“Mentally, I was able to make that switch at that time and refocus my professional life on something else.” Former professional baseballer Justin Huber reflected to Bullpen on his decision to transition from a player to an administrator.
Having played 15 years as a professional across the Australian Baseball League, Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan and Major League Baseball, Huber retired from playing in 2015 and is now the CEO of ABL franchise Melbourne Aces and state governing body Baseball Victoria.
It is a challenging role to transition into. Baseball is still trying to get a foothold in the Australian summer, finances are thin and promotion and visibility gets dwarfed from a plethora of summer sports including the men’s and women’s Big Bash League’s, the A-League, National Basketball League and the Australian Open.
Yet it is not all doom and gloom. The league and franchise both have opportunities to be an entrenched part of the Australian sporting summer. The Aces have a loyal fanbase and the team has signed up an impressive calibre of players with MLB and NPB experience for the 2017-18 ABL season which furthers the league’s credentials as an ideal place for players to develop outside of the major league off-seasons.
Bullpen: How did you make the transition from professional playing into front of office and team management?
Justin Huber: “It was a slow process from my perspective. It’s pretty hard coming out of playing full-time and focusing physically and mentally about being an athlete, to then switching gears and thinking about everything that goes with putting a team on the field, administrative tasks that surrounded the sport. It was a quite a different mindset.
“While it took some time before I really considered myself having made the switch I was very fortunate I had the Australian Baseball League to play in when I returned from the United States. When I returned, the ABL was in its infancy, therefore I was lucky to be able to come home and play at a reasonably high level. I was still able to play for on the national team for a number of years after I’d finished playing full-time professionally in the US which was more of a soft landing than it was a switch.
“I didn’t have the administrative skills yet though I did have an academic background and my family is quite academic. That part of it I wasn’t concerned about but I actually had none of the skills that my counterparts in the office environment had. It was quite confronting and I appreciate the fact that the change wasn’t drastic or overnight. It took a couple years to understand the role.”
BP: Did you observe how operations are run in your playing career and bring some of that experiences you’ve observed back to the Aces and Baseball Victoria?
JH: “The one advantage I think I’ve had over a lot of others is that I have an intimate understanding of the on-field product.
“There’s one thing being in the stadiums, watching all the promotions, the entertainment around the game itself. It’s one thing observing it but it’s another thing organising it, albeit my understanding of the team and knowledge of the product was in tune, but having to go and organise the entertainment, run a ticket booth, open the gates, all the things you have to do when you’re operating a professional team but at least I’m talking the same language.”
BP: Tell me about the relationship between Baseball Victoria and Melbourne Aces, is it a full integration of resources?
JH: “It’s not an integration as much as it is an operationalisation. What I mean by that is that Baseball Victoria and the Melbourne Aces are their own entities, but operationally, we’re working as one, we have joint staff, joint approaches to situations and joint outcomes that we’re looking to achieve.”
BP: What are the off-field challenges that the Aces face in remaining viable?
JH: “It’s simple, it’s a revenue situation.
“There’s no awareness campaign that we can afford to do and even if we could there’s no guarantee of the type of return that we need to justify the expense. One thing we’ve learned over the years is that the assumption that we can just do static advertising and static social media campaigns and expect people to turn up.
“There is evidence that we know that people have a good time when they come to the baseball and we have developed strong return patronage trade. It’s been really steady growth and we’ve seen it mainly in our pre-sold ticket offerings for our corporate suites, our group packages. Those are the main growth areas and it’s consistent with how we sell tickets across the board. We know that on any given game day 80 percent of our patrons pre-bought their tickets. Eighty percent of our crowd are deciding well in advance of the actual game day that they’re going to come and that was a really big discovery for us because it helped us craft our sales campaign and staffing solutions.
“We have to be really clear on how we go about our ticket sales campaigns. The more we can draw to pre-purchase it is only beneficial to us in the long run.”
BP: Is that because you actually have a very good team, a very good on-field product?
JH: “No GM will ever tell you winning doesn’t help your ticket sales. It absolutely does. I think the key is that you can’t rely on winning as your only strategy for ticket sales. You have to have your pre-sales strategy in place.
“One interesting thing last season was the ABL Championship series, that’s a series that you thought in terms of corporate and group sales you would have easily sold out just because it was the Championship. But we didn’t and couldn’t because it was largely due to not having enough lead time because those type of sales are not for your average baseball fan. Those type of sales are largely people who are looking for experiences who don’t necessarily care which team wins or loses. In fact, our studies showed that a large percentage of our crowd that leaves the stadium after a game doesn’t actually know what the score was. They’re not going for the result but the experience.”
BP: In terms of the ABL itself what could be improved, and what is the league doing well?
JH: “The league has run at a loss and continues to run at a loss and unless some really major things happen this year it will run at a loss again this year.
“In the last two years since Baseball Australia has been the sole underwriter of the league, one thing is that costs have been cut down as far as they can be and it’s really not going to grow unless there’s some capital injected in.
“We’re going to need some capital from somewhere at some stage in order for us to take the next step. The good thing about that is that we’ve already done the hard work, we’ve actually established the league. The players are there, the product and the stadiums exist.
“There’s been 28 million dollars of combined earmarked funding for stadium improvements in Australia over the last seven years and that’s a significant milestone for Australian baseball. There would have been no way that amount of money would have been pledged without a fully-fledged national league. We’ve done the hard bit so I think it’s actually a great proposition but moving forward we now have to have that little kick to really take the league and game to a new level.”
Image Credit: Frozen Action Photography