As NFL training camps opened this month, the refrain once again was heard all over the land: Baseball used to be America’s pastime, but football is the nation’s favorite sport.
For all the time and money the commissioner’s office spends on studies and focus groups on how to make baseball more attractive to young fans, someone there ought to talk to a gregarious red-haired guy who did not grow up in America but developed such a love for minor-league ball that he bought a team of his own.
He is the punter for the Seattle Seahawks.
Jon Ryan is making his money playing in the NFL — and investing it in baseball.
He is an owner of the Portland Pickles, a summer team for college players. The Pickles are packing fans into a rickety city park every night, offering fun and pun. The mascot is a green pickle that bills itself as “sort of a big dill.”
Ryan, 35, is in his 10th year with the Seahawks, after two years with the Green Bay Packers and two with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League. He grew up in Saskatchewan, where he played baseball as a kid but preferred lacrosse when he had to choose a spring sport.
Retirement is coming sooner rather than later, and at first he thought about becoming an agent.
He would represent players — baseball players, not football players.
“I’m not going to say I’ll be sick of football, but it’ll be nice to do something different,” he said.
Ryan owns a 10% stake in True Gravity, a Toronto-based agency that represents four major league players. Blake Corosky, the managing partner, said he was surprised during his first visit to Ryan’s home, when the baseball caps displayed were the ones from California League teams.
“I just get in my car and drive up and down the state and go to minor league games,” Ryan told Corosky.
When Ryan played for the Packers, he spent his free time attending minor league games (the Timber Rattlers!) and college summer league games.
He fell in love with baseball, so hard that he bought a condominium near Phoenix Municipal Stadium so he could go to spring training games every day. Then he fell in love with comedian Sarah Colonna.
“Our second weekend of dating, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to spring training with some girlfriends,’ ” Colonna said. “He was like, ‘I literally live at spring training.’ ”
Colonna and Ryan, now married, live in Los Angeles. So does Alan Miller, the founder of Collide, a marketing agency that guides corporations through music and sports promotions.
Ryan and Miller partnered in search of a minor league team. Ryan might have been the face of the investment group, but not along the lines of Magic Johnson investing $50 million into the Dodgers.
“Are you saying we can’t afford a minor league team?” Colonna asked.
“Just barely,” Ryan said.
Even a Class-A team can cost $8 million to $14 million, according to Josh Norris of Baseball America. The total investment for Ryan, Miller and a third partner in buying the Pickles: less than $1 million.
“This was kind of the perfect situation,” Ryan said, “get in there, get our feet wet, learn the ropes, and not lose our home in the process.”
The Pickles are not an official minor league team; college players cannot be paid. But Ryan is running the operation as if it were a minor league team, with all the promotional wackiness that ensues, and the players get the benefit of an active professional athlete as an owner.
When Ryan discovered the players did not have a movie player on their bus, he got them one.
“They can’t watch ‘Bull Durham’ if they don’t have a DVD player,” he said.
He embraces the standard minor league selling points — affordable tickets, cheap food, family entertainment between innings — and proudly notes the Pickles offer 16 microbrews on tap. He also emphasizes how fans can get up close and personal with the players, and not just by walking up to the dugout or passing them along the concourse.
“The players share the same bathrooms with the people that are going there,” he said. The stadium dates back to 1956.
The Pickles have the usual cap and T-shirt and bobblehead giveaways. They also let kids run the bases backwards.
Ryan imported three of his Seahawks teammates for a game, and they all took batting practice and staged a home-run derby. The Pickles also held “Tackle Jon Ryan Night,” where all the kids in attendance could swarm Ryan in the outfield and take him down. They did.
Can’t imagine the Seahawks were too excited by that promotion.
“They weren’t told about it,” Ryan said with an impish grin.
The Pickles open the playoffs Sunday. Win or lose, their season will be over by next Sunday — the day the Seahawks open their exhibition schedule, against the Chargers at StubHub Center.
Ryan will be back at his day job, full time. The future could include Ryan and Miller soliciting partners for bids on teams in the established minor league circuit.
“The next situation, we’ll go look for big checks,” Miller said. “We are obsessed with the crazy, ridiculous nuances of minor league baseball.”
If a kid from Saskatchewan can hit it big in the NFL, he just might be able to do the same in baseball. Put together a winning streak of investments and a winning group of investors, and the purchase of all or part of a major league team might be within reach.
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Ryan said. “That would have to be down the road a little bit.
“Building a baseball empire starts very small.”
You never know. What starts with the Pickles could grow into a really big dill.
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin