Growing up outside Philadelphia, Ben Weiss rooted for the home teams – Phillies, Flyers, Eagles and 76ers. But his strongest memories aren’t of games won and lost, of home runs hit or touchdowns scored.
Rather Weiss, the Memphis Redbirds’ general manager, recalls his trips to Veterans Stadium – “the sights, the sounds, the smells,” he said, sounding like a future baseball executive concerned about attendance and the “fan experience.”
When reminded that Hall-of-Fame Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt actually was booed by the home crowd at the end of his career, Weiss laughed: “Yeah, well, he struck out a lot.”
Then later, speaking of the Philly fans’ tough reputation, “It’s a front,” he said. “Everybody’s a softie up there.”
Although the Redbirds just completed a dismal 57-87 season on the field, the Pacific Coast League named Weiss, 35, its Executive of the Year. Weiss credits this season’s off-field success to the groundwork laid the previous two seasons and to the 2012 debut of minor-league baseball’s largest video board and an improved boardwalk area – amenities that enhanced the sights and sounds for fans.
“It’s changed the atmosphere in the ballpark,” Weiss said of the 3,600-square-foot video board. “Brightened things up.”
Although 2012 season attendance was flat from the previous year and the 493,706 put the Redbirds sixth in the 16-team PCL, it was more than respectable considering June and July were unusually hot and the baseball was, well, uncommonly bad.
“Winning and losing, we all go through it and none of us has control over it,” said John Traub, general manager of the PCL’s Albuquerque Isotopes and someone Weiss identifies as a mentor. “So we commiserate a lot about the weather and other things out of our control.”
Weiss didn’t set out to be a baseball general manager. He played Division II golf in Pennsylvania and figured he could make a living as a club pro. “Then I realized I wasn’t that good,” he said.
He tried outside sales with Lucent Technologies and knew that wasn’t what he wanted to do. When he saw an ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer for a ticket sales position with a women’s professional soccer team he went for it.
“The Philadelphia Charge,” he said. “It was a great lesson, taught me that you’ve got to have strong season-ticket holders, but on a nightly basis you have to have great group sales.”
“You have a team on the field and you have a team in the front office. Everybody has that same competitive fire.”
Global Spectrum manages the Redbirds; the soccer team was under the umbrella of Comcast-Spectator/Global Spectrum. That first job led to other opportunities, such as selling pre/post-game assets for the Flyers, 76ers and other minor-league teams. He also was an assistant GM at Sun Nation Bank Center in Trenton, N.J., and most immediately before coming to Memphis in 2009, was GM of the Mullins Center on the campus of the University of Massachusetts.
Weiss made a favorable first impression on Traub when they played in the same foursome at the league meetings in Florida – “I think he won me a sleeve of golf balls and a shirt from the pro shop,” Traub said – but more importantly Weiss came across as a pro’s pro away from the golf course.
“He asks a lot of questions and he listens to the answers,” Traub said. “One of the best qualities he has is he doesn’t walk into a room assuming he knows everything. Baseball is a funny business because you don’t know what you don’t know.”
One thing Weiss does know is that some promotional ideas work better than others. The replica World Series ring giveaway, an idea appropriated from the parent St. Louis Cardinals, was a huge hit. So were Elvis bobbleheads. The Memphis Blues T-shirts didn’t gain as much traction with fans.
“But we’re not giving up on those theme nights,” Weiss said. “We need to let them build.”
Weiss’ offseason is notable for his recent marriage to the former Ashley Laga, daughter of former Cardinal Mike Laga, who is best known for being the only man to hit a ball, albeit foul, out of the old Busch Stadium.
Already, Weiss says he is looking toward 2013 and moving up from sixth in attendance – maybe to third next year, then second and eventually to the top.
“You have a team on the field and you have a team in the front office,” Weiss said. “Everybody has that same competitive fire.”