Jason Freier – Chairman & CEO, Hardball Capital

Jason Freier serves as chairman and chief executive officer of Hardball Capital, a sports and entertainment-related investment and operating company. As such, he is the managing owner of the Fort Wayne TinCaps, Columbia Fireflies, and Chattanooga Lookouts. Hardball also has investments in several other sports-related businesses and has consulted for multiple teams and cities regarding new ballpark design, construction, and financing.

Jason is an attorney by training, a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, where he was elected to the Yale Law Journal. He clerked for former Solicitor General Charles Fried and practiced at Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C. and Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore in Atlanta.

Jason is a member of the Young President’s Organization (YPO) and Leadership Atlanta (Class of 2007) and serves on the boards of several companies, three baseball leagues, and two public commissions.

How did the concept for Hardball Capital come about?
Prior to starting Hardball Capital, I was a practicing attorney. Some of my representations were of owners and potential owners of major sports teams (MLB, NFL, NBA). As a part of one of these representations, I had the opportunity to get a look at Minor League Baseball. I quickly realized that Minor League Baseball was a great product. It offered inexpensive, family friendly entertainment, as well as opportunities for business people, young professionals, and college students to gather in a social setting.

From a sports perspective, it had the advantages of sports from yesteryear—every seat in the house was a good seat, kids could get up close to the players and get autographs, run the bases after games, and have an intimacy that is nearly impossible in today’s major sporting events. From a societal perspective, the teams were very involved in their communities and filled a real need in markets that did not have major league sports or some of the other forms of entertainment or social gatherings that one sees in the larger markets.

As I looked deeper into the business of Minor League Baseball, I saw that things had progressed from where games were played, which was a little more than glorified high school fields, to Minor League facilities that are built as nice as their Major League counterparts, just on a smaller scale. It occurred to me that if all you had was a baseball field and some bleachers, it made sense to host more than just baseball games there. Once you had these much-improved venues, it was a huge missed opportunity to not use these venues far more than the 70 nights per year that team had a home game. I also saw that, in several instances, new ballparks being built spurred significant real estate development and re-gentrification of underdeveloped areas, and this was happening with little advance planning of the development—it just happened.

So, I thought that there was an opportunity for Minor League Baseball to be even better and even more of an asset to the communities in which they were located by purposefully designing the ballparks so that they could host a wider variety of events, and by planning in advance not just the ballpark, but also some of the development around it. I decided that I wanted to put together the capital and purchase a Minor League team and put these theories to the test.

How was the first year in business?
Busy. When I first began thinking about this, I wasn’t sure if this could become my full-time focus or if it would be a side investment while I continued to practice law. So, I still had a full-time job while I was looking for a team to purchase. I looked for more than two years before finding the right team at the right price. To purchase an affiliated Minor League Baseball team, especially your first one, is a long and complicated process. You need to be approved by the league in which the team plays, by Minor League Baseball, and by the Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, and each takes steps to assess the potential owners’ finances, expertise, and character. While we were going through that process (after we had contracted to purchase our first team), a second team in an attractive market and at a good price came to my attention. Having taken two years to find one good deal, I knew how rare those were and also knew that I would regret not doing the second deal if I let that go. So we set about raising more funding and decided to purchase two teams at once. In a short time, we went from zero teams to two and it was the proverbial drinking from a fire hose.

What was your marketing strategy?
Our marketing strategy has always been to focus on building lasting relationships in our communities. Minor League Baseball is a very local business. The vast majority of your ticket purchasers live within thirty minutes of home plate. While that is in some ways limiting, it is also focusing and disciplining. Everything we do is designed to benefit our community. While we do need some traditional advertising—television, digital, print, outdoor, and radio—to let people know when our games and events are, what promotions we are running or other entertainment we are providing, most of our marketing is actually through getting involved in our community. Every person on our staff must be involved in at least two (most are involved in many more) community organizations. We have a reading program that serves tens of thousands of kids in community schools. We invite one charity or non-profit to be featured at every home game we play (free of charge) to highlight all the good things that organization does in the community. We host numerous free events—from Christmas tree lightings, to Halloween Fright Night, to an Independence Day “Patriotic Pops” concert. All of these things help make our team, our venue, and our people part of the fabric of our community, which is the best marketing we can possibly do.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Quickly. In addition to finding and purchasing a second team while still in the process of closing on our first, we also had the opportunity, much sooner than we had expected, to put our new ballpark concepts to the test. We had a tremendously forward-thinking mayor in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Shortly after we purchased that team, we laid out our vision for how a ballpark, which was really a multi-use outdoor entertainment venue, could catalyze development in an underutilized portion of Fort Wayne’s downtown. He understood the concept immediately and believed there was no time like the present. So, less than two years after purchasing our first team (and while revamping the operations of the other team we owned), we were also planning a new ballpark and associated mixed-use development. When Parkview Field opened in 2009, we saw an instant (for more than 10 years) jump in attendance, both for baseball games and for all of the non-baseball events we hosted. We more than tripled the size of our full-time staff and quadrupled the number of part-time and seasonal employees. Despite opening a ballpark in the teeth of the worst recession in nearly 100 years, the concept was so powerful that the development portion also went well. In addition to a growing venue, we have also seen hundreds of millions of dollars worth of development around the ballpark.

