Alan Ledford

Alan Ledford left the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats baseball team in 2009 to start a business that would help put baseball deals together.

As it happened, one of the first opportunities that came along involved El Paso's MountainStar Sports Group.

MountainStar's Paul Foster, Woody Hunt and company brought on Ledford's Perfect Game Ventures to help with the $20-million acquisition of the Tucson Padres last year.

Along the way - but before Nov. 6 when El Paso voters approved funding the baseball stadium - he was named president of MountainStar Sports.

It was déjà vu all over again for Ledford and, perhaps, El Paso.

As a consultant, he helped establish the River Cats in Sacramento in 2000 and was the team's president until 2009.

During his tenure, the River Cats led Minor League Baseball in attendance every year, won four Pacific Coast League championships and two Triple-A championships. Baseball America named him Minor League Baseball's executive of the year in 2006. Forbes Magazine listed the franchise as the most valuable in Minor League Baseball in 2012.

The secret: It's not about baseball.

"Most minor league operations that are successful don't see themselves as being in the baseball business, but in the entertainment business," said Ledford, 50.

Having fun is what got Ledford into baseball in the first place and what helped make him pretty famous. And fun is what he promises to bring El Paso next year, when the opening pitch on an April evening will mark the first game in a new Downtown stadium.

If that sounds like someone else who made his mark in El Paso baseball, it should. It was Jim Paul, owner of the Double-A El Paso Diablos, who developed a formula for fun at Dudley Field and then Cohen Stadium that helped save Minor League Baseball when things were looking down in the early 1990s.

Ledford confesses that he got where he is by walking in Paul's footsteps. Now they have brought him to El Paso.

As one former minor league owner put it, "It seems MountainStar Sports got quite a catch in Alan Ledford."

He sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about why the traffic jams that people are worried about will be a good thing, how Triple-A ball is perfectly suited to El Paso and why he left the Bigs to play in the minors.

Q: You left the Sacramento River Cats in 2011 after winning four league titles, leading Minor League Baseball in attendance and being named executive of the year. Why did you decide to start Perfect Game Ventures?

One of the extraordinary experiences that I had when I was at Sacramento was with our owner, who passed away three years ago. We had the chance to become involved with the operation of a Triple-A team in Portland, which, coincidentally, was the one that moved to Tucson and that El Paso got. San Diego Padres' owner Jeff Moorad bought the team with the intention of moving it to Escondido, Calif. When that fell through, Moorad decided to sell the team and that's when the opportunity came about for El Paso.

That experience solidified this ambition, which was sparked a number of years ago when I first got interested in Minor League Baseball, to work with investment groups, to put deals together and to oversee the teams in the kind of role that I have here. I have the opportunity to do that. I couldn't do that and run the River Cats and do this. I had done that for nine years and had an extraordinary run. The timing was right to pursue something else and I made a decision to do that.

Q: As president of MountainStar Sports Group, what do you do?

I'm responsible for overseeing the team operations on a daily basis for the owners.

Q: Who's responsible for the team itself, players and their salaries?

The baseball side will all be handled by the major league affiliate, in our case, the San Diego Padres. So, the manager and coaching staff and trainers are provided by the major league team. We work closely with the major league team, but our responsibility is the business side. That includes sales and marketing and running the ballpark and all the related activities. Every affiliated minor league team operates that way.

Q: How did you get started in the baseball business?

I was a naive college student at Cal Berkley who thought working in sports would be fun but had no idea what that meant. One evening, while talking to my roommate about the Oakland As and the success they were having, I commented that it would be fun to work for that team. I wrote a letter that evening to their president and, unexpectedly, got a letter back that there was nothing available.

A month or two later, I was admitted to the undergraduate business school at Berkley. Somebody suggested that I mention that to the As and the ownership group. So, I sent another letter off, and they did have something. I was hired as a one-term intern and that turned into a 15-year career with the Oakland As. I became involved in everything we did on the business side from advertising, production, all the capital improvements and overseeing spring training and ultimately became vice president for business operations.

Q: Triple-A players want to make the jump to the majors. But you were already in the majors. What made you switch to Triple-A ball?

A couple of reasons. When I was working for the As, I had no idea about the business of Minor League Baseball, but I developed a real affinity for the sports business and baseball, in particular. What I came to find out after being involved in Sacramento was that Minor League Baseball combines, for me, the best of all worlds.

It's the sports and the entertainment business. I find the combination very alluring. You're doing something great for a community and, in addition to that, it's a real business. If you do well, you can really contribute to a community and be successful from a business standpoint.

I had the very good fortune to have major league experience and to go to the World Series three times with the As, and we hosted a major league all-star game. There are a lot of people like me who have developed an affinity for minor league ball and the kind of communities where these teams exist.

Q: How were you involved in the formation of the Sacramento River Cats?

As a consultant, I worked on the start-up of the team. That led to a conversation with the owner and he convinced me to come and run it.

Q: That sounds like what has happened here. What was your role with MountainStar Sports leading up to your being named president?

My role was to work with the ownership group, with Minor League Baseball and with the Pacific Coast League as we went thought the approval process and the development of the business plans we submitted to the baseball authorities. I also worked on the transaction to acquire the Tucson team.

Q: Everything about the opposition we saw leading up to the Nov. 6 election and since has been unusual. Much of it has to do with taking down City Hall, a building no one seemed to love before this. Have you seen this much heartburn over a new ballpark anywhere else?

