Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Proceso's Pereyra interviews Toros president Uribe Herrera

TJ Toros executive president Alejandro Uribe Herrera
It's been quite a year for the Tijuana Toros.  The obvious high point came earlier this month when the Toros won the city's first-ever Mexican League pennant but, as you'll read, they've also established themselves as perhaps the flagship franchise of the LMB by creating an in-game fan experience that has served as a blueprint for other Liga organizations, finishing second on the Liga attendance table behind Monterrey with 608,819 spectators over 56 home games (an average of 10,872 per opening), while their Academia de Toros de Tijuana produced 15 prospects who signed this year with Major League Baseball organizations, creating a total of 27 youngsters the Academy has sold to LMB teams since the facility opened.

Where prior attempts to make professional baseball work in the Baja California Norte border city have failed, the Toros have succeeded.  However, the following story from Mexico City's Proceso from September 22 by Beatriz Pereyra (during which she interviews Toros president Alejandro Uribe Herrera, son of owner Alberto Uribe Maytorena) shows that the team's success was anything but "overnight" and meant years of financial losses prior to the franchise's first profitable campaign in 2017:

In their fourth season in the Mexican League, the Toros de Tijuana, owned by entrepreneurs Alberto Uribe Maytorena and Alejandro Uribe Herrera, won their first championship title and will have their first profits, which are estimated to be between 10 and 15 million pesos (US$558,000 - $837,000).
The Uribes bought the Minatitlan franchise in 2013 and over four campaigns have consolidated the team as second in attendance at its stadium with 1.9 million fans, who on average per season of 490,790 and a per-game average of 8,764.  Only the Sultanes of Monterrey, whose stadium has capacity for 27,000 fans, exceeded them in that period with 2.5 million.
According to Uribe Herrera, executive president of the team, the Tijuana Toros projected an investment of 100 million pesos this season. In previous years the cost of operation was a little lower, but each campaign, he says, lost between 10 and 15 million pesos.
"Baseball itself is profitable with everything and the investment has been huge," he says in an interview.  "We have invested for three years and for this season we already have black numbers; we are going to have year-end profits.  This business is about offering a show.  People can't guarantee that you will win the game on the day they go to the stadium, but they'll do well for all the attractions that we offer them."
Proceso columnist Beatriz Pereyra
The numbers have gone so well for the team that they're already working on construction of a new stadium, in which the investment would amount to approximately 550 million pesos (US$30.7 million).  Estadio Gasmart stadium, named for the Uribe's gas station chain, is 41 years old and has capacity for 17,000 fans.  The Toros have a lease with the government of Baja California in which they do not pay to use it.
"But in return, we have invested in these years 80 million pesos," says Uribe Herrera.  "We found it in ruins, it had no wiring or lighting and we put all the new seats. For the new stadium, there would be an investment from the federal government and we would pay another portion."
Historically, LMB baseball owners have complained about the losses they must absorb annually.  This year, José Maiz sold 50% of the Monterrey Sultanes to Grupo Multimedios. The businessman said that he had no choice because his family was running out of the 80 million pesos a year that it cost him to operate the team.
For its part, the government of Roberto Borge in Quintana Roo gave the Tigres 240 million pesos over 10 years through the Commission on Youth and Sports and also through the trustees of both the Cancun Convention Visitors and Conventions and Tourism Promotion of the Riviera Maya.  When the administration of new PAN governor Carlos Joaquin reduced the amount to 20 million pesos per year, Carlos Peralta Quintero got rid of the club because he was not willing to spend to keep it.
Uribe Herrera says that baseball can be a business in the 16 teams of the LMB without using public resources, but that entrepreneurs must be prepared economically to invest and suffer losses in the first few years.  "A team is a brand that needs to be built and that takes time, not from one year to another.  That's why a lot of them must be passionate about baseball because to endure losses for three or four years, you must really like it.   It's necessary to exploit all the items: merchandising, sale of players, advertising, sponsorship, sale of tickets, parking, sale of beverages and food ... they all add up, but we must try to depend on no one, not government, not sponsors, so if you lose one's support, you have the others and you can maintain a balance."
The value of the players
In 2015 the Tijuana Baseball Academy was born, where the club develops the Mexican players in order to sell them to the Major League teams for its minor league system.
In three years, says Uribe Herrera, the Toros have negotiated 27 player contracts, 15 of which were sold this year, and those transactions left them a profit of 3.5 million dollars.  "This is an important part of our income," he says.  "If we did not have it we would have a significant decrease.  We bet on the scouting body.  We have between 13 and 15 contracted scouts and 20 other contacts that are not on the monthly payroll, but they work for us and we give them bonuses for the talents they bring us.  We have them in the most important cities of the country and all year long they cover regional territories in search of players."
Players who arrive at the Academia de Toros de Tijuana receive training, lodging, food and even attend school.  Two of them were part of the team that was crowned champion of the LMB on September 10 after beating the Puebla Pericos in five games: Catcher Juan Kirk and infielder Isaac Rodríguez.
The Bulls are part of the group of LMB teams that have new owners, among them Coahuila businessman Gerardo Benavides Pape (Puebla and Monclova Acereros), Mazatlan-born brothers Juan José and Érick Arellano Hernández (Union Laguna Vaqueros and Yucatan Leones) and Potosinos Express owner Arturo Blanco (León Bravos), who entered the LMB with the idea of ​​having profitable teams that do not depend on state budgets for financing.
