11_Business Lessons from Baseball with JJ Cooper

Hosted by Quint Studer with special guest JJ Cooper

What happens when two baseball lovers get together? They talk about how to run a better business! This week Quint talks to JJ Cooper, the executive editor of Baseball America. This is THE information source for baseball lovers. It covers baseball at every level and is currently published in the form of a bi-weekly newspaper, five annual reference book titles, a weekly podcast, and a website.

This has been a tough year for baseball, and many of the things they normally cover were canceled. JJ talks about how Baseball America has become adept at managing change and how 2020 forced them to get even better.

JJ has a lot to teach business owners through the lessons he has learned in his position. He talks about what it was like to navigate the transitioning of the magazine to new owners, what it took to merge the two cultures, and the importance of transparent communication in his journey.

He also discusses the role of culture and process in baseball and how it really defines an organization. The same is true inside a company. He talks about how easy it is to do long term damage to your culture, tearing down in five minutes what took five years to build. The culture of caring is so prevalent in great organizations. Many of the people who work in baseball are incredibly passionate, often working long hours. As long as they know the people at the top value their work and care about them, they will do virtually anything.

JJ’s take on how Baseball America stayed strong during COVID and the baseball shutdown was especially interesting. It’s a subscriber-based business and the product it focused on was gone. Yet they continued to deliver a good product and traded on their strong sense of community. In fact, in some cases loyal fans would donate a subscription to someone who could no longer afford it. When you stay true to what you do well, you can weather almost anything.

Quint Studer 1:40
Well, JJ, it’s great to have you on The Busy Leader’s Handbook Podcast. I’ve been a big fan of yours for a long time, because I’m sort of a baseball nut. But for those of you that aren’t aware of it, I’m just sharing the history of baseball America, because it’s a fascinating history.

JJ Cooper 1:55
It’s amazing. To me, this is far before I ever came to baseball America. But so you rewind to the late 70s. And alan simpson is the baseball nut in northwest Canada. And he kind of has reached the point where he realizes that he just didn’t see a whole lot of paths for him to have a career in baseball, he wanted a career in baseball. But he didn’t have a really a way to get to the States, and work in the states and baseball. And there just weren’t many opportunities in northwest Canada to work in baseball in a significant way. And utter credit to him. He was crazy, but in a great way, which was he decided with the support of his wife who was just as crazy as him that he would start a baseball magazine that would cover baseball differently. This is the point where the Sporting News had been the Bible of baseball, but the Sporting News was kind of moving away from being a baseball focus and covering the minors and all to being much more of a general sports magazine, covering all sports, basketball, football, college, football, all these different things. He wanted to do a magazine that covered baseball from a player developer spective, college baseball, the draft, minor league baseball covering prospects, all those aspects that had always kind of been this almost secret world going on behind the scenes. So he started doing a magazine in his garage, which not with the technology we have now. So it was a very much an uphill climb. But he managed to make it work. And the thing that stumped out very quickly was this not only was an untapped market that needed to be filled, but also it would not have worked if not for the fact he got some buy in very quickly from Tracy Ringolsby who was a National Baseball beat writer who kind of connected Alan with his network of beat writers around the country. So Allen very quickly had a network of correspondents that could provide credible information. But the other thing is he got by and very quickly from major league teams. There were all these people in these major league teams, scouts, minor league coaches and all who had kind of operated utterly in the background before and now they had this magazine that was paying attention to them. And really kind of put the key in the lock and opened up the door to all these great stories, all these things that were going on. And very quickly, Alan showed you can cover the draft in baseball just like you did in other sports. Alan showed with the correspondence and all that you can cover and tell who are going to be the minor league prospects were going to turn into major league stars down the road, something that had been very hit or miss all that before. And because of that idea, I mean we now live in a world where Where the idea of just covering baseball at the point where they reach the Major Leagues seems kind of, you know, old fashioned and backwards. But we have gotten to that. Maybe someone else would have done it if Allen didn’t come along. But because alan simpson came along, and because he had that idea to do baseball America in 1981, it created the foundation of what is now a significant part of the baseball media industry.

