Game for Competition

After graduating from the University of Oregon with a double major in business and journalism, Holly Jones '07 snagged an internship with the NBA and moved to New York City. Twenty months later, she took a yearlong position in New York with a sports marketing firm. The next rung on her career ladder was at JetBlue airline, where she won Travel and Leisure's award for Best Use of a Social Media Platform during her first year.

"I was getting fairly well established," she states. "I had an apartment in the Upper East Side near Central Park. I had proved to myself that I could make it in New York."

But during those four years in the Big Apple, Jones made important discoveries about herself and her goals. "My experience with big corporations taught me what I don't want from a career," she explains. "There's so much red tape that it takes forever to get anything done. And it would have been at least five years before I was a decision-maker." Not fast enough.

"I wanted to put my ideas into action, see how they performed, and adjust on the fly." She also wanted her own washer and dryer. "I got tired of a tiny apartment and public laundromats!"

About this time, baseball team owner John McLean was looking for someone to build his startup West Coast League (WCL) baseball team in Victoria, British Columbia. He'd heard about Jones from Dan Segel, president of the WLC Corvallis Knights, for whom Jones, while still a student at the UO, had served as assistant general manager. McLean gave her a call, they clicked, and she headed west to Victoria.

Jones likes to joke that when she took the job, she already had three strikes against her. She was young, female, and she had never played baseball. Still, her experience in Corvallis and New York provided solid preparation. She knows the business and is as fiercely competitive as anyone who ever faced a fastball.

"In August 2012 it was just me in my little office—basically the press box at Royal Athletic Park," Jones says. The Victoria team didn't have a name, much less a coaching or game day staff, players, a mascot, a marketing or ticketing infrastructure, business partners, or even a color scheme. Jones had until June 2013 to put an organization in place and field a team ready to compete in the WCL, a 10-team, wood-bat summer league where top college players hone their skills against elite competition and are seen by major league scouts.

With opening day looming, "We didn't have the luxury of a slow incline," Jones says. "We had to accelerate every aspect of our team—hiring, training, and planning promotions." A true competitor, Jones also set a goal to drive up attendance and revenue numbers at a faster pace than any WCL team had ever done.

Her role as general manager was more like that of a CEO than an on-field manager; she was responsible for marketing, administration, and setting business strategies for the team. Still, she says, "I was the only general manager with my own baseball card!" The nostalgic card emphasizes the old-fashioned, family-oriented brand of baseball Jones believes the Victoria team offers to its fans.

To generate excitement and a sense of involvement among local baseball lovers, she held contests for those fans to name the team and, after that, the mascot. Hundreds of suggestions poured in. Eventually, the "Victoria HarbourCats" won and Harvey the HarbourCat soon joined the team. Jones began to land sponsors and recruited a coach. The ball club was starting to take shape.

In November 2012, she received a season-changing call. McLean asked her if she was willing to host the 2013 All-Star Game, slated for July 23. "It was risky," she says. "No team had ever hosted in its inaugural season. If we put on a spectacular event, it would put the team on the map. But a poor performance could be a major setback." Such a setback could affect not only the team, but also her career.

"Holly hadn't even hired her staff," McLean recalls. "But when I asked her if she was willing, she said—with a lump in her throat—'Yes, I'd love to.'"

As always, Jones swung for the fences, inviting Major League Baseball scouts and local dignitaries, organizing receptions and a home run derby, planning a fan festival and fireworks show, and lining up an appearance by baseball Hall of Fame manager Pat Gillick.

By the end of spring, the Cats were ready. On June 5 they took the field, beat the Kelowna Falcons 8–6, and broke the league's opening night attendance record with more than 3,200 fans. That "set the standard for the rest of our season," says Jones.

To keep fans happy and coming back, Jones focused on affordable family entertainment. She planned activities that put kids face to face with players. For adults, she brought in a well-known beer partner, high-quality fan gear from New Era and Nike, and a wide variety of foods—from deep-fried sweet potatoes and beets to traditional hot dogs and hamburgers. Her coaching staff delivered a top-notch team. And, as a nod to her alma mater, Jones recruited two UO interns.

Internet play-by-play announcer Ryan Rouillard, a sophomore at Oregon, quickly became known as the Voice of the HarbourCats. The experience and exposure, he says, was "priceless."

Sports marketing student Jake Britt became a ticket strategy analyst, helping sift through demographic data to understand and boost ticket sales. "I would like a profession in sports," says Britt. "So I was encouraged to learn how many opportunities exist off the field."

When July 23 rolled around, Jones' risky decision paid big: The Cats set a new WCL All-Star Game attendance record of 4,210, ripping the hide off the previous record of 2,517 set by the Corvallis Knights in 2011. Seventeen MLB scouts watched from the grandstands.

"The all-star event was a lot to take on," states Jones. "But it gave us legitimacy and showcased our talent."

The HarbourCats closed the season 22–32, the second-best record by an expansion team in its first season. The team also set a league-wide attendance record of 43,000. Jones was named 2013 WCL Executive of the Year—the first woman in league history to win that distinction.

"We are incredibly proud of Holly," McLean beams. "Her commitment and efforts have made our inaugural season a success by any measure."

But having pushed herself hard for six years, she was ready for some time off; she left the HarbourCats for a "short sabbatical."

"And now that I know how much I can accomplish," she says, "I look forward to finding my next big challenge."

—By Scottie Barnes