Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner spoke at George Washington University on Friday afternoon as the keynote speaker at a conference for college students hopeful for careers in sports. Lerner, who studied business administration at the school, gave a short speech, seated at a table on the stage of the auditorium of the Media and Public Affairs Building.
He then took questions from the crowd, some of which prompted some interesting, funny and telling responses, and which we share here as an insight peek into the thinking of one of the team’s owners.
A student asked Lerner what expectations he had for the team given their wealth of young, talented players. Lerner, as he has before, cited a goal of consistency like the Atlanta Braves and even the St. Louis Cardinals. “These are teams even in their bad year are competitive and they’re always at least going for a wild card or staying in the race until a week or two until it’s over,” he said at the Sports Industry Networking and Career (SINC) Conference. “That’s where we want to be. You’re not going to win a title every year.”
But Lerner’s most revealing comment were about his father, Ted, the team’s managing principal owner.
“Our goal, and it’ll always be our goal, is patience and building it the right way,” Mark Lerner said. “My father is going to be 87 years old in October. He’s very active in this. He’s the most patient of all of us. Honestly, there’s a couple of things I wanted to do. He says, ‘Nope. We’re going to follow the course.’ And I give him a lot of credit because that’s not an easy thing to do. I want so bad to win a title for him. And [General Manager] Mike Rizzo’s dad as well is in his 80’s, too, and that’s our passion we share together. We want a ring for our dads.”
A student asked if Lerner considered the Nationals a team that adhered to the Moneyball advanced statistical philosophy or an old school, scouting-focused team. He said, in part: “They use the stats and we’ve got a lot of nerds in the office in front of computers and stats all the time but in the end of the day he always makes the decision with the gut and what [Rizzo] feels and not necessarily how the stats show up on a piece of paper.”
And on how involved he is with the team’s personnel decisions, Lerner said the ownership group meets with Rizzo every few weeks. Lerner, a constant presence at games, said he and Rizzo talk regularly, especially about major free agent signings or trades.
“Many of the moves [Rizzo] wants to make we put him through the ringer but we’ve never turned him down on anything he wants to do,” Lerner said. “… And a lot of times, honestly, I find out about a lot of the moves he makes watching on MLBTradeRumors.com. So a lot of the guys we pick up on minor league deals and couple of guys we picked up this week, I find out about just like you do. The big stuff he brings to me.”
Another student asked Lerner about any crossover between his experience in real estate and owning a baseball team, and the team owner noted his love of design and customer service.
“I always sit downstairs,” he said. “I love sitting with the fans. ‘Don’t tell me what’s good, tell me what you’re not happy about.’ … I literally will drive our people crazy. I’ll sit in the stands and see a bulb out in left field and I’ll be texting them and they’re on it immediately. I’m very [nit picky] about our property’s look.”
The students in the crowd were also interested in the marketing aspect of sports and Lerner was asked about the origins of the team’s Natitude and “Take Back The Park” campaigns.
“Our marketing people were working with an agency,” he said. “They sent me a note one day and it said, ‘This is the campaign. It’s Natitude.’ And in about a tenth of a second I said ‘That’s awesome. Do it.’ And that was really the extent of it. Obviously it has taken off and it could be our slogan for many years to come.”
Asked about the league’s revenue sharing model and its effects on teams such as the Miami Marlins, who traded away most of their top major leaguers this winter, Lerner said:
“As far as the Nationals are concerned, we fit into a category where [MLB considers] us in a major market. We’ve taken a big hit for that as far as the amount of revenue sharing that we collect. So it puts a lot more pressure on us to build our revenue streams in other ways. But I think the intent of revenue sharing with the Marlins and everybody else shouldn’t be something that you just put away in the bank and use for other things, it should be to build a franchise. I do agree with that.”