Amy Venuto has been selling minor league baseball, and helping others around the game do the same, for 25 years. A native of Portland, Ore., Venuto spent the bulk of her career with Ripken Baseball in Maryland—where she did everything from ticket sales in Aberdeen to hosting the Cal Ripken World Series to serving as a general manager—before branching out on her own and launching Amy Venuto Team Services in 2013. She now has over 50 teams as clients that she trains on the ABC’s of selling to fan bases and customer experience development and consults on how to manage a sales staff and be a better leader.
What follows is my conversation with Venuto about her career in minor league baseball, why she is so passionate about the sport and the challenges of succeeding in a profession that has traditionally been dominated by men. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.
I know that you had worked for teams for most of your career but that is not the case now. Can you tell me a little bit about what you are doing now and how that came about?
I never thought for sure that this is what I was going to do. I was never one of those people that thought this is exactly my career path. In fact, I think like a lot of the people you have interviewed, I got into the game wanting to be a general manager, which I did do. But I took kind of a circuitous path to that . . .
I had been working for Ripken Baseball and I absolutely loved them, but after several years I had done everything that I kind of wanted to do there, and while they were still growing I had sort of hit this path were I wanted to do something else. However [my daughter] was in high school at the time and I didn’t want to move her away from this area [in Northeastern Maryland] where we were living because I liked it so much. I didn’t want to leave the game, so the only option really was going out on my own or becoming a professor, which was not of my interest. So I went out on my own.
At Ripken, I was doing all of our onboarding of all of our entry-level sales people. So I had this great experience of really putting together sales materials, and then there were three teams that had hired me during that time that were not within our company that had asked me to train their staff. And the results were stellar, which gave me a ton of confidence that I could do this. And I love it now. I wouldn’t change this for the world.
Sometimes I have people say to me, ‘Would you work for a team again.’ I miss being with a team. But when I was with a team, I would know only two or three people with every organization, but now I know interns and sales reps and the operation people. I am so in love with minor league baseball, and I am so in love with the people that work in the business and have always been that way. And now I get to know so many more. The future of minor league baseball is in incredibly good hands, so I will not change this for the world. I do work with entities outside of minor league baseball, but minor league baseball is No. 1 to me.
What do you do when you go in to help train a staff? What is that process like?
The vast majority of my clients are training clients. I have 50-plus clients right now. So I go in normally for two days and I do sales training first for the majority of it and then I do one or two hours or three hours to do management training. First of all, I believe that everybody needs sales training and I believe that right now the Millennials and the Gen-Zers are not only wanting but they are expecting it.
I also think that you can do all the sales training in the world, but if the managers are not upholding structure elements and systems and processes, it will fall down by the wayside at some point. It happened a couple of years ago that I actually took a team and we carved out those three hours and really just looked at the managers and had such phenomenal results that we did it again this last year. So I highly encourage that my teams do it as well.
Then I have maybe six to seven clients a year that are consulting, and I love that too. I actually spend multiple days a year with those organizations. I evaluate their sales reports if they ask me to do that. I work with their sales teams more on a one-to-one basis. I need that consulting side too because that keeps me fresh and knowing what the trends are. If you are just a trainer and you just train for too many years, you’re losing that sort of personalized interaction and you just become a talking head. So the consulting part keeps me very much in line with what trends are and what’s happening.
Is there one piece of advice that you give teams or that you give young sales people when you go visit them. Is there one message that you think is particularly important?
My favorite message of all comes in seven words. And it is this one: Sales is the transfer of positive feelings. I think people make sales harder than it needs to be. I want to work with people who are passionate about the game. When you get stuck in sales, it does not have to be hard. All of you have to do is transfer your positive feelings about your product to somebody else. And that’s what selling is. People make it so complicated. I think salespeople who travel [can become] offerers where they just say, ‘This is what we have.’ And they don’t get the customer focused on it. You have to paint the picture of what the experience is like.
Today, I came across on Linkedin a guy who I had trained. He’s working in the NBA right now. He had worked for the Frisco RoughRiders. He said it perfectly. His father had passed away when he was young. And his father is the one who taught him that game [basketball] and brought him to the games. And now he is working for that organization. So he says the way I make it up to my dad is by creating those memories for other fathers and sons. I think we lose track that when we’re selling it’s not just here your group outing, it’s honestly transferring those positive feelings about the experience that we grew up on to somebody else.
How about yourself, did you grow up a big baseball fan in Oregon?
Huge. Yeah. When I was growing up nobody went to the [Portland] Beavers [games] except for myself and maybe 499 other people. I don’t know why I loved it so much. My dad raised me on the game and I played college softball also. I loved it. I grew up loving it. I literally would go to games by myself. I just love the game. When I was 12 years old, I knew that I wanted to be a general manager.
