It's not how you play the game that counts, just how you pack the stands. So says Patty Cox Hampton, who has turned around what may have been the worst franchise in professional baseball.
It's the top of the fourth inning here under the lights in Oklahoma City's All Sports Stadium, and the visiting Omaha Royals have just dealt our team a mighty blow. After a rattling burst of hits, five runs cross the plate. Woody Pockrus, a 74-year-old fan who's been coming to the park off and on for some 20 years, attributes this disaster to our pitcher's "manure ball," so named because opposing batters regularly "knock the crap out of it." Not a good pitch. The other guys go up six-zip. "Oh my," sighs the owner of our club, the Oklahoma City 89ers, "things are not going well."
Not well, indeed. An afternoon thunderstorm nearly canceled the game entirely, leaving a meager crowd of only 1,500 fans to buy tickets and popcorn. And tonight's problems on the ield are reminiscent of too many other games this season, which has produced a 31-41 record compounded of poor pitching, injuries, and the loss of several key players called up by the Texas Rangers, the 89ers' major-league affiliate. Add it all up, in fact, and you will rightly wonder how it is that our owner ever makes enough money to keep the boys in baseballs and uniforms.
Oh, but she does. That's right, she. White hair cut short and stylish; a round and pleasant face; dark, bright eyes and large glasses with neutral frames; solicitous as a favorite grandmother; equal parts midwestern grit and southern belle -- meet Patty Cox Hampton, the only woman in America to own a Triple A minor-league team, and one of the most successful managers in professional baseball.
Hers has been a come-from-behind success. Back in the early 1970s, the 89ers were widely regarded as the worst franchise in professional baseball; in 1975 barely able to muster 46,000 fans for 72 home games. But since Hampton and several local investors bought the club in 1978 for the princely sum of $100,000, things have gotten remarkably better. Sales and attendance have increased every year, so much so that Hampton estimates she will end this year with $300,000 in profits on $2.5 million in revenues. And although this season's performance on the field has been disappointing, last year the 89ers were contenders for the American Association title, finally losing to the Louisville Redbirds in the championship series.
For her shrewd management, Hampton, now 59, has received the accolades of her peers and the sports press, most recently when she was named the minor league's 1985 Executive of the Year by The Sporting News. But perhaps the most telling indication of her success came just a few months ago, when she received two different offers to buy the franchise for $2 million. She turned them both down. "It's worth more," Hampton says. "And besides, I didn't feel like seeling." She's having much too good a time.
Patty's success never ceases to amuse Earl Palmer, Hampton's father, still sharp at 89 and sitting near her tonight behind the 89ers' dugout. "Who would have ever thought," he asks, "that my daughter would end up the president of a baseball club anyway?" Certainly not Patty Hampton. For years, she had lived her life in Oklahoma City as "a doctor's wife and the mother of four children." When the marriage ended in divorce, Hampton set about rebuilding her self-confidence by working first for an ad agency and then a public relations firm, where she hustled new accounts. In the early 1970s, she opened up a company of her own, Cox Advertising Agency, and was joined shortly by Bing Hampton, who would later become her husband. Among their most visible accounts was the struggling 89ers, recently purchased by Harry Valentine, a wealthy Philadelphian with a passion for baseball.
From a business perspective, the challenge for the 89ers, like any sports franchise, had always been to find some way to insulate the club's profitability against the vagaries of bad weather, bad plays, and plain bad luck. When Patty first got involved with baseball, former players ran the front office and owners treated their teams as expensive playthings to satisfy boyhood fantasies. Their strategy had always been to win games -- and through that to attract fans and profits. The Hamptons, however, began from a different premise.
"We learned very early that the romance around sports franchises is not enough," Patty says. "You cannot survive on a team or on the weather. You cannot be at their mercy." Selling fans on the idea that they were coming out to the park to see a winning team would be ruinous, they decided -- after all, the whole purpose of minor-league baseball is to send the best players to major-league affiliates, usually at the exact moment when they are likely to be most valuable to a minor-league franchise. So there had to be other reasons for the fans to come out to the park. The Hamptons packaged them in a marketing strategy they called "Goodtime Baseball" -- reasonably priced family fun with lots of special events and attractions.
"We feel that if we get a good team, that's the cherry on the cake," explains Hampton. "What we're really selling is hot dogs, cold beer, and fun at the ball park, at prices the fans can afford."
The concept got off to a dramatic if shaky start during the opening game of the 1976 season against the Tulsa Oilers. While a marching band from Fort Sill tootled away, a blank charge exploded from a horse-drawn cannon, stunning the crowd and engulfing the opponent's dugout in smoke so dense that it sent the players scrambling for their lives. Later, a drama student from Oklahoma State University billed as "Mondo the Great" jumped on top of the Oilers' dugout wearing a mask and black cape, and proceeded to put a hex on the team. The act must have been pretty convincing: Mondo resigned his post abruptly after the first inning, when an unidentified Oilers fan punched him in the stomach.
