If your name is Veeck, you must work in baseball right? After all that’s what your family does, from legendary grandfather/owner Bill to father of all things innovative Mike, there is no other first family of the game then the Veeck family. So enter in William “Night Train” Veeck, the Chicago White Sox Manager of Fan Engagement. However the trip to the Majors was neither direct nor overtly intentional. It came with some calculated steps away from the diamond before “Night Train,” a conversational nickname bestowed on him at birth in honor of the late Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals) and Detroit Lions cornerback Dick “Night Train” Lane made it to the Majors, a fun and interesting and innovative path full of learning, and loving, many aspects of strategic marketing, fan engagement, and brand building.
We caught up with Night Train to talk about the Sox, his past, and working in the national pastime, from the minors to the South Side of Chicago.
You have baseball in your blood, did you ever think of working outside the game or outside sports?
Actually, I did work outside the game for about a year for a small marketing company. I learned a great deal that year. Not only did I learn that baseball was truly in my blood, but if I wasn’t in it, I had to be around it. That happens when your dad puts you to work in a ballpark at six. Child labor laws were never his thing.
What are the best things about working for the White Sox?
There are a lot of great things about working for the White Sox. The best, I would have to say, is probably twofold: the tight knit/family atmosphere that our staff has, and the myriad of little moments that I have gotten to uncover over the years about my family. There is something full circle and fun about it.
How often do you have to explain the name?
Hah, I have to explain the name almost daily…especially when I was in ticket sales! It either started up an instant conversation, or got me a hang up faster than I could blink. It has opened just as many doors as it has closed. The good part is, people always remember talking to me which can really come in handy at times.
You come from a line of those in ownership at all levels, how has the role of owner in sports changed even as you have been involved in the business?
The ownership role is a fascinating one in general. It has changed a great deal since my grandfather. Ironically, I believe the level of accessibility has never been higher, but many owners are perceived, or are, unreachable. The good ones are out and about roaming the digital stands and listening to what their fans are telling them. They are interacting, responding, and engaging with their fans. With Twitter, the ability to create an extremely strong bond between the club and the fan has never been stronger. Now, there is a direct pipeline to the owner/exec for fans which, of course, is a double edged sword (especially when the team is performing poorly). Personally, I see it as an opportunity for owners that has never existed…a true weapon for those that wish to really connect with their fans and truly own their team.
Who are the people in the business you think do things the right way?
There are a good bit of people in the business that do it the “right way”. Some of the ones that stand out to me are Sam Hansen (Fresno Grizzlies), Bryan Srabian (San Francisco Giants), Caitlin Moyer (Milwaukee Brewers) and Brian Garza (Chicago Cubs). They all have an extremely fan focused point of view, and it really translates into their work. I admire it a great deal.
What lessons/best practices that you picked up in the minors play out best in the majors?
I still have a strong love for the minor leagues and the experience I got in 16 seasons in them is unparalleled in my eyes. I would say the biggest takeaways that translate well to the majors are: 1) The work ethic or as I like to say, “Roll Your Own Tarp”: when you are making phone calls in the sales department to partners and potential ticket buyers and then have to flip over to game day and operations, you know exactly what happens on the ground floor when ideas are executed and this helps you see the big picture and what needs to be in place to ensure ideas get off the ground. In the majors, being willing to do anything for/in any department will always suit you well, and it will always impress. It’s a strange concept to discover that there is an entire department dedicated to the task you did in the minors by yourself. 2) Don’t be afraid to fail and keep trying new ideas. It’s a long season, and there will always be several ideas that don’t work out. Take them, learn from them, and come back stronger. There’s no better way to learn than failure. I can’t tell you how many times ideas didn’t translate well to the crowd only to find out that we didn’t see the bigger picture. There’s a story about disco records and a fateful day in 1979 that teaches this very notion. 3) Listen to your fans, be accessible and be transparent. Really listen. They will tell you everything you need to know.
How are the White Sox doing in terms of engagement in the social space, are there things you feel the team does better than most?
The Sox are doing a great job of engaging fans socially. Twitter and facebook fans have been climbing rapidly, and we have found more of our “voice” on twitter. We have come a long way in that realm, and it is fun to be able to see things come to life. One of the biggest aspects that stands out is progress in our Ballpark App: not only has engagement within it more than quadrupled, we have also really begun to add in some excellent features for fans to use/purchase in-game that can enhance their experience in many different ways. Because of in-seat ordering, new game day experiences, and check-in special offers, our app check-ins and interactions are in the top five in the league.
With the Cubs on a roll, does it impact what goes on in the Sox organization from an engagement standpoint?
Regarding the Cubs, it certainly does impact our engagement, and it has been surprising, as it has prompted our fans to be a great deal more vocal than they normally would on their social media channels. Sox fans want to stand up stronger and show their support in a two-team town.
What are your favorite promotions, or the ones you wish you could get going but haven’t?
Favorite promotions…that’s a tough one. I enjoy so many! I would say this year, the Sox had a food truck promotion we did prior to opening day. We drove it around the city and handed out samples of our ballpark food offerings while keeping fans up to speed on the location of the truck through social media. It turned out to be a great success, and generated a lot of interaction. It was a perfect way to celebrate Opening Week. It was a blast to see come together and who doesn’t like free nachos in the loop?! I also enjoy Star Wars night (nerd alert) and Christmas in July. We go all out in-park for these and there is a giveaway associated, so seeing fans get the full treatment is a delight. As for ones I want to get going: A Beer festival with all of our craft beer offerings, and a Salute to Sriracha. My love runs deep for both of those.
If you had to give people entering the business any advice, what would it be?
My best advice would be to take the minor league approach and learn every facet of the job. Study the industry and sport extremely closely to learn everything you can. You will need much more than “I’m a huge fan” (leave your jersey at the door) to get involved. Additionally, avoid limiting yourself to one team or one sport: this will be extremely valuable in your search, and teams always like to have someone that has a larger understanding of sports. Lastly, networking, although it has become cliche, is quite important. Use Facebook, LinkedIn and especially twitter to talk to people in the business and learn what they’re all about. I’ve found that hash tag chats (#smsports and #sportsbiz) are great for advice, connecting with others in the industry and learning what challenges face other teams. Twitter is an unbelievably powerful tool in this realm, so make yourself know, and create your brand with it. Once you’re hired, never stop listening to the fans, and always view it from their perspective.