To me the game is different than any of the other games and there is so much you can learn from it. I actually coached high school softball for a little while a couple of years ago. I think where I would usually have the disconnect with the girls on my team was the lack of appreciation for the game. They were just playing it, but to me there is such a beauty about the game. It is a game of failure. So resilient and so strong . . .
I started my career working for Mike Veeck. That was actually my first professional interview. I interned with the St. Paul Saints in 1994. My supervisors or owners always had a greater love for the game than just being owners that were trying to make money on a minor league team. That was huge.
You obviously have a passion for sales and for working with people. So why minor league baseball? Those are skills that you could have taken to any industry and be successful. Why did you choose minor league baseball?
My clients are all over the nation. When you go to New England or the mid-Atlantic those people are big into the Big Four [professional sports: MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL]. Go down to Texas and like the Southeast and they’re into collegiates, and the Midwest is like that. In Portland, we had the Portland Trail Blazers. Oregon and Oregon State weren’t incredibly competitive when I was growing up. So the closest thing we had was the Seattle Mariners, and that seemed like a long ways away. So I grew up a minor leaguer, and I thought that was just wonderful. You’re that much closer to the field, it is that much more interactive with the players, you feel a part of it.
I’ve spoken to a lot of leaders in minor league baseball since I started doing these interviews, and your path to success is similar to a lot of them. But at the same time, it is different because you’re a woman working in what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry. What sort of challenges have you faced in that respect?
I think there are two challenges for a woman and I think a lot of women would agree with me on this. The first challenge is I don’t think a lot of people view us as being equally sincere in our dedication toward the business. There is an absolute stigma that we’re in it to meet the players. That stigma exists. I bet you every woman in the business has faced that stigma. Whether or not she has been good in that area, I’m telling you that every woman has been accused of that.
I think that is unfortunate because there are so many women that I know that have been A-plus, and are in it for the right reasons. I can tell you that when I worked for Mandalay, there was a senior adviser with Mandalay—not with the team but with Mandalay—he used to say that he wasn’t going to hire women as salespeople because they cry. He said this. If that ever came out today, there would be huge trouble. And this guy has done really well in his career, too. This is on a societal nature and isn’t just sports, but maybe people don’t take us as seriously because they think we are going to go home and raise kids.
Then the other challenge that we face . . . this is a boys network. I know for a fact that there were times I did not get the same salary as a male equivalent, or times where I did not get promoted. I remember one time I had an opportunity at a position, it was an assistant general manager position, and my supervisor went golfing with another guy and all of a sudden I find out that he was going to be the assistant general manager. I know I have had to work harder to get the things that would have been given [to a male peer].
I used to serve as the MC for the Women in Baseball Leadership Event and there are too many stories [like mine] that exist from women who are incredibly impactful in the business. I think there is a boy’s network and I think there is a stigma that’s attached to us. And, you know, unfortunately there are some women who did the wrong things. And we struggle with that. That’s why I don’t get angry about that, that just makes myself and other people who are like me hold ourselves to such a high standard that we do turn the tide and I think definitely [create] change. Gosh, I started in ‘94, and the years that I’ve been in, it is so much better now.
About six years ago, Ben Hill did a story on the Women In Baseball Leadership Event that takes place at the Winter Meetings and Promo Seminar each year. Within it, you discuss the need for more women in managerial roles. That at the time, women generally filled organizational roles with little room for advancement and that women need to adopt a whatever-it-takes attitude to help go from peer to manager. Have you seen such changes take place in the six years since the article was written?
Better. It’s gotten better. It still has a lot of room to grow. I was reading some of the articles that you had written, I think Mike Birling and Kurt Landes both said something like, ‘You know I was meeting with somebody and he is going to buy a team and he said do you want to be my AGM.’ That doesn’t happen anymore. That’s the way it used to be. And I know they were both very hard workers. Mike Birling is amazing and Kurt is probably my biggest client, so I am very tight with him. I am blown away by how talented he is. And Mike Birling, I’ve gotten to work with him, and I am blown away by how talented he is. So there is nothing against how they got their start.
Nowadays, I know this from owners that they are hiring people as GMs with a sales background. If women don’t start taking on sales—and there is still a trepidation of taking on sales by women more so than in men—and if they don’t start taking on that role and learning how to manage and grow a sales department, we will continue to have more organizational roles.
So would that be your advice for women getting into the game, to get into sales?
Yes. And I would say that to anybody, I don’t care what gender they are. I think it is important to know the other roles. Ultimately you will cap if you’re not in the sales capacity. That’s just the current trend and that’s the way it is being hired. Where I think it’s bad—I think it’s great from a sales side — but I think owners are not necessarily hiring the best leaders to run their teams, they’re hiring people that produce revenue . . .
