New president's heart is in the game
Longtime fan Silverman has undying love for national pastime
ST. PETERSBURG -- Long before Matt Silverman dared to dream about running a Major League team, the Dallas native was a fan.
"I watched every Chicago Cubs game I could on WGN, and many of those games were during the day, back when Wrigley didn't have lights," said Silverman, the 29-year-old Devil Rays team president. "And then I would watch as many Texas Rangers games as I could at night and would visit old Arlington Stadium and then it was the Ballpark at Arlington and now Ameriquest Field."
Established during those moments watching the national pastime was an unyielding love of baseball. Even today, as Silverman goes about the business of running a baseball team, he can lean back in his seat inside the executive offices at Tropicana Field and remember halcyon days of baseball games past and those special moments at the ballpark.
"I have so many great memories from childhood about baseball and the ballpark experience," Silverman said. "I'm not that far removed from a lot of those memories; a lot of them are still very vivid."
Like the promotional night at a Rangers game when kids received a baseball glove as a giveaway.
"That plastic glove probably cost $1.50, but it was the most special item to me," Silverman said.
What happened next made the moment even more special. Rangers players lined up along the foul line to autograph the kids' gloves. Little-known right-hander Edwin Correa signed Silverman's.
"Most people probably don't even know who he was," Silverman said. "But that, to me, was a prized possession. It's memories like that, where something that seems small or insignificant to some really has an impact on kids and their love of the game. And that's the kind of excitement and energy we want to bring to Tropicana Field, and we want families, our patrons' kids, to walk about with the feeling that they want to come back for more."
After graduating from St. Mark's (High) School of Texas, he attended Harvard, where he earned a bachelor's degree in economics before going to work in Goldman Sachs' Merchant Banking Division and Firmwide Strategy Group in New York. During his time with Goldman Sachs, he was assigned to work on acquisitions with Stuart Sternberg.
Despite their 15-year age difference, a bond was formed immediately.
"I walked over to his office for our introductory meeting, and we just started talking baseball," Silverman said. "Our entire first conversation was about baseball and not about the business at hand."
Sternberg eventually headed a group that purchased 48 percent of the Devil Rays for $65 million in May 2004.
"During our investigation, which lasted almost two years, we learned a lot about the organization, a lot about how baseball conducts itself and a lot about the Tampa Bay region," Silverman said. "That's what really attracted us to this opportunity: the vibrancy of the area, its growth potential and its love for baseball."
Silverman's professionalism was put to the test during the group's investigation phase. The little boy with the Edwin Correa autographed glove still lived in his heart, but lodged between his ears was a sound business mind. Heart and mind don't always walk hand in hand.
"You have to approach it like an investment in any other corporation, to understand the industry metrics," Silverman said. "You need to have an outlook or projection of where the industry can go."
Would the final determination about whether to venture into Major League Baseball come down to a tug of war between Silverman's heart and his mind? Fortunately, the findings yielded data to satisfy both factions.
"The demographics were pointing in the right direction," Silverman said. "Not only in the overall growth of the region -- which is growing north, it's growing east, it's growing south, and if it could grow west, it would, except we have a large body of water to the west -- but also in the declining average age. There are more families moving to this area, and there's more economic activity here. And we think that Florida, especially the west coast of Florida, will be a great growth area in years to come as the migration patterns continue from the North to the South, to the sun and water. It's a great place to live."
Once the transaction closed, Silverman began showing up at Tropicana Field to observe the operation and study other Major League organizations. And when Sternberg's group took over the Rays after the 2005 season, Silverman was announced as team president.
"Matt not only brings direct knowledge of the franchise, but also energy and a business-focused approach that will guide this franchise into a new era," Sternberg said.
Silverman believes many of the business practices of other industries can be used to run a baseball team.
"A large part of our business is a customer-service business and an entertainment business," Silverman said. "We have a great venue at which we entertain 81 times a year, and a big focus of our operation is how to make that experience meaningful and memorable for our fans."
The Rays already have given their fans free parking, reduced ticket prices and a green light to bring selected food items into the park.
"We were allowed to bring in limited food to the ballpark [when I was a kid in Dallas]," Silverman said. "I remember packing sandwiches before heading out to the ballgame and eating the sandwiches in the bleachers."
Indeed, a love of the game lives within Silverman, but he won't compromise on the bottom line.
"At the end of the day, this is a business," Silverman said. "It needs to be run like a business. But our staff all shares a great love for sports. They're very passionate for the team, and I think that helps us in our approach to the organization. We know, as fans of the game and of the team, what will work for our customers, and we can apply that knowledge to our offerings and make it a better offering for everyone at Tampa Bay. But at the end of the day, it's a business and it needs to be run like a business. We need to have sound policies. We need to be fiscally responsible, just like you would in any other business."