Heat juggernaut rolls on as ABL benchmark
12 February 2015
Winning four of five Australian Baseball League championships since re-birth of a national competition, the Perth Heat club has been a dominant force that continues to set the standard for other clubs, only one of which – Canberra Cavalry – has shared among the ABL winning spoils during that time.
The old aphorism that success breeds success certainly rings true for the Heat franchise, which has been a benchmark both onfield and across its gamut of baseball operations.
Understandably buoyant and still in celebratory mode after his club snagged the 2014/15 Claxton Shield over Adelaide – for its sixth Claxton title in the past eight years - General Manager Lachlan Dale is well-placed to comment on the Perth Heat organisation and the various challenges facing the fledging league.
Consistent winning success – over an extended period of time – does not happen by chance. What is it, then, that has enabled the Perth club to be such a dominant force in the Australian Baseball League over the past several years? What is the Heat doing right? Where does the club stand on vital matters that are central to the ongoing viability of the Australian Baseball League?
The ever-approachable Lachlan Dale – a former playing professional in United States - was generous with his time in offering a range of insights to Australian Baseball Alumni just recently.
While we can read all sorts of things into the figures, a 15 percent attendance increase overall between 2013 and 2014 (according to Major League Baseball International numbers) suggests that the league is making relatively steady growth (in some states more than others, for a variety of reasons).
Even though overall attendances were down in the 2014/15 season (from 147,000 to a tick over 140,000), attendance growth may be a surprise to some of the cynics.
At start-up of the league, there was a figure of 1300 doing the rounds as the average game attendance needed to break even. With a total of 32,500 in Perth this season, numbers were a little south of last year, although the franchise still averaged a healthy 1357 per game – the highest in the league ahead of Adelaide (1044) and an upwardly trending Brisbane (989) - followed by Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra in that order.
“The attendances are OK in Perth,” Heat General Manager Lachlan Dale told Australian Baseball Alumni. “Our goal is to be the market leader in every category, so we are fairly satisfied. We have a strong culture of success within the baseball community and a sense of ownership among the members. We have and we continue to view the Perth Heat as an extension of Baseball WA, albeit with a larger department and marketing arm.”
“Overall Baseball WA participation numbers are always increasing, which is a positive signal that we are doing things right,” Dale said.
“Importantly, our retention rate is still quite high.”
Lachlan Dale believes that Perth Heat has engaged successfully with the baseball community to ensure that attendances will remain constant, although there is always room for expansion.
“There is an opportunity to increase attendance by accessing an additional 30% of the T-Ball market,” he said. “That can always be done better.”
“The next phase is to attract non baseball/teeball people - people who may have played at a young age and drifted into other walks of life but still have fond memories. Businesses that want to be involved in an up and coming sport with endless opportunities. People who just want to enjoy entertainment for two and a half hours, spending time with family and friends.”
So much of Australian Baseball League capacity to draw crowds relates to mainstream and media coverage, an area in which all clubs are challenged. It may be no coincidence that attendances at Norwood Oval during the 2015 Championship Series were massive – around the 5000 mark on the Friday and Saturday nights. While the Bite’s playing success during the season had plenty to do with that, we should not underestimate the support of supportive mainstream media outlets in Adelaide.
“Media coverage has only slowly improved in Western Australia. It is an ongoing issue,” Dale said.
“We recognised the importance of media for the Baseball in WA back in 2005,” he said. “It is part of the reason we created the Heat. We feel like we have tried everything and we just can’t break through, although we’ve had some interesting conversations in the last couple of days. The increased use of the internet as a news source might change things for us. The ability to generate our own content and promote it ourselves forms the bulk of our current strategy.”
“We have found – in the west - that kids are taking up the sport through grassroots development of state associations that in turn is leveraging the Heat brand into the communities,” Dale explained. “State wide branding of Heat actually has been a major success but that strategy seems to have had a slow take up from other states.”
“Access to media and getting cut-through is 10% of our outlay. Money needs to be invested in marketing via radio and television. If you are not on TV, you’re really not relevant.”
Online streaming of games across the league has improved markedly in both reliability and quality over the past two seasons, although there is a certain irregularity of service and a reluctance on the part of some clubs to dedicate limited resources in this area.
“The inconsistency of streaming is the frustration,” Lachlan Dale said. “Different teams have different budget allocations so it’s a different quality across the board. I think we are probably the lowest investment in web streaming and we simply have not invested enough to deliver a quality product. It’s tough at Barbagallo Ball Park for the Internet is often unreliable at that location.”
