Milwaukee attorney Ulice Payne took over as president of the Milwaukee Brewers last September in the final stage of the team’s worst season in its 34-year history. Coming off a season with 106 losses, falling attendance and grumbling fans, tired of the team’s losing way, Payne took over for Wendy Selig-Prieb and embarked on changing the ball club’s image. He brought in an experienced general manager, implemented new marketing procedures, brought back the organist to home games and tried to make the games more fun for fans.
One year into his rebuilding process, Payne said he is happy with the progress that is being made as the team is on track to win at least 10 more games than 2002. Attendance improved in the last few months of the season as the team won 10 straight games and for the first time in years, most Milwaukee residents believe the franchise is on the way up. Payne sat down with WisBusiness correspondent Mark Kass before the Brewers’ last home game Sept. 24 to discuss the past season and his plans for 2004.
Mark Kass: As you get ready to watch the last home game of your first year as president of the Milwaukee Brewers, how would you assess how it went?
Ulice Payne: Starting roughly a year ago today, I tried to set some core objectives for me and also for the organization. The first was to develop a positive public image for our club and try to establish an emotional bond between the fans and the team. When I came in last year, we had just set a record for the number of losses for a season, the roof leaked and we had the All-Star Game experience. So in my mind, we had to change the picture that was in the minds of our market of what the Brewers were about. I think we done a pretty good job of that. I think we’ve done that on the field by showing that we’re working hard, like our (fans) work hard, and by having fun at the game by providing in-game entertainment so it was more than just sitting there watching baseball and keeping score. In addition, we had to field a better ball club. Our payroll is down 20 percent from the previous year, but we have 10 more wins. So from that perspective, I feel very good.
Kass: How difficult was it to take over what was basically a family-run business?
Payne: At our monthly staff meeting today, I thanked them for their patience through this tough year. Change is difficult and also, the truth hurts. What we did was take all the good things that Wendy Selig Prieb had started and continued them. The biggest adjustment was for the people that were still here was that they had never worked for anyone other than a Selig. Wendy is still chairman of my board of directors. But on a day-to-day basis, she is no longer involved. And I think that transition has taken longer than I thought it would. I just think the process is still continuing. I am not done. Maybe it is unrealistic to think I would be done in a year.
Kass: You’ve made several changes to the in-game entertainment with such things as the organist, the host and free kids games. How have fans received them?
Payne: We feel that overall it is pretty positive. There are some baseball traditionalists that feel you shouldn’t have a Women on Wednesday night event. But we feel that for this team to be successful, we must have a very broad fan base because the demographics of our market aren’t changing a lot. In other words, Wisconsin is not growing as a state. It is just kind of staying the same. Therefore for us to be successful, we must get more of the people who reside here to come to the game. Women are a strong demographic anywhere. Second, we are looking to attract more minorities. So for the Hispanic population, for example, we reached out and broadcast 13 Saturday home games in Spanish on Channel 63. We had to get more kids and their families out so we created a position called manager of youth baseball where we became the main point for all state baseball programs. We just had to get more people in the market to Miller Park.
Kass: What is the one thing that occurred during your first year that you wish you could do over or change?
Payne: This is the first time my management team has worked together. I probably delegated a little too much during my first year here. In other words, you don’t know all the capabilities of your staff because you’ve never worked with them. But as I look back, there were certain things we could have done. My theory that we use here is good to great – we had certain good things that we could have done great.
Kass: Can you give me an example?
Payne: We filmed the movie, Mr. 3000, here for about six weeks. There were two nights were Mr. 3000 was actually part of the game experience, which was the July 23 and 24. We had no giveaways on either night. So we had 20,000 to 22,000 people in the ballpark. But to me, knowing that you’re filming live during the game, if we would have even given a T-shirt out saying ‘I was there during the filming of Mr. 3000,’ we could have taken that 22,000 to 30,000. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I delegated that to one of my vice-presidents and he was busy. But that’s one where I say ‘Ulice, you should have done it.’ I knew that I needed to pay attention to that, but I didn’t.
Kass: There seems to be a general feeling now that the team is moving in the right direction. What does the team need to do, from a business standpoint, to continue that?
Payne: One of the things I told my staff at a meeting today was that the bar has been raised. The things we did this year won’t make news because we experienced them already. My philosophy has always been you let the market tell you what they want and then you go about trying to give them what they want. Then they’ll be happy. Many of the things we did this year were based on what we heard at the fan forum last year, at our e-mail address and other feedback I got. We have another fan forum Oct. 21. Last year, we had 4,300 people. We expect to double that this year. And we’re going to take what they tell us as the basis for our business plan for next year. I learned you can never be smarter than the market. Some guys get in trouble by thinking they are smarter than the market.
