Swinging for the fence Featured

8:00pm EDT August 29, 2006
In February 2004, Jamie McCourt was living a dream.

She and her husband, Frank, had just purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers from NewsCorp., and within a month of starting the purchase process, Jamie McCourt, a Maryland native and lawyer by trade, was thrust into the center of one of the most well-known franchises in all of sports.

She assumed the president and vice chairman’s role, making her the highest-ranking female executive in Major League Baseball.

“I can’t even express how overwhelmed we were,” she says. “It was a tremendous opportunity.”

But the walk in the clouds was brief. Soon after the purchase, the realities of the business began to set in. McCourt says it became apparent that she and her husband had bought a team in need of help.

She says the franchise was bleeding money to the tune of $50 million a year. The Dodgers’ normally high attendance rate was dwindling, and Dodger Stadium, long regarded as one of the jewels of the sport, was beginning to show signs of age.

To prevent the Dodger organization from slipping further into disrepair, it needed new direction. Like any good business team, McCourt and her husband, chairman of the Dodgers, sat down with the organization’s management and assessed where the Dodgers were and where the club needed to go to restore itself to greatness.

 

Initial moves
Initial management meetings produced three broad goals for the organization, which Forbes estimates has revenue of $189 million with a franchise value of $482 million.

“We want to field a championship baseball team, year after year,” she says. “We want to make Dodger Stadium and the Dodgers the most fan-friendly experience in all of sports, and we want to expand our involvement in the community.”

Producing championship baseball is left to General Manager Ned Colletti and the baseball operations people. Off the field, however, McCourt took the reins of a massive stadium renovation project, cross-branding opportunities with team sponsors and community initiatives.

It was uncharted waters for the Dodgers in many respects. Some of the team’s practices were well behind the times when the McCourts took over.

“If you could believe, we didn’t even have credit cards in use at Dodger Stadium when we started,” she says. “We didn’t have Ticketmaster.”

Dodger Stadium has received a technological upgrade with the addition of credit card capabilities and Ticketmaster services. The park itself, opened in 1962, will also receive a facelift — in 2005, the McCourts announced a $40 million renovation plan that includes the replacement of every single seat in the park. The park’s offices have been renovated, and parts of the turf and warning track have been replaced.

“We also just added the loge terrace, which is another space for people to arrive early, stay late and get out of the heat of the game,” she says.

The cosmetic changes are the ones most evident to the several million fans who spin the turnstiles at Dodger Stadium every year, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Embedded in the McCourts’ turnaround plan is a strong belief that the Dodgers are selling not just the experience of watching the home team in person but also quality family time.

“I have four boys, and I can ask one of them ‘How was your day?’ over dinner, and I might get a two-word response,” she says. “I ask them at a ballgame, and we’re talking about baseball, and pretty soon they’ve said a lot more, like they don’t even realize they’re talking to me.”

The pursuit of a family atmosphere steers the Dodgers’ leadership both in how it relates to its employees and how it markets the team.

 

Family culture
McCourt says creating a family atmosphere starts at the top of an organization. If leadership values employees as people, the effect will reach down the organizational ladder and find its way to the customers.

After establishing the three basic goals for the organization as the “how,” Dodger leadership began educating employees on the “why.”

“We could not take for granted that all of our employees knew the franchise was losing $50 million a year,” she says. “So educating employees is important first and foremost so that you all understand where you want to go.”

To McCourt, the education of employees begins with a strong emphasis on communication, and communication begins with a strong management team.

“I spend an awful lot of time with our management team,” she says. “We meet several times a week to talk about everything that’s going on collectively so that we all understand how our departments need to be integrated.”

McCourt refers to herself as more of a coordinator and collaborator than a delegator. Her leadership philosophy is to keep tabs on the progress of the club’s senior managers but not to interfere in their day-to-day work. And she says it’s important to remember that different management styles work for different people.

“What works for me might not work for our government relations person or our sales and sponsorship person,” she says.

One thing she does insist on is constant face-to-face communication. Personalized communication helps employees understand where they fit into the organizational framework. Employees who understand their roles in an organization feel like they can contribute and are more apt to take pride in their roles.

“Whether it is the ticket taker in the parking lot, the ushers, the guys on the field, the coaches, front office, all of us have to be pulling in the same direction and contributing so that we do achieve these goals,” she says.

When it comes to communication, McCourt jokingly refers to herself as the “queen of casual.” She is big on lunch and coffee with employees and business partners.

“I think you communicate really well over food,” she says. “People also come and sit with me in the owner’s box during games to talk about what they’re doing in their lives, be it business or personal.”

