A Breath of Fresh Air
Sports administrators come in all shapes and sizes. All stripes and colors. And all levels of ability and integrity.
In my 40-plus years in the industry, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with more than 100 league commissioners, university athletic directors, NCAA executives, and team presidents.
In the old days, athletic administrators were primarily ex-coaches and PR types. However, as the games have morphed into big businesses, the profile has changed. Now we have former CEOs and CFOs along with marketing gurus, lawyers, salesmen and broadcasting executives.
There are those who clearly are in over their head. Those who care only about winning and profits—academics and player welfare be damned. Those who never met a microphone they didn’t like, whose only loyalty is to their own ambition and reputation.
Fortunately, there are also many men and women in sports administration with integrity. People who cultivate and build strong relationships, identify and develop young talent, innovate, exercise good judgment, and take their programs to new heights.
It’s quite a mixed bag. Which can make negotiating a contract, scheduling a game, or hiring a coach quite an adventure.
In this rather muddled and somewhat unsavory landscape, the Bay Area is fortunate to have one of the rising stars in the business.
Dave Kaval, the President of the Oakland A’s, is a real breath of fresh air.
Kaval was previously the President of the San Jose Earthquakes, but don’t let that fool you. He’s a baseball guy.
After graduating from college, Dave toured all 30 major league ballparks in the summer of 1998. He also visited the Louisville Slugger Factory, the Baseball Hall of Fame, and slept on the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa.
At Stanford Business School, his project for an “Evaluating Entrepreneurial Opportunities” class led to the creation of the Golden Baseball League, an independent minor league that he created from scratch. He raised the capital, signed the players, recruited corporate sponsors, and turned a profit.
He also learned a lot about innovative marketing. One of his teams celebrated “Michael Vick Animal Awareness Night.” Another had a seventh inning “cash drop,” where a crop duster dropped piles of $20 bills onto the crowd.
When a team in Mexico fell through at the last minute, Dave came up with the idea of a Japanese traveling team that would play all road games. Just before opening day, as the team prepared to come to America, they were denied entry by Homeland Security.
No problem. Dave called one of his old Stanford professors to ask for help. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice obliged, and the team arrived in time for the first pitch.
That kind of resourcefulness also served Kaval well at the Earthquakes, where he presided over the opening of the new Avaya Stadium, the team’s $1 million privately financed facility, and a franchise that was successful both on the field and at the box office.
And it will be a requirement in Oakland, where he faces the dual challenges of building a new ballpark and regaining the trust of a fan base weary of watching star players exit through an endless revolving door.
In his first 18 months on the job, he’s already scored points for his efforts to build community, accessibility and transparency, and to honor the team’s rich history.
After being named president, Dave established regular office hours and held town halls. One day, when 140 people showed up at his office, he held court with his visitors until 1:00 a.m.
He created a “Rooted in Oakland” campaign that delivered a strong message: unlike the Raiders and Warriors, the A’s aren’t going anywhere. He also renamed the diamond at the Coliseum “Rickey Henderson Field”, installed a “Holy Toledo” sign on the outfield wall to recognize iconic broadcaster Bill King, and hired A’s legends Rickey Henderson, Dennis Eckersley and Rollie Fingers as advisors.
The A’s recently celebrated their 50th Anniversary in Oakland with a free game that attracted over 48,000 fans. And it paid off. The next series with the Boston Red Sox, the team drew over 25,000 paying customers for all three games.
Despite all the good vibes, Dave knows he will ultimately be judged on whether or not he is able to build a new stadium, and whether the team holds onto its young stars. The two are inextricably linked, as the new park will hopefully provide the funds needed to sign players like Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, and Sean Manaea to long term deals.
After the team’s preferred site at Laney College was sand-bagged by the Peralta Community College District Board, the A’s switched their focus to two other alternatives—the current Coliseum footprint or a waterfront venue at Howard Terminal near Jack London Square.
Whichever site ultimately wins out, Dave envisions a “ballpark district” complete with housing, bars, nightlife, restaurants, small businesses and destination retail. This is the new model in baseball, as teams transform into multi-faceted businesses to maximize revenue streams and create a 365-days-a-year cash flow.
It’s an ambitious plan. One that will not come to fruition without hurdles, hiccups and headaches.
But I wouldn’t bet against Dave Kaval.