Like every offseason, the Tampa Bay Rays front office has been busy. While they brought in several new players to bolster the on-the-field lineup, no transaction may be bigger than who they hired to bolster their front office lineup. On December 1st, longtime sports executive Jeff Cogen left the Nashville Predators to join the Rays. This is the first interview I have done on this site and I couldn’t think of a better person to chat with.
In this interview, I ask Jeff Cogen about the Cuba trip, the Rays’ attendance challenges, strategies to engage and build the fanbase, social media, data and analytics, TV ratings, sales generation, and many other Rays-centric sports business topics.
Question: We’ll start with the Cuba trip, since that is the most recent news. What did you think, what were your impressions, and did you have a good time?
Cogen: I had a great time. The comradery of being with our group and representing. We all represent the Tampa Bay Rays. We always wear our logos proudly. It is our organizational DNA. We are proud and honored to work for the Tampa Bay Rays. There are only 30 of these companies in the world. We have the pleasure, honor, luxury, and privilege to come to a ballpark every day for work. So are always proud to represent the Tampa Bay Rays.
But when you get on the plane and you go to another town, you are representing the Tampa Bay Rays, St. Pete, Tampa Bay, and Major League Baseball. And that’s when you go to New York, Boston, or Kansas City. When you go to Cuba, you just start zooming out. You are representing the Tampa Bay Rays, St. Pete, Tampa Bay, Florida, Major League Baseball, and now you can add that you are representing the United States of America. It was an honor, a privilege, and a lot of fun.
The game itself was a microcosm of what was happening around us. With President Castro and President Obama and their historic engagement which we could play a small part of, that is overwhelming and humbling. We talk about baseball being a part of Americana. Nothing speaks more to that than when you are looking for a symbolic hook from which to link to the trip and you pick baseball, that’s unbelievable.
Then the fact that the Tampa Bay Rays are fortunate enough to represent. You know, we are mortal competitors with the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Orioles, and the Blue Jays. Except for those five hours, we were representing them as well. It was something we took very seriously, and I think we did a good job.
Question: What are you main roles, responsibilities, and focuses in your position?
I’ve known Stu and Matt for a while. I was with the Texas Rangers, so I got to know Matt and Stu through that engagement. I’ve gotten to know and really respect Brian Auld. I am in a pseudo-leadership position. I take it very seriously how to harness, nurture, and maximize that energy that Brian has created.
You know, we have very robust television ratings and our attendance struggles are well documented. I use the term “attendance struggles” but you show me a place where there are 12,000 people doing something on a Tuesday night in Tampa Bay. It is very rare and few and far between. I think ownership and management want to give it a best shot. Do things to get the TV broadcast watchers to come to a game and to grow the fanbase.
For the first time, we are now to the point that people who grew up Red Sox fans and Yankees fans and Dodgers fans, and would come to five Rays games a year, and they kinda shared their loyalties, they are now having children. The guy who was 16 who was coming to games with his parents, who used to be a Dodger fan, probably his favorite AL team is the Tampa Bay Rays. But he probably has another blue in his closet. His son only knows the Tampa Bay Rays.
Our organization is committed to community. One of the things we do is give out close to 20,000 Little League jerseys so kids are wearing Rays brands out there. We are growing the next generation of fans for the next generation ballpark. And as Brian (Auld) and Melanie (Lenz) focus on where, when, how, and they involve the corporate constituency asking what they want to see and we build something that is exactly right, somebody meanwhile has to keep an eye on Tuesday or Wednesday night’s game. That’s my role. To grow the base and take some of the responsibility off Brian so he and Melanie can focus on the bigger picture. As Brian and I joke, I have the next 20 games, he has the next 20 years.
Question: So what have you learned since you been here?
I’ve learned that the Tampa Bay Rays people, the organization, is a real community. It is a real fun place to work. There is an incredible camaraderie amongst this group. There is an incredible all-for-one and one-for-all. There is no “oh, that’s marketing or that’s IT”. It’s “how can we help?”. It’s “how can we take one department and another department and have them equal three?”. That is what impressed me the most, the people in this organization.
Question: How do the challenges in Tampa Bay differ from the challenges you faced in Nashville?
There are a lot of parallels. My wife and I were talking about that recently. When I got to Nashville, there was a Canadian who going to buy the team and move it to Hamilton, Ontario. The city of Nashville had a rally to keep the team and they eventually did. But the season ticket base had dropped. I think there were four sell-outs.
