Eric Edelstein has enjoyed a steady climb up the minor league ranks. He was just two years removed from Bowling Green State University when he landed his first general manager job in 2002 with the Jamestown Jammers, the now-defunct New York-Penn League that was one of the smallest markets in the minors. The following season brought him to Wichita, where he ran the Double-A Wranglers for three years before bringing it to a new ballpark and launching the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. Edelstein helped establish that franchise’s footing in a new market, earning Baseball America’s Freitas Award for overall excellence following the 2012 season.
Each of those experiences, Edelstein said, shaped his approach to the game and influences how he operates the Triple-A Reno Aces, where he now serves as president. Edelstein oversees operations of the Aces and Reno 1868 FC, which made its United Soccer League debut at Greater Nevada Field in 2017.
What follows is my conversation with Edelstein about how to succeed in minor league baseball, the different—and similar—approach to running teams in various-sized markets and the changing dynamic of the game. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.
You became a general manager at a young age. How did you break into the game and move up the ranks so quickly?
Timing and taking opportunity is what ultimately got me there. I worked for the Cleveland Indians all through college, networked through that building and got to know people. That internship led to an internship in Buffalo for the Bisons. That was the summer of 2000. From there, I got offered a full-time job and ended up working for 13 years with the Rich organization.
By the time I got that first GM opportunity in Jamestown, that was a Rich-owned team and that was a company I had worked with for three years, so they knew me. From there, I moved to Wichita. I was able to take on that opportunity. And neither Jamestown or Wichita at the time work super attractive. Obviously, neither team exists anymore. So they had their challenges. So, I think the best thing I could say is I took opportunity when it was there and didn’t ask a whole lot of questions in terms of I didn’t negotiate hard, didn’t really hesitate to move across the country. I just kind of took the opportunity and made the most of it. And then when the Wichita team moved to Northwest Arkansas, that was an easy move and I had already sort of built my reputation in the company at that point, so they were comfortable moving me there.
From there, this job [with Reno] definitely intrigued me. I felt I sort of hit a ceiling with the Rich organization, which I think probably was true because five years later the two guys who were ahead of me in the org chart are still there. So, it was a good time and a good opportunity. And then moving out here gave me a chance, well, I equate it to like a [University of] Florida quarterback. I wanted to prove that I wasn’t a system guy, that I could go be successful without the friendly cover of the only people that I had known in my professional life.
It’s been a terrific time out here. The job has gone way beyond baseball, which has kept me intrigued and interested and energized. With special events, bringing a soccer team into Reno, working on land and development, and planning around the stadium with our owner. It’s been terrific. It’s been an incredible run.
The Jamestown Jammers, your first job as a GM, are no more. What were the challenges of running a team in such a small market and in an old ballpark like that?
I think the challenges when you are first starting out are just that there is so much you don’t know, and being willing to be a sponge, ask a lot of questions, use the resources around you. I definitely put in beyond full-season hours trying to make this really, really tiny short-season team successful. That was the only way I knew how to do it. The challenges are also the opportunities. There aren’t a lot of people to do the work, so I’m selling the sponsorships, I’m renewing season tickets, I’m writing press releases, I’m updating the website, I’m meeting with the mayor. You just get thrown into every last thing that you could imagine, which I think laid a really nice base of knowing just enough to be dangerous about all aspects of the business.
Then as the companies and the teams got larger, I again had just enough fundamental understanding that I could talk the PR talk but I can also jump right to the field. I can talk with our manager, I can make gametime decisions, I can schedule promotions, I can write a script for a TV spot or a radio spot. None of them may be done at major league caliber, but I know enough to get the job done. That was the biggest challenge. Just very few resources, so you’ve got to figure it out. There is no one else to really lean on, there is you and a few other people to figure it out.
When you are running a team like Jamestown and doing so much work and the team is only bringing in maybe 900 fans a game, does that become discouraging? Do you appreciate the small gains? How does that work with a team like Jamestown?
I think I was so energized just to have a chance to be at the lead. I looked at the comparisons and I looked at our goals and I went after those goals. One of the struggles that I think is a challenge in the sports business vs. others, these teams that you compete with on the field you also just get automatically compared against off the field. And the reality is there is just no comparison of them off the field. You can learn from each other, but everyone’s market is completely individualized. Jamestown was toward the bottom [of the league in attendance], and we knew that was where we were going to be. We’re in the same league as Brooklyn and Staten Island, but it would have been silly of me to aspire to that because it just isn’t realistic.
