Phix the Phils

It was announced this week that former Channel 6 WPVI sportscaster Scott Palmer had been brought on board by the Phillies to help the organization with its image. After giving Mr. Palmer a few days to settle in, I can’t help but offer some observations from the cheap seats.

The Phillies current woes don’t start with the years and years of losing. The Phils had lost for years before the ’93 team. And in that year of blue snow, the team was lovingly, whole-heartedly embraced. No, the Phillies image problems are rooted in three main issues–the Bowa regime, a failure of the corporate communications process within the Phillies organization at all levels, and a structural change in the home crowd created by the design of the seating and pricing at the new ballbark.

[b]Mismanaging the Manager[/b]

The Phils allowed manager Larry Bowa to attack the players publicly, not only for performance, but for personality and character. The organization also, and probably more damagingly, did nothing to control the lovely little locker room digs that Bowa used to undermine the players with the press and the fans. This became clear only after Bowa had left. Once the guy who was willing to feed them only on his own terms was not longer in charge, reporters made it clear that the atmosphere was dramatically different under Manuel. And they fessed up that Bowa had been lawyering with the press against his team.

Fans, of course, had no way to know this. They were being fed a steady diet of stories and blind quotes that questioned the players’ character. They assumed the reporters, a fan’s only access, agreed. And certainly columnists piled on. The players had no way to defend themselves, since they were aware, as we were not, where it was coming from. And standing up for themselves only dug them deeper holes with Bowa and his media tools. Is it any surprise they hated playing for the guy? This wasn’t your typical tough guy coach. This wasn’t someone who demanded the best of them, while upholding his end of the bargain with the team. This was a petty, mean-spirited, little man who took the glory and never the blame. 

And the Phillies organization’s willingness to accept that behavior from the manager and unwillingness to stand up for its important assets, the players, has left a legacy of ill will toward the players by the fans that is largely undeserved, but difficult now to disperse. Years of campaigning with lies and half truths would take a concerted and carefully crafted campaign to overcome. And nothing in advertising, marketing, or PR seems to be particularly well-designed to turn the tide of public opinion. 

The other Bowa factor was in the way the Phils mishandled the Bowa firing and Manuel hiring. Bowa should have been fired much sooner, but the organization seemed to be terrified of taking a PR hit, even though it was taking a PR hit daily from the guy himself. Once the decision was made, the biggest mistake was to try to make believe Charlie Manuel was not the plan all along. By pretending there was a broad search, and putting Jim Leland on the map, the Phillies organization put itself in a lose/lose position. Everyone and their cat knew Manuel was a manager in waiting, if his health was stable. Taking a little heat, while standing up for a decision made some time before, would have won some grudging respect under the complaints. But lying about it lost the respect of pretty much everyone, even those who thought Manuel was the right choice. And it made the Phillies brain trust  look like it didn’t have the courage of its own convictions at the same time it looked foolishly, transparently duplicitous. If management thought Charlie was the right guy, just hire him and aggressively sell the story.

[b]Mismanaging the Message[/b]

As a bequest of the Bowa regime, the team was left without a single player that had a strong public image. Thome, who could have had a great deal of residual goodwill, lost a lot because of his relationship with Manuel, as a result of the clumsy handling of the hiring. Pretty much every other player on the roster had been undercut by Bowa and had disappeared from the public radar. Unless a fan attended a Caravan event, the players were invisible. And considering the fallout, who could blame the players for keeping low profiles?  

But that’s what a strong PR department can help with. I’ve respected Larry Shenk for years. And Phils marketing used to be an asset. But somewhere, there are links broken and they need to be fixed. The current players need to become the focus of advertising, marketing, community relations, and public relations. The organization has gotten so used to selling the experience, it no longer has any idea how to sell the product–even now that it has a good one. 

Who’s involved in the community? How? I remember when Terry Mulholland took it upon himself to assure that Philadelphia could afford to open public pools in the city. Curt Schilling became such a voice for ALS that he’s taken that cause with him to Arizona and Boston. Who’s doing something like that on the current team? Anyone? Surely there are guys who are doing something other than signing at the Phillies Wives events! But if there are, the spotlight outside the Phils website isn’t being focused on them and their commitment.  

The Phils needed to find a way from spring training on to train and support the players in selling themselves and this team to the fans without it seeming like they were whining about the old regime. It’s a walk on a knife’s edge, but a few of those guys are capable of doing it if the education process had been handled early and well. 

