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LAS VEGAS – Major League Baseball’s annual Winter Meetings normally produces the biggest offseason signings and announcements of changes in the sport.
However, instead of dizzying reports of rumors and transactions, the halls of the 5-day event held this year December 9-13 at Las Vegas host hotel Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino were just as quiet as the city’s strip experiencing one of its slow tourism periods in December just before Christmas.
The endless streams of cowboy hats in Sin City for Wrangler’s 60thNational Finals Rodeo wound up roping in just as much attention as the convention hall media set ups attempting to fill space with content other than where Bryce Harper or Manny Machado might land.
But player contracts were not the only deals to be done in the desert.
Every year during Winter League Meetings, Major League Baseball, its 30-member clubs, and their 160 minor league clubs host a job fair and a trade show for companies seeking to do business in the sport.
Becoming a supplier with the $10 billion revenue generating league could make or break a small business.
For diverse businesses owned by people of color, women, and LGTBQ+ talent, access to this business elevating opportunity is the biggest hurdle.
Major League Baseball has been feverishly trying to connect the dots with increasing returns.
During Winter Meetings, MLB held its Diversity Supplier Summit December 7 -12 within its Diversity and Inclusion programming which included an awards presentation commemorating 20 years of a formal diverse business supplier initiative.
Events included workshops of how to obtain supplier diversity certification, access to capital, effects of unconscious bias in the procurement space, and speed rounds where businesses presented 60-second elevator pitches to MLB clubs.
According to Major League Baseball’s Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion Corey Smith, out of the 15-20,000 vendors used across the sport, 700-1000 are diverse owned businesses.
In a sport where 7.8% its players are African American, 31.9% Latin American, and 42.5% total people of color, translating inclusion on the field to equity in opportunity in the stadium concourse is paramount.
Efforts to contract with diverse owned suppliers predates MLB’s formal adoption 20 years ago. The Cleveland Indians have a joint supplier program with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns and NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cincinnati Reds also had their own initiative.
“The biggest thing was creating a program and more importantly a process by which all the teams could adopt. Certain clubs were doing it in their respective cities on their own. We wanted to put something in place that could be adopted by the league,” explains Smith.
“The owners got together at one of the [winter] meetings and said this is something that is important to us and had a conversation with the commissioner at the time [Bud Selig] and our head of diversity and inclusion at the time, and if this is something that’s important to us as much as we’re focusing on diversifying the workforce at MLB, we should be looking at diversifying our supply chain.”
In the diversity supplier world, Major League Baseball is doing better on the base pads.
In 2017, MLB became the first sports league to win the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC) National Corporation of the Year Award, which recognizes exemplary achievement in the area of minority supplier development.
According to figures released by Major League Baseball, MLB and its member clubs have spent approximately $2 billion with diverse businesses since MLB’s Diverse Business Partners program was created.
For its efforts, The Institute of Diversity of Ethics in Sports gives Major League Baseball an A+.
The types of businesses who supply for MLB are vast. Suppliers could provide anything from bats, balls and gloves, food, cleaning solutions, business consulting, to fighting germs in and around stadiums.
James Mallard and Nancy Williams are a husband and wife team who are North American distributors of WeFresh, a company that markets and sells a product that is infused in the manufacturing process prohibiting the growth of mold, bacteria E. coli, and salmonella.
Mallard and Williams leveraged their respective roles in the procurement space to forge a new relationship with Major League Baseball this year. Williams worked with United Parcel Service for 31 years ultimately leading to a role as its Chief Procurement Officer and work with the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC). Williams work involved the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), the largest certifier of women-owned businesses and advocate for women business owners.
“We have a brand, so we thought we can leverage those components to build a very sustainable business to seek more opportunities with Major League Baseball,” says Mallard.
Even with the couple’s work in the diversity supplier space, they had only recently become familiar with opportunities to work with Major League Baseball.
“I had no idea because a lot of times you can you see the player, you see that stands, you see the fans but you don’t see the other side of it how do you get into as a concession,” says Jonathan Burgess, part of a twin business dynamic who markets and sells “innovative” soul food items such as their signature “churwaffle,” a dish made with a cornbread waffle.
Their first time at Winter Meetings, the Burgess twins were taken aback by the opportunities present they were wholly unaware of.
“Events like this provide an opportunity give us a seat at the table, and it’s up to us and to take the next step and develop relationships to move it forward, possibly represent your organization, and pave the way for other businesses to get into major league ballparks and to do business with Major League Baseball,” says Matthew Burgess.
Having a “churwaffle” at a baseball game is a novel concept in a sport that prides itself on the standard fair of hot dogs, peanuts, cracker jacks and hot dog mascot races encompassing the fan experience.
“Certain markets get it. The clubs that have done the analysis and done the research to determine their core fanbase needs some diversity even in their experience at the ballpark,” says Corey Smith.
The Arizona Diamondbacks brought Pheonix-area Lo-Lo’s Chicken and Waffles into Chase Field in 2015. In 2018 the New York Mets installed a Sweet Chick soul food restaurant franchise location at Citi Field called “Lil Sweet Chick.” Queens native hip hop artist and part owner of Sweet Chick Nas was instrumental with working with MLB to create the Sweet Chick partnership.
Connecting diverse businesses to Major League Baseball and integrating diverse fan experiences ultimately reintroduces the game to communities who may have left the sport.
