OK, Blue Jays

by mike in boston / @mikeinbostonemail

 

Good morning sports media fans and industry watchers. Spring is here and the Jays are playing meaningful baseball for the first time since last summer. There have been a lot of big and small changes, events, and developments in that time, many of which have a media or business angle. I have collected the biggest stories here, but by no means is this intended to be exhaustive. If there are ones you think are worth mentioning, add them in the comments.

 

Unlike some places, we love reasonable disagreement here at TSM. So please keep things interesting by adding your thoughts and points below.

 

5 Questions with … Keegan Matheson

 

One of the interesting off-season developments was popular Jays writer Keegan Matheson branching out on his own to start a subscription site. I reached out to Keegan to find out how that came together and to discuss a few Jays related matters. Here is our conversation.

 

Q: How did you get your start writing in baseball and how did it eventually lead to a gig with MLB.com

 

KM: I got my start working online and blogging about the Blue Jays before I moved to Toronto. My goal from the very beginning was to get to this point, though, where I’m reporting daily on the team in a beat role, so I moved here from Nova Scotia and went through a proper sports journalism grad program at Centennial College. I came from a writing background in my undergrad, but I’m very glad I took the industry-specific training. It matters. This year, I’ve started to do some teaching at the same college. I’ve been fortunate to have opportunities on radio and television along the way, which has helped. I owe a lot to a handful of producers who took a chance on me early on at various TSN and Sportsnet stations in Canada. From there, I took an internship with Sportsnet.ca. Soon after, MLB.com offered me the position of associate Blue Jays reporter working alongside Gregor Chisholm on the beat.

 

Q: When starting out how were you treated as a young person by the older writers on the beat? Did anyone take you under their wing?

 

KM: The more experienced writers on the beat were very good to me, and I mean that sincerely. My friends will tell you that it was a smooth transition because I really am an old man, myself, and maybe there’s something to that. I wasn’t taken under anyone’s wing, so to speak, but I was quietly shown the ropes and am very grateful for that. It was an acclimation process early on, but a valuable one. If you’re paying attention, you can learn a great deal just from watching how John Lott asks a question or how Richard Griffin works a scrum. There’s a level of camaraderie on the beat, even between writers from rival outlets, and I consider many of them friends. It is a sitcom-worthy group of personalities.

 

Q: Having been in the market for a few years now have the players started to recognize you? Do any of them follow up with you about things you have written? Who are some the players you enjoy talking to the most?

 

KM: Players do begin to recognize you. Personally, I get that more with the younger players who I’ve covered coming up through the minor leagues. The recognition matters, though, even if they don’t know your full name, outlet, and cell number. By recognizing “Hey, I’ve seen that ugly guy with the beard in here every day”, there’s a built-in level of trust at some level. I haven’t had too many instances of players confronting me about what I’m written. Granted, I was not publishing many controversial pieces under MLB.com, but I expect that to be something that does come up as the years go on. If I am going to write something negative about a player, it’s important for me to speak with them first whenever possible. If I’m about to write that Player X is having the worst season of his career, I need to have his voice in there or at least give him the opportunity to say “no comment”. There are two types of players I particularly enjoy talking to: catchers and middle relievers. Catchers see the game and have the most inquisitive minds, I’ve found, while middle relievers have plenty of time to sit and think about the game. These conversations don’t produce the headlines of a Donaldson or Stroman article, of course, but they’re often fascinating.

 

Q: What was the impetus for starting your own subscription site? Why now? What kind of market research did you do before coming up with your concept?

 

KM: From a professional standpoint, I thought it was now or never. I do believe that subscription-based journalism is the best bet for sports media’s future, so I wanted to enter that market at a point that’s still relatively early. I received several offers after leaving MLB, but nothing that excited me nearly as much as this. My market research — aside from the casual conversations I had with people in the industry — was the small book I put out last offseason on Amazon (The Top 50 Toronto Blue Jays Prospects: 2017-2018). If that book had of flopped, Baseball Toronto would not exist. That was my way of dipping a toe in the water. The sales and reception of that book left me encouraged that people were willing to pay for Blue Jays content. It was also the right time from a personal standpoint, which is equally important. I’m at a point in my life where I can take this chance and run with it. The risk involved is substantial, but perhaps all these years of being cheap and stubborn have finally prepared me for something.

