Whether it’s showing Richard Branson how to throw a pitch, making sure Women’s World Cup gets a proper tribute or that their manager is effective engaged in the social space, the Detroit Tigers seem to always be in the mix helping to raise the profile of MLB off the field. While they are helped by an owner and an organization and players that seem to genuinely understand their ties to the community and how valuable those ties are to the business of baseball, it still takes an effective communications leadership to make sure every stone is properly unturned ad every opportunity exploited when it comes to exposure, positive exposure for the brand.
Leading the charge for the Tigers is someone who has already earned a ring in baseball and one in hockey, a rare double, for his work with the then-Miami Marlins and the Florida Panthers respectively, and in between those stops and his current one in Detroit helped build a solid and effective communications team with the New York Jets. His name is Ron Colangelo, and we took some time to talk about best practices and the business of baseball with him in his role as Detroit’s Vice President, Communications, this past week.
What’s the best part of your job in Detroit?
Working for the Detroit Tigers is a unique opportunity in that there is a treasure chest of history and tradition to tap into from a branding perspective. At any point of the day, I could speak with Hall of Famer Al Kaline, Detroit Tigers hero Willie Horton or should be Hall of Fame shortstop Alan Trammell. These former greats remain active with the organization. The franchise is now in its 115th season and there are generations of Tigers fans everywhere not just in Detroit. The brand is strong and Tigers fans have a hearty appetite for Tigers news and game insight 365 days a year. The media here locally is very engaged with their coverage of the team which is an asset for our communications and marketing departments. We work the non-sports media to gain coverage of the business initiatives of the team, the community activities and programs and all that Comerica Park has to offer for fans on game day.
You come from an Italian family, what does that mean to you as a professional in MLB?
There have been some great Italian players and ambassadors in the game, and it’s been rewarding professionally and personally to have worked with some of them. Mike Pizza comes to mind for his brief stint in Miami when we were at the Marlins. Tommy Lasorda, while always the opponent when he was with the Dodgers, has been an acquaintance for years, and it’s always fun just to be around him. The late scout Al LaMacchia, who I first met in my minor leagues days with the West Palm Beach Expos, would always pronounce, rather loudly of course, every syllable of my last name. Irish man and former manager Jim Leyland, would always do the same. As I have progressed along with my career, heritage has become even more important to me. I have a long-time Italian friend and broadcast journalist, Massimo Marianella, who loves baseball and comes from Italy each year to cover baseball for Sky Italia. Massimo is a wonderful pisan who brings wine from the Italian vineyards and chocolate. In the NFL at the Jets, I did convince Italian Eric Mangini, the head coach at the time, to make a cameo appearance on the set with the Sopranos, and Mangini was in a scene with Tony Soprano, the late James Gandolfini, who I also had the pleasure of meeting.
You have held senior communications positions in three of the four major sports in the US. What is the biggest difference between the three from a work standpoint?
The biggest difference are the hours and days in the office. Baseball, by far, is the most taxing on the hours in your day especially when the ballclub is home. For example, for a 7:08 p.m. game during the week, you’re in the office by 9:30 a.m. and you’re generally home at 11:00 p.m. of course, if there is not a rain delay, which you don’t have in the NHL where I worked for three plus seasons and in the NFL they play through the rain for the most part. Also in baseball, there is much more media access, which again is more demanding on your communications team. There are 162 regular season games and 30 spring training games, plus, hopefully, post season. The manager for a MLB team will meet with the media twice a day which is a total of 384 press conferences. There isn’t a leader of any company in the world who addresses the media that much. The point is, you have to be prepared for each session, on what the subject matter, topic of the day will be, and anything that may happen during the game. Obviously, because the NHL and NFL schedules are much lighter, they do not have nearly the same amount of access and do not have to crank up their game day operation as much. MLB has done an outstanding job of growing the industry, and it has created more demand on the time of the respective clubs in all departments. But that is a good thing for business.
Who had the most influence on you in your career?
