, I had in my mind sort of a profile of the sort of individual who I wanted to run the franchise. I wanted someone with a big, outsized personality, great people skills, who didn’t take himself too seriously, was real creative and would just be all in as far as diving into the community and would create the kind of culture that I had in mind, which was a culture built on the fan experience and having fun, and taking good care of people.

Through my contacts in the industry I probably interviewed 15 or 20 people and in the course of that I found Rick Janac, who was a general manager [with the High Desert Mavericks] but I convinced him to come be our No. 2 person. But i just couldn’t find the right person who fit the profile that I had in mind. I remember really clearly speaking with Chuck Domino, who at the time was really the No. 1 operator in minor league baseball in Reading. And Chuck is a fellow Pittsburgh native and he said I think I’ve got the perfect guy for you, but you’ll never get him. And I asked why, and he said ‘Well, he’s back home [in North Carolina with the Kannapolis Intimidators], he just put an addition on his house and I don’t think you’ll ever get him to go, but if you can, this is the guy. I said all right, well, I’ve been known to sell a little bit, let me take a shot.

Altoona Curve's Minor League Baseball Ballpark, People's Natural Gas Field

I remember my first conversation with Parney as clear as yesterday, and this is coming on 16 ½ years ago. I remember giving him the elevator pitch as I was driving in the car on Banksville Road in Pittsburgh. And he said that sounds really interesting but I am just not interested, I am really happy here but thanks for calling. And 2 ½ hours later we were still on the phone and he said well, I guess I really owe it to myself to check it out. He came up here. It’s such a beautiful ballpark, sitting right along I-99, so I knew his eyes would get wide. We picked up the marketing materials that the team had at the time, which were pretty antiquated. I mean they were just basically photocopies off an old copy machine and we took it to an old Olive Garden for lunch, and he had it spread out on the table and the waitress said ‘Oh are you guys Curve fans?”

Todd Parnell
Todd Parnell/

I hadn’t bought the team yet, nobody knew who I was and they certainly didn’t know who Parney was. It was literally his first time in Altoona. And she said ‘Are you guys Curve fans.’ I said you could say that. And she said ‘I love the Curve. I love going there so much. But you know who really loves the Curve? My son loves the Curve. He just can’t get enough of it. I take him as much as I can and when I can’t take him my parents take him and my parents love the Curve. I love the Curve, my parents love the Curve, my son loves the Curve. Everyone in this town loves the Curve. It’s all anyone talks about.’ And she walked away.

And Parney said, ‘Oh, that’s very clever.’

I said what do you mean?

He said ‘What did you slip her a 20 to say that?’

I said no, I never met her before. I had no idea.

And he said, ‘Well what’s going on?’

I said Parney listen, this team is the biggest thing in town. And you have a chance to be the biggest guy with this team. That makes you the biggest guy with the biggest thing in town. And how many people have a chance in life to be that guy? I’ll never be that guy. How many people do you know who are the biggest guy with the biggest thing in town.

At that moment I saw Parney, who was already a really lovable guy, I saw him sit up and I saw the look on his face and the legend of Parney as we know it today was born at that moment because all of a sudden he realized that he could be the king. He sure was. He did an unbelievable job and we had so much fun together in every way and I can’t say enough great things about our experience together, the things I learned and the lessons we learned together that I think we each continue to apply in other capacities since then.

You got in pretty close to the beginning of the boom period of minor league baseball, and there has been a pretty significant increase in new ballparks and franchise values since the late mid-1990s. What are the most significant changes that you have seen in the game?

There are just better, more savvy ownership. There were certain clubs, and I’m proud that Altoona was one of them, that were trailblazers in taking a much more outgoing approach to promotions and marketing and the fan experience and the show. And now that is much more widespread. What was unique 15 or 16 years ago is much more common. And that’s a credit to the industry. So I just think that overall you’ve got a better, deeper bench of innovative owners.

You have certainly a much more sophisticated, hungry approach to serving communities and what was always a great product is so much better because I don’t know of any industry that serves its customers as well as minor league baseball does. And now there is a lot more consistency throughout the 160 clubs.

What is your involvement with your teams? How involved are you in the day-to-day operations of your teams and how has that changed over the years?

For better or worse, I was quite a micro manager at first. I’ve learned. I’ve learned since then. Part of it was probably over-exuberance on my part and part of it was to learn the industry from A to Z. I don’t operate exactly the same way now, but it was an invaluable experience because by being so hands on, even to the extreme where in hindsight it might not have been as constructive as it could have been, it was a way to learn the business. And ultimately, i think it was helpful for all involved, although I was probably a royal pain in the butt to work with at the time.

How about now? How involved are you in the current operations of your teams?

Where I am mostly involved is in the thematic aspect of it. So for example, State College basically runs itself now. [Senior Vice President/General Manager] Jason Dambach did such a good job putting that thing practically on autopilot and [VP of sales] Scott Walker has done a magnificent job continuing that. I have been fortunate to have terrific leadership in Myrtle Beach since the time I got there, but the job [President] Andy Milovich has done is just terrific . . .