 

Q: The Jays media marketplace is arguably the most crowded of the big 3 sports in Toronto. What gap in the market do you see your site filling?

 

KM: The “gap” you mention is critical. If a subscriber pays $4.99 a month, I feel a great deal of responsibility to them to honour that with unique content they’ll enjoy and benefit from. I believe that Baseball Toronto’s minor-league coverage and prospect analysis will be the best on the market. Given the direction of the franchise, I think those topics will be particularly relevant over the coming seasons. There will also be an emphasis put on feature writing and analysis. It’s important to work outside of the “norm” while still being clear and interesting. Access is king. Baseball Toronto will be at all 81 home games and, if all goes according to plan, at least five series on the road. In this area, being small can help Baseball Toronto. Even with a bare-bones budget, I can hop in my car, make a 10-hour drive, and stay in a dive motel to cover a series if that’s what it takes. With travel budgets being cut around sports media, I hope to go the other way a bit.

 

Q: Are you planning to write game stories every day? Are there other kinds of stories you think your site will especially well suited to pursue, given your independence from deadlines, advertisers, and corporate ownership?

 

KM: I do believe that game stories and hard news have a place. I’m not above those, and I think they can still be an effective foundation of a website. Without having those, I would feel like Baseball Toronto lacked the connective tissue or wholeness that it needs.That being said, a “traditional” game story won’t always be the best use of my time. Some days, the game story will be 200-300 words at the top of a notebook that rounds up a half dozen other pieces of news from the day. Being free from advertisers and corporate relationships is very important to me. If something bad happens, I will write that something bad happened. It will be written fairly, but it will be written without the pull of any external influences. That will become more rare as leagues and teams consolidate media in the future, I fear, so I am happy to work outside of that.

 

Q: What are the challenges of working without an editor while also trying to produce content?

 

KM: Two challenges. First, I need to assign myself stories. Sometimes, that means forcing myself to chase a story I’d rather leave alone, or talking to a player who I normally wouldn’t. If I only write what’s on my own mind and inside my own comfort zone, I’m doing subscribers a disservice. The second challenge is editing my own work when it’s completed. If I’m working at home or in the press box, I’ll often finish my article and then get up to make a coffee before editing it. I need to create that divide, even if it’s only in my head, between writer and editor. I do have my longer features looked over by others, of course, but editing your own daily work requires a different mindset.

 

Q: The last couple of years have included a number of incidents between the players and the media. When something happens in the clubhouse or on social media everyone knows about it almost immediately. Has that affected how you approach your job?

 

KM: It’s a balancing act, and an important one. If I overhear something in a locker room between players, is that always fair game to tweet out? No. A level of respect needs to be present so that the players know you’re not just lurking and eavesdropping. Media access to a clubhouse is vital and necessary, but at the end of the day, you’re in their office. The rush of Twitter isn’t something I enjoy, and it’s a hole I get sucked into myself. I’ve learned it’s better to be second and right than first and wrong.

 

Q: The Jays shuffled their media relations department in the off-season. Has that had any noticeable effect on you so far?

 

KM: The changes have not impacted me substantially as a writer in my day-to-day coverage, but I do realize that I’m the small fish in the pond and can’t speak for my colleagues on the television or radio sides. The folks who left the organization were well-respected and treated me very well early in my career, so I will always be indebted to them for that.

 

Q: Most models have the Jays at 81-85 wins this year. If they decide to rebuild in 2019, when do you think this team’s prospect core will put them back in position to win the division?

 

KM: The Blue Jays can still make this more of a retool than a rebuild, but top prospects like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette will lead it. Having top young talents impacting your major-league roster in their cheap contract years is the secret to winning in the majors. Next season should be an identity change. We’ve been hearing the phrase “younger and more athletic” for two years now, but that should finally arrive. The 2019 season could be a bit of transition year, but if everything goes well from a development standpoint, there’s the potential for sustained success in the seasons beyond that. It will be an opportunity for this front office to really craft the roster they want, once some of the bigger contracts come off he books.

