Baseball: Bigger than you think

DALLAS -- One thing you learn at the winter meetings: The baseball industry is much bigger than Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder and 30 general managers trying to wheel, deal, swap and sign.

It's guys like Chad Walters, a 32-year-old with an MBA in marketing from Indiana. Walters refers to himself as a lean technician. His goal: Help teams and companies become more efficient ... no, not with their payroll or statistical analysis but in delivering a better product to fans.

Walters had a copy of "Moneyball" sitting on his table at the winter meetings trade show. "There's a quote in there about 'The first guy through the wall always gets bloody,'" Walters said. "I'm kind of that first guy through the wall."

In minor league baseball, where profit margins are razor thin, the ability of teams to be as efficient as possible in expenditures is vitally important. We're talking about things like developing more effective concession lines with fewer employees and less product waste. Or knowing how to order T-shirts with a quicker, cheaper turnaround time than waiting eight weeks for a product to be delivered from China. Through his consulting business, LeanBlitz, Walters hopes to help organizations become more "lean" via a variety of faster, smarter techniques.

The trade show, held in a convention-center like ballroom at the winter meetings, is full of people like Walters, trying to market their products to major- and minor-league teams or other companies. There were plenty of vendors displaying new takes on T-shirts and jerseys and caps, but the products ranged from plastic cups to sausages to bat companies to wrist bracelets to stadium architects and beyond.

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If you believe Bruce Weener, one of the most important advancements in baseball the past 25 years is something simple: the stadium seat.

And after listening to him, I'm inclined to agree. I grew up attending games in the Kingdome. Other than a few sections of box seats between first and third bases, most of the seats were hard metal bleachers with hard metal backs. As a kid, you didn't care. But go to a ballpark now and the seats are bigger, they have armrests and cup holders, and in the big-ticket area or luxury suit they are cushioned and have leather backs that make the seats as comfortable as sitting at home.

Weener represents the American Seating Company, so he has a stake in seats. American Seating Company just celebrated its 125th anniversary and has been around so long its seats were the ones originally used in Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. The company manufactured the seats for the new Marlins Ballpark, re-fitted Fenway in recent seasons, outfitted the new Giants and Jets stadium and is re-seating Pauley Pavilion.

The seat industry is apparently very competitive (there were other companies on hand at the trade show). "We are not the cheapest in the marketplace. But our chairs are going to last longer," Weener said. A standard plastic seat should last 25 years, according to Weener, a large cry from the days of wooden seats that quickly deteriorated due to weather. American Seating Company still manufactures wooden seats, which run about $40 more per seat than the basic plastic one, but they are rarely used anymore and only in areas protected from the weather. A cushioned seat can run $60-$80 more, but includes Marine-grade vinyl to withstand rain, beer stains and fake nacho cheese sauce.

All that is important but not necessarily the most important item about a seat. "The logo on the side of the seat is critical," Weener laughs. "Some teams just use the team logo or work with designers to create a special one. It's about as personal as it gets for the owners. They love their logos."

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The baseball industry is a guy like Carl Tenbrink, the inventor of a product he's calling a wobblehead. "It's a combination of bobblehead, personal fan and collectible," he says. His company, Gameface Promotional Products, hopes to market the wobblehead to other companies that want to give away promotional products at games.

Made of a thick, durable plastic material -- and made in America, as Tenbrink was quick to point out -- the wobblehead includes advertising space on the back of the giant head of the player, manager or coach featured. On a hot summer day -- think a game in Arlington, Texas -- fans can hold up their Ron Washington wobblehead and help remain cool at the same time.

Most importantly: Who doesn't love a photo of a guy with a big head?

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Cal Ripken was here as well. Or, should I say, Courtney Carey, director of marketing for Ripken Power Shred, was here. She was pushing Ripken's beef jerky to minor league teams. "We're promoting the 'Ripken Power Inning,'" Carey said. "If the home-town team hits a home run in the fifth inning, fans in one section will receive a free sample of Ripken Power Shred."

Wal-Mart has picked up the product starting in the first quarter of next year, with plans to sell the jerky in states in the mid-Atlantic region. (Although the packaging will have to be re-designed to feature a clear window. Apparently, beef jerky eaters like to see the jerky.)

The jerky is produced from meat from an outlet in Salt Lake City, and the sales pitch stresses a more moist and all-natural product. But let's be honest here. The best thing about jerky: it's salty. Who doesn't love a good chunk of salt-covered dried meat? (Although I'm not sure the plans to market the jerky to women will pan out.)

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Frank Panko and Missy Wedig are Phillies fans who don't expect to get rich off their invention. In fact, they're giving it away for free. A View From My Seat is a phone app (currently available for the Android and in a couple weeks for the iPhone) and website that allows fans to post photos and write comments from games they attend. Other fans can search for a specific section to check the view of the field from that section. Considering the price of tickets these days, more information is a good thing.

As Missy said, "It's by the fans, for the fans."

And ultimately, that's what encompasses the trade show. It's companies and individuals who love baseball, some who are just trying to find a small way to be a part of the game they love.

Walters is a Cubs fan. He was as interested in talking about Pujols and Matt Garza and Bryan LaHair as explaining the Toyota Production System philosophy that his consulting practice is based upon.

As I walked away, he had to know: "What's the latest on Pujols?"