Quint Studer 5:26
I will tell you one of my favorite when I get my baseball America, the first thing I do is go to each team and read the minor league reports. Because that’s, that’s always been what I’ve done. so fascinating. So one of the things that happens is, it happened to you, but it’s also because you’ve been with baseball America since when jj

JJ Cooper 5:43
2002. So 2000, September of 2002. So I’m coming up on I’ve done 18 years now. And I think

Quint Studer 5:49
what happens with any industry, there’s, there’s transitions, because new ownership, ownership comes in. I’ve been involved where your hospital ends up being part of a system, or you get blocked by this, you know, I sometimes joke The only person making money is the signmaker. There’s so many transitions, sometimes in businesses, how many different just out of curiosity, because I know baseball, America’s in different ownership groups. In your 18 years, how many different ownership groups have you had?

JJ Cooper 6:18
One, two, so we’re on our third ownership group in my time, so Alan had to sell it to Miles Wolf, who owns the Durham bulls, you know, the founder of the Northern League, you know, independent baseball miles is one of the key. The key people in baseball, I would say over the last 50 years.

Quint Studer 6:41

We wouldn’t have baseball in Pensacola if it wasn’t for Miles Wolf.
yeah, and all these new partner leagues wouldn’t probably exist if they weren’t for Miles.

JJ Cooper 6:46
And we wouldn’t have baseball America now like by Alan realized Alan was still in Canada, and Alan realized that he needed more capitalization, more funding that he can provide. But it also needed help. And by miles buying the magazine that allowed Alan to come into the states and work, you know, in the States, and he lived, you know, that’s why we’re, we’re based out of Durham, North Carolina. But then miles sold it, there was a group, a private group of like four owners who owned it, when I came to baseball America, then they sold it to a magazine group that that owned it for a while, and then they sold it to a group now we have kind of a multi ownership group that involves some people who are, you know, Gary green, Larry botel, and others who are involved in minor league baseball, but also we have additional owners as well. But it kind of an ownership group, that that’s what we’ve been operating on for about the last I guess, half decade, you know, five, five years, I think worth about four or five?

Quint Studer 7:44
Let me ask you a question. Because you’ve survived that because you know, one of the things that happens with ownership change is, there’s people don’t make it, they don’t transition well to the new ownership, sometimes they make the decision to exit. Lots of times the new ownership group makes it so for anyone who’s in a leadership position, like yourself, and you get new owners, sir, anything you would recommend on how to handle the transition when you you go through some of those transitions, but also in your companies owned by somebody else?

JJ Cooper 8:12
They’re tough. I mean, there they are. And they are something where, if everyone does it well, on both sides, it’s still going to be tough. I think, and my perspective on this, I was not executive editor, when when the new ownership group came in, I was managing editor by what an executive editor, but there were some tough times with that, you know, whenever a new group comes in, they’re going to make changes, I think that that’s something that you can generally expect that there’s going to be changes made. And if you’re a new group coming in, if you are acquiring a group, you know, or a business or whatever, I think there also has to be an understanding on that side, that everyone who’s been there, everyone who’s part of this product, this business, that in some way you feel is, is doing something, right, because that’s why you acquired them. They’re all feeling trepidation when the new group comes in, because it is an understandably, to me, it is a period of uncertainty. If everyone is acting, you know, in the with the best intentions, and being as transparent as possible, there’s still going to be those friction points. There’s still going to be that trepidation whenever there’s a new group comes in, and but also, when a new group buys a business, and you know, I’ve been at you know, before this at places where you know, Rizal transitions and goals what, to me, well, they are things that stands out is you have to expect if you’re someone who’s been there, you have to expect that there are going to be changes that happen. And some of those May be great, some of those are going to be very hard. And, and with that it’s something where, again, this is just my personal experience. But it’s something where one of the key things to me about that is, is you have to have an open mind to accept that changes are going to happen. But at the same time, hopefully, it’s a situation where there’s enough transparent communication, where there may be proposed changes that, you know, that someone who’s been there a while may say, you know, I don’t think that this is a good idea.