 

Q: Among the pitching prospects who has the best chance to become a front end of the rotation starter over the next couple of years?

 

KM: Nate Pearson. If you were to build a prototypical starting pitcher, you’d start with Pearson’s frame (6-foot-6, 245 pounds). His secondary pitches have made some very encouraging progress, but his 100-mph fastball is already a major-league pitch. He’ll start the season in high-A Dunedin and could push for a few starts in triple-A Buffalo by the very end of the summer. There’s a lot of risk involved with Pearson, but his potential ceiling is massive.

 

 

(Disclosure: I paid full-price for a subscription to his site. I am not being compensated in any way for promoting his site here.)

 

Thanks to Keegan for sharing his thoughts with the TSM audience. You can read his site here.

 

Elasticity & The Secondary market

 

The Star and CBC teamed up to do some investigative journalism on Jays ticket pricing for opening day. Most cities sell out their home openers, but in a status conscious city like Toronto having seats for Game 1 has become a test of one’s social standing. This frenzy intensified this year due to the celebration of Roy Halladay that was to precede the start of the game.

 

 

The investigation revealed several points of note:

 

  • At least 45% of opening day seats in the Dome were sold through secondary ticket sites.
  • The average price for those online seats was 205% of face value.
  • The StubHub partnership announced in 2017 did not mention the team was getting a cut of each ticket sale.
  • Shapiro was quoted (by Sportsnet) as saying the game would be “the highest-revenue game in the history of Rogers Centre.”
  • Neither the Jays nor Stubhub would deny that some of the tickets on the site were put there directly by the team.
  • Shapiro estimated almost half of the Jays’ 20,000 season-ticket holders last year were professional ticket sellers.

 

This is a complex issue and the discussion has conflated several different points. Let’s try to pull some of these apart:

 

Dynamic Pricing: Under Beeston the Jays moved to a multi-tier pricing system where some games (Red Sox, Yankees, holidays, weekends) were designated as Premium and priced higher than the standard ticket price. In 2016 they ditched this for a fully dynamic system: every seat has a price that in theory could change daily based on market pressures. This means that there is no longer a stable retail price for a seat at the stadium. It is unclear whether the Jays’ model allows for deep discounting of unpopular games — it doesn’t seem that way — but what is certain is that the model allows for steep increases. The best strategy for fans wanting to attend popular games is to buy single game tickets early from the Jays box office. The price will go up as the game starts to sell out.

 

The Secondary Market – scamming: Stubhub has partnerships with all MLB teams to facilitate the transfer of tickets from sellers to buyers. Since many tickets are digital there is ample opportunity for fraud, and Stubhub wants to be able to guarantee that a person buying from them will not get ripped off. Until the partnership with MLB there was no way for them to fully guarantee the validity of tickets, and so they occasionally had to offer refunds due to scams. A refund won’t make up for missing a game winning home run though. The MLB partnership allows perfect tracking and transfer so this threat has effectively been eliminated. This is the original reason for partnering with Stubhub.

 

The Secondary Market – scalping: As the Star piece notes, there is a lucrative industry in scooping up tickets to popular games and re-selling them. Historically teams have fought this through special zoning around the stadium allowing police to arrest re-sellers. When everything moved online teams had fewer options to fight large scale professional scalping. But things have again changed and it is easy to track professional re-sellers and bots. Rather than using technology to eradicate professional reselling (see next item), the Stubhub partnership allows them to profit off a ticket they have already sold. This is the thing that people are upset about.

 

Licenses: Buying a seat is not like buying a computer or a house. In those cases what you are buying is exclusive ownership. By contrast, a ticket is a revocable license issued to you by the actual owner, namely the team. Teams could ban or limit the transfer of tickets if they wanted.

 

OK, with that out of the way let’s think though the issue at hand. Is there something wrong with the Jays profiting off almost half of their opening day tickets being sold twice?

 

The answer will depend on your ethical and economic perspective. Dynamic pricing allows the Jays to squeeze as much revenue as possible out of the marketplace. If they thought they could charge more for your seat then they would have. The face value reflects their best guess regarding the maximum they can sell that seat for. This is simple supply and demand economics where there is elasticity on the demand side. No one trying to find housing in Toronto needs this explained to them.

