Five Best Hometown Businesses

Business: St. Paul Saints
Place: St. Paul, Minn., where baseball dates back to 1884
Owners: Marvin Goldklang, Mike Veeck, Bill Murray, Van Schley, John Alexander, Mark Van Wagoner
General manager: Bill Fanning
Key to success: Brand building, including player involvement with fans

Can a hometown business also be a growth business? For the St. Paul Saints, the answer wasn't clear in 1993, though the minor-league team broke all sales goals and captured the Northern League title in its first season. "It was a magical summer," says Bill Fanning, the team's general manager and one of its two vice-presidents. "We won the championship and won it at home." About 3,000 fans thronged the Municipal Stadium field (now called Midway) and mingled with the players.

"We knew we had something going," says Fanning, "but we always said, 'Is the bubble going to burst?' " After all, in the minor leagues, the Saints were part of a grand experiment to prove that town-based teams could once again flourish -- that is, without major-league teams' paying the bills. That experiment, the first modern-day independent minor league, began in 1993. The Northern League -- of which the St. Paul Saints remain the preeminent team -- was the first but soon spawned imitators from Texas to California. Since then, independent teams have come and gone; many underestimated what it would take to make money. Coaches and players in the failed Great Central League, for example, reportedly resorted to accepting donations of food and money from fans.

But the town-based model worked in St. Paul. Early on, the Saints hit on a winning formula that kept fans and corporate sponsors coming back to the ballpark again and again.

The team's success on the field is easy to explain. The Saints like to win. And they've fielded their share of rising stars over the years. But you can't chalk up 202 straight sold-out home games (through the 2000 season) to the players' appeal. After all, the Saints' lineup changes almost entirely each season. No matter. "Fun is good" goes the Saints' motto -- and it sells seats, too.

The team is famous for its quirky customs. Like Sister Rosalind, the nun who runs a massage school and brings her service to the stands. Like the mascot, a pig that is renamed yearly. (This year it's Kevin Bacon.) And like the Reading Tree, a gathering in center field, where players and celebrities read to hordes of kids before every Sunday home game. And at least a few of the 22 players on the roster join fans in the parking lot for a little barbecue, in the good old midwestern tradition of tailgating.

"It's the gestalt," says St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman, explaining the Saints' success. "It's hometown and homespun -- a little bit of yesterday." In fact, history is slathered on the Saints like mustard on a hot dog. The team shamelessly exploits its legend by making reference to the great St. Paul Saints of a bygone era -- a minor-league team of the same name that rose to fame in the 1920s -- at the lucrative concession stands and at its Web site.

In the beginning the team needed to sell 2,500 tickets to break even; the Saints attracted crowds of 5,000-plus. And numbers like those pull in sponsors. Advertising dollars, in turn, allow the Saints to spend far more than the average minor-league team on creative promotions and game-day entertainment. More than 80 corporate sponsors -- such as the St. Paul Cos., Lamperts (a local lumber company), and St. Paul Pioneer Press -- not only plaster the fence with signs bearing their names but also pump up group sales. Today sponsors account for a whopping 40% of revenues. (Tickets make up 40%, and concessions 20%.)

On a clear blue night in May the Saints are playing an exhibition game against the Russian National Federation team. For the dozen or so front-office staffers, the real action happens during the five or six on-field promotions that take place in the 90-second intervals between innings. By the fourth inning, Liz Adams, director of promotions, is sweating, rushing to get three young fans onto the field. The youngsters are revving up the engines of Polaris snowmobiles retrofitted with wheels, anticipating a race to third base. But one boy's helmet won't go on. Adams cheerily calls out, "I hate this promotion; it's so labor-intensive!"

Like any labor-intensive service business, the Saints are only as good as their last performance. Each sponsor has paid thousands of dollars to promote the antics -- and some even join in the action. But the players are shy. It took a lot of coaxing to get the players to participate in the Jerry Garcia look-alike contest and in Conehead Night, inspired by actor and co-owner Bill Murray.

Each season the promotional budget -- now 5% of revenues -- climbs. Sponsorships add to the pot of money available for ever wilder schemes: using sponsorship dollars, the team can spend more than is budgeted on promotions. This year, for instance, an ardent fan is "Saint for a summer." Living in a trailer at the ballpark on a budget of $5,000, he writes a weekly diary that appears on the Saints Web site. "There are fans who could care less whether we win or lose or even know what the score is at the end of the game," says Fanning. "There are so many things going on that if you don't love baseball, it's OK."

Although numerous ball clubs have taken a page from the Saints' game plan, few can boast the same results. The team's average attendance in 2000 ranked it in the top 10% of all 229 minor-league teams in the country. Despite nearly flat ticket prices, revenues -- now nearly $5 million -- continue to grow.

And it doesn't seem to matter that the fans can't name the players. After a day game staged for 4,500 screaming third, fourth, and fifth graders, mobs of children beg for autographs. "Hey, number 23, number 23," one little blond girl yells. She tosses a miniature bat into the waiting hands of outfielder Noah Hall. "What matters," says one front-office staffer standing nearby, "is the Saints."

Five Best Hometown Businesses

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Published on: Aug 1, 2001