The only thing that ultimately matters in sports, they say, is: “Scoreboard.” By that measure, Andy Appleby has led a remarkable comeback for the instructional-league baseball company he runs in Michigan called the United Shore Professional Baseball League. In the process, he has demonstrated how CEOs of companies in even the most dire of predicaments can turn strikeouts into home runs.
On Memorial Day weekend, Appleby was thoroughly enjoying opening day at Jimmy John’s Field in Utica, Michigan, in suburban Detroit. While the Utica Unicorns were nipping the Birmingham-Bloomfield Beavers, 5-4, on the field, Appleby was scurrying around the stadium, gladhanding season-ticket holders and corporate sponsors and attending to dozens of details that would launch the league’s post-pandemic season in the best way possible.
“I always look at the positives,” Appleby told Chief Executive, “and for me, this feels as if it’s a whole new opening of the ballpark. Very few people get the chance to open a ballpark twice.”
Five years ago, the long-time sports executive and owner spent millions of dollars to build and open the stadium aside Highway M-59 in suburban Detroit, as a complete family-entertainment venue, also launching an on-the-field operation that feeds players to Major League Baseball’s minor-league franchises and, sometimes, to “the bigs.”
Local fans got excited and would fill the 4,500-capacity stadium on weekends to watch four teams of hopeful ex-college and other players strive to make an impression on scouts, while entertainment around the game included live music, giveaways at the gate, a kids’ Astroturf wiffle-ball field, and fireworks every Friday. There were magicians plying their trade in the stands and hundreds of advertising messages from dozens of commercial sponsors plastering the stadium, the tickets, the programs and more.
But when Covid hit last year and crushed group entertainment, the blow to the USPBL was huge, slashing the length of the season and limiting Jimmy John’s Field to just a sprinkling of a few dozen, socially distanced fans, who couldn’t be offered a lot of the extras that made a game a holistically entertaining experience.
“Our revenues were down 70 to 80 percent last year,” said Appleby, sitting in the administrative offices of his holding company, General Sports and Entertainment, in Rochester Hills, Michigan. “It was super-challenging.”
But if there’s one thing Appleby—a former state high-school wrestling champion in Massachusetts and a long-time top executive with the Detroit Pistons of the National Basketball Association—can do, it’s stay off his back. So while the USPBL tried to hang on through the pandemic, Appleby used the setback to experiment with changes that could make the operation better during a hoped-for recovery.
For instance, to keep the league’s legions of local fans engaged amid pandemic fears and the absence of the full physical experience at the stadium, Appleby decided to “dramatically upgrade the production of our TV broadcast” that was available online, he said.
“With only 100 people coming to games, necessity was the mother of invention,” Appleby said. “Here we were sitting with millions of dollars of partnerships. How could we add value for our partners? Buying the equipment was very expensive. But we decided to go to four cameras for the game broadcasts, instead of one, and to hire a talented commentator for the broadcast.
“We were able to average more than 16,000 viewers a game, very surprisingly. What that meant is that we were able to capture a lot of the sponsors’ signage in the park—just think about what you see with a fly ball to center field. We used creativity to give them a lot of value. As a result, we were able not only to save all of our partnerships but also to derive enough revenue from that to essentially break even.”
If Appleby had to select one person to endorse how USPBL has gotten through the last year and a half, it would be Mat Ishbia, CEO of United Wholesale Mortgage, the league’s original and still largest sponsor under a 10-year deal. In fact, the official name of Appleby’s operation is “USPBL powered by United Wholesale Mortgage.”
And Ishbia remains on board. “I love what he’s doing there,” Ishbia told Chief Executive. “It’s a great, family-friendly environment, and he’s fantastic at the client experience.”
At the same time, even though success in 2021 isn’t exactly a done deal yet, Appleby already is looking forward to replicating the USPBL model elsewhere. He wants to create a true league of similar instructional operations around the Midwest and potentially beyond.
“We’re talking with two or three communities,” Appleby said. “We move at a faster pace than most city councils or mayors. We’ve been frustrated in the past because it can be a challenge to get these deals done. We’re hoping to make progress in the next couple of years.”