So yeah, it was all the little gains. Can we sell more season tickets than last year? Can we bring in more sponsorships than last year? Can we drive x-amount of single games by doing some promotions that were different? You can use baseball analogies for the business side, string together a bunch of hits and see if we can score a bunch of runs. We weren’t a home run hitting club. We were going to have to do lots of little things and get them strung together to be successful.
So before coming to NW Arkansas, you ran teams at ballparks built in the 1930s and 1940s in Jamestown and Wichita, respectively. How did those experiences, or did those experiences, help prepare you for opening a brand new ballpark in Northwest Arkansas?
They certainly did because there are things you know that are challenges in operating, so you learn what you’d like if you could do it again. Wichita was a 1930s-built stadium, but there were a lot of renovations in the early-’90s. So while it was far from state-of-the-art, there were some amenities that were certainly worthwhile. You learn you have to accentuate the positives and try to minimize the negatives when you are playing in an old stadium. And you show off the things you can show off, and try to keep people away from the things that you can’t make better, and still at the end of the day put on a show. And I think that is what we tried to do there, put on a good show knowing that the seating area wasn’t going to be top notch. The food service areas weren’t going to have those types of amenities. We weren’t going to appeal to the luxury buyer with those suites. But we played to the strengths of what we did have, which was an extremely affordable, high value event. We played to those and we maximized those.
Those were three great learning years. We still had very small staffs, 10 to 12 people, but from there I was able to really learn and start seeing what other teams are doing and be prepared when the other team launched.
Was it like a new world for you in Northwest Arkansas and Arvest Ballpark?
I’d say they all bring their opportunities and challenges, there are very few ideal situations where you just walk in and are king of the world from Day One. We went into a market that had a very established SEC sports presence. There had been really no professional sports [in the region]. That entire area viewed the Razorbacks as their pro team and as such supported them with every ounce of their being. So while there were a lot of people who were excited, there were just as many people who were curious, and not annoyed but almost wondering, ‘Why are you here, we have the Razorbacks?’
You still had to sway the naysayers and build off that. At the time, the Royals were really bad, with no real hope. It was Cardinal country down there. No different than Wichita, which was also Cardinal country. So yeah, we had to work at it. But there we did have the backdrop of ‘Come look at this beautiful stadium, you’re going to love seeing games here. This is going to be as nice a place to watch baseball as any in the country.’ And it definitely worked. We built a solid-performing club that is going to do very well in a very strong league for a very long time.
Back when I was at Baseball America, I remember doing a story on you opening a craft beer stand in Northwest Arkansas, and that the Naturals were one of the first teams to really jump on the craft beer phenomena. What led to that decision? Was it partly based on personal taste? And how did the success of it influence future decisions?
I knew just enough about it because I did have a personal interest. We try to stay on the forefront of things like that. I just sent an article to our executive staff yesterday that Walmart is testing Waymo autonomous vehicles in Chandler, Ariz., where if you order your groceries online, they will send the autonomous vehicle to come get you and bring you to Walmart, where you will have your groceries loaded and then send you back home. And the premise of the idea is that the value of the customer is worth more than the cost of the ride, so Walmart is going to look at footing the bill.
Well, we are probably a little ways away from that being real, but we are probably closer than you realize. If you can be the place that says, ‘Hey, if you live within 20 miles of the ballpark, we’ll pay to get you here,” how many more fans could we attract? We try to stay on top of the [publications like] “Inc.com, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company.” Those are some of my favorite publications that I try to stay on top of and see if we can jump the trends a little bit here . . .
Especially around baseball, the game is this really casual experience which unfortunately has less and less to do with the actual game itself and more and more to do with the actual experience around the game. So I’m not just looking at what other baseball teams are doing. What are movie theaters doing? What are malls doing? What are festivals doing? Trying to capture all those places that try to bring you in, that help people gather, we have to figure out what they are doing too, and then try to apply those to what we do.
I have said before that I look at what we do as live-action dinner theater. The only thing that I don’t control is the game. I still have my own opinions on the game and that is still why I am in the business, because I love the game of baseball. But the business is being driven by things that don’t have as much to do with the game itself anymore. Time will tell. Major League Baseball certainly has seen a pinch point this year. Is it an anomaly? I don’t know. Have we gone too far into placating and catering to those people just looking to have a good time to the point where we haven’t built strong baseball fans? I don’t know, but those are questions we are going to have to figure out in the next few years.
Minor League Baseball has not seen the same dip in attendance as Major League Baseball, other than being impacted by bad weather in specific areas this spring. What’s the difference?
