Monday, January 12, 2015

Q & A: Memphis Redbirds GM Craig Unger

Posted By on Mon, Jan 12, 2015 at 9:42 AM

Fifteen years of age may seem young for a facelift. But not if you’re a ballpark. Under new joint ownership (the City of Memphis and St. Louis Cardinals, parent club of the local Triple-A affiliate), AutoZone Park is undergoing its most dramatic renovations since opening for the 2000 season. The home of the Memphis Redbirds is now also the home of Craig Unger, named the franchise’s general manager last April (when the Cardinals’ purchase cleared). A native of Waterloo, Illinois (across the Mississippi River from St. Louis), Unger has combined a Cardinal touch — he worked for the team for five years — with an appreciation for a distinctly Memphis landmark to steer the stadium’s architectural revival.

click to enlarge unger.jpg

What were your first impressions of Memphis last spring?

It’s been great. My wife and I love it here. You can get everywhere quickly, great food, great people. The similarity [with St. Louis] I’ve noticed is the downtown resurgence. The new restaurants popping up on Main Street, the new businesses on South Main, new apartments and condos. I saw this in St. Louis ten years ago. In both cities, the urban center is becoming the hub again.

And what about your first impressions of AutoZone Park?

What a great facility. It’s big, but what a great facility. The one thing I hear from other minor-league officials is that they’re trying to create space, to find new ways of creating space for groups. That’s one problem we don’t have. This footprint is a good kind of big. We have a lot of room to do a lot of things, a lot to work with. Minor-league ballparks aren’t built like this anymore.

Do you see similarities with the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis (which opened in 2006)?

The brick and the exposed steel. They were both built to fit into the architecture of the area that surrounds them. This is a classic ballpark. The open concourse. The indoor space on the second floor. Baseball’s a great social sport. People are up, walking around. At a football game, you sit and you go to the bathroom at halftime. Here, fans are going to check out views from different parts of the ballpark. The changes we’re making are, in part, to create destination points for fans. It’s a social, food, and family experience.

Summarize the renovations. What needed to be improved?

Over 15 years, we all re-do a bathroom or kitchen in our house. We looked at the space we have, and discussed how to improve the fan experience. How do we take this facility and energize it?

It’s hard, because there are a lot of things. All in, it will cost a little over $6.5 million, $4.5 million from the city as part of the [Cardinals’] lease agreement and $2 million from the Cardinals. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right.

Do you have to clear renovations with the city?

There is an approval process [in our agreement]. They don’t want us to structurally compromise the facility. They’ve put a great deal of trust in us. The changes we’re making will enhance the facility, and make it better in the long run. [The Cardinals] have 16 years left on our lease (with two five-year options). We’re taking a very long-term view. It would be easy to say we need immediate gratification. But we’re aiming for long-term growth and opportunity. Group ticket sales, season-ticket sales, and using the facility for other [non-baseball] events.

What’s an example of the new fan experience?

On the second level, we’ve removed four suites from behind home plate and are creating a true club, with an open view of the field, and on the other side, a view of the Peabody. Natural light will flow. Fans will be able to experience the ballpark even while being inside. It will be great for weddings, business meetings, Christmas parties. Anybody with tickets to the club level will have access to this space. We’ll integrate the club into the game-day experience.

There will also be four sections of seats removed and replaced with 39 “four-top” tables, directly in front of the club. Those will be sold on a season-long basis. They’re fixed into the floor, four seats per table. You’ll have a pregame buffet, in-seat service. That’s what I’m most excited about actually.

The ballpark originally had 45 suites, more than any other minor-league stadium by a long shot. Their leases expired after the 2014 season. There will now be 29?

We’re still in the process or renewing suite-holders. We’re renovating every suite, regardless of whether or not it’s been renewed yet. Under the old deal, suite owners were responsible for any changes or enhancements to their suite. We’re taking that on. They will be dramatically different. Every suite is getting a facelift. Interest has been great. Negotiations are ongoing. We’re looking at five-, seven-, and ten-year deals.

Will the renovations increase attendance, boost revenue, or just better accommodate smaller crowds on weeknights?