I would just point out that this wasn't over whether El Paso wanted baseball or not. This was about City Hall, and people had opinions about that. As it relates to other communities, absolutely, there was opposition in every community.

When you're building something this significant, there are always going to be opinions. It may be around the real estate or the location, the ownership or the level of the team. But, what I will say is, El Paso got the best of all worlds. They got a terrific, committed ownership group. They got Triple-A baseball and they're getting it Downtown in a state-of-the-art facility. That's a huge victory.

Q: Sacramento is an affluent city. El Paso is one of the poorest in the nation and close to 80-percent Hispanic. How do you appeal to this community to bring them out night after night?

In a lot of ways, the Minor League Baseball model fits markets that are less affluent even better than it does affluent markets. This market has a number of attributes that fit perfectly. One is the need for affordable family entertainment. Two, the family inclination of the Hispanic culture, that is what Minor League Baseball is all about - family.

The affordability factor has an appeal in this and every market. The quality of the product is extraordinary. You're going to be in a new, first class, downtown, state-of-the-art ballpark, and you're going to have a very high-quality product on the field. If the major league players are the best 750 in the country, with 30 teams and 25 players per team, then these are the next best 750. Approximately half of them have either played Major League Baseball or will play major league ball.

The quality of the play on the field is extraordinary, world class. When you take that combination - the quality of the product, the ballpark itself, the affordability and the need for entertainment in a market like this - it's very powerful. That's why I think this is going to very successful.

Q: The plan is to bring the team to El Paso for the start of the 2014 season, about 20 months from now. Before then, City Hall and Insights Science Museum must be demolished and the site prepared for new development. Populous has to design the stadium, and the joint venture of Hunt Construction Group of Scottsdale, Ariz., and El Paso's C.F. Jordan has to build it by April 2014. How hard will it be to get the job done?

It's a tight schedule but it's absolutely doable. We've been working very closely with the city and have an architect and construction team in place. Based upon the process to this point, it's going very well and we expect everything to be ready by April 2014.

Q: Will you be involved in designing the new stadium?

Yes, I have been very involved with other members of the ownership group, with the architects and the city. We've visited other stadiums. We've been to Kansas City and have been working with Populous, the architects, on the design. The process has been a very intensive one over the last couple of months.

Q: How big is this stadium going to be?

It's not final, but I would say we are in the 7,500- to 9,000-seat range.

Q: The City Hall site covers a little over 5 acres, small for a baseball stadium. What will it take in terms of the height of outfield walls to meet Triple-A standards?

One of the things that the architects have told us from Day One is that they're excited about the site because it is a tight sight. It's a challenge. It's also because it leads to a lot of cool and unique features, which are what make a ballpark special.

Q: I've read that Minor League Baseball tickets are priced in the same range as movie tickets. Here they run between $6.50 and $9 or $10. Will we see tickets in that range or higher?

The answer is yes, we'll have tickets that are less than the price of going to a movie and we'll certainly have others that will cost more, based on location and other amenities. The objective is to have literally something for everybody. If you want to come with your family and want to sit out on the berm on the lawn, the tickets will be less expensive. If you want to be behind home plate, then those seats will be more expensive.

Q: Critics in El Paso have pointed to the poor attendance at Tucson Padres games as an example of why it's a bad deal. What would you say?

Attendance in Tucson has been low. Since the team arrived from Portland a couple of years ago, it's been a lame duck. The community knew the team was moving on. It was never their team, and they knew it.

Q: What plans do you have for coming up with a name? Would you prefer the El Paso Padres to connect with the San Diego Padres?

I have a personal preference, but ultimately, it's not my decision. One of the real appeals of Minor League Baseball is the irreverence and entertainment experience between innings, and part of it is the team name that leads to a lot of fun things, including promotions.

I think what you will see is a name that is reflective of that irreverence, the community and will reflect the community's input as a result of a name-the-team contest. We're working on the details of that process. I almost hate to call it a contest, but we've said all along that we want to get the community's input.

Ultimately, the ownership will make a decision with input from Minor League Baseball and the Pacific Coast League, because there are business considerations as well.

Q: The word ‘padres' is associated with priests, and people might not want to make fun of them.

The San Diego and Tucson teams have had fun with the Padres mascot. It's a fun character. But, even with that, I think we'll go in a different direction.

Q: What about traffic and parking? Coming into Downtown on the interstate from the west, the exit is just a couple of hundred yards from the ballpark. Some think there will be gridlock if you have a ballgame and events at the Civic Center or the new arena when it's built and the Plaza Theatre.

We look forward to the day when there's a concert at the Plaza and an event at the new arena and a ballgame. I say that because what does that say about the community and what's going on here? It means people have enjoyed coming Downtown to all the bars and restaurants that go with the entertainment experience in a downtown setting.

In terms of the logistics, the city has started that process and we're going to work closely with them to make sure we have a very good plan in place. There are several thousand parking spaces Downtown. People tend to come to ballgames together so there are multiple people per car. We'll have a very good plan in place.

Q: Will the entertainment be what you might see at any minor league game, or will it be tailored to this community?

It's got to reflect El Paso and be unique to this community, starting with the food. The food is such an important element to the ballpark experience. You don't go to a basketball or a football game and think about the food. You go to a baseball game and for some people that's what you talk about and it may be why you go.

We're in the process of selecting a concessionaire, and we expecting that to be one of the highlights of your experience.


Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at dcrowder@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.

 

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