Despite these surprises (or perhaps because of them), the night was a great success, and attendance at the games that followed began to improve. By the next year, Valentine was so impressed with Patty's ability to organize not only the team's promotions but also its financial affairs that he appointed her general manager of the club. The story might have ended there if, later the same year, Valentine had not, for a variety of personal and business reasons, decided to put the club up for sale. When buyers started appearing from out of state with plans to move the franchise, Patty launched an unorthodox campaign on local radio and television stations warning that a great tradition was about to end. In response, several investors came forward to join her in buying the 89ers to keep the club in Oklahoma City.
Management of the team has since become much more systematic under Patty; Bing, the club's executive vice-president; and Jim Weigel, the club's vice-president/general manager, who once directed minor-league operations for the San Diego Padres. "Goodtime Baseball" is still the marketing theme, but now there is a sound financial strategy that underlies it: to take in as much money as possible even before the first ball is thrown out in the spring. That way, even if the players and the elements decide not to cooperate, the team will at least break even. "You cannot survive in baseball," explains Patty, "if you don't have money in the bank before opening day -- enough, in fact, to survive the entire season."
In the off-season, Patty puts her staff of 13 through a close order drill of preselling to capture an operating budget of roughly $500,000 from advertisers, promoters, private box rentals, and season-ticket holders. Space ads in the team's glossy, 108-page game program ($1.25 at the gate) range from $3,000 for a full-page, four-color, back-page placement to $165 for an inside "booster ad" the size of a business card. To appear in big letters on the home-run wall under the scoreboard, advertisers ranging from local politicians and national breweries to Roto-Rooter and the U.S. Army Reserve pay anywhere from $2,100 to $4,500. Advance ticket sales are also heavily promoted at $225 each, providing box seats for 72 games, plus free concert tickets and special parking privileges (just plain folk will later pay $3 general admission, $4 reserved, and $1 for parking).
Hampton is equally aggressive in her advance planning as she is in advance sales. Each fall, she gathers the staff around the large blackboard to review each game's statistics for the season just ended. Attendance and concession sales for each game are compared against that day's weather and special promotions. On the basis of the numbers, the schedule for these all-important special events is modified for the coming year, with events added or deleted, moved or modified. At this year's meeting, for example, The Beach Boys concert, the season's most popular attraction, was nudged ahead from the opening night of a home stand to a date later in the week to give the club more time to advertise. Adjustments were also made to "giveaway nights," when corporate sponsors defray the costs of plying fans by offering free baseball gloves, seat cushions, or other souvenirs. And the staff agrees upon a schedule of "buy-out nights," for which the club sells blocks of discounted tickets to various merchants in outlying towns who then pass them out to their customers.
Not every decision, however, is made strictly by the numbers. Take the matter of Captain Dynamite, an easy rival to Mondo the Great. Not long ago, Bing received a letter from the Captain, who offered to perform spectacles for $450. Bing was tempted. The Captain would wheel a coffin out onto the playing field, ceremoniously ring it with dynamite, get in the coffin, and then blow the whole rig to smithereens, somehow escaping unharmed (except for the time he bloodied his left arm and the ball girl fainted). Even so, Bing felt uneasy about another performance. "The Captain must be in his seventies," says Bing. "He's hard of hearing, and maybe he'll forget where to put the dynamite and really blow himself up. That would be awful. He may be too old now. But he says he has a granddaughter who wants to get into the business. I wonder what they'll call her?"
Such considerations are an important factor in the 89ers' recent success. For all the concentration on business fundamentals, for all the romance and gloss of professional baseball, this is a franchise that still has the feel of a neighborhood mom-and-pop business. Observers say this feeling finds its source in the personal styles and inclinations of Patty and Bing, both of whom are also enthusiastic Oklahoma City boosters. "There is one word that describes everything that has happened here, and that's 'local," says Chris Needham, the 89ers' television broadcaster. The squad of boys who fold the tarpaulin on he infield, for example, come from a local halfway house for firsttime offenders; they do it for free hot dogs, a ball game, and a night out in the open air. And many of the concessions are staffed by members of various local chapters of the American Business Women's Association, who take away 10% of the concessions' net profit for their scholarship funds. As a result of touches like these, the 89ers still seem to inspire a kind of small-town loyalty from fans and business customers rarely seen in the major leagues, even though the Oklahoma City area is home to nearly 1 million souls. Even the players, lean, hungry, and very transient, feel the pull of family ties. As a token of their esteem, they recently chipped in to commission an oil painting for Patty and Bing featuring an artistic arrangement of glove, cleats, and 89ers hat.
Hometown loyalty, sound cash management, a marketing strategy based on good times -- not good weather or good pitching -- these are the key ingredients in the homegrown formula for the 89ers' financial success. It is a formula that now allows Patty to work an annual wonder, a bit like defying gravity: hers is the remarkable business that floats reasonably free of its expected product line and production problems. And, according to Johnny Johnson, president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, hers is now a formula that has been borrowed by other teams. Johnson cites Patty and a few other forward-thinking owners for transforming minor-league baseball from a ragtag farm system into a profitable leisure-time industry, with long waiting lists of buyers for franchises now selling at 10 times what they were fetching a decade ago.
Oh, sure, there may yet be a toughened veteran or two left of these summer battles between grown men striking balls with sticks -- owners who even now can be found darning the holes of faded uniforms, chewing on a cigar, praying for good weather, and wondering if pocket change will get the school bus to the next game.
There may be. But she does not live in Oklahoma City.