Kass: What is your reaction to the attendance this year? It is at its lowest point since the team moved to Miller Park, but you did draw some pretty good crowds later in the year.
Payne: We actually had an original budget of 1.6 million in attendance, with not knowing the affect of 106 losses. Baseball has something called the lag effect where people make their decisions based on last year’s experience. And we had a lot of bad experiences in 2002. After losing 106 games last year, we actually started out the year with six straight losses, including three losses during our home opener weekend. And then in April and early May, we didn’t play well at all. We adjusted our projection to 1.4 million because at that point we figured we were going to be 40 games out of first place by early September. But, we’re going to hit 1.7 million this year, which is way over our revised estimate. We feel that’s because we delivered to the fans an in-game experience and an on-field experience that they wanted. So my hope is that we’ve reached the bottom of the V when it comes to attendance.
Kass: How do you go about increasing the level of season tickets for 2004? Are you planning to raise prices or make any other changes in the ticket packages that are offered?
Payne: We’re going to announce ticket prices at the fan forum, but I can tell you our fans will be pleased with what we announce. The economy affects our season tickets. We had something called the cancellation club where anyone who cancelled their seats got their name on the list. We then had one of our vice presidents call people (who cancelled) to talk to them and find out why they didn’t renew and I’d say two out of every five people we called said ‘it was not you Brewers, but I lost my job’ or ‘at my small company, I just let go 10 people’ so I can’t justify spending $4,000 on Brewers tickets. What steps we take to improve the ball club over the winter will affect the sales. If one of our big guns gets traded that can adversely impact sales. On the other hand, if we improve the club, where people say ‘you know what, with the guys they got, I think they’re a better team,’ people may want to come out and buy more tickets.
Kass: Are you exploring any other revenue sources, such as special events at Miller Park like the Springsteen concert this weekend?
Payne: If you go back to my comments last year when I was hired, I said Miller Park is the people’s park. The one thing I brought to this job is not being so close to baseball. I brought a realism to what the market was saying. Many people who are paying for this ballpark through the sales tax are not Brewer fans. I think it is very important for people that we make this ballpark available for the residents of the five counties. Whether you’re a soccer player, or a trick-or-treater, you can use the park. Of course, you got (Bruce) Springsteen on Saturday. We had high school graduations here this year. So we intend to continue to keep this the people’s park and you don’t have to be an avid baseball fan to come to Miller Park and enjoy. This year we were blessed to have several nice events that generated revenue for us. The best thing about this revenue, unlike baseball revenue, it is not subject to revenue sharing. We get to keep all of the money.
Kass: What kind of new marketing efforts can we expect to see over the next few months from the Brewers to spark interest in the 2004 season?
Payne: We’re going to try and develop more relationships with youth organizations, not-for-profit organizations and target certain markets like the Fox Cities, Madison, Kenosha and Lake County, which is right across the border in Illinois. What happens is those people can’t go to a (Chicago) Cubs game, they can’t get a ticket. They travel farther to go to a White Sox game than to come to Miller Park. We think there is a lot of untapped potential in terms of baseball fans in Kenosha and Lake County. So for us, we’re probably going to have 10 games against the Cubs next year so we’re going to work to get them up here. And if you hate the Cardinals Cubs’ fans, come to Miller Park and root against the Cardinals. You want to see Barry Bonds and can’t see him in Chicago, come here and see him. Our view is some regional marketing efforts that we will pursue because our base isn’t growing. We must get more people from further around to come to Miller Park.
Kass: Fans, for the most part, seem to give your administration a honeymoon this year. How long do you think that will last? When does this team have to challenge for the playoffs for the support to continue?
Payne: We have to win. Ultimately, close games don’t matter. You have to convert those to wins. That’s the standard that I can never take my eye off as a former athlete. Winning is the reason they have the scoreboard up there. Our biggest challenge is putting a better baseball club on the field that will win consistently, particularly at home. I do believe there is a calculus to have a successful franchise year in and year out. Success to me means being competitive. Part of it is being competitive on a day in day out basis and I do think we have the capabilities because we have some pretty good players in minor league system and some good young players on this year’s club. We need to build around them until the young guys come. I feel pretty good that we will be better ball club next year and an even better ball club the year after.
Kass: On a political note, I noticed that you were a co-chairman of Governor Doyle’s new Governor’s Circle. Why did you get involved in that effort and what is it trying to accomplish?
Payne: Jim Doyle is a friend of mine and I supported him in the last election. I’ve known Jim for a long time and he asked me to serve as co-chairman of the club. I was a member of Tommy Thompson’s club. Most politicians have these type of clubs. What I will do is try to get other people to support Jim Doyle. I’m not saying vote for Jim Doyle or anything like that. I’m just asking people to join the club and get to know Jim Doyle and who he is. That’s all that is plain and simple.