The hockey operations people were doing more with less than anyone in the league. We had a competitive team, but the attendance, the brand was diminishing. What we – myself and a gentleman named Sean Henry – said to the staff is that you’ve got a job. We are going with these horses. We are going to give you direction, we are going to give you the tools, and we are going to have success.
The difference here, as I answered in your previous question, it is a great group of people. I think to some degree there needed to be some structure around some sales processes that didn’t exist. And I think that oversimplified what we are trying to instill. I think Brian and Matt have built a world-class organization based on three pillars: 1) do everything we can to win baseball games. We’ve won the fifth-most games since 2008. This team is always competitive. We went to the World Series. Matt Silverman does more with less than anybody I know. That’s one pillar.
The second pillar is commitment to community. We are going to get out. We are going to build habitat houses. If you are in a director-level position in this organization, you are on a board somewhere. You are making a difference in the community.
Number three is that this going to be a really fun place to be. It is going to be all-for-one and one-for-all. There will be all the camaraderie that I talked about.
What I think needed to happen was greater focus. What are our sales processes? Where are our fans? Who are our fans? What are we saying to them? How are we enticing them to come to the game? If they are coming to the game, how are we enticing them to come twice? To add to your previous question, that’s my role.
Question: One of the things I read about in your previous role that you gave tickets away with the guarantee that some of those people will become return buyers. Are those same tactics or strategies things you would use here? Or would you use different strategies based on the differences here?
The tactics we used in Nashville, a lot of them are being applied here. You said I “gave away tickets”. Let me re-brand that. I think the fanbase here is significant. All you have to do is look at the TV ratings and the radio ratings. If we put out an offer, people react to it. Our merchandise sales are good. You walk around, you see a lot of caps and t-shirts and license plates. There is a fanbase out there. They are not coming.
You say “give away free tickets”, I say “create sampled-to-qualified leads”. If I can create sampled-to-qualified leads, they are obviously a fan and they obviously like our brand. They are watching in incredible numbers on television. So if I can know who that TV viewer is and invite him to a game. You say give away free tickets, I say create samples.
Now I don’t want to get caught up in semantics. So yes, I am giving him free tickets. But we are creating sample-to-target leads. Because if you are enjoying it on television, imagine how much are going to like it live and in person. And in regards to the 10-15%, I have some data that shows if a qualified lead gets there and you show him a quality experience, if you know who he is, and you engage in a relationship with him from a sales and service perspective, yes, you can create 10-15% return attendees out of those. Whether they are buying full season tickets, whether they are coming once or twice more, it is all in the 10-15%.
Question: You mentioned corporate support and relationships, have you been successful? What have your approaches been in regards to corporate relationships?
I have tried to get out and network and meet as many people as I can and ask account executives to take me on calls both with existing customers and new customers. We took 15 partners with us to Cuba. I spent a lot of time with them. I am a sales guy at heart. It is in my DNA to meet and greet, shake hands, give away business cards, follow up, make 10 sales calls a day, generate leads, try to close one, and do the same thing the next week. So I would say that generally that activity has definitely occurred. I would like it to be a lot more.
Part of the issue was starting December 1st, they didn’t push Opening Day back for me. And so I had to establish priorities. What are our ticket prices? What are our ticket packages? Who is selling our tickets? What does our advertising look like? Who are our existing partners? Who are our leads? At some point in all of those questions, getting out and meeting and greeting and touching and feeling is part of the process. I wish I had done more to date.
Question: Is that due in part to your move and personally getting settled?
My DNA is business first, pleasure second. I will tell you that I am not sure if that is the DNA of the Tampa Bay Rays. That goes back to my first comment that what a wonderful place this is to work. There is such camaraderie. The people here have an incredible balance between business and pleasure and that is something I need to do a better job of and learn from them. As they are learning certain things from me, I need to do a better job of learning that from them.
Question: We met at FanFest. How well did FanFest go from your perspective?
I was really pleased with the event qualitatively, event programming-wise. I was incredibly impressed with the personality and engagement of our players. Incredibly impressed with how conversant, accessible, and on time – even with the Skyway issue that day. To be honest, I wish we had 3,000 more people there. But we will have that next year.
Question: You have a bunch of players who are very active on social media and in the community. Is that something you look at from a marketing perspective?
Our players are incredibly engaging and accessible. They are fun and funny. Chris Archer and Kevin Kiermaier are poster children for what you want in that.
We have Rick Vaughn who runs our PR. He has great relationships with the players. He knows what to push and when to push. What to message, when to message. How to message. What to say, what not to say, when to say it, and who to say it to. Rick Vaughn is an invaluable tool in the sound in the woods we are looking to create.
