Saturday, 12 November 2011

Extended Analogy Day: Sports Edition

I meant to post this yesterday to go with the Analogy Day themed posts...but I didn’t.
I previously posted on the business analogy with City Hall, and I still think it’s very flawed, but let’s look at two of our mayor’s passions to put it in terms that might relate to him: sports and business.

Mayor Ford is more of a football guy, but I think the appropriate analogy here is to the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays of Major League Baseball. And he did leadoff his Empire Club speech with a baseball analogy, so this probably isn’t too far off-base.

Vince Naimoli Era

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays (who would later drop Devil from their name) were an expansion baseball franchise in 1998 owned by Vince Naimoli (read more in Jonah Keri’s book The Extra 2%). Naimoli was a successful local businessman who made his fortune as a turnaround specialist. What he would do is buy failing companies and slash every expense possible until they were profitable. He was very good at this and subsequently applied this approach to his baseball team.

The thing is, a baseball team is not a utility company. A lot of the success of the team from a business perspective comes from ensuring a positive fan experience. Naimoli didn’t appreciate this. Instead, he pursued his mission of cost-cutting with single-minded intensity. These included:
  • ·         Having a zero tolerance policy for outside food in the stadium. When an elderly woman was denied entrance because she needed almonds for her diabetes, she had to wait outside the stadium until after the game to leave with her tour group
  • ·         A high school band that was scheduled to play the national anthem was asked at the last minute to pay for tickets for each student
  • ·         Naimoli thought the Internet and e-mail was a fad, and refused to pay for it for team staff. This meant that they had to setup their own access and the sales and marketing team was reaching out to groups from Yahoo, Hotmail and AOL addresses.

This penny-pinching and thriftiness alienated fans and local businesses, who did not want to be a part of the team culture. For Naimoli, it was just business; he is renowned nationally for his philanthropy and giving nature. 

Likewise, Rob Ford is noted for helping others out of pocket and genuinely caring. But this approach is disconnected from how people are treated at City Hall. Consider the parallels:
  • ·         At the first all-nighter Executive meeting, a mobility-impaired woman was denied her speaking slot when she didn’t have enough time to get from the overflow room to the main room.
  • ·         Ford has consistently railed against the 25,000 free metropasses that are given out, many of them to TTC employees who use them to get to work and people who are blind or otherwise cannot get around the city.
  • ·         Despite promising to use better metrics to improve service for citizens, Ford and his allies voted to stop expanding 311.

Naimoli wasn’t just a spendthrift. At times, he got impatient with the time it takes to build a team and abandoned a youth plan to overspend on over-the-hill players. These were unwise investments motivated by a desie to have something shiny rather than something good. In turn, the team cut back on investing in the future and gave up draft picks and prospects.

Likewise, Rob Ford abandoned the paid-for and planned Transit City plan in order to pursue the white elephant Sheppard extension that could well be one of the worst financial and planning disasters in Toronto’s history in the odd chance it gets built. He and his brother also tried to sell off the Port Lands for a shiny Ferris wheel, monorail and megamall. And now there’s an attempt to solve capital problems by selling 10% of the dividend-returning Toronto Hydro. All of these decisions are short on analytical thinking and borne out of impatience and impulsiveness.

While Naimoli was owner, the Devil Rays were the laughingstock of the league. They couldn’t do anything right and had historically bad seasons. That all changed when a couple of Wall Street investors recognized the mismanagement had an opportunity to grow. 

Prudent Investment and Creative Thinking

Their first aim was to win back the fans’ trust by treating them with respect and going the extra mile to show that. So they refurbished the stadium, had great promotions at the stadium and gave free parking to all fans who attended (note: please don’t do the latter for all citizens!) They also knew they had to seek new revenues for their small-market team, and began an innovative concert series after games that diversified their demographics.

Not only did the Rays improve their fan experience, they won. On their very limited payroll, the Rays improbably put together a winning team due to out-thinking their competition. Using innovative metrics and tactics such as re-thinking the value of draft picks, young pitchers or why the sacrifice bunt is a bad idea, they identified the best ways to grow and manage a team. The team has since made the playoffs in three of the past four years while playing in the toughest division.

Rob Ford's 25-Person Roster

It’s the Tampa Bay Rays success story that we were promised in the campaign (save the subway idea, which has always been bad) but instead we’re getting Vince Naimoli management. Toronto is really fortunate in that it has a lot more opportunities to grow than a small market baseball team, although it can use some of the same techniques. Tampa recognized that they had a limited payroll given their market size and worked within that. But they also realized that they had to seek opportunities to grow that market size and internal revenue in order to be sustainably competitive.

This realization and thinking- the recognition that investment and creativity done right produce real results- is what we need in this budget process and general city planning. Vince Naimoli failed because he couldn't adapt his experience and outlook to the needs of his franchise. He failed to look deeper into the situation where opportunities existed and went for the quick-fixes. The city of Toronto is far more important than a sports franchise or most any business, and we can't afford those practices. 

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