Why did the Worcester Tornadoes fail?

For those that need a brief lesson on who the Worcester Tornadoes are, they are a professional baseball team that plays in the unaffiliated Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball, or “Can-Am League” for short. The league was founded in 2005 when the old Northeast League, which had merged with the Northern League, split off to form their own league again. The league’s first champion was the Tornadoes, and for the first few seasons the team enjoyed decent success on the field and in the stands. But since then it’s been a slow spiral downward. Until this season that is, when the team sank faster than the Titanic both on and off the field.

With a couple of games remaining in their schedule the Tornadoes are guaranteed to be the worst team in league history–by a significant margin, no less–as they will smash the old record of futility set by the Elmira Pioneers in 2005 for being the most games under .500 to end a season. Elmira was 36 games under, and Worcester is currently 42 under. Tornadoes owner Todd Breighner brought in former major leaguer Jose Canseco to help bolster the team’s lineup and fan interest, but neither happened. In fact the whole idea backfired on Breighner and in the end Canseco is just one of several entities suing Breighner and Streamlined Sports, Inc. for nonpayment of bills.

Under a court order much of the team’s assets, including their jerseys, have been seized and the front office has been locked out of their headquarters. A few days ago the Can-Am League had seen enough, and Can-Am Commissioner Miles Wolff announced essentially kicked Breighner out of the league and the Can-Am is now running the team to end the season. So that begs the question “what went wrong?”.

The answer is shockingly simple: an illogical business plan.

Since the news broke a few weeks ago about the financial trouble of the team I’ve spoken to a few folks very familiar with the business operations of the current Tornadoes ownership, and while I’m far from a business magnate even I know what Breighner and Streamlined Sports planned to do had a worse shot than a snowball in hell of happening. Breighner purchased the team from the previous owners by giving them nothing up front and just assuming control of the debt of the team. This wasn’t exactly a Rockerfellerian business move as the debt was a little more than the team was worth, but it could have turned into a reasonably positive move had Breighner paid off the original debt and returned the balance sheets to zero. But that wasn’t Breighner’s plan; his plan was to use current operating revenue to pay off the old debt.

This might have worked on paper, but in the real world of business it had little chance of success. If the idea was to take money that was needed to pay current bills and use it to pay old bills, how would he pay his new bills? Obviously trimming current costs was one thing he needed to do, but when you trim the costs of your “on the field product” you end up with a sub par team, and revenues go down as people decide not to go to your games. So you need to trim costs more by trading/cutting your most expensive players, which makes your team worse, and, well, you get the idea. Plus when you cut costs that means less employees. And when you cut the people whose job it is to go out and sell tickets, you end up with what happened to the Tornadoes–no fans, no money, and lots of bills.

Even in the good years the Tornadoes made lots of dumb assumptions. They truly believed the old adage “if you build it, they will come”. Folks did come, in decent numbers for a team like the Tornadoes, during the early years. But as attendance dwindled there was no effort I could see of the team working to turn that trend around. How can I say that? I have never once had a Tornadoes ticket rep talk to me.

Think about that for a moment.

In the first few seasons I was there three or four times a week. And yet it never dawned on any of the ticket people that they had no idea who I was. It should have been automatic that someone that’s in the ballpark on days there was no one there, and even in the good days for the team there were still tons of weekday games with few fans in the ballpark, that the Tornadoes would eventually get someone to walk over and start up a conversation. To this day I couldn’t tell you what any of the Tornadoes ticket reps even look like.

What makes that even more mind boggling is in the first season I was on the field three times to help the undermanned grounds crew get the field back in playing shape after a huge downpour because the team didn’t have a tarp to cover the field. The second season, when they finally got a tarp, I twice helped them roll it out on to the field in the rain. And while I certainly appreciate the free burgers and beer I was “paid” to help doing that (let’s be honest, how many people can say they helped out a grounds crew at a pro game? It was very Tom Sawyer-ish and mostly fun), but not once was I asked if I was a season ticket holder. It’s also not like they couldn’t contact me, I also used to help run their fan forum where I had mentioned several times I didn’t have any sort of ticket package.

Now that fact I wasn’t interested in a ticket package isn’t even an issue in the conversation. The issue is the Tornadoes made little to no attempt to sell their product to people that were within walking distance of them that were already showing interest in their product by just being at the ballpark. The Tornadoes also never figured out that having their mascot show up at various events around the city is a great free way to advertise the team. Which goes back to the “if you build it, they will come” fallacy. If you don’t sell your product at every opportunity soon you no longer have a product worth selling.

So, despite what Breighner and Streamlined Sports are saying to the local media, when the 2012 Can-Am regular season is over on Monday the Worcester Tornadoes will be no more…

…but that will not be the end of baseball in Worcester. Several groups are interested in continuing to field a team in the Can-Am league once the Tornadoes are swept away, and at least one group is interested in putting together a team to play in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League. So there is a very good chance there will be baseball in Worcester next summer. Stay tuned to see how that all works out.

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