JJ Cooper 10:36
it can’t be if if you want to have a relationship where you can spell that out, and here’s why. And, and, and that’s where there’s going to be the the tricky parts of the transition. And again, the other part of it is it’s going to be difficult is that they’re likely, you know, there’s generally going to be, you know, I there are going to be people who are no longer part of your group who were there before, who are not going to be there anymore. And I don’t have a great answer for that, because it’s something where that’s going to be hard for everyone involved. And, you know, but at the same time, you hope that everyone acts in a way that that basically leaves, there’s going to be difficulty, there’s going to be frustration, all that but let’s try all to do it in a way where we can say at the end of the day that everyone comes out of this thing, okay, but they were everyone was dealt with fairly, and you hope that everyone can come out of that saying that they were dealt with honestly, and again, that’s the things to me, you want to be as transparent as you can be. And again, that’s the key word, there’s cam, because you can’t be completely and utterly transparent these things.

Quint Studer 11:43
I think, JJ, you know, we used to study people that were successful, the heath brothers in their book on change talks about studying the people that have pulled it off, because that’s what you can learn from for somebody, I bet you you have lots of things that you did that you didn’t even realize you did that if somebody studied you, that allowed you to kindle this transition, like you said, openness, enough self confidence, where you could at least point out things and like you say, my, when I own my own company, I’m a student group, I had a fellow that worked for me, he was really great, because he’d say, Now Quint we will do it the way you want. But before we go there, let me bring up just a few of my concerns and get in such a way that I listened to him better, just the way he presented it. So I’m sure that there’s many things that you’ve done, just to survive and thrive in three ownership groups. And stay in the same company is really quite, quite remarkable. So let’s talk about leadership. You see unbelievably great leaders. I mean, you see, when you’re in baseball, you see, you see such a spectrum, you go from one extreme to the other extreme, with financial wealth of leaders, you look at people that are sitting there running the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers, and then you get somebody, you know, with a small little team somewhere and you’ve seen a lot of different leaders using agents. What are some of the common characteristics you’ve seen in the leaders that you find that been most successful?

JJ Cooper 13:11
There’s all the talking baseball, there’s always talk about culture. Yeah, you hear a lot about the key is, is that we have a good culture you hear about culture and process so much in baseball, and process, I think, is something we hear a lot more about now. But culture to me does come down to you see a great baseball manager, you see a great GM president, you know, a, you know, agency, take your pick. It does involve you want. If you are working a probably in baseball, you know, 80 hours a week at times, and you’re, you know, 720 17 steps from the top of the ladder. You want to have that belief that understanding that the people at the top not only value what you’re doing, but also are looking at the culture of baseball should and often can be something where there really is a belief that I’m working for Team x, and team x is going to take care of me and I’ll take care of team x. You know, I’m not going to name a team because I don’t want to pick one out. But we’ve seen in the past year, there are teams who have damaged their culture for the long term, because they made short term decisions that are going to basically sever that kind of that cooperative agreement. That is always the unwritten agreement that’s been there. If you have teams that are that are laying off for furloughing massive amounts of their staff, you know, for the entire summer, while other teams in just the same financial straits have continued to pay their coaches who their minor league coaches their staff who are making who aren’t making 2 million who are making 4050 60,000, who, by doing so are ensuring that they made it through a very difficult year? Well, you have one culture that’s basically growing out of this, and the bonds are tighter. And you have another culture, that I think it’s going to take years for them to get back to where they were before. Because once you have one negative reinforcement like that, I think that it’s something that can cause long term ramifications. And so when you say like, what do you see, one of the things you see is, is that there are teams out there, where the first step they did when the COVID pandemic hit, and the shutdown season happened is the top of the, you know, of the of the org chart took pretty significant pay cuts. And by doing so, basically spared the people at the very bottom of the org chart some of that financial pain. And by doing so, that helps strengthen culture. But if you have a situation that goes the other way, I think it really can damage culture for the long term,