This team is full of good, personable, articulate guys. And yet, those who’ve spoken out this year have blown it. The players themselves have dreadful cases of foot in mouth (you never blame the fans, ever). Their reaction to adversity (and this year’s definition of adversity is so much less severe than what they, and we, have lived through over the past decade) is to blame the fans or the media and go into hiding. Not the best tactic.  

I adore Kenny Lofton as a player, but I can’t understand how a guy can be as successful as he has been for as long as he has been and have no idea what’s coming out of his mouth!  

David Bell came into the Houston series after finally putting together a string of productive games. He could have had the fans eating out of his hand. Instead Bell started the key series of the year with an error and followed up by looking as clueless at the plate as he had before his little hot streak. Then Bell all but closed the series with the error that led to the sweep. Billy Wagner, who had loads of public support early, especially when he was willing to publicly call out the team for not knowing how to win (which was needed!), blew it by criticizing the fans for booing David Bell after Wagner himself blew two saves in two days in a series the team had to win!. What? Were fans supposed to give Bell a HUG? You’re telling me no one in that dugout wanted to smack him upside the head? 

Now, the only guy who consistently makes himself available on camera any more is a platoon player/pinch hitter who’s been arrested for punching a cop. This is not the guy you want carrying the flag for you with the press! (Surely a plea agreement could have been reached at the time with him admitting, apologizing, and doing some community service. Instead, it’s being dragged out from rescheduling to rescheduling and making Michaels look like a wretched perp who’ll do anything to avoid taking responsibility for his own actions.)

With Burrell having a productive year, he could have been more visible. What better way to rehabilitate his image than to highlight how productive he can be when allowed to be. Isn’t there a way for him to communicate his relief and pride without it coming across as bitter? I think so. But he hasn’t even been shown to try. In fact, the team has seemed to be afraid he’ll hit a cold streak even more than the fans are. The Phils don’t want to touch this guy, when they should be crowing about how the organization’s patience has paid off. 

Abreu was an All-Star, but he’s all but invisible. Do his occasional brain cramps irk? Of course. But every player has plusses and minuses. Everyone, even the Phils announcers, now, seem to concentrate on his imperfections. Use the personable, attractive, productive Bob Kelly Abreu in an ad, maybe explaining where he got that name in Venezuela. (Oh, and maybe get him some Ritalin, too.)

Even Chase Utley, who’s wildly popular, is a cypher (although, perhaps he’s wildly popular because he never speaks). 

How long has the end of this lineup been a black hole? How is it no one knows that Lieberthal and Bell are hitting? Wouldn’t an ad showing these guys hitting and trumpeting how things have changed bring some much-needed reassessment from those watching?

Finally, the Phils have professional messengers on air every night. They’re wasted trying to be cutesy and homey, when they could be beating the drum for this team. And no, that doesn’t mean telling me what great kids they are, especially when there’s nothing backing it up

[b]Mismanaging the Ballpark[/b]

I’ve figured out what’s wrong with Phillies fans. They think of a season as a series of one-game seasons. There’s no concept of 162 games. If a guy is a goat in one game, he’s a goat forever. For example, if Burrell goes 0-fer on Saturday against the Marlins, it doesn’t matter that he had 8 RBI in the other two games, he sucks! Part of the reason for my annoyance at being at ballgames any more is having to sit next to idiots who think like that. My second favorites are those who call the game with their hearts and not their eyes so that from the upper deck they know what all the ball and strike calls should have been. 

Part of the lack of perspective is that season ticket holders can’t really afford to go to all the games any more. Let’s face it, at the Vet a season ticket holder between the bases paid at most $20 per seat. Now, similar seats at the Cit go for anywhere from $40 to $90. Most people are at least splitting with another person or group, and most are splitting the season up 4-8 ways.  

I also remember advising the Phils not to make the seats behind the plate premium. I’d seen at even the old Tiger Stadium, and later at PNC Park, how those seats, when made club seats, would be filled with people who weren’t watching the game, didn’t react to the game, arrived late, and left early. It’s bad for the stadium experience for everyone, because there isn’t that core of diehards leading the fan reaction. 

