Brewers COO Rick Schlesinger manages hope and change for 2015

Believe it or not, Rick Schlesinger, the COO of the Milwaukee Brewers — a franchise that Forbes recently valued at about $565 million — says he wrestles with many of the same daily challenges facing any business executive, including how to deal with ever-changing laws, how to handle increasing costs and expenses, and how to attract and retain talent.

“How do we attract people with social media?” asked Schlesinger, who will be the featured speaker at IB’s Icons in Business breakfast on Dec. 17 at the Madison Concourse Hotel. “How do we market and gain more customers? How can we understand them better and create a more positive experience for them? Learn from them?”

“[We need] to make sure we’re being fiscally responsible and giving Doug [Melvin] all the resources he needs to stretch the payroll to sign the players, whether our own or free agents.” — Brewers COO Rick Schlesinger

Schlesinger oversees the Milwaukee Brewers’ business affairs, including sponsorships, marketing, ticket sales, guest services, public and community relations, and broadcasting and communications, but his primary role is to help drive revenue that General Manager Doug Melvin can use for payroll and personnel.

Several stakeholders are invested in the Brewers’ success — everyone from team owner Mark Attanasio to the fans who buy tickets and team merchandise — and pleasing them might have gotten a tad more difficult after the heart-wrenching tumble the team took at the end of the 2014 season. After leading the National League’s Central Division for most of the season and then winning only nine games in September before missing the playoffs altogether, the collective hiss spewing from victory balloons across all of Brewer nation was deafening.

After the season, the corporate office immediately got to work dealing with the fallout. The team’s hitting coach, Johnny Narron, was let go and replaced this past October with Darnell Coles, while first-base coach Garth Iorg was dismissed as well. The team decided to retain Manager Ron Roenicke as well as Melvin.

Fixing what’s broke

Just a few months after the season ended, fan enthusiasm remains high, said Schlesinger. “Based on some polling we’ve done and some early [ticket] renewals, we’re expecting some pretty positive results,” he said of the upcoming season. “[Fans] have a lot of confidence in ownership and management — in particular, our baseball operations side — to address the challenges and problems, fix them, and provide a team in 2015 that has all the benefits of the first five months [of 2014] and not the last month. That’s our mission.”

As with any business, the key is assembling the best team possible. For the Brewers, that’s Doug Melvin’s territory. The winter meetings, which Schlesinger does not attend, are not as transaction-driven as in the past, he says. “In the old days, that’s where most of the player transactions occurred. Nowadays … a lot of transactions happen at all times, through texting, phone, emails, right up through spring training. I always tell people, until we break camp at the end of March, the roster will be in a state of flux.”

If player transactions require a particularly significant financial commitment, several corporate staffers, including Schlesinger, may be brought in. “Everything gets analyzed,” he said. “[We need] to make sure we’re being fiscally responsible and giving Doug all the resources he needs to stretch the payroll to sign the players, whether our own or free agents.”

Schlesinger won’t talk specifics when asked about the Brewers’ financial outlook. “Our first goal is about winning a championship and getting the best team on the field that we can. Making money or losing money in any particular year isn’t the primary focus. Obviously, we want to be financially responsible and not make decisions that will put the club in a financially difficult position.”

The team has been fortunate to have an active and involved owner and a fan base that turns out in droves. The result has been a reliable revenue stream that gets funneled into Miller Park improvements and player salaries.

“It’s a great time to be a fan of baseball, to own a team, and to be a player,” Schlesinger said. “Revenues are going up so much, and players are certainly earning quite a bit of money to play. Our challenge is to make sure we provide a safe, affordable, fun atmosphere here at Miller Park. We’re blessed with a great ballpark, so that part hasn’t been too difficult.”



On the player side, the team and fans have seen the best and worst of Brewers star Ryan Braun, who in 2013 was at the center of a high-profile PED scandal and more recently has been struggling with nerve damage in his thumb. “When he’s on, he’s such an important part of our offense,” Schlesinger said. “If he was healthy in September, maybe the end of the 2014 Brewers story is a much different one.”

The results of Braun’s postseason thumb surgery are still unknown. “For a baseball player to have a thumb issue is really a problem,” Schlesinger admits, “but [Braun’s] been incredibly determined to overcome this. As Doug says, until you get to spring training and you’re hitting live pitching four, five, six games in a row, that’s the test. The reality is that it’s important for him and the team that his thumb heal and not cause the issues that it did.”

Reasons for optimism

Brewers fans, meanwhile, are used to the maybe-next-year waiting game. After all, the team hasn’t been to the World Series in 32 years.

But there’s plenty of reason for optimism, says Schlesinger. Some have criticized the team in the past for trading away its best prospects, but Schlesinger insists the team’s farm system is healthy. “We may not always receive the press or accolades other teams receive, but there are a lot of teams that would love to have a Scooter Gennett or Khris Davis, Mike Fiers or Jimmy Nelson, who have come up through our system,” Schlesinger fires back. The team is particularly excited about future young prospects such as Clint Coulter, Tyrone Taylor, Orlando Arcia, and another player, Gilbert Lara, who just turned 16.

Unfortunately, the sudden death in September of 53-year-old Bruce Seid, the Brewers’ director of amateur scouting, rocked the team. Seid was among those who nurtured the careers of Davis, Fiers, and Nelson, and the void he left affects the entire organization.

To compensate for the loss, the Brewers hired amateur scouting head Ray Montgomery away from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a move Schlesinger calls “a master stroke” for Melvin. Montgomery, now Milwaukee’s assistant to the general manager and vice president of scouting, has worked for the Brewers before, and Seid was one of his mentors. “We’ll miss Bruce,” Schlesinger says, “but it’s incumbent on us to focus and not lose sight of the goal, which is drafting and developing the most talented players we can find and turning them into future Milwaukee Brewers.”

And baseball in general seems to be on the upswing. Bud Selig, the retired commissioner of Major League Baseball and former Brewers owner, was successful in bringing competitive balance to baseball, which puts small-market teams more on par with the big boys, and Schlesinger expects new commissioner Rob Manfred to maintain and build on that model. “All of the clubs understand that a healthy sport requires every team to have a chance to compete. It’s important for the health of the sport and the popularity of the sport that teams have the tools in their arsenal.

“When you look at baseball and the teams that made it to the postseason, it’s not about how much money you pay your players, it’s about having a plan, having talented people making decisions and evaluating the talent, making smart trades, and knowing when to keep players or let them move on. All those attributes are not limited to big markets.”

If you would like to see Schlesinger speak at the Dec. 17 Icons in Business event, click here for information on registration and event details.

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