 

The questions becomes more interesting when you ask whether it is ethical for the team to profit from the secondary market when they already employ dynamic pricing. This looks like double-dipping. If the demand turns out to be higher than they predicted and the ticket is now worth more, then they have miscalculated and should just learn from this for next time. The other way to look at this is that re-sellers are profiting off something they don’t technically own. The privilege to transfer the license to the seat is at the discretion of the team, and getting a piece of the action via Stubhub is simply a way for the team to receive compensation for granting that privilege. I understand both positions and tend to side with the latter … most of the time.

 

Here’s the rub: opening day is always a sell-out and tickets disappear as soon as they are available. As such, the team could very well stop or tightly constrain re-selling so that fans are able to purchase tickets via the box office at whatever price the dynamic model determines is the right one. By allowing professional sellers to scoop up thousands of tickets the team is passively allowing its own fans to be overcharged by the secondary market. This would be objectionable on its own, but becomes doubly so when one learns the team profits off this. The messaging to fans is that the team is participating in a scheme that prevents willing buyers from accessing tickets at face value.

 

With all that said, this is largely a non-issue. If the Jays only have 13,000 season ticket sales this year then this means there is little interest by professional sellers in the team beyond a handful of dates. The vast majority of tickets will be available for purchase at normal market prices. Some tickets might even be available for less, if the team dumps tickets onto the secondary market via Stubhub. If you are the kind of fan who is only interested in premium games then you should have the opportunity to buy those from the team since so few will be pre-scooped up via season ticket and flex pack re-sellers. If you left it too late then you can’t complain too much about paying a surcharge, since the dynamic pricing system guarantees that you are going to pay more as scarcity increases. That’s just the market confirming the value now is different than it was months ago. We all accept this as a fact of life with air travel and hotel rates. You are always free not to pay and to stay home.

 

Some markets go to great lengths to keep tickets away from the secondary market. In Cleveland, playoff tickets were tightly controlled to make sure they went to local fans. In Chicago, Cubs season tickets have waiting lists and re-sellers can have their licenses revoked. If the Jays are lucky enough to end up in these positions they will need to think carefully about the direction they wish to pursue. The fact that this team only has 13,000 season ticket holders despite their recent successful seasons reflects very poorly on the perceived value of what is on offer. How do you go from having waiting lists in the 90s to relying on professional re-sellers to make up half of your season ticket sales? That speaks to poor management of the market for your product.

 

No one wants to return to MMA Tuesdays, and the Jays should be mindful of their own recent history. To that end, this point seems compelling:

 

Fan support will surely depend on how the team performs on the field, but it may also depend on how the organization treats its fans. The arrangement with scalpers is not only unethical, it may also be risky business. — The Star Editorial

 

As has happened before, some of this comes down to Shapiro’s poor judgment. The team has a massive repair bill coming due on a stadium with diminishing value on land they don’t own. In his zeal to spread the good news about how he is going to generate new revenue streams he botched the messaging on this one. Opening day (and weekend) is a time to emotionally connect with the fanbase for the next seven months (ideally). With the tragedy of losing one of the organization’s most beloved players this was not a time to be boasting about this being the most profitable opening day ever. Long term sustainable revenue depends, in part, on growing the number of fans who show to an aging stadium up rain or shine. Gouging on opening day might work, but if that’s the only game those folks attend as a result then you will have won a Pyrrhic victory.

 

What About Wilner?

 

By far the biggest media story of the off-season was who would replace Jerry Howarth as the team’s radio voice. The issue became more complicated when Sportsnet announced that Joe Siddall would be the replacemanalyst, moving to TV from radio. This meant two seats were now vacant on the radio side. What ensued generated a lot of discussion around the TSM water cooler.

 

The main question was whether Mike Wilner, longtime divisive host of JaysTalk, would take over. In some ways he was the incumbent, since he routinely covered a few innings for Jerry during home games. This was pitched as giving Jerry a break due to his frail health, but for listeners it was reasonable to look upon this decision as a kind of on-the-job training for Wilner to eventually replace Jerry. Wilner often spoke and tweeted about how much he loved calling games, and how he hoped this would eventually lead to a full-time gig. His Twitter profile proudly claimed/claims that title.