MLB has done a good job diversifying its promotions, but the nature of the beast is still that your primary objective in going to a Major League Baseball game is to watch your team try to win a game. Let’s face it, in Minor League Baseball, I cringe at the idea that people walk out and they had so much fun they didn’t even know what the score was. Well then that could just be your kid’s play at that point.
The game can’t go away. The game has to matter, but it can matter to a lesser degree where it isn’t the sole determining factor of whether you had a good time or not. But I think Major League Baseball has figured that out a long time ago. Let’s face it, the best team in the league is going to lose 55 to 60 games, so you could go to a dozen games and never see your team win and they could be the best team in the league. So, you still have to be able to balance showing them enough of a good time, but the game has got to count for something. But bottom line, in the minor leagues our attendance is not built on wins and losses. It is built on promotions, it is built on group sales, it is built on party areas, suites. It is built on experiences. And so whether our team is in first or last and whether that was expected or unexpected doesn’t dramatically change how our games are going to be attended.
Do you try to direct them to the field a little more, and point out that sure, all of these things in the ballpark are great, but look there is a game happening on the field?
The thing is we have to be sensitive to the fact that we have to cater both. We have to cater to the young families. If they don’t really care what is happening on the field, we still have to make sure they have a good time. But then we do have an obligation to tell the stories of our players, help people understand the way that this works and the dream that all of these guys on the field are chasing, from players to umpires to coaches. They are all there with the idea that they are trying to get to the big leagues. So I do think that collectively, we have to drive to tell those stories, and that is important. But again, we are going to be successful not by trying to become interested in what we think is important but by listening and understanding to what our fans are telling us is important, and then delivering on that for them.
Reno is certainly one of the smaller-markets in the Pacific Coast League, if not all of Triple-A. What sort of benefits and challenges does that present, or is it similar to what you experienced in Jamestown and Wichita?
The downside is certainly just volume. We have fewer people to try to draw from. If you lose a fan, you can’t really afford to lose a fan. You’ve got to really work hard to maintain your fanbase. The opportunity is that being a smaller market there is less noise to pull from. We do have the University of Nevada-Reno, which football and basketball particularly get a lot of headlines and attention, and rightfully so. The other sports, quite frankly, not as much.
We are an event town, so we have to fight for headlines with some of those events. But I can also look and see 10,000 hotel rooms from outside my window. So, 10,000 hotel rooms with an average occupancy of two, means that on a busy weekend we could have 20,000 additional people essentially ‘living’ within half a mile of my stadium. So while the local base may be small, we also punch above our weight because of the amount of people that come in. Still, those are single-game tickets and you can’t build a franchise on that, but it certainly does help.
But ultimately, the community you have to work with is the community you have to work with. I don’t really look at how do I compare to Sacramento or Fresno? I look at how have we done over the last few years? Where have we been good? Where have we been bad? Where can we improve? I’m looking at beating our own numbers, not someone else’s.
Now you’re running a professional soccer and minor league teams. How challenging is that to be in charge of two teams simultaneously?
The fundamentals are the same. You’ve got to sell tickets. You’ve got to sell season tickets. You’ve got to sell groups. You’ve got to show people a good time. You have to get the business community on board. All of the nuts and bolts of the business are fairly similar, the sport itself is very different. Just the culture, the athletes, the coaches, the referees, all bring a different nuance that is just different than baseball—I wouldn’t call it better or worse. Learning that has been a little different.
The players have a lot more availability because they are a max of two games a week, and most weeks they only have one game. And it is not like you run six hours a day in practice. So the players come practice in the mornings and most days have a lot of free time. So they are a lot more available; you can get them involved in the community a lot easier. A lot of them have hobbies and interests outside the sport because they have enough time to pursue them while they are playing a sport, so that plays in.
The intensity of the game [is different]. When you do only play once a week and on average we have three home games a month at the stadium, the intensity of those is much greater. There is a greater pressure to win because you are going to send those fans away and they are not coming back for three weeks. So you really want to perpetuate and carry that momentum beyond that night. I’m a lot more stressed watching the soccer team play than the baseball team, because there are a lot fewer games, they all just count more than baseball does.
It’s been fun. It’s been energizing to compare and contrast. There’s areas that I think baseball has it figured out and soccer can pick up on it, and vice-versa. And I’m that guy, unfortunately, in both meetings that is saying, ‘Hey you should look at how the other sport handles this, because I think they have really got something.’ It goes both ways. There are things that both do well and there are things that both do very well and things that both can improve upon.