Enhancing the fan experience is the number-one thing. The changes we’re making, everyone will be able to see. You’ll notice the difference. When you create a great experience, you’ll sell more tickets. That’s how we succeed. We have to provide value to our fans. Why should they go to AutoZone Park instead of someplace else? We are not raising ticket prices. So come on down.

Does winning baseball games matter? The Redbirds played in the postseason last year in front of a lot of empty seats.

People are going to watch the product on the field. I think winning is less important than the fan experience. They want to have a good time. We have to keep in mind our role on the baseball side of things: we’re about player development. There’s no [young] player out there who says, man, I want to be a Triple-A baseball player. You watch the future stars here. And not just our players. The next superstars are going to play here. It’s one area we can’t control, the product on the field. But our farm system is in great shape. In the end, we want our players to leave, to go to St. Louis. It means they’ve succeeded, and fans here have seen the players that will help the Cardinals win their next World Series.

What will be new to the game-day presentation?

We’re installing a video board on the leftfield wall, 14 feet tall by 140 feet wide. And we’re adding LED ribbon boards — three feet by 150 feet — along first and third base. They’ll replace the backlit signs along the façade. It’s ad space. And it’s a multimedia experience for fans. Last year, you couldn’t find information about the pitcher. What’s his pitch count? These video boards will provide a lot more information. What’s going on here, in St. Louis, at the Grizzlies game, you name it.

[The bluff beyond leftfield will be removed and replaced by two grass-seating areas, a berm near the leftfield corner and another one down the rightfield line. More than 3,000 fixed seats have also been removed, reducing the stadium’s total to 8,404.]

You’re the face of the new Cardinals ownership. What’s changing operationally for the Redbirds, in respect to the parent club?

I’ve worked with [Cardinals managing partner] Bill DeWitt and others with the Cardinals on all these renovations. This was a major investment by the Cardinals. We have shared resources, like legal support out of St. Louis. Accounting and HR run through St. Louis. Our field renovation will utilize the expertise in St. Louis, where they’ve replaced the field several times. Among our goals — here and in Springfield, Missouri [where the Cardinals’ Double-A team plays] — is to standardize the playing surfaces. The detail we’re putting into the field enhancements should help players excel and get to the major leagues.

Our season-ticket holders will have premium access to Cardinal presales, promotions, and different ticket options [in St. Louis]. We brought down stadium-operations people from St. Louis to share ideas on how we operate. It’s a great relationship.

Will the branding of the ballpark — as a Cardinals stadium — intensify?

You’ll see some things over the coming years, but we don’t want to become too Cardinal-centric. We want the identity to be the Memphis Redbirds. This is a great brand here. We don’t want AutoZone Park to be a mini-Busch Stadium. We want it to have its own feel and identity, and done a way that’s right for Memphis. Minor-league baseball has such a long and rich history here. We’re sensitive to that.

What are your thoughts on the 2015 Redbirds (and Cardinals, for that matter)?

I’ve been so consumed with the construction project, that I don’t know a whole lot. But I’m excited. A great thing about being a baseball fan: when the season starts, everybody has a chance. I really like the Cardinals’ chances though. The competition in the National League Central is going to be fun. The Cubs being upgraded will renew that rivalry. The Pirates have shown the last couple of years what they can be. And the Brewers were in first place most of last season. It’s gonna be fun.

Did you play baseball as a kid?

I did, through high school. I was the utility guy. I was never good enough to play one position, but never bad enough that I couldn’t play any position. I went to the ballpark with a bag full of gloves: catcher’s mitt, first-baseman’s mitt, outfielder’s glove. I knew my career was nearing its end when I couldn’t stay in one position long enough to really make an impact. But I played on a traveling team — the Waterloo A’s — before traveling teams really existed. I bet we played 100 games every summer.

Who was your favorite player?

Probably Ozzie Smith. [Hall of Fame manager] Whitey Herzog was a real close friend of my grandfather. They fished together every day. They played baseball together as kids.

The Redbirds will host an exhibition game with the Cardinals on April 3rd, by which time all renovations should be complete. The stadium’s lone red chair — the “Pujols Seat” — will remain, a solitary fixture in the new rightfield berm.

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