Quint Studer 16:09
I have found in my work that it takes years and years to build culture, and it can get dismantled. So, so quickly, it’s amazing. And I think that’s, I know, we’re talking about leadership in general, JJ, but I think that’s always been one of the struggles I’ve seen viewing baseball coming from private, different industries. No, john, Jim Collins, in his work on what makes a great company, so that it takes 10 to 12 years to create a great consistent culture. Yet in baseball, I think they’re so short, they don’t have to give it many years. If somebody doesn’t real quick. They use they’re used to moving and I think part of its promotion. So think baseball has some different realms. Now. I think in operationalize, though, you know, you want to keep your rosters you want to keep your food service people, you want to keep your people like consistency, they’re like the same people. So let’s talk I know you’re talking a little bit about transparency, terrorist characteristics, um, you know, I, again, we, we, I can almost tell JJ, which organizations I think are better than others, because all the scouts come through. And literally, you can almost talk to the scouts. And you can sort of tell that scout who just feels they love scouting, but you can also tell the person that loves scouting for the organization they’re scouting for, they almost give you their business card, they tell you a column, if you ever need anything, they, they can just you can just feel it. So I think you can usually tell the culture when you talk to the like you say the person 17 steps from the top are things like that. So we’re going to sort of talk about, I think we combine these last two as we wrap up, you know, I teach people and I say, you know, if you want to the if you look at my wife and I were involved in four industries, we own baseball, which didn’t have a season, we own retail shops, which people couldn’t come in. We own event space where people couldn’t have events, we own commercial real estate where people didn’t want to pay lease running. So I said, this is not the year to be in any of those four elements. And tell us a little bit about a person who covers a product. I mean, you literally cover a product that normally I mean, just think about it. Normally all the stuff you were doing, your product just got taken away. So you didn’t lay off, you kept relevant. I think more people are tuning into your Twitter and turning into your social media. I mean, I don’t know if you look at us if it’s more or less. But tell us a little bit about how does somebody who covers a product called baseball on the product doesn’t exist, say relevant without them playing games.

JJ Cooper 18:55
It’s been a crazy year that way I that was something that I remember, it’s pretty easy to kind of flashback to March when we came to the realization in about a week’s time that we went from college baseball season that was going on. We were a couple of weeks away from the start of the minor league season, spring training was wrapping up or a couple weeks away from the major league season. We were working on our major league preview, finishing it up for the magazine. And in the span of a week, we realized there’s literally high schools stop, there’s no baseball going on anywhere in the country. And that was definitely kind of you take a minute you Gulp for a minute and go okay, how is this going to go? And you know, we talked about culture. But the other thing I’ll say like that I think is very important except like this is this is kind of community also. And the thing that has been so important this year, but also been very encouraging is there was not a whole lot of baseball this year. That’s absolutely true. We did have Major League Baseball come back but we didn’t have a college season and we didn’t have minor league baseball. Well, many of the things that we cover. But one of the things we tried to thank people all along, we are a subscriber based publication. You know, our website is a lot of the content is behind a paywall. And it’s been that way since 2001. So we’re not going for mass audience, I would love mass audience. But that’s not our goal. Our goal is not to write, here’s the 10, craziest things you saw yesterday, that you know, are going to hopefully get a lot of clicks and go viral. We’re trying to cater to a smaller group of really diehard baseball people inside the industry and thing on the outside. And what’s been great about this is that group has stuck with us through this. And what’s great about that is is that that’s what’s allowed us to do what we do. On the editorial side, we’re you know, we basically, we haven’t had to lay anyone off or anything like that this year, because we’ve, we’ve continued covering what’s going on. And there’s been a lot going on on the news side on the business side, especially at the minor league level, what’s going to happen the minor leagues for 2021 and beyond. But on top of that, I mean, and we keep saying it, we keep trying to reinforce the messages, thank you subscribers, because this is a, they’re part of this, like, it’s not something where we’re on one side of a wall, and there’s on the other side. And so we provide a service, you come pick it up, and you go away. We’re trying to have a conversation. There are long time baseball, America readers, who I’m talking to on a regular basis, whether it’s by Twitter or by other means that we’re just carrying on a conversation. And they’re as much a part of this in many ways as I am, I may have been there 18 years, there are people who I’m conversing with who they were subscribing to baseball, America long before I came there, they’re more of a stakeholder in some ways, I would say that I am. They’re more of a stakeholder, anyone there are. They’re part of baseball America. And so we want to keep reinforcing that idea that Thank you, we would not get to do what we do without you. And that the parallels between that and a lot of industries, obviously are very similar. But like, when I think about we cover minor league baseball, but that’s what minor league baseball has done this year, it’s been a brutal year, when you are a sport, that your revenue is largely derived from the 70, or whatever dates that you get to have people come through the ballpark come to the ballpark, that’s when you don’t have that season. It’s a brutal year. But what we have seen this year that teams have done and this is what they’ve been really good about doing is is is that you have to have that connection to your community, you have to be a part of that community where, okay, 70 times last year, we you came out to us. But now that we can’t come out to you, you can’t come out to us, we’re going to figure out ways to come out to you and to do things to make a difference in this very brutal year. And then next year, we hope to be open again. And then you come back to us well, we’re trying to do the same thing at baseball America, we are trying to make it clear. It’s not just that we’re providing content, we’re trying to do that as best we can. But we’re also trying to be this community where understand when you click that button that says I’m going to subscribe to baseball America for the next year and pay a decent bit of money. We thank people for doing that. You’re doing this partly because you’re going to get content in return. But you’re also doing this because you feel that what we’re doing is important. And then by doing that you are funding. You are basically a patron that allows us to do what you and we feel like is important.

