Scott Walker’s official title is general manager of the State College Spikes, the local minor league baseball team. But for the self-professed sports fanatic — he’s also a fantasy football champion, championship ring included — “ringleader” may be a more appropriate term.
“I’ll sleep in September,” he said. “The season is so short, you’ve got to go 100 percent the whole time.”
Walker, a Bellefonte graduate, took over the position from Jason Dambach before last season. In his first full year as general manager, Walker, 31, has seen monkeys riding border collies, tacos preparing for a downtown stroll and human cannonballs shuttle through his place of business. Furthermore, he was instrumental in bringing each of them to Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
If Major League Baseball is the Taylor Swift of professional sports, Minor League Baseball is the small-town indie band that relies on originality and gumption to get by. A big name isn’t enough to advertise and get fans out to the ballpark. And at the short-season single-A level, there are few, if any, big names to go around.
So Walker’s job involves getting creative. Even if it means you need to introduce “cowboy monkey rodeo” to the local vernacular.
“That was my favorite moment from last season,” Walker said, laughing. “We had our largest crowd in the history of the franchise. It was August 15: Cowboy monkey rodeo.”
Eventually, it was standing room only.
But before the fans can leap from their seats, they have to occupy them first. That’s where Walker and his team come in — scrappy, inventive and tireless. Kind of like the team on the field.
“The great thing with us is that we’re almost a minor league system in and of our self on our staffing side,” he said. “... We run this ballpark 365 days a year. There’s just always something going on here.”
Q: Can you describe your role as GM?
A: Everything outside of the lines is controlled by the Spikes, so filling the seats, ticket sales, all season, all year, sponsorship sales, marketing, sales, all the creative stuff we do. We run the business of the State College Spikes and we work hand-in-hand with the St. Louis Cardinals on the baseball operations, such things as setting up all the host families or hotel accommodations, busing players on the road. But as far as the actual baseball on the field and scouting and who’s hitting where in the lineup, that’s all controlled by St. Louis and (manager Johnny Rodriguez) and his staff.
Q: At a little more than the one-year mark into your tenure, how would you assess where you are now?
A: It’s a lot of fun, a lot of work, a lot of added responsibility. I’m still doing what I’ve always done, which is sales. It’s a lot of responsibility, but I love it. And I get to come to this beautiful place every day and work.
Q: Being GM involves not only managing numbers but people and different personalities. How do you navigate that dichotomy?
A: I adapt, try to treat everybody equally but treat everybody in the way I feel they respond best to. Not everybody reacts the same way to the same things.
Q: Being in the sports and entertainment industry, how does your work environment differ from other workplaces?
A: No. 1, you kind of realize you’re in the limelight a little, and people see you every day. People know who you are when you work with the minor league club, because we work with probably thousands of organizations that do outings at the ballpark or spend advertising dollars here or hold nonprofit functions.
For example, this morning I met with a fellow who wants to use the ballpark to film a commercial. Anything is possible. We usually try to accommodate everybody. Our philosophy is to start at “yes” and work our way backward from there. So if someone says, “Hey can we do this?,” we never say no. We try to figure out a way to get it done, and if it makes sense, at the end of the day we usually say yes and get it done.
Q: In your position, what’s the strangest or most unique pitch you’ve got during your tenure?
A: (laughs) Well, cowboy monkey rodeo was one. It was either five or six years ago, David Wells, who was manager of promotions at the time, kind of came back to me and J.D. — Jason Dambach, who was the general manager at the time — and Dave came back and said, “Hey guys, I think we should do cowboy monkey rodeo,” and we said, “What is that all about?”
At first, we thought he was crazy, and then we looked at it a bit and thought it could work. I think (Dave) saw it at the Patriots-Broncos game at halftime, and I think he saw it and put two and two together that it would be an interesting attraction. And he was right.
Q: Being a local kid, what’s it like to work here for the minor league baseball team?
A: It’s amazing. Whenever I was in college (at Lock Haven University), I was watching this place being built. And I was working for Penn State at the time, so I would always drive by here and I’d see it being built and I’d kept saying to myself and actually to my boss at Penn State at the time, “I really want to work there someday.” I grew up playing baseball.
Q: So like you referenced before, being GM brings another slew of responsibilities. If the team is struggling on the field and maybe you think this player could be moved in or this player could be used here, is that ever a challenge for you sitting in the GM’s chair?
A: No, because the season is so short it’s tough for the fans to really get to know a player who is becoming a superstar. For example, we just lost two pitchers. One, Ronnie Williams, who is a top prospect in the Cardinals organization, he just got called up ... It’s tough losing two of your top pitchers because one, you look at your record and you have the best record in the league, and two, you’re thinking you’re going to make the playoffs and have a couple extra games here, which is a lot of fun for us. So I watch that stuff, but it’s not something that we control or have a say in, so we just do the best we can with the other stuff: promotions, food specials, creative things, trying to figure out what people want.
Q: Where would you assess the team this season?
A: The team on the field is playing amazing. We have the best record in the league. I feel like every series they play, they win ... You can see the camaraderie among the guys; the coaching staff really has them playing well. And then as far as the business operations standpoint goes, we’re trying to get as many people in here as we can. It’s a lot more fun when it’s packed in here, so that means advanced sales are No. 1. It’s an advanced sales industry. You can’t rely on the day of the game because it could rain or anything could happen. So we’re constantly in here.
We get the question a lot, “What do you guys do all year?” We sell tickets and advertising all year long because say you don’t know when a bank is budgeting for next year: If you don’t talk to a bank during their budgeting time, you’re probably not going to get money from them for another year at least, so you’ve got to really be in tune with the local business community to make sure we fill this place on a year-round basis.
Q: You became GM right after the team won the New York-Penn League title. Is that easier to step into the role coming off a very successful season, or is it added pressure in filling those shoes?
A: I think it’s a little bit of both. I’ve been here since 2008, and it was awesome winning the championship, but then you have to kind of capitalize on it. So promotionally it was easy because it was a natural fit. All the giveaways we do we could tailor around our championship.
Q: With “Moneyball” and advanced analytics becoming more prevalent in sports and the popular consciousness surrounding them, does that play a role at all in your job?
A: Yeah, but from a business standpoint. It’s all about strength in numbers. So you can almost apply it directly to what we do. We try to make as many points of contact with folks in the community as we can, so we can get them out to the games. So if someone is coming to three games, we want them to come to six.
Q: In order to make that jump from three to six games, what do you find is most effective?
A: Upselling, package sales, group sales. It’s all about advanced packaged sales.
Q: Where would you rate where sales are now compared to last year?
A: Even. I wish they were up. But they’re even now, which is fine. There are always setbacks. We lost a couple of our annual suite licenses upstairs, and that always hurts. But we try to bring in new folks to replace them. Times change, people change, situations change. So it’s all about strength in numbers: The more people you reach, the more people are going to come to the games.
Q: What kind of digital marketing do you do?
A: Retargeting, geo-targeting. So if someone is local, we try to get the word out to them through different means. With retargeting, so if somebody checks out our website, they get online next time and our ad gets in their cookies, and then our ad will pop up on their Facebook page even ... That’s the way the world’s going, everybody is doing everything on their phone nowadays.
Honestly, we’ve shifted a lot of our marketing budget. More than 30 percent of our total marketing is now spent digitally.
Q: Five years ago, were those numbers similar?
A: No, five years ago? Under 10 (percent). I wouldn’t be surprised if we were 50-50 next year.
Q: With the condensed, intense nature of the season, what’s that like for you?
A: I love it. I feed off of it. I feel like I was wired for this industry. I don’t think I’ll want to do anything else.
Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy