Monday, September 08, 2003

Pure Innovators versus
Imitators versus Pimps  

Baseball is like business and government in that it usually rewards those who imitate innovators more than it rewards the innovators themselves.

The economic advantages of building new ballparks seem to accrue to the later arrivals who are attentive to the lessons of the earlier innovators, although in baseball, as in other areas, latecomers can fail, too.

The most recent model for ballparks are the neo-retro looking, viewer-friendly parks. The innovators in this are were Oriole Park at Camden Yards (1992) and Jacobs Field (1994), both designed by HOK Sport of Kansas City.

Oriole Park is not only the model on which the new wave of stadia are designed, but it’s the best of the bunch, as well. It’s a lesson that was hammered home to me last week when I got to go to my first game at the Giants’ new (2000) park in China Basin.

The pure innovation in the Baltimore case was to build something that followed these guidelines:

  • (a)    has superb sight-lines and gave all paying customers fine views but gave the high-paying customers the sense they were sitting right on the field,
  • (b)   restrict the number of seats while putting a good product on the field, creating a gravitational field that makes people buy tickets early, and stimulates season ticket and luxury box sales,
  • (c)   efficient traffic flow to retail buying opportunities that profit the team,
  • (d)   fit into and perhaps enhance the neighborhood in which it was built, and
  • (e)    give an overall visual impression that was evocative of an imagined “golden era” of the past, that is, trigger and harvest the good feelings that come from nostalgia.
  • The Indians followed, but not exactly, the Oriole model. The Indians did a better job in some ways, because their front office succeeded in putting a better product on the field over the years. But they didn’t re-write the plan.

    Successful and Unsuccessful Imitation

    In business and in military affairs, imitators of others’ innovations usually don’t duplicate the original. Sometimes they choose that (the environment is different, or the resources-available are different), sometimes they think they can recreate or exceed the inventor’s success with changes, but usually imitators think they can pimp quality and get all the benefits without investing as much, like the sellers and buyers of “Rolex” watches made by slave labor in Communist China.

    Sometimes they can and sometimes they can’t. Neither Detroit’s nor Milwaukee’s new parks have been a big windfall yet for the teams’ bottom lines because they ignored the good product on the field guideline. Unsuccessful imitation because of pimp behavior.

    But the Giants’ stadium is sold out through the season, even though they trashed the neighborhood guideline and did a half-hearted job at the nostalgia one. The stadium doesn’t look like the rest of the neighborhood and is scaled in a way that looks acceptable from afar and oppressive from nearby. Public transit access is designed well but falls too far short in delivery, and alternatives (parking for buses and passenger cars) are laughable. The Giants basically focused on a couple of the rules (fine sight-lines, good product, retail opportunities) and sort of finessed a couple of others. It didn’t affect their bottom line, though. Ticket prices & sales are both high, scalping is rife (including a scheme where season ticket holders can scalp their tickets and the team harvests service charges off of them) and the retail controlled by the team is cookin'.

    The Giants’ stadium is a bigger money machine for them than Oriole Park is for the Orioles. They embraced the money-enhancing, mall-park ideas, and merely dabbled in the neighborhood and nostalgia issues where the returns are lower and less guaranteed. Successful imitation by the team.

    TIP: In the non-baseball world, imitators may sacrifice some quality and still harvest the top-line gains, but most imitations that ignore the core qualities of innovations & simply parrot something popular will be intrinsically empty and failure-prone.

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