Knowing the personal lives of employees is extremely important to McCourt, and she encourages Dodgers employees to speak to her about what is going on outside of work.

“It really makes you understand what they are going through in their lives, and it helps you understand where they are professionally,” she says.

 

Marketing matters
Promotional opportunities tend to fling themselves at you when you own the Dodgers.

“I can be out to dinner and someone will come up to me and say, ‘We really want to have a relationship with the Dodgers. How can we do that?’” she says.

But even though the Dodgers’ name creates a wealth of marketing opportunities for the organization, keeping your eyes peeled for the right opportunities is a marketing must, as it is with any business.

“You have to be open-minded that you could get an opportunity from anywhere at any time,” she says.

McCourt has tried to tie the Dodger name to other well-known companies with a series of cross-promotional campaigns. Many of the companies are long-standing partners of the Dodgers, such as Coca-Cola. But McCourt and her staff have also been approached by companies growing in popularity, such as California Pizza Kitchen.

McCourt says Dodger Stadium is currently the only sporting venue where CPK sells its products.

Pizza is among the usual sponsorship suspects when it comes to sports, along with beer, soft drinks, athletic shoes, apparel and related items. Those products cast a pretty wide net if you are trying to reach a young, male demographic.

But what about reaching the mothers, daughters and sisters of those highly sought-after young male customers? It was a question McCourt posed to others in the Dodger organization, and it helped lead the team to begin a marketing campaign that is focused on the team’s female fans.

McCourt says women and girls make up about 40 percent of the Dodgers’ fan base.

“For us not to cater to them would be silly,” she says.

Under the McCourts, the Dodgers have ramped up promotional efforts aimed at connecting the Dodgers to products their female fans use. One such cross-promotion involves cosmetic manufacturer Smashbox, which recently handed out 50,000 tubes of lip gloss at a game.

“Smashbox is now our first major nontraditional sponsor,” McCourt says. “They advertise on our (scoreboard). They are promoting our ‘kiss cam’ between innings. It’s really fascinating to see how you get these sponsors and how you create these opportunities.”

Along with product tie-ins, the Dodgers now run clinics aimed at enhancing the baseball knowledge of female fans. Infielder Jeff Kent attends all the clinics and has become a kind of spokesman for the women’s marketing campaign, which McCourt terms a “women’s initiative.”

The Dodgers have also increased marketing efforts to the vast array of ethnic groups in Los Angeles. With a history of promoting high-profile minority players such as Fernando Valenzuela and Hideo Nomo, McCourt says the strategy goes hand-in-hand with the Dodgers’ multiracial and multicultural philosophy. She says if fans see players of their own ethnicity on the team, they will be more likely to embrace the team as their own.

It’s a philosophy rooted in the franchise’s Brooklyn days, when players such as Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Jackie Robinson drew African-American communities to call the Dodgers their own.

“We are pretty lucky,” McCourt says. “We have players who come from all these different communities. Pick a country, we probably have a presence from there. We have a huge Latino and Asian presence. We were the first team in the Dominican Republic, and we still have an academy there.

“We are positioned to be known internationally.”

 

A woman’s perspective
As the highest-ranking female executive of a Major League Baseball franchise, McCourt is treading where few women have ever gone in the world of sports. She tries to impart what she has learned in that position to her students at UCLA, where she teaches a women’s business class.

“The message I believe in imparting to other female business leaders is to rely on their skill sets,” she says. “They should leverage their skill sets and learn to have confidence in their decision-making abilities.”

McCourt says she tries to get her students, and other up-and-coming female business leaders, to follow their own path as opposed to simply following in her footsteps.

“I don’t think they need to model themselves after someone,” she says. “I just think they should understand that there’s all sorts of people and all sorts of different skills. If they are really good at understanding who they are and having confidence in what they do, then they should lead the way.”

McCourt acknowledges that women have had a difficult time breaking through and achieving success in some fields, professional sports among them. Under her leadership, the Dodgers are helping to reverse that trend — a number of high-ranking team positions are held by women, including the assistant general manager, chief financial officer and vice president of communications.

“It would be nave of me to pretend women aren’t sometimes made to feel as if they shouldn’t be in certain areas because of their gender,” she says. “There are all sorts of ways to overcome that, and that’s certainly by performance and achieving your metrics.”

McCourt says business leaders should always keep in mind that diversity helps a business thrive. Different people bring different skills to the table, increasing a business’s ability to adapt and react to different situations.

“It’s important to know that businesses benefit from diversity,” she says. “Businesses benefit from having a constituency that has a diverse skill set. At the end of the day, women bring that to the table.”

 

HOW TO REACH: Los Angeles Dodgers, www.dodgers.com