Monday, February 6, 2012

The Blue Jays and Managing Fan Expectations


By
Game Day Preparation
Image courtesy of dscphoto
At its core, baseball is a game. It's a beloved past time; something people play and watch for fun. On the other hand, it's also a business.

The MLB owners are focused on their bottom line, but occasionally I think they forget that fans are customers too. And when the customers are unhappy, it's not good for business.

Since word of mouth travels extremely fast, bad publicity can spread like wildfire. Depending on who you talk to, there are some unhappy Blue Jays fans out there that believe this off-season as a complete failure.

While the level of success is debatable, there's no question that managing fan expectations is something that the Blue Jays struggled with a great deal this off-season.

In my time following this team, I have never seen things get that far out of hand. I think the majority of that has to do with a "no comment" policy self-imposed by Alex Anthopoulos. While its purpose is to protect the players, this time it ended up doing more harm than good.

The "no comment" policy really came back to bite Alex as the rumour mongers were able to expose that weakness and let speculation run rampant. And there was no better example of rumours gone wild than the whole Yu Darvish situation.

When the fans were led to believe the Blue Jays were the favourites all along to land Yu Darvish, I can completely understand why they were so upset when it was revealed the Texas Rangers won the bid.

I tried to keep calm during the whole Yu Darvish bidding process, but I'll fully admit I was victim to the hype machine as well. After all those weeks of hearing how the Blue Jays would make a hard push for Darvish, it was a little disappointing to hear they lost out on the Japanese phenom.

The problem arises when the hype machine gets the fan base so wound up and excited at the prospect of signing these big name free agents. And then when it doesn’t happen, it seems like a complete and utter failure for the Blue Jays.

While Alex’s cone of silence is meant to protect the players and the team, it also inherently contributes to the madness. Not that he needs to reveal the entire inner workings within the organization, but he shouldn’t be afraid to step in and extinguish any rumours that have reached a critical mass.

There are other instances where Alex Anthopoulos' refusal to comment or acknowledge some things also got out of hand. When it was rumoured the Red Sox were interested in bringing John Farrell back to manage, that was another example where not commenting almost made things worse.

After a few whirlwind days, Alex finally acknowledged the whole situation by amending the team policy about operations employees making lateral moves. My suspicion is that happened because things got so out of hand, other front office members had to step in and do something to remedy the situation.

Viewing things purely from a fan standpoint, I can see why this off-season might feel like a failure for the Toronto Blue Jays. While teams around them got better by signing the best players on the market, Toronto added a few free agents like Darren Oliver and Francisco Cordero.

As all the big names like Jonathan Papelbon, Jose Reyes, Albert Pujols and others signed huge contracts for other teams, it may have appeared as though the Blue Jays just sat idly as all the best free agents went elsewhere.

But you know what? Alex Anthopoulos never professed the Blue Jays were going to make a big splash in the free agent market this off-season. He said they were instead going to go the trade route, and that he did - making six trades in total since last October.

The club has adhered to its policy of avoiding contracts over five years, and that immediately eliminated the most highly sought free agents off the Blue Jays radar. So it should have come as no surprise when Toronto stuck to their guns and didn’t sign any of them.

Were it up to me, I'd sign Prince Fielder to a gigantic contract in a heartbeat. But it's easy for me to say because it's not my money. If Alex Anthopoulos were to do the same, he'd have to justify that spending to the brass at Rogers because it's not his cash either.

I'm certain he wouldn't have to explain it once either, he'd have to rationalize those dollars every subsequent year of that contact. I can't imagine it would be very easy to sway the higher ups that it's a wise idea to pay Prince Fielder $24 million dollars at age 36. Even for the Silent Assassin, that would be an incredibly tough sell.

If AA truly felt they were a mere one or two pieces away from becoming a contender, don't you think they would've signed those players? If all it took was Prince Fielder and Yu Darvish to launch the Blue Jays into immediate contention, then I believe they would have made those moves already.

After all, having the Blue Jays back in the postseason is only good for business. The organization isn't penny-pinching and merely looking to turn a profit with a mediocre product on the field. They want to make money, and bar none the best way to bring in the most cash is to create a winning atmosphere.

It seems like there's a clear divide out there with fans when it comes to the Blue Jays parent company ... that you're either with them or you're against them. Either you're a Rogers apologist or you're a cynical skeptic. I'm not so sure the issue is as simple as black or white.