The Uribes, Arellanos and Benavides led the defense for freely contracting Mexican-American players, against other entrepreneurs, such as Alfredo Harp Helú (Mexico City Diablos Rojos and Oaxaca Guerreros), José Maiz Mier (Monterrey) and Carlos Peralta Quintero (Quintana Roo).  The group of Harp, Maiz and Peralta defended the idea of ​​limiting the recruitment of players of dual nationality. They argued that it is more important to give work to players born in the national territory and that it is a competitive disadvantage that only some have enough budget to sign Mexican Americans.  
The discussion divided the LMB for months. Finally, on February 7, the president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (or Minor League Baseball), Pat O'Conner, determined that Mexican players born abroad can be hired freely in the LMB.  Not doing so, said O'Conner (who served as arbitrator between the parties) could lead to lawsuits, as well as validate an act that would violate the Mexican Constitution and the Federal Law to Prevent and Eliminate Discrimination.
With the freedom to sign players considered Mexican by being the children of a national father or mother, the Tijuana Toros came into the final series with a roster in which they had 20 of 30 players not born in Mexico, including foreigners and Mexican-Americans.  In this regard, Uribe Herrera details, "We have been creating idols: from Óscar Robles (born in Tijuana), who retired at the end of the season, to Dustin Martin, who won many games for us with his hits in the late innings; or Roberto López, who was the MVP of the finals and that in the regular season won the most MVP Torito awards, which the team gives the best player of each game.  And there are Alex Liddi, Cyle Hankerd, Corey Brown; and Miguel Pena, Alejandro Sanabia, Mark Serrano, Jason Urquidez, Horacio Ramírez and Juan Sandoval, whom people already recognize because most are in their second or third year. "
Fear of the empty seat
Tijuana's championship team's payroll took up 30% of the 100 million pesos with which it operated in 2017.  "We gave continuity to the foreigners even though at times they had a bad run," according to Uribe Herrera.  "They are players with desire and they felt comfortable playing here. We maintained continuity with Pedro Meré (the Veracruz-born manager who won his second title in the LMB, the first coming in 2013 with the Rojos del Aguila) and he influenced the championship because he has the personality of a leader, without reflectors, that helps the players, including the stars, a lot.  He gives them confidence, he motivates them, he is very empathetic and always protects them."
There are some baseball romantics who miss names like Matías Carrillo or Juan "El Borrego" Sandoval, players born in towns of Mexico that for years were the idols and played in a single team.  "We continue to have them," responds Uribe Herrera.  "Óscar Robles, Alfredo Amézaga...but regardless of where they were born, we are also conquering another market: that of Mexicans who live in the United States and have good purchasing power.  In some cities of the United States, games of the LMB are already transmitted for nostalgic Mexicans who miss baseball here.  There are Mexicans and Americans who cross the border to go to our stadium and both millions of Mexicans of dual nationality live in Tijuana and on the San Diego side who follow us."
The phenomenon that happens in Tijuana seems exceptional.  In the last game of the finals, attendance in Puebla (in a stadium with capacity for 12,000 people) was 6,954 fans.
"It was a good attendance," Uribe Herrera counters.  "Tickets started selling when the fourth game ended,  so there was little time to buy. I left the stadium and had tails of 500 and 800 meters. There was a threat of rain because of the hurricane and the schedule was not very favorable with the game played at one in the afternoon, but the stadium was 80 or 90% of its capacity.  The evaluation should not be made only from attendance in the finals, but from the full season."
Uribe Herrera recognizes that at Gasmart Stadium there are often promotions to give tickets to fans.  "I'd rather see a seat occupied for free than an empty one. The most expensive thing you can have is to offer a show so that no one sees it. I am very afraid of an empty seat, rather than giving away tickets," he says.  He explains that, according to the analysis of the team directors, people who attend Toros games are between 18 and 41 years and many do not even understand baseball. 
Uribe Herrera says that some of his acquaintances ask him in mid-season what happens if the team wins that night, which indicates that they have no idea of ​​the number of matches played in the regular schedule.  But that does not concern the directors. Their goal is for the games to attend both the red bone (hardcore) fans and those who are trying to understand baseball. So, he insists, they offer many attractions.  For example, the stadium has the Toro Bar, where you can watch the game over drinks; there is also the Toro Grill, a restaurant where families can eat whether they watch the game or not.  For children there is the area called Torolandia, where there are inflatables, swings and other games and flipcharts to color as their parents watch the game.
"I know that even if people go with a ticket that they won in a promotion, when they see what we offer they will come back," Uribe Herrera points out.  "We try to give them an experience and, so we lose 10-0, people are happy.  If we were looking for baseball fans, maybe we'd find a few, but if we look for people who want to have a good time, we find many who are interested in going to the stadium to eat and drink. Little by little they start to love to the sport and understand the game; then they become fans."
Asked how Uribe Herrera sees the 2018 campaign, with two short tournaments and teams obliged to hire the players all year, he says, "We have to innovate because in competition as entertainment, we're up against a smartphone. We're looking to have two short tournaments with two playoff finals and improve people's interest in watching baseball."  Responding to the statement that the LMB needs more competitive teams because when the same teams always reach the finals, he says, "Of course, the more parity in the league, the better results we will have, but all teams should seek to match us up, not bring us down.
"All teams have the potential to develop. I prefer to think that we are all going to raise the level and have better results."