“It’s crucial to have video and footage in this technological world, but to become relevant we have to have that broadcast TV presence.”
“We have had an opportunity in Perth to pay $70,000 a year to produce one game per home series for TV-quality games to be shown on GEM (Channel 9’s second station). Free air time and only production costs - but we could not get it over the line with ABL Head office,” Dale said.
“Sponsorship, ticket sales, brand awareness, marketing – all would be associated among the benefits if we went down that path. It’s an example of expanding rather than treading water.”
Related to attendances is the issue of club baseball, which overlaps with the Australian Baseball League season and has led to the argument – among others – that club baseball should work around ABL scheduling and should have a total break from well before Christmas until the end of January.
“This is certainly a hot topic and one that we debate internally for Whole of Sport benefit,” Dale said.
“My vision would be to have the previous format of one ABL game on Friday night and two games on Saturday. In that way, players would not have to take as much time off club baseball – meaning that more and higher quality Australians would be available and we could achieve a higher level of integration with the Diamond Sports Club network.
“Under that structure, players would be able to represent the Heat back at local competition level on Sundays. They could be promoting the next series, talking about the latest news, generating excitement and so on. If they can play for their local club, then even better – everyone wins.”
To illustrate this point, Lachlan Dale pointed to a hypothetical club fixture between Melville Braves and Morley Eagles in Perth, although similar scenarios could be created across the country.
Morley could suit up the likes of Luke Hughes, Corey Adamson (previously), Aaron Bonomi and Mitch Graham, while Melville would trot out the likes of superstars Tim Kennelly, Matt Kennelly, Sam Kennelly, Brendan Wise, Cameron Lamb and Daniel Schmidt.
Local clubs and local residents could be engaged in marketing strategies encouraging people to come and see Heat players representing their local clubs. Autograph sessions could be organised, along with coaching clinics, giveaways and the like.
“This more compact series would also concentrate the crowds and the attendance,” Dale argues. “Our 7000 fans over four days compacted into two nights would make for the atmosphere and spectacle that we are trying to create. Let’s sell out two nights - and expand when we do - instead of diluting the experience.”
“It is understandable that MLB want more games, more at bats and more innings,” he said. “But if we are going to achieve those outcomes in this country we need to innovate. Perhaps we can either make the season longer by starting earlier or we can add a tournament mid-season as a gala festival supported by state tourism.”
“The reality – in my opinion – is that these and other options need to be given serious consideration at policy level. Things work in Perth for a reason. We get together with the relevant stake holders and strive to make decisions in the best interests of them all.”
As a development project funded heavily by Major League Baseball, the Australian Baseball League is captive largely to overseas interests, requiring us to rely heavily on the input of international players – especially from United States. While having a protected list in part enables clubs to focus on the development of emerging local baseball talent, there are those who argue that some of that talent is being denied an opportunity - particularly players who are not contracted professionally.
One of the keys to the Perth Heat playing success has been the club’s capacity to fully utilise the import rules while maintaining a core of quality players who are largely home-grown.
“Because of the profile that the league is developing, the opportunities to be picked up or re-signed are fantastic and they need to continue,” Lachlan Dale said. “I don’t think Australians are missing out on opportunities to sign but their development is slowed a little by the high level of play - sometimes they just can’t cut it at this level.”
“I think we do a good job of bringing through the young talent in WA. It’s not rocket science to realise that you have to phase the young guys in. That’s what we do, while still maintaining the highest possible playing standard. The notion that teams should just roll out young players and let them learn under “under fire” is not something we have ever understood in Perth.”
“I am concerned, though, that import limitations have reached an all-time high where the league is not the Australian Baseball League for any other reason than it’s in our country,” he said.
“My preference would be for four imports maximum. That would allow clubs to promote high performance athletes and allow them to develop their careers through the ABL system.”
“Queensland Under 18s won the National Championship in 2014, yet the Bandits had fourteen overseas players for the 2014/15 ABL season. Where are those Under 18 players now?”
“We do not celebrate and market our Australians well enough and they are often pushed aside for one-year wonders from the United States,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the rules have allowed this to happen. If you don’t push the limits, you don’t win. If you don’t win, you struggle to grow. If you don’t grow, you die.”