Frisco I’m pretty hands on. I brought in Jason Dambach because I really wanted to change the culture to be much more innovative and much more fun. I thought a lot of things had become stale there, and I say that with no disrespect to [previous owners] Mandalay [Baseball] at all. But they had an eye on selling the franchise for four or five years and that can’t help but have an impact on the way the franchise operates.

Jason Dambach
Jason Dambach

I was quite hands on when it came to rebooting and rebranding the franchise with the colors and the uniforms and the logos and all of the ballpark additions that we did the first few offseasons, headlined of course by the Lazy River. And then I sat back for a year or two to see how it would go and now this offseason I am very hands on again to take the ultimate step in sort of making this more the image of the way we operate Myrtle Beach and State College and back in the beginning in Altoona, in being a more outbound sales organization and having the staff that much more involved in the community. And I think we are poised to do exceptional things in Frisco, and so it’s been fun diving back in while at the same time knowing we have terrific leadership there as well.

You now own franchises in three geographically distinct markets — State College, Pa.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and Frisco, Texas — but I imagine that from a business perspective you have found that they have similarities. What attracted you to these markets?

I have had four franchises that are distinctly different. Altoona was an intensely loyal community and took a great deal of hometown pride in everything that went on but with very few tourists. State College is a unique marketplace because it is the quintessential college town, does not have a particularly large population during the summer, but where there was a gaping hole in the summer social calendar. It had similarities to Altoona and yet in many ways quite different.

Myrtle Beach might be the most idiosyncratic market in the country because you have a relatively modest year-round population, though it is growing. You talk about a community where the 66 days of the summer, from mid june to mid august . . . you’ve got a few hundred thousand new people coming in every weekend. That’s the good news. The bad news is how do you reach them? How do you grapple with the fact that what you promote on a Thursday is a rumor by the following Tuesday? So it’s not like any other market where you get the benefit of the cumulative impact of the market. You literally have to reinvent your marketing on a week-to-week basis . . .

Lazy RiverFrisco is what I would call a Quad A franchise. There are baseball players who are referred to as Quad A baseball players. They are almost too good for the minors but they just can’t quite make it in the majors. Frisco, it’s Double-A classification notwithstanding, you could make the argument that it is the only full season minor league club in the country that is in a major league market. It also happens to be located in, if not the fastest, one of the several fastest growing cities in the country in Frisco, surrounded by two of the other fastest growing communities in the country in Plano and McKinney.

So since I shook hands in 2014 to purchase the [RoughRiders], there was this wave of development that was initiated almost immediately. And at that moment, I realized that we had an opportunity to do some things that we hadn’t originally contemplated. So we changed our plan. We decided to make a massive investment into the ballpark. We partnered with the city of Frisco, we put about $8.5 million into it, so we spent an enormous amount of money improving the ballpark, investing in the size and breadth of the operation as well and really making a multi-year bet playing the long game, but by doing that we are basically taking a 6 cylinder engine and turning it into a 12 cylinder engine that will serve us well over time. . . .

What they all have in common is that from Altoona to State College to Myrtle Beach to Frisco to the Rangers, people are people. They want to be treated well. They want to know that you genuinely care about them. They want to feel an intimate connection with the franchise. They want to be heard. And they want to know that they really matter.

While we don’t take ourselves seriously at all, we take our charge with our fans and our communities very seriously and with a great deal of passion and with a 365-day commitment. And whether that is doing good work in the community during the seven months of the offseason. And whether it is reinventing our show on a nightly basis so that whether you go to one night a year or every game all year, you’re going to find it fresh and new every night. Or taking what is going to be the eventual bad experience that a fan has no matter how hard you try, and turning what is initially angst on the part of the fan into appreciation for hearing them out and taking good care of them and for what I always say is working backwards from yes to just take care of them. We take a great deal of pride in all of that and that’s why I think all five operations during my time with them have been known for not only being fan friendly but truly, passionately, 100 percent committed to our fans. And I say it all the time. Just take good care of people. It’s not that hard. Just take good care of people. Just say yes and figure it out . . .

What do you look for in a market when you are considering purchasing a franchise?

I look for markets where there is no inherent barriers to your fan base and the franchise having a good relationship. So, the quality of your facility, not necessarily what it is today but what it could be. What is the quality of the brand? It doesn’t have to be great but it is important that it not be impaired. How about the operation? I look for where franchises are what I call under-operated, not poorly operated, but under-operated, where there is unrealized opportunity. Despite the fact that you may have had really good ownership and terrific people on the ground, there is a number of reasons why an operation but might be under-operated. Frisco is an example of that. A very fine operation and yet I also felt that relative to the opportunity, it was under-operated.

If you have got a franchise that has been operated in exemplary fashion, it would take quite a bit of ego to think that I am just going to make that better. And I think that is a dangerous bet. You want to have the confidence of an experienced operator and believe that you can do things better, but it should be based on more than just your own ego because that is misplaced and will get you in a lot of trouble. You have to operate these things with humility. Sometimes an operator will say I like this and I like that. You can’t do that because at the end of the day my opinion means nothing. When it comes to music in a ballpark, it doesn’t matter if I like the music. It’s what our fans like, it’s what are they going to react to.