At the Cit, most of the noncorporate folks have been pushed from between the bases to out along the lines. So you don’t have that core of people behind the plate and the dugouts who used to be there consistently and had perspective. Back when I was there every night in the 90s, folks behind the plate (and later behind the on deck circle) included some of the same people every night, or every other night. So they had a better idea of who had been playing well or poorly over the season. And they had an emotional connection with the team.  

That just isn’t true of most people at the ballpark any more. A lot of people are there to see the new building or are simply out for an evening. They don’t follow the team on television. They don’t know what’s going on. So they react negatively because their experience on their one night they dropped anywhere from $80-160 on tix for a group of four was spoiled. That’s what you get when you build up, and make people pay up.

Another issue has to be concessions. I know it is possible to get a grilled hotdog placed on a fresh non-wet bun and served fresh even at a busy ballpark. I’ve had them all over North America. The dog in Wrigley, which isn’t built with all the modern conveniences, happens to be such a dog. Why, when the Cit is loaded with grills, are all the dogs wrapped and held in steam trays so the buns are mushy and any grilled texture or flavor is long gone before the customer buys them? 

[b]Managing the Message[/b]

The Phillies don’t need an image consultant. The Phillies need a strong corporate communications manager with experience managing crisis communications. They need someone to create a communications plan for every level of the organization and see that it is carried out.  

Everyone needs to know the message and stay on it from the owners–who must become at least identifiable, if not highly visible–to the team’s management–in uniform and not–to the players, to the ushers, to the concessionaires.  

Advertising needs to focus on the players who are playing well, the players who have personality, and the players who look good. Even in baseball, in those stupid uniforms that make even the buffest guy look like a doofus in his PJs, sex sells. And be sure the ads are fresh. The season lasts 162 games, six months, and runs through many story lines. Don’t tie the message throughout the season down to what the ad folks thought would happen before the season even began. 

Marketing needs to focus on what the fans want and want to see.

  • Make all giveaways for all the fans. If the New York Mets can get this right, surely the Phillies can.
  • Find a way to package infield tickets to get fans into them. The transient corporate visitor doesn’t add to the ballpark experience for anyone—players, crowds, listeners, or viewers.

The game-day experience can be improved.

  • Enough of the stupid sound effects. They’re not cool. Any kid who’s played a video game knows they’re not. Let the game speak for itself during the innings.
  • Update the between inning music. Hire someone who’s been to a club since 2001. (Last year’s opening montage with Evanescence was brilliant. This year’s is completely forgettable.)
  • I know the players pick their tunes. But someone needs to explain to them what the tunes are for and provide some guidance (or at least have veto power). The current list is snooze inducing, not inspiring.
  • Make the stats highlights more timely. Don’t preprocess them so early and run static boring stuff out. And don’t wait until the last at bat to update the fans on what I guy has done. Unless you catch the screen at just the right moment, you’ll miss what a player did in an earlier at bat. It should be up there every time a hitter steps to the plate. And if you can sprinkle it with a little situational statistical analysis (like batting average with men in scoring position, or batting average late and tight) so much the better. Maybe if the fans know a player is usually good in a situation, they’ll be less likely to boo when he doesn’t come through.

And please, fix the on-air team. There is no chemistry between anyone and Scott Graham. The entire tri-state area hears Harry winding down and is terrified we’ll be stuck with Graham’s colorless play-by-play for the next 20 years. Listen to a tape of 10 home run calls and tell me you can tell the difference between any of them. There is no way to know the situation or impact. You may as well have an audio board and be pressing labeled buttons for all the juice he has. 

While you’re fixing them, the shout outs to sick people, old people, birthday people, or people who’s friends are at the ballpark (ooooh) are just brutal. Who can listen to that? And make Chris Wheeler stop giggling. When he doesn’t giggle, and isn’t talking about what a great guy some wife beater is, you realize he may just know his baseball stuff. 

Tell stories about the guys on the field. Their backgrounds, their lives, their community service, their interests, their families. Don’t waste time on stupid inside jokes that no one who isn’t part of their little club understands or finds the slightest bit amusing.  

Tell the truth about the game as it is played. When the guy messes up, don’t pretend he didn’t (thank you Larry Anderson). But when the guys are hot, or consistent, or on a hot streak, be sure that’s getting as much attention as the 100-year-olds’ birthdays. (Hint: It’s more important.) 

It will take planning, education, commitment, and constant adjustment, but the Phillies can be rehabilitated. At least until the fans realize the minor league cupboard is bare and this is all there will be for a very long time.

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