But this may surprise you. The players are our primary and best asset. But you don’t want to go to the well and make them the drivers of the marketing campaign. The marketing campaign is Rays Up. Rays Up for community. Rays Up to sell tickets. We are going to Rays Up to be a force in the league. We are going to Rays Up to win. This has a lot of different touch points. It touches community. The player engagement touch point. It is an element. I am not willing to make the mistake of relying on Chris Archer’s tweets to drive what we do. It is a tremendous compliment and I love when he does it. But it is part of the broader picture and bigger strategy.
Question: Who are your inspirations and mentors in both sports business and business in general?
I started work with Ringling Brothers’ Circus selling tickets. The last job I had was with the Nashville Predators. So really all I have done is in sports and Ringling entertainment. And those two are very closely related. As a matter of fact, most of what I do now in promotions and advertising I was doing in 1980 with Ringling Brothers Circus. It is a little more sophisticated now. There were no cell phones, there was no internet, but the concepts remain the same.
You can register to win to be an honorary ring master to blow the whistle to start the show or you can do a promotion where people register to throw out a first pitch. What’s the difference? The difference is now you have social components, digital components, and data capture components. Back then, you only had to fill out a coupon in the newspaper. The promotion is the same.
So when you ask me about my career progression, it’s really been just refinement of a skill set to serve driving the business of a sports business place. The benefit is that I’ve been doing it for a little while. I like to think I am better at it today that I was in 1980.
You didn’t ask, but I am going to volunteer this: I came in here and I said there are going to be some changes. We are going to try some things we haven’t tried. We are going to do this, and we are going to do that. I don’t want you to think this was top-down directed. A lot of it was collaborative. I relied on people saying “we did it this way, and it didn’t work.” And then we said “why didn’t it work?”. And then I said to people “if I unshackled you, and we did it this way, what would you think?”.
So it is the combination of what has been tried and worked, what has been tried and did not work here, my experience elsewhere, the lessons learned along the way on both sides, and then taking those collaborative perspectives, creating a collaborative process, and ending up with a better mouse trap.
I like process and systems. If you start at the beginning and you have the right process and system, the result should come out pretty much how you want it to.
Question: What is your vision for the Rays and what is your vision for the fanbase?
First of all, it’s Brian’s vision. And Brian’s vision is to create the best work place in Major League Baseball and Tampa-St Pete. We want to attract the most talented individuals. We start with an advantage over everybody except maybe the Lightning or the Bucs when we ask “how would you like to work for a sports team? How would you like to come to work every day at a baseball field?”. We start with that advantage.
Then Brian creates an environment that is engaging, welcoming, and collaborative. Everybody has a seat at the table in some fashion. It’s just refreshing.
My vision for the fanbase is to create value for our existing fans and season ticket holders and those that have passion for our product over the years. That’s point number one.
I think in terms of Amazon Prime. Who are our best customers and what can we do for them? We are building them a club. We have provided them a rewards program. We are rolling that out. We are calling them. Have you checked your points? Can we help you redeem your points for a BP pass for your son? Really cool stuff for the fans. That is for the season ticket holders.
For the individual customer who comes once, twice, three times a year: I want to get to know them better. And for the people who are watching and listening and wearing our stuff, I want to get you to a game.
Question: What are your thoughts when you hear TV ratings are good but attendance lags?
Well, let’s take that statement. What do we do about it? Let’s create a system and a process to know who they are, get them to a game, service them, and see if we can get them to come back. We have a very specific initiative that is going to do that. For the month of April we are going to come on in the 2nd inning and say “Hey fans, now is the time for the big giveaway. Tonight, we are giving away an autographed Evan Longoria jersey. It’s easy to win. Simply go to raysbaseball.com and register and we will announce the winner in the 8th inning”.
So if 1,000 people play, we will have one winner and 999 people who didn’t win. The next day, those 999 will get an email. It will say something like,
“Thanks for watching the game. Wasn’t that an exciting victory? We will get them tonight. Although you didn’t win the Evan Longoria jersey, everyone is a winner with the Rays. I’m Jeff Cogen, I’m in the ticket department, and I would like to invite you to a game on me. If you love it on television, you are not going to believe it live and in person. I would like to invite you to a game Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday against the Oakland A’s. If you would like to take me up on this, simply click this link.”