You have to go into it and realize that you have to be quite selfless about it because at the end of the day, the franchise really does belong to the community. We’re the stewards of it. We make a significant financial investment in being the stewards of it, but at the end of the day we’re operating not for ourselves. We’re operating it completely for our fans. And if what we do resonates with them, we’re going to be a success. And if not, it won’t. I’ve seen some owners who go in and they’ve got a view that they like it this way and they like it that way with music and this or that and everything else, and I think over time after they get their teeth knocked in a little bit, they eventually realize that it doesn’t matter what they like, it’s what the fans are going to respond to that matters.

With how much franchise values have increased in the last 25 years or so — Frisco was one of the most expensive franchises in minor league history — is there still value in buying a minor league team?

There should be tremendous value. In fact, I think minor league baseball teams are seriously, seriously undervalued and I think it is just a matter of time until the market reflects that. And you probably ask why.

Greenberg - Frisco
Chuck Greenberg/Dallas Morning News

One of the things that has driven franchise value at the major league level so much are media rights and digital media rights. And certainly at minor league baseball, we don’t have the spectrum of media rights that a major league team has. So, granted that is a negative. But the fact of the matter is that there are more and more wealthy people who have the means and the desire to own a sports franchise. But the prices at the major league level have spiraled up so quickly that the number of people who have the means or have the opportunity to actually buy a meaningful stake in a major league team is much smaller than it was before. So that dichotomy is a great opportunity for minor league baseball. Because in a lot of [major league] deals you could put in $75 million and not even be listed in the media guide, whereas for a fraction of that you could own your own minor league baseball team.

Given the choice of being the owner or the primary owner of a minor league baseball team or being the 15th-most substantial owner of a major league team and still having to pay for your tickets and parking and everything else, there is a lot to be said for owning a minor league baseball team. You’ve got that close relationship with a major league club, you’ve got special access. Particularly if you are interested because you love the game, it’s much more rewarding than being an afterthought in an ownership group at the major league level. It’s the dichotomy of the growing number of prospective buyers that would like to get into sports versus the declining number of people who can actually afford to have a meaningfully sized ownership stake in a major league team is a great opportunity for minor league baseball.

There is always debate about whether a community should help fund the cost of a ballpark. What is your philosophy on that and what value does a team bring to an area?

The circumstances in every community is different, so it is important not to generalize. I think minor league baseball teams have tremendous value to a community — affiliated minor league baseball teams. Communities that spend money on independent minor league baseball teams are throwing it away because the reality is that very few of them stay in business. Affiliated minor league baseball teams are not going to go anywhere. Anyone who is making an investment can be confident that they are going to be around for the long haul.

What they mean to a community, particularly with good ownership and a good operation, is virtually irreplaceable. And especially now that you have got a much better, deeper bench of owners and operators in minor league baseball than anytime in the past, and it is only going to get better. The positive impact these franchises can have is enormous. There are more and more creative, financial models for how to build [ballparks] that involve ancillary development opportunities, and it’ll be interesting to see where that goes, but overall it is hard to imagine a lot of these communities without their minor league baseball teams. And we’re talking even some of the real substantial markets.

I know what the RoughRiders have meant to Frisco. When the RoughRiders [came to Frisco] in 2003, Frisco was basically farmland. The RoughRiders were the first real attraction that came to Frisco. And now you look at Frisco, which has really become in many ways one of the sports capitals of the United States with the Cowboys and the Stars and the Legends and there are rumors of the PGA moving there and just on and on. If you talk to any of the city fathers, they would tell you that attracting the RoughRiders was one of the first things that put Frisco on the map.

I’ve seen what the Curve meant to Altoona, the way the Spikes have played a pivotal role in really completing the year-round social calendar in State College. And of course what the Pelicans have meant in Myrtle Beach is pretty exceptional. Particularly now as a Cubs affiliate, the impact it has made on tourism and helping the visitors convention bureau extend its midwest marketing campaign. You can make a pretty good argument in Myrtle Beach, that all of the other beneficiaries of the relationship with the Cubs has transcended the benefit to the Pelicans. When Cubs fans come to Myrtle Beach, they buy a plane ticket, they are taking a hotel room for multiple nights, they are buying dinner and doing other events. And all of those are far more expensive than the tickets to our games. But that is the role we play in the community.

You briefly operated the Texas Rangers after overseeing the purchase of the team and made a bid to the buy the Carolina Hurricanes. Are you still pursuing owning and operating a franchise in one of the major four sports?

We’ll see. That was an interesting experience last year [with the Hurricanes]. The thing about my career is that there has never been a plan. Each opportunity has organically and somewhat unexpectedly led to another one. We’ll see. I’ve been at this now for quite a few years. The lack of a plan hasn’t hurt me, so why change now? . . . Part of the fun of the journey I’ve been on has been improvising and adapting to changing circumstances and the advent of new opportunities, so we’ll just see what comes next.  

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