I would highly encourage any person to learn sales, and to at least be very open minded about it. If they want to grow, that’s where it is going to be. Collegiate and the Big Four love to hire from minor league baseball. I know this because I have a bunch of collegiate properties that I work with and I’m starting to get pretty dialed into that area. They love that because they know we hustle. They know how hard we work. They know that we can market regardless of win-loss [records]. They know we can market regardless of what talent is on the field. They love that about us and that we can create that. I think in order for somebody to grow their career they would be absolutely remiss if they didn’t give sales a shot.
So that’s interesting, I hadn’t seen that trend, that minor league front offices have become a feeder to major league and collegiate sports.
It’s true. I still hope the best stay in minor league baseball. And I was reading again a lot of the stories that you have done and a lot of interviews that you have done, I was thinking to myself, Oh thank god that guy stayed here. It’s funny, in my head I create an all-star team of different sales people in my head. And there is this one guy down in Round Rock, and I’m like, Oh he’s definitely going to be a general manager one day. Then I think this guy at Lehigh Valley is definitely going to be a general manager one day. There all sorts of men and women that can be that, and I hope that they stay, because I think minor league baseball is the best of all. I think we make the biggest impact in our communities. I hope the best stay. But there is absolutely no doubt that the Big Four and collegiate—and I know collegiate for a fact—want to hire from the minor leagues.
Do you talk with other women working in minor league baseball. Since you’ve been in the game since ‘94, do you consider yourself a mentor for others?
Yes. A lot. I do. I take that role very seriously . . . You and I were talking about the Women in Baseball Leadership event. That has been a godsend to women working in minor league baseball. Because I used to feel like that when we would go to the Winter Meetings and Promotional Seminar, that it was the men that had that sort of connect. I actually think the women have a stronger connect than the men do now because of that event.
I was talking with [Gwinnett Stripers Assistant GM] Shari Massengill this morning. She had called me with something she had a thought on, and we ended up in a half-an-hour conversation. I couldn’t respect that woman more. And I work with [Greensboro Grasshoppers VP of Baseball Operations] Katie Dannemiller as a client but she’s also one of my best friends. I honestly don’t know what I would do without her friendship. She’s such a good friend. And there are other women too. I could go on and on. Yes, I think we mentor younger women in the business who are just starting out, there is a fantastic network of women like Katie or Shari who have been in it for awhile and have developed a friendship and we help each other out.
How has sales in minor league baseball changed as the sport has evolved and become more popular and teams have seemingly become more sophisticated?
It’s much better. I don’t know if last year was a record year for minor league baseball overall, but I was floored that basically half the teams went up in attendance and you look that there are probably less new stadiums and less new renovations than ever. And I think that says something . . .
When the economy hit the downturn and governments were getting really tight [about giving money for new ballparks], I think owners were like, we still need to make money, and rightfully so were putting more expectations on their staffs to deliver money every year and to deliver revenue. You hear every year about baseball becoming a business, and I’ve said this for probably the last 15 years: Yay! Because if it is more like a business, then we are going to treat our customers the right way. Amazon is a gigantic business, but doggone it if they don’t treat their customers awesome. The consumer’s expectation has risen with everything in the world, it’s not just sports. Consumers expect more. And I think the fact that ownership expects more [from its employees]: good.
And I think there is more to give. I think minor league teams, even my best teams, can probably do better. I don’t think any of us can sit there and say that we have honestly maxed it. We’ve got to adapt to technology because again that is what the consumer expects. I do a lot of customer service training. I study every single year customer service trends. And last year the biggest trends that the companies that are perceived as highest in customer service in each of their categories tend to have is excellent technology.
You work with so many different minor league teams, what similarities do you see between the best minor league baseball teams. Is there a trait shared among the most successful teams?
There are two that come to my mind right away. One is not settling. I am blown away by Kurt Landes. He has had a stellar career. And that guy never stops working to be better. Not in his career, but his team. He is so innovative even though he could’ve cashed it in already. And Mike Birling is like that. They continue to push themselves and their organizations to do more and to do better. And that’s what the best teams do.
The other thing is, and I am shocked by it. Very few teams focus on company culture. In fact, I will honestly tell you that with 50-plus clients and the non-clients that I try to land as clients, the number of times that I have heard teams say they try to focus on company culture is less than five. The ones that have said they focus on company culture tend to be stellar. And I think those are the two things, company culture and that push for wanting to be innovating and No. 1.
We are an industry that shares best practices and we are the best at that. I don’t know any other industry that does it like minor league baseball does it, but because of innovators wanting to push for more it raises the bar for everyone else.