Quint Studer 23:44
I think JJ as we ramp up the other thing you’ve obviously done is know how to develop relationships because you and a few others truly seem to have your pulse on what’s going on. You know people are on staff would say quite what’s going on and minor league baseball or baseball nights. Well, why don’t you just go on and follow JJ Cooper because that’s how I figure out what’s going on most of the time. And there’s some others that you follow. So to your credit, you have built up a trustworthy relationship. And the one thing you’ve said to me last week, as preparing for this is, you know, you don’t sit here and put stuff up there unless you know it’s there. You’re not out to project and you’re very cautious on making sure what you report is accurate. But obviously you’ve built up a lot of trust for people in the baseball world because you know, you have a lot of information you’re like the the air traffic controller of baseball information right now. So congratulations to you. So as we wrap up, I know this is a very busy time for you with what’s going on. Um, but you did something that’s really cool. And for our listeners, and I think there’s a lot of listeners that are not, let’s say baseball people but would really like to be involved in what you’re trying to do. And as you said there are many, many people in baseball that have lost their Jobs been furloughed? hundreds, hundreds, have been furloughed. And, and you’re offering people to donate subscriptions, that then you will give to some of the unemployed people in baseball, to allow them to stay connected and feel committed. So tell us a little bit about that. And for people that are listening, that would like to donate a subscription, how they can go about and do that,

JJ Cooper 25:22
or so this is I want to give credit, a friend of mine that I went to college with Christie Rivero, who has, you know, worked in sports media, like I have for more years than we would like to admit, at this point, how about let’s put it that way. But, you know, she’s gone through, you know, she’s had times where she’s had up times, and down times and sports media world, like a whole lot of us have. And she reached out and she said, You know what, I’ve had you know, I’ve in this rough year, I can, I’m glad I can do this this year, if I could donate a subscription to someone who could use it, could you help make that happen? I’m like, Yeah, that’s a great idea. You know what I’m gonna do the same. And so we were, we were really thinking, we’re just going to it, I would love to say that I had this grand idea, but it really was, it’s like I sent her like, Hey, I’m gonna tweet this out on Twitter. And we’ll pick two people, you know, who’ve had a rough year that we can basically gift a baseball America subscription to for the next year. And that was the intent. Like, I would love to say that we had some grand design beyond that. But it’s like, this is something we can do a little something, stop, you know, massive, but a little something we can do. And what was really encouraging is, since then, we had very quickly people respond and say, I’d like to donate a subscription to Could I donate to. And there was a time This came this idea, I think came up on Tuesday. And there was a time on Tuesday, where I’m trying to create a spreadsheet, here’s the people who’ve donated. And we’ve also publicized if you’ve had a rough year, if you’ve had your hours cut, if you’ve lost your job, if you are you know if your income is such that you cannot you’d like a baseball America description, but you can’t afford it. Reach out my didn’t by, you know, by direct messages on Twitter or open to receive these. And there was a time on Tuesday, where the number of donations was exceeding I was getting the donation for coming in quicker, then the people coming and saying I would like a subscription. You know, here’s why. Which is great. You know, and so we’re now up to I don’t have the final exact number in front of you right now. But roughly somewhere above 40 subscriptions that we’re going to donate or we give as gift subscriptions to people. And unfortunate like you said it’s been a rough year, there are a lot of people in baseball, who either are their income in 2020 was way less than expected, or they don’t have the job that they had when this year started. That’s important to stay connected