Admittedly, I find myself immersed in a shade of grey. While one hand I trust what Alex Anthopoulos has planned, on the other I get frustrated about promises of $120 million dollar payrolls and Paul Beeston's claims the team will be in the playoffs 2-3 times in the next five years.

I still don't have a grasp on what the term "payroll parameters" even means, and it irritates me when ownership says the team will boost payroll, but only once attendance figures go up first.

When I say I trust in the AA vision, it's not entirely blind faith; it's more so that I trust that he's going about things the right way. Even though some will gladly point out it's been nearly 20 years since the Blue Jays have made the postseason, that's not this current regime's responsibility.

Alex has been on the job a few years, and by now and he must have a clear picture of where he wants to go with this team. Now that the minor league system has re-established itself as one of the best in baseball, it's a great foundation for the future.

The funny thing is whether the Blue Jays are a fifth place team or first place team, I'll be a fan no matter what. Clearly it's much more exciting if Toronto is home to a first place team, but the diehard fans will be there regardless of where the Jays sit in the standings.

Where it will make a difference is with the casual to moderate Blue Jays fan. And that's not to say they're any less of a fan than anybody else. Interestingly enough, it's actually those fans that wield the most power and control the future of the fan base.

Unfortunately, that fan segment was also the one that was likely most affected by what happened with the Jays this off-season. If all they hear from the media is about how the Blue Jays didn't sign so-and-so, then that makes it look like the organization just cares about the bottom line and not the fans.

There was something that one gentleman said at the State of the Franchise last week that really struck a chord with me. He said "I'll be a Blue Jays fan until the day I die" ... and maybe it was the fact he reminded me our time here on earth is limited, but I truly admired his commitment and faith to the team.

That gentleman believes in the Toronto Blue Jays no matter what, and he always will ... whether they are a 100 loss team like they were in the late 70's, or a perennial contender like the Blue Jays were in the late 80's and early 90's. There are fans like that man who will support the Blue Jays through and through, whether they make the playoffs or not.

No matter if you're a season ticket holder, you head to the ballpark for the odd game, or whether you watch the team from afar on television, we're all fans here. We all want the same thing, and that's to see the Blue Jays win.

Basically what I'm saying is we should just let Alex Anthopoulos and Paul Beeston do their jobs. There's no sense in second-guessing their every move; looking at every acquisition in a vacuum isn't the way to measure this regime's success.

Regardless of your level of interest in the club, all I ask is that you try to see the forest through the trees. Trust the guys that are paid to do what they do, because they do in fact have the fan's best interest at heart.

If we continue to hold up our bargain of supporting the Blue Jays year after year, then the powers that be will hopefully hold up their end of the bargain and bring a championship back to Toronto.

Just like the gentleman at the State of the Franchise who professed his devotion to this team, I'll be a Blue Jays fan until I die. Before I kick the bucket though, it sure would be great to see another World Series banner hanging at the Rogers Centre.

Thanks again to dscphoto for the image. Make sure to check out his Flickr photostream, he has a knack for capturing the beauty of an empty stadium.

Update: Here's a screencap of a conversation @1BJW and I had a few weeks back about managing fan expectations. Basically this entire post summarized in about 1500 words less. His parts in green, mine in grey.


11 comments:

  1. Fielder is this year's Vernon Wells, what is wrong with you people? Worst fielding 1st baseman in the Majors, a body going to get worse and a bat that will slow down drastically within the next 5 years. Just like Cecil's, and he is a bigger tub of goo than Cecil.
    If AA had offered him the deal that Illich gave him, I'd want Alex fired.
    Illich is getting scary old, the Wings and the Tigers are his toys, he's just another rich senile old guy who wants a Series win before the dirt nap that he knows is fast coming up on him. He's likely gonna be dead before Fielder turns 33, what does he care? It's only his money, and he has a gazillion. Joke is on Pizza Mike, I don't think Cecil buys him a ring. Looks good on the old f*ck.
    Me, I say money or not, he is an idiot. He is enabling guys like Boras and helping to destroy the game in small markets. And a codicil, I regard the Jays as a large market team.
    Once proud franchises like the Reds, the A's, the Royals, are under the gun because of this idiocy.

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  2. Moneyball, thanks for the kind words!

