SAfter accepting a job at Major League Soccer’s Atlanta United FC five years ago, Catie Griggs was subjected to the sweet hazing ritual the team inflicted on new signings: singing at karaoke night. Naturally, most people would pick their favorite song or something that wasn’t too difficult. Maybe they would even give themselves a chance to get noticed.
But Griggs is different. What song, she calculated at the time, however she sang it, would make people sing so they wouldn’t have to hear it? She opted for “Living on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi. Griggs was not entirely successful, however. “Singing is not one of his strengths,” said Darren Eales, Atlanta club president and former boss. “But she did.”
For Griggs, 40, using strategic analysis even to determine how karaoke night could be modified for maximum benefit is the trait so many of his colleagues and former colleagues point to as the reason for his outsized success. Now, a year into her tenure as president of business operations for the Seattle Mariners and a year away from Seattle’s T-Mobile Park hosting the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, Griggs faces a challenge. Unique: Helping the only MLB team that’s never been to a World Series thrive on and off the court.
The Mariners had some success in baseball, but only a taste. The franchise has hosted Hall of Famers Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez and even won a record 116 games in 2001. Now, though, they might be in for a treat. A combination of exciting young players and little-known veterans has made them one of baseball’s hottest teams, and they’re heading into this week’s MLB All-Star break after winning 14 games in a row. As happy as team owner John Stanton may be pleased with the performance on the field, he is demanding more from the franchise on the revenue side. This includes strengthening ties with businesses in a market that is home to giants like Amazon, Microsoft, Costco and Starbucks.
“We don’t have as extensive a relationship with sponsors as we should,” Stanton said. Forbes. “We’ve underperformed in this area, and we’ve been struggling, frankly, for the past few years to find a good way to be more efficient.”
This is precisely where Griggs comes in.
Bring a new perspective
When asked about Eales’ karaoke recollection, which happened at a Christmas party in 2017, Griggs laughed. She then referred to the “chicken and pig” story popular in business schools to illustrate the price of success. The engagement of the chicken in a plate of bacon and eggs lasts only a few seconds; the dedication of the pig is much greater. “If you want to do it,” says Griggs, “you have to be the pig.”
Raised in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, Griggs’ talent for strategic thinking showed up early. At age 10, she hatched a plan to win a gig promoting Golden Corral restaurants. (The role didn’t involve singing.) All Griggs had to do was smile while enjoying the food. “I passed that audition,” Griggs says, noting that she did the final editing. The fact is that setting up a strategy to localize the images of the advertisement proves to be a challenge. “My whole digital and social team tried,” she says. “Here we go, which is spectacular for everyone.”
Griggs graduated from Dartmouth in 2003 with a degree in international relations and four years later earned an MBA from the college’s Tuck School of Business. A paid internship as a market researcher at the consulting firm Octagon introduced her to the world of sports business. She immediately impressed John Shea, the company’s CEO. He noted Griggs’ talent for taking “complex information and making it easy and digestible”, describing her as intelligent, “confident and competent”.
Griggs joined Turner Sports in 2012. The television network shares an estimated $8 billion media rights deal with CBS Sports for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and needed someone to determine the schedules for network production and logistics. The job also required negotiating media rights and sponsorship deals. This role, she says, provided “an undercover glimpse into how a multibillion-dollar media company comes together.” It also cemented Griggs’ reputation in the business community as someone who can use strategic thinking to figure things out.
Owner of Mariners looking for growth
In August 2021, Griggs became the first female president of the Mariners, making her a member of a very small club of women at the highest levels of baseball management. Caroline O’Connor, chief operating officer of the Miami Marlins, is the only other woman currently in first place. Pam Gardner led the Houston Astros until 2012, and Wendy Selig-Prieb, the daughter of former MLB commissioner Bud Selig, served as president and CEO of the Milwaukee Brewers from 1998 to 2002.
Stanton remembers the strong impression Griggs made during the hiring process. The finalists created one-year, three-year, and five-year plans for the team without financial information. “His strategic acumen kicked in,” says Stanton.
The presentation was “long and intensive,” says Griggs. She said she used Forbes‘ MLB assessment list to estimate profit loss and identify the best sponsors for the club. She described the presentation as “consumer-centric value delivery product creation,” she says. “That’s my sweet spot.”
Stanton says he wasn’t necessarily looking for a candidate with baseball experience. “What we were looking for was someone who represented a fresh perspective,” he said. The people who usually run baseball teams “historically mostly look like me” – an older white man – “and I wanted to broaden the candidates.”
With Griggs at the helm, Stanton, who bought a majority stake in the Mariners from Nintendo in 2016, suggests the franchise can grow significantly with revenue generators like uniform patch advertising sponsors and virtual on-field ads. Asked to predict what improvements the team might make in this decade, Stanton didn’t provide an exact amount. “I think we can be in the top third” of MLB teams, he said.
The Mariners are valued at $1.7 billion, which ranks them 16th in MLB. The club earned $313 million for the 2021 season, according to Forbes The data. This represents an increase from the $129 million in 2020, which was impacted by the pandemic. In 2019, the Mariners earned $315 million and $320 million the previous year. If the team lived up to Stanton’s expectations, it should hit $400 million.
Stanton also wants T-Mobile Park to turn into a premier MLB stadium after committing about $100 million for upgrades. The Mariners will spend $55 million on stadium upgrades, including an upscale seating area that is expected to be ready by the 2023 season. The team will also open a restaurant and bar near the stadium to capture the income from ancillary real estate.
More importantly, Stanton says, the club will need to innovate and create “unforgettable experiences” at Mariners games. “That,” he says, “translates into revenue, and revenue translates into resources that allow us to build championship teams.”
The Jack Nicholson Experiment
Can Catie Griggs revive the Mariners? “Damn no,” Griggs said. “But hopefully Catie Griggs and a great team can do it.”
Stanton is confident. “Catie turned Atlanta into a football city,” he says.
During his time with United FC – an expansion franchise in 2017 – the club topped the league with an average of more than 40,000 fans per game, according to Soccer Stadium Digest, a website that tracks MLS. The team won the MLS Cup in 2018, which accelerated fan interest. The challenge was to boost ticket revenue when the team, owned by billionaire Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, moved into the billion-dollar Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The strategy: create premium Griggs tickets labeled the “Jack Nicholson” experience. The concept mimics the NBA court seats, where Nicholson prowled for years. In the soccer version, the $1,000 seats are located on the field and include wait service. In Atlanta, says Griggs, “people have style and like to be visible.” In Seattle, she says, “it’s about finding those places that are no different from the Nicholson seats. … How can we really be disciplined to understand the different people who make up the market? »
Jack Nicholson seats are still selling steadily and generating significant revenue for the Atlanta club, according to Eales, who did not reveal financial details. Much of MLS club revenue comes from attendance and Forbes According to the latest estimates, the Atlanta team made $78 million in revenue in 2018. That’s about $47 million in 2017.
Griggs’ ticketing strategy “won over a Euro-skeptic”, says Eales, a Briton who didn’t think seats would initially sell out.
Today, Griggs’ premium seating plan is one of the positive legacies of his time in Atlanta. As long as no one mentions the karaoke challenge. “I blocked that out of my mind,” Eales jokes. “I think most people did.”