“We of all clubs are probably criticised the most for pushing import rules to the limit. However, when you add imports to a star-studded 25-30 year old, experienced group who all play each season – and if you mix that with opportunities for young guys – then you are in a strong position.”
“That is what we have been able to do, although it doesn’t mean that we agree with the existing import rules,” he said. “The rules are too complex and too confusing for the players, the coaches and the fans – which is what contributed to the problems this season. The KISS theory should be implemented when resources are low and when everyone is working above their capacity.”
With the Australian Baseball League not possessed of a budget that would allow players and administration to be fully professional, club development has depended very much on the engagement of volunteers and the capacity to share resources with state governing bodies.
All clubs each year have international volunteers working with them in various capacities – in media, sales, marketing, facilities and a range of other areas. Some have been outstanding, others have made a valuable contribution and helped themselves out in building their experience along the way.
However, there is a school of thought that the league should over time be seeking to rely far less on international interns and instead training up our own people for volunteer, part-time or contracted work into the future.
“We have had many fantastic volunteers come on board over the five seasons – and I am sure that is the case with other clubs,” Dale said.
“Gameday volunteers usually require just a program manager, some one who can dedicate time to communicate, prepare and recognise their efforts,” he continued. “Unfortunately, the sales and compliance burdens are too great for us to spend the appropriate time on these things and to really nurture our own people. The reluctance to appreciate our volunteers in replacement of the sales and revenue mantra is a hole in the philosophy.”
Both Baseball Australia and the state associations have a vested interest in the long-term viability of the league. To secure a league future, the ABL clubs clearly need to develop constructive working relationships – especially with the state governing bodies. This area is another in which Perth Heat has been able to set a standard.
“Perth Heat and Baseball WA are considered the same by many people. That has no doubt been part of our success,” Dale said. “Operationally it overlaps in many areas and as such Baseball WA leverages the Perth Heat’s brand for grants, development for facilities and marketing. It is a win win situation.”
Along with steadily increasing attendances, it is fair to say that all six clubs are now located at venues that are of a far better overall standard than they were in the days of the earlier ABL. The baseball is of a high quality and people are arguably provided with pretty decent value for money – even though non-members are not likely to turn up for four games in any home series.
The challenge remains to enhance and to maintain the supporter experience while ensuring that the league remains financially viable.
“I think we have done pretty well in that area to date,” Dale said. “The next step is to make sure that we re-invest in our members and we spend time delivering on the value. It’s a fine line between financial viability and delivering value, but I think we do it well with the Heat,” Dale said.
“We have for the first time promoted a feedback survey to members and fans and this will form part of our revised operational plan. Many things are simple, small and easy to do, but the time needs to be spent on effective delivery.”
Quite properly delighted after another outstanding ABL season by Perth Heat, General Manager Lachlan Dale still takes a balanced view of how the league is situated in terms of its strengths, its challenges and its prospects for further expansion. The public response to this year’s Championship Series in Adelaide – which was the best-attended yet – may have served to stimulate further interest in league expansion, although Dale takes a more realistic stance on where we are at.
“Overall I would rank the league at travelling about six out of ten,” he said.
“On the plus side, the level of play, the upgrades to facilities, increasing grassroots participation, increased baseball revenue, increased profile, development opportunities for young players and the international investment – especially from MLB – are all real positives,” he said. “I see potential for real growth, or even a boom that might be just around the corner.”
“On the flip side of that, we face serious challenges in the areas of television coverage, radio, effective marketing, stable staffing and resourcing of the clubs. We need to be prepared to spend money to make money. It is far too early to speak about new teams. The current ones are not yet sustainable, and expansion would simply make it tougher.”
“Franchises may be an alternate option,” he said. “ But whichever way the league decides to go, there must be structures in place and agreements that can be reached to secure the viability of each state having a team.”
“Look, I am really happy with how my club operated this season – and of course it is a real buzz to us and our supporters to win another ABL Championship,” Dale said.
“But there is a far broader picture. For this league to be viable in the longer term, all clubs need to be strong, all need to be competitive, all need to have a committed supporter base and all need to be financially sound.”
“I look forward to all of us getting better at what we do over the years to come,” he said.
Australian Baseball Alumni again extends its congratulations to Perth Heat on another outstandingly successful Australian Baseball League season.
We thank Lachlan Dale for his assistance in writing this article, which we are confident will generate positive discussion about the exciting opportunities and the challenges that the Australian Baseball League faces into the future.