Baseball Executive Vern Stenman Redefining Success Through Renovation

[Photo by Nicole Bell]
[Photo by Nicole Bell]

This article appeared in the April issue of Athletic Business. Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.

Vern Stenman has been in baseball administration half his life, and he's only 38. As a 19-year-old intern with the St. Cloud River Bats of the summer collegiate Northwoods League, he did everything from washing laundry to writing press releases — and even designed a Bat Mobile bullpen car out of a golf cart and semi tractor parts. Today, Stenman serves as president and managing partner of Madison, Wis.-based Big Top Baseball, which operates four of the Northwoods League's 18 franchises, often breathing new life into old ballparks (Big Top was named 2014 Organization of the Year by Ballpark Digest). Last year, Stenman helped champion a multipurpose revival of Madison's Breese Stevens Field, a 90-year-old stadium that under Big Top's management will host everything from music festivals and professional Ultimate matches to farmer's markets and fish fries. AB senior editor Paul Steinbach asked Stenman to touch all of the bases of his business.

How has Big Top Baseball's operational model evolved?
When we started the Madison Mallards, it was all intuition. We looked at the community, we looked at the ballpark and said, "Yeah, this works. Let's go." I was the first employee of the company back in 2001 and have basically built it from the ground up. As we've moved on, we've really gotten very scientific. We have a system that we use to evaluate different types of community businesses and can predict pretty accurately how well we're going to do from an advertising sales perspective and from a ticket sales perspective.

Do your business goals remain the same?
I think it starts with being a good community asset. As cheesy as it sounds, if we're providing something interesting to people, the business part is going to figure itself out. We need to be reflective of the communities that we operate in. Obviously, the business model for us is fun. If we're having fun putting these events together, there's a pretty good chance that the communities that we operate in are going to think the same thing, and they're going to come out.

What about Madison's Breese Stevens Field, which hasn't hosted baseball in decades, piqued your interest?
It was my first day in town, and I was completely lost. I drove by and thought it was the baseball stadium, and so I've been fascinated by that stadium ever since. Over the past two or three years, it has become the center of all the city's new development. There's well over a thousand apartment units being built within a one-block radius. There are great restaurants and bars, with a bunch more coming in the next two or three years to create this interesting, almost Wrigleyville-type feeling. So over the next couple of years, we'll be developing that stadium to add additional restrooms, concessions and VIP areas. And in 2017, we anticipate putting a minor league soccer team there, with the same focus on fun and entertainment that we have with minor league baseball.

Why is this renovation special to you?
The stories of this place that has hosted events since 1925 are so cool — from Satchel Paige pitching here to it once hosting a five-day international rodeo. All kinds of weird things have happened at this place over the years, and if it had been torn down, all of that would have been lost to history. Nobody would have asked about this great stadium that was in downtown Madison. Now, we feel like we'll have an opportunity to tell the history of that place. Even if you had $20 million to build a new stadium with amenities similar to some of these old places, you would never be able to replicate the history and the stories that are there.

How do you measure career satisfaction?
Oh, boy. It depends on the day, right? When we started the team in Madison, the best team in the Northwoods League was drawing maybe 1,700 or 1,800 fans a night. Last year was our 15th year in Madison, and we had our single best average attendance — more than 6,300 fans a night. So it would have been easy to be satisfied once we started drawing 2,000 fans in 2002. But we've always looked at it more as wanting to constantly get a little bit better. That's what's satisfying for us.

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Athletic Business with the title "One On One: Baseball Executive Vern Stenman"

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