Quint Studer 27:54
because for your view on what is the subscriptions at $83 and

JJ Cooper 28:00
$83.88 for a year subscription. And so, right now we are you know, I’m hoping to distribute the ones we have, it’s going to be my project after I get done with work tonight, which I’m looking forward to that’s gonna be a fun project. And again, it’s been an encouraging project, because we’ve had so many people who really do want to help. And if you know, it is something where I think we’re gonna keep this going, I’m just going to become a Christian. But if someone hears this, and they, hey, I would like to, you know, either on either end of the spectrum, if it’s someone who, you know what I’ve had a rough year, and that would be great. Or if it’s on the other spectrum is like I can do that I can help I’d love to donate. There are a couple ways to do it. The easiest way is I’m I I’ve been kind of keeping track of this on Twitter, my Twitter handle is JJ coop JJ Coop 36 the number three, six. But also, I’m JJ Cooper at baseball america.com. And, you know, I either way, I’ve just kind of I’m a conduit on this, this is something where it’s not something I’m doing, it’s something people are doing. And I’m happy to, you know, basically kind of be the middleman that connects generous donors with people who could use it. And so it’s it’s become already bigger than anything expected. And I it was a fun conversation talking to my friend who she was the one who had the first idea. And to tell her like you just thought you were gonna donate a subscription. And now you’re gonna you’ve basically started something that at least 40 people are going to have subscriptions because of what you did. And so it’s been a very, it’s been a very busy week so far this week, but it’s been a very encouraging part of that week to be able to see again what you know, people do that not not me do that. But it’s very much been people reach out and do that to help others. JJ.

Quint Studer 29:52
I you know, I understand why you’re so successful. I mean, I talked to a lot of leaders all I that’s all I’ve done my whole life. I right leaders, you have every characteristics of a good leader, give credit away, develop people. Think about your product, create relationships, you understand transparency, understand openness, you understand change. And I think you are a trusted adviser. And that’s where I find the most valuable people are as when they become trusted advisors and your trusted advisor to many, many people in baseball. So I just like to thank you, JJ, for executive editor of Baseball America for taking time in a very, very busy time to be with us today. And we’re looking forward to getting those subscriptions up for the people. So thank you for allowing us to be there. So thank you, JJ, Cooper.

JJ Cooper 30:40
Thank you. And I don’t know how to respond to that. Because that guy is not me. I want to make something clear baseball America, you know, going back to Allen, who I hope will be talking about getting a Hall of Fame, Spink award, you know, going into the Hall of Fame before long, you know being honored by the baseball baseball thing. It’s, you know, there are people who’ve been there long before me there are people who are doing things now baseball or one of the fun things that has been to see is it’s it’s easy to try to hold on to everything. But it’s fun to get to the point and realize we have people on the staff doing what I did, and they do it better than I can and I can’t match what they do want it and that’s great. That’s something where it took a little while to get to that point of realizing it’s like, oh, you have way better contacts in this part of the field that I do. I’m gonna have to hand that off to you because you can do it better than I could ever imagine doing it. That’s what you want to do as a company and it is not me. It is a whole lot of people who do a lot of great work and work really hard.

Quint Studer 31:43
Thank you. You know, um, for those of you who Nicole Webb Bodie is does these with me and she does the intro. You’ve heard her. And I get to see her as our guest starts speaking. And I can almost gauge the guest on how many times she nods her head, how many times she smiles. And I go tell you when we’re done with this, she’s gonna call me or actually she’s next door to me. She’s gonna come in and say how much he enjoyed listening to this podcast. So JJ Cooper, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

JJ Cooper 32:13
Thank you, Quint.