    Anon, for somebody who's been criticized for his body type, Prince Fielder has been the quintessential player when it comes to durability. He's averaged 159 games played the past 6 seasons (and that doesn't even include the post-season).

    I'm sure the Tigers will get a few good seasons out of Fielder's contract, but there's no way he's that durable by the latter years of the deal.

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  3. This off-season we learned that the Jays brass believes we are further away from contention than an elite clean up hitter and a 2 starter can fill. Could be a long time.

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  4. Ian,

    I appreciate your words of wisdom as always. However, I think there is another reason for the masses not buying what Beeston and Rogers is selling. We can all see that attendance is clearly a secondary issue when it come to determining salary levels. The teams that have negotiated new TV and Media contracts in the past 2 years are the big spenders outside of NYY and Red Sox. Rangers, Angels, Tigers, Nationals are all beneficiaries. The Dodgers will be soon to follow. With Sportsnet ratings equivalent or better than all of the above and the cross selling benefits of internet and wireless streaming fans are right to expect that Rogers will spend the market value of the TV and media rights as part of AA's payroll parameters. Beeston needs to stop talking about attendance and get in the 21st century and talk about ratings and streaming metrics as key determinants of salaries. Finally, I've heard arguments against this view saying that there were no intelligent options available to spend an extra $20 or $30mm. I vehemently disagree with this as there are always other teams wanting to unload bad contracts in exchange for talent upgrades (see Teahan/Jackson (Rasmus) for Frasor/Stewart). If anyone thinks that with the ability to take on Chone Figgins contract that AA wouldn't have been able to swing a trade for a big bat or top starter they are simply naive on how other teams view their salary structure.

    FREE AA!!!

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  5. Anon 1, there area lot of unknowns on the team right now (Cecil, Alvaraez, Drabek, Snider, Lind), and I think the Blue Jays are still waiting for some of those guys to figure themselves out before they can make any additional moves. If Cecil and Drabek pan out, then maybe they don't need to go after a #2 starter. If Lind bounces back and Snider puts in a good season, then they don't need to go find a middle of the order bat.

    Anon 2, the whole TV thing has been a little murky to me. They say the TV ratings have been steadily increasing these past few years, so I'm sure they're not hurting for dollars on the TV side.

    Especially for a team like the Blue Jays whose fan base is so widespread across Canada (and other countries, too). I believe the cash is definitely there, but AA may only have an allotted amount to work with.

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  6. Good Sir you are not alone. I will be a Blue Jays fan until I die.

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  7. If AA hadn't let things go the way he did the jays wouldn't have got all the attention they did this winter. So in large part the plublicity good or bad was probably played into on their part on purpose. I don't remember in recent years there being so much jays talk in the dead of winter and the passion burns hot in Canada and passion is a volatile thing. They need to do a much better job managing the message going forward and step in when it is appropriate to slow the hype train. I will say this again as I have posted it a few times this year , no player deserves a decade long contract ever. There is zero players that can garuntee ten years of healthy all-star years so why garuntee to pay them like one?

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  8. Anon, we're all in this together! Like I said, I'll back the bluebirds until I kick the bucket. It just would be nice to see another title come to Toronto.

    Budyzer, true - I don't think I've ever heard/seen people buzzing about the Blue Jays this much during the off-season. Some of that may have had to do with the new uniforms as well, but any press is good press I guess ... so long as that translates into more fans for the Blue Jays.

    Hopefully AA will realize it's not a bad thing to step in every once in a while and squash rumours when they're getting out of hand, especially if they're negative.

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    Replies
    1. Definately Ian , he could have stepped in after a bit to change the expectations although in his own way I think he did try a little. Hey how about doing a piece on the new draft lottery picks and the fact you can trade them. Where will the market set the value on a 1st rounder? Being that the team will be able to pick their own player instead of taking someone elses choice. Gotta figure that makes it worth more then just a player. How willing will Those 13 teams be To trade the picks and if they do will they put A high value on the pick. How will where they pick on the draft drive the value of thst pick up or down? As you see I think this could be a juicy topic and not very talked about. Just some food for thought. Maybe I need a blog lol

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    2. That's definitely a good idea. With the new CBA, these picks are going to be much more highly sought after and more highly coveted than ever before. I can imagine we'll see some GM's trying to gun for those top 13 picks, and you can bet AA will be one of them!

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