 

 

As time wore on after Jerry’s retirement announcement, the confusion was exacerbated by several management decisions. As with past seasons, Wilner was a staple on radio during spring training, being joined by a rotating cast of characters both familiar and new. Then it was announced that Elliott Price would join Wilner on radio in Montreal, despite the fact that Price had tweeted that he was not in the running for a Jays radio job. Through all of this the only constant from last season through spring training was Mike Wilner doing play by play.

 

Finally, Sportsnet announced that Buffalo Bisons (AAA) play by play man Ben Wagner would take over for Jerry on a full time basis, with a range of characters joining him throughout the season. (Here is a good piece by Sportsnet’s David Singh with the new guy). Mike Wilner would, presumably, stay in his current role doing in-game updates and the pre and post game shows.

 

 

The question to consider is whether Wilner was treated fairly or unfairly by Sportsnet throughout this process?

 

 

From a human standpoint I personally feel very bad for Mike. It cannot be easy to be passed over for your dream job. The only thing worse would be to be passed over while the entire audience weighs in on the merits of your work.

 

This was a very public decision that dragged on for months. If Mike was told early on that he was not being considered then asking him to sit beside others while they audition for the job is potentially cruel. That said, Mike might have preferred this to not working those games so perhaps this was his own decision. But if that is what happened then it was incumbent on Scott Moore to let the audience know that Wilner was not in the running. Twitter was filled with people telling Mike what a great job he was doing and how he was a natural for the job. That was all more messy than it needed to be, if the decision was already made.

 

If the decision was not made until the last minute then things look even worse. Wilner was the incumbent, and was then given the lion’s share of the work while others  — who will be working in the booth this season — put in much less time. Why did it take so long to decide the person for the job was NOT Mike Wilner. Surely they had enough evidence to make the decision to go in another direction before the last few days of spring training.

 

If Mike really wants a job as a play by play man then he probably needs to go somewhere else and work on the craft full-time. At his age and with the his seniority at Sportsnet I’m not sure that makes sense, but you can’t put a price on chasing your dreams. Staying in his current role will be rough, at least for a while. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the outcome, there was a better way to handle all of the public facing aspects of this decision by his superiors. I hope management has apologized to him for treating him less well than they should have.

 

Recommendations

 

The Jays market is completely saturated and this makes it hard to keep up with all the work being done. Going in to this year here are my own consumption habits for Jays news.

 

Best Reading: We are living in a golden age with Griffin (Star), Lott (Athletic), and Buffery/Longley (Sun). Between them the audience gets just the right mix of news, opinion, analysis, and commentary. Bob Elliott was a staple of the market and is certainly missed, but his replacements have shaken things up in a good way and added a different dimension to Jays coverage. If you’re not reading all of these folks regularly you are missing out.

 

Best Radio: Scott MacArthur has the best baseball show on radio right now, in my opinion. I would love to see TSN give him a regular co-host for a Jays-centric hour.

 

Best Podcast: I have been a regular At The Letters listener for the past few years but I am going to drop it if Ben and Arden don’t find something about which to disagree. The analysis and stats part of their discussion is great, but far too often all they do is say the same thing in different words. It would be nice if they could break out of the Sportsnet echosystem for guests as well. That said, it’s a well produced podcast that is reliably good. Like everyone I am excited for Shulman’s new podcast.

 

Best Follows: Twitter during a Jays game can be pretty bad, but some people are consistently interesting without being overwhelming. Gregor Chisholm who covers the Jays for MLB.com is a great option.

 

Best Blog: I’m a big fan of Blue Jay Hunter for good stories that aren’t always covered by other outlets.

 

Best Newcomer: I guess for the time being this goes to J.P. Arencibia joining Yahoo Canada.

 

Notable Absence:

 

https://twitter.com/GreggZaun/status/979518182162657281

 

Over to you: whose coverage do you enjoy the most? How are you feeling about this season?

 


 

thanks for reading and commenting,

until next time …

mike (not really in boston)

photo credits: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press
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