As a result of the success of Parkview Field in Fort Wayne, and the numerous awards and recognition that came with success, we have added a third, then a fourth team to our group, built a second stadium (Segra Park) for another of our teams (in Columbia, South Carolina), and also became involved in assisting other cities and teams in replicating that success with ballpark projects of their own.

How do you define success?
For us, success is making a positive impact in the communities where our teams are located. As I mentioned earlier, Minor League Baseball is an intensely-local business. If we can become involved in and benefit our communities, everything else will take care of itself.

What is the key to success?
It is important to have good structures and processes, but in the end, the key to success is having the right people. Our people have fun with what they are doing and want to be valuable to our partners and our community. Subject-matter expertise is a distant second. We want people who have a great attitude, work-ethic, and the desire to be involved in their local communities.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
To keep working and not to be content simply because you have achieved what others think of as success. Many of my friends and family thought I was crazy to move away from a successful law practice to run Minor League Baseball teams in cities I had spent little time in prior to our purchases. For the first year or two after leaving the law and dedicating myself to this business, my parents kept asking me when I was going to get a job. But most days I wasn’t looking forward to my work day as a lawyer, and now I get to work at ballparks. I wake up every day and enjoy what I do and the people I do it with. It has made an enormous difference in my happiness.

What are some of your favorite books?
Not exactly books, but I draw inspiration from the annual reports Warren Buffett produces for Berkshire Hathaway, as well as the writings of his partner, Charlie Munger. Buffett is focused on doing what he thinks makes sense regardless of what others think. He has reasons for his decisions and shares those. When things don’t work out, he doesn’t gloss over or sugarcoat it, he owns it and learns from it, and Munger is such an advocate for interdisciplinary, lifelong learning.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Probably my toughest day with our business was when we had to commit to moving a team we had owned for eight years in Savannah, Georgia to Columbia, South Carolina (where we built Segra Park as part of a much larger, mixed-use development).

Our team in Savannah had been playing in an old ballpark—nearly 90 years old when we left. That ballpark had operational and safety issues and was not suited to hosting seventy games per year, much less all of the other events we would have loved to be able to provide. We worked hard to try to explain to the City of Savannah what a new entertainment venue could do for that town—and Savannah is a great town. We even flew the entire City Council and several other key stakeholders in the community (at our expense) up to our ballpark in Fort Wayne, so they could see for themselves the impact that project was having on Fort Wayne’s downtown. They heard from the mayor of Fort Wayne, City Council members, and business leaders, and all said that the project was the best thing to happen to Fort Wayne in decades. We returned from that trip optimistic, but years later, we still hadn’t made any progress in Savannah. The local leaders there just couldn’t get anything moving (and this wasn’t just the case with our project, it was endemic of the city government at that time across several dimensions). We wanted so badly not to leave Savannah without a team that we even found another team we could purchase and move to Columbia, and we gave the Savannah City Council one last chance to show us they were willing to work together, but we were not successful and ultimately were left with no choice other than to leave.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I believe in what we are doing. I believe that we provide great entertainment at a very fair price and that we make people happy. I believe that our ballparks have helped revitalize struggling areas in cities and changed the landscape and trajectory of those markets for the better. And I believe that our people are constantly making a difference, both in our venues and out in our communities. That provides the motivation for myself and our entire team to work through and past any obstacles.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
You can never research or learn too much. Gather data in a purposeful way and have good reasons for every decision you make. I think it helped us be ready to operate our businesses that we looked at deals for more than two years before we purchased our first team. I believe that the reason our first ballpark was so successful is that we visited over 70 Minor League ballparks prior to designing our first. We visited them to learn, not just to watch games and eat hot dogs. We came with questions and we tried to understand what was and was not working for every owner or operator whose ballpark we visited. We still try and visit most of the new ballparks that are built and engage in idea-sharing and bench-marking with other teams. Most days, I also spend more of my day reading and learning than doing anything else.