My mentors list started in college at William Paterson in New Jersey. The former baseball coach, Jeff Albies, and basketball coach John Adams (who has passed). Both gentlemen allowed me, as a freshman, who be a part of their team, even though I was not a player. I traveled with the teams, writing for the school newspaper and eventually became the play-by-play announcer on radio and cable TV. They were great to me in that they gave me access and appreciated what I was doing in promoting their efforts. Also a professor, John Kiernan, who headed the radio and TV stations, was instrumental in guiding me and pushing me to learn and be the best. He was a tough son of a gun. Never cut you any slack. He has since passed, but I am grateful to him. My current boss, David Dombrowski, the President/CEO/GM of the Tigers, who I have known for 25 years and leads by example. I give my father, Ron, a ton of credit, for taking me to a Knicks-Lakers game in 1973 at the Garden. That’s when the light bulb went on that I wanted a typewriter. It was also my father, who said, if you follow Dave Dombrowski’s lead, you will have a rewarding career. My boss at the Florida Panthers, Greg Bouris, is also someone who taught me to never get to high or low in this business with the wins and losses, and who believed in me enough to give me a lot of responsibilities and opportunity at the Panthers. I also have great respect for Terry Bradway and Herm Edwards, who are as genuine as they come, and who hired me at the New York Jets, when I had no previous NFL experience. Terry and Herm were instrumental in bringing the Jets to a level of respectability, and we had a nice run stealing some of the spotlight from the rival Giants. I also greatly appreciate the ownerships I have worked with particularly the Ilitches, Mr. John Henry, and Mr. Wayne Huizenga. My wife, Sandra, is someone with years of professional sports experience, in three sports too ironically, knows me well, and is a blessing of an influence.
Is there something in your career looking back now you wished you had done differently?
My career continues to be a wonderful and amazing journey and I have been blessed to meet so many talented people whether they are co-workers/colleagues, athletes, celebrities, entertainers. The days are never boring. There’s always something going on and that’s invigorating.
How are you able to strike a balance between family and work with such a hectic schedule?
My daughter, Catalina and sons, Nicolas and Ryan are huge Tigers fans, and come to games often, so I try my best to spend a few innings with them when I can. I have become much better at spending time with family. Still a work in progress of putting down the cell phone and ipad at home. I also make it a point and carve some time for myself with regards to running and staying fit. Discipline of your diet is paramount. Drink lots of water, and eat smaller meals. Lol.
Having been a part of championships in baseball and hockey, do you have a favorite memory?
Being part of a World Series championship organization in 1997 with the Florida Marlins is the ultimate reward. Receiving my personally engraved World Series ring at a dinner from the owner and manager was special. Touring the White House and meeting President Clinton is 1A. Getting to work and know NFL legend Joe Namath and taking a photo with him on Times Square was pretty cool. Being at the first-ever Florida Panthers game at the old Chicago Stadium was a thrill, and a 4-4 tie. Winning a championship (I have a ring) in minor league baseball was exciting. Getting a game ball from the Jets head coach Herm Edwards after the team won the AFC East title is right up there too.
What is the biggest challenge athletes face today in dealing with the media?
The athletes are the greatest asset in growing a sports brand. Sports, both professional and collegiate, are scrutinized more so than ever with social media’s reach around the globe and the advances that are ever-changing in technology. Because there is so much more media coverage of sports, there’s a greater demand for player’s times with traditional media, and lifestyle media outlets. It’s a double-edged sword, the sports industries and leagues are prospering and it’s great for business, but athletes need to be strategic and efficient in how their brands marketed.
What advice to you give to young people starting out in the business?
Be good listeners and a sponge for all facets of the business you are in at that particular point. If you are interested in a career in sports, a great place to start is in the minor leagues, whether it’s baseball, basketball, or hockey where you can learn everything about running a team. Be assertive with your ideas but don’t ever think you know it all. Ask questions. Make it a goal to learn something new every day. Stay humble.
Who are some of the athletes you have worked with who understand the business part of sport and why?
Today, the list starts with Tigers pitcher David Price. He’s an All-Star performer on the mound, and one of the best I have ever worked with or seen, at marketing his brand and his teammate’s brands. He’s great to work with and a valuable asset for MLB. That list would also include former NHL All-Star goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck who was the face of our expansion team in 1993 at the Florida Panthers and understood the value of being accessible not just to the media, but to all stakeholders and in the community. At the Marlins, Jeff Conine, Al Leiter and Kevin Millar, knew the importance of the business side of the organization, and were very giving of their time. They knew it was a challenge, and remains a challenge, selling tickets and baseball in South Florida. Head Coach Herm Edwards at the Jets, was outstanding in raising the profile of a franchise cast in the shadow of the Giants. Herm was a marketing asset not just for the Jets, but for the NFL, and today remains, a great asset for ESPN.