The fan clicks. Great. We will leave them at Will Call for them. So the tickets are left at Will Call. We know the tickets we left for the fan. We might go visit the fan at their seat, shake their hand, we might talk a half inning of baseball, and do what people do at baseball games. Then maybe follow up a few days later and ask if they had a good time. Then we ask if they would like to come back, we offer a Flex Pack where they can pick the games. That’s how we are going to engage. That’s how we are going to know our TV audience and bring them to a game.
So to your point, I like to give away a lot of tickets. Is that giving away a lot of tickets? I am giving tickets away. But I am building a relationship. I tell people, we are going to build a fanbase two at a time.
I don’t believe in full page ads that say “Get Your Season Tickets Now”. I’ve done that, but I firmly believe what I just described is a better way.
By the way, there is a whole ticket and marketing department that dreams these things up. The TV version is one. We have hundreds of them going. We will. And we are going to fill the funnel. We are going to establish a relationship. We are going to talk to our customers. And we are going to grow a fanbase two at a time.
Question: How important is data analysis in your role? What analytics and measurements are important to you?
On a scale of 1 to 10, it is about a 9.9. Measurements that are important to me are lifestyle tendencies and zip codes.
Question: Why those?
I’ll use myself as an example. We live just north of Downtown St. Pete. I’ve met my neighbors; they are just like me. We all generally drive the same type of car and we all have newspapers in our driveways every morning. So we are all probably within 25% of per capita income. And certain assumptions can be made about my lifestyle if you know my zip code.
Let’s look at my zip code on an individual ticket or season ticket purchasing hot map. What color am I? Am I red or am I kinda orange? If red is good, and I am red, then maybe we need to focus our energy on that zip code or people with that particular lifestyle. When you ask what data is important to me, I’m going to give you a very specific answer.
Question: How do you balance what is more important: the personal side of selling or the data side?
The two are complementary. I want to create samples. If I find a hot zone, how can I create samples? We use the data to establish the relationship.
Question: Do you have specific people to address a specific lifestyle or zip code?
No. We have 20 account managers. They have separate checks and balances. They don’t step on each other and I have a lot of confidence in them. We are not that scientific that I have an old rich man to call on the rich and I don’t have a young hip kid to call on Clearwater Beach, although that is not a bad idea.
Question: A recent Tampa Bay Business Journal article on you referred to you using “circus-like promotions”. Do you think you can turn Rays games into an event like the circus is an event or NFL games are an event? Whereas baseball is 162 games and games become another day at the ballpark.
I am not going to get into the semantics of it. I think baseball is the greatest reality show there is. For example, the game against Cuba. We owned that game. 4-0, bottom of the ninth. First guy is out, the next guy hits the bomb. Now it is 4-1, 1 out, still no problem. Then we walked a guy. Now we are a swing away from only being a run up. For 2 hours and 58 minutes, we owned that game. If you don’t want to call that an event, it is great reality TV. It’s all about how you consume.
You can consume pitch by pitch, inning by inning, or batter by batter. Or like my daughters, they will watch an inning with Dad, then they will want to walk around. Then I will see them around the 4th inning. How you consume defines it, whether it is an event. I hate the characterization of “just another game.” We will not let it become just another game.
Question: When you are bring promotions into the mix, does that mean winning isn’t as important as people say it is?
I love selling a winner. If we are not, it is not an excuse to not do what we need to do. Beer always tastes better when you are winning.
Question: The daily promotions you are doing are often also associated with the Minor Leagues. Are you worried fans might not see the difference between a Rays game and a Clearwater Threshers game or a Tampa Yankees game? How do you differentiate the Rays from the local Minor League games?
Are you asking whether I think if fans will confuse us with the Dunedin Blue Jays? Unequivocally, no. We play Major League Baseball in a Major League facility and we do it really well. There is no question we are the Tampa Bay Rays competing for the AL East.
Question: Things I look at on my website include instances when the Clearwater Threshers have a $1 dollar ticket event and draw 4,000 on a Tuesday night. Meanwhile, the Rays are drawing 12,000. It becomes almost competing offers. Someone in a local zip code may decide to only spend a dollar instead of making the drive to see a Rays game.
Do I wish there wasn’t an option to see baseball in Clearwater? Yes. I’ll say that. I wish we were like everyone else but Arizona who can feel the same pain, but we are not. We can’t do anything about it. I thought about asking Commissioner Manfred if he would change the Spring Training infrastructure, but I decided against it.
You know, we aren’t going to compete with them. We are going to do what we do. We are going to put a quality product on the field. We are going to engage our fans. And we are going to have success.
(Cogen pic from the Tampa Bay Business Journal.)