“We expect the companies who do business with Major League Baseball to engage the communities they serve and leverage those relationships with customers to bring them to the game,” says Renée Tirado, MLB Vice President of Talent and Head of Diversity and Inclusion.
During the 2018 All Star Game festivities in Washington D.C. MLB launched a week-long pop-up “MLB Assembly” that combined baseball, entrepreneurship in technology, fashion, art, and music. The events included a sneaker panel with Kickstradamus, and music by hip hop artists Wale and BlocBoy JB.
MLB accomplished a duel objective of introducing new fans to the sport, while showcasing one of its diverse licensees Pro Standard, which makes MLB branded leather caps.
One of the clubs that “gets it” is the Chicago White Sox. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf flew into Las Vegas to accept the Club Appreciation Award for the team’s dedication to supplier diversity.
The White Sox were one of the clubs other teams initially modeled their diversity supplier programs after. Major League Baseball formed a diversity oversight committee to look into supply chains and procurement processes and the White Sox were critical not only being a model other teams could follow, but assisting other teams to create a similar process.
Oversight of the diverse supplier process is not limited to direct business relationships with MLB. Large suppliers using subcontractors are asked in request for proposals to submit how they will potentially use diverse business partners.
The MLB platform for the right diverse business could even change the way Major League Baseball operates.
Ted Krober is Founder and CEO of Smoother, a year-old fan experience mobile app that allows fans to pre-order concessions and merchandise. The app tracks customer data for every fan in the stadium using the app, not just ticket purchasers. The app caters to personal preferences and provides various deals during a game based on the specific customer.
With an app like Smoother, fans receive the benefit of waiting in shorter concession lines and the MLB gets what’s as good as currency in modern commerce: data. According to Marketwatch, the average age for an MLB fan is 53, 6 years older than the average NFL fan (47) and 16 years older than the average NBA fan (37). Creating a modern fan experience is key to attracting and keeping new and younger fans and Smoother is well positioned to maximize that experience.
Colin Hinds, an African American former minor league baseball player who is Head of Strategic Partnerships at Smoother and friend of Krober’s, believes the difference in success for diverse businesses comes down to access.
“People commonly will deal with other people around them, so very naturally the people on my block look like me. So if I’m doing business with the people on my block they’re going to know some information that the people the block over don’t know. The dynamic of really being able to allow for vendors to come into that space, to just to be on the same block and to be able to have those conversations is just good business,” explains Hinds.
Diversity and inclusion as good business is a passion of Minnesota Twins Senior Procurement Director Bud Hanley, who won the Diverse Business Partners Advocate Appreciation Award at Winter Meetings.
“It may sound corny to say but the Jackie Robinson quote ‘A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives’ is what I believe of my life. I like to be able to go out and help people,” says Hanley.
Hanley’s credits his 22-year veteran military background in shaping his attitude on diverse business advocacy.
“I came up an in environment where a person’s got your back, without respect to race or religion. You see a human being,” explains Hanley.
The same Chicago White Sox who won the team diversity and inclusion award were instrumental in helping Hanley create a model for their American League Central division rival Twins.
Hanley was instrumental in creating a diversity week for the franchise.
“With diverse businesses it’s really great because these are businesses that are changing our community and economic foundations, not only in Minnesota, but the world now. So to have them come in it’s a ripple effect. You bring in one company and they do business and they hire this one person, it just keeps compounding. It’s America. It’s our people. It’s the way I want to live. It’s the way I enjoy doing business.”
Hanley invests in his team’s diverse procurement initiatives by engaging local area diverse chambers of commerce and attending events within diverse communities.
“In order to give an opportunity, I have to know about them. Then meet them. We want to do business with our communities. We go to charity runs, pride parades, we’re getting involved in these communities. These are our neighbors. This is not a handout. These are good businesses,” says Hanley.
Bridging the gap between access and opportunity not only impacts businesses in diverse communities, they can change lives.
Holly Bachman is the Founder and President of Mixed Roots Foundation, a 7-year old nonprofit organization headquartered in Los Angeles that provides unique experiences for individuals in the adoption and foster care community.
Bachman was born in Korea but adopted as a baby and raised by a white Minnesota family. Mixed Roots currently hosts a foster care and adoption night at Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium, San Francisco’s AT&T Park, and Target Field in Minnesota and in the 2019 season will expand to Yankee Stadium in New York.
The events host in upwards of 1500 individuals involved in the foster care and adoption system, many who have never been to a Major League Baseball game.
Bachman credits her mentor Michael Reagan, adopted son of 40thUS president Ronald Reagan with helping guide her Mixed Roots Foundation to “critical mass” and Ken McNeely, President of AT&T West of helping get her into her first park with the Giants. McNeely has two adopted children of his own.
“Sports and entertainment have really been our greatest platforms to raise awareness and educate about the foster care and adoption experience and to provide post adoption resources, scholarships, grants, mentoring, and DNA tests,” says Bachman.
Bachman also has partnered in the NBA with the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves.
In her initial proposal to Major League Baseball, Bachman connected diversity and inclusion as a natural business decision.
“We’re all mixed. One in ten Korean Americans in the US are adopted. There are also 500,000 kids in foster care system. When I first ‘pitched’ to Major League Baseball, I told them 6 in 10 of your fans have some connection to the foster care and adoption system. That’s a lot of people.”
Stories at Winter Meetings like Mixed Roots may not win a team a championship or help fans win their fantasy baseball leagues next year, but the real-world impact is hitting the jackpot.
December 18, 2018 at 03:47PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs