Saturday, during the Houston Astros Fan Fest celebration, President of Business Operations Reid Ryan sat down to discuss the club's successful 2015 season and the changes that can be looked forward to in 2016.
Ryan, the oldest son of local beef magnate Nolan Ryan, assumed command over the Astros business operations in 2013. He helped oversee dramatic changes to the organization while supporting owner Jim Crane and General Manager Jeff Luhnow's vision for a sustainable on-field product.
In discussing this past season during which the Astros reached the playoffs for the first time in a decade, Ryan recalled with a smile how fans approached him early in his tenure, and how the Astros' winning in 2015 changed that.
"When I first got here, about every other person who came up to me was mad about something. Very rarely do I find a mad person anymore."
He expounded happily on the successes of the season on-field, mentioning the home-grown talent including All-Stars Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel, and Jason Castro, AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa, and Lance McCullers, who might have been in the discussion for the same award in any other year. Ryan continued by mentioning that Luhnow made a few moves of the type that "people were looking for him to make at this point of his career", alluding to the mid-season trades that sent prospects away to return major league veterans that could help with the playoff push.
In Ryan's opinion, the veteran leadership and the character of the players directly led to so many late-inning comebacks and also to the team hanging in there as they lost a large lead at the end of the season to the Texas Rangers, and yet still eventually made the playoffs.
In speaking glowingly of the on-field talent, he indicated that keeping the band together was a goal of this offseason.
As we go into this year, the key for us was to keep the core together, and bringing [Left Fielder Colby] Rasmus was a big part of it. We looked to bring in extra pitching, but at the same time we don't want to stop this flow of young guys we have coming up.
On Stadium Upgrades:
Ryan mentioned that the club had two major projects in-progress for the 2016 season that would impact fan experience at Minute Maid Park. First, he mentioned that the lighting system was being upgraded to an LED one. While most fans may not notice the difference, in today's climate of energy-consciousness, this upgrade shows the fans that the club is wiling to commit to the quality of the park experience on all fronts.
The second project has a more direct impact on customers, in that the Astros and MLB are installing WiFi in every section of the stadium, and that this change will be ready for opening day. The purpose is to reach a new type of customer that interacts with the world through their phones (author's words, not Ryan's).
Ryan refers to the new communication as "I-Beacon" and says it is the "next evolution in communicating with fans when they come to the ballpark." This will allow expansion of the mobile ticketing app and the At the Ballpark app. Ryan says that more people are going to their phones for all their ticketing needs, so this program will allow the Astros to give reward points that can be redeemable, for example, as discounts on concessions. Closer direct connection via apps and the WiFi can allow the Astros to alert select customers to special events going on at the ballpark, such as personalized autograph signings and more.
"It may turn out that pushing that [project] back a year will turn out to be a silver lining--looking at all aspects and exactly what we want to do. I have no updates [on the Tal's Hill project] other than we are re-looking at everything."
"We've lost a lot of parking out here. The thing we want to do is continue to add to this ballpark, honor our players, build a hall of fame. But we need to look at how the areas around the ballpark are changing, and the parking, road, egress [etc.] The last thing we want to do is build something that no one can access very easily. We're on no one's timeline but our own, but that is in our long-term plan."
On the TV front:
Ryan then clarified the television situation. Last week, MLB settled a lawsuit that gave certain TV rights back to consumers.
Unfortunately, this settlement does not allow for customers within the Regional Sports Network's (RSN) broadcast area to stream the Astros online in any capacity. Rather, the "favorite team" selection alluded to in the settlement will allow out-of-market customers to obtain a discount on streaming the Astros from MLB.TV if the Astros are selected as that customer's favorite team. The settlement also hilariously provides 100% streaming of all MLB teams regardless of blackout restrictions if the customer is in an area that has no access to satellite TV or cable TV, and yet somehow does have high-speed internet. Because a ton of those places actually exist. [note: sarcasm.]
But hope is on the horizon. MLB has struck an agreement with Fox Sports where consumers will be able to stream games online that are carried by Fox Sports RSN's. That means, if Root can strike a similar agreement--and Ryan said that this is being considered by Root and MLB--then it is possible that Houstonians will be able to access Astros games through Root Sports Houston's website without blackout penalties.
On in-season Promotions:
"When I got here, we were a little scared to promote because Jeff was trying to trade whoever would bring value. The last thing we wanted was to have a promotion and not have the guy here."
"Now that we have a core group of players, we want to try to connect the fans with them. The fedora is something Correa wears. The bobble heads are really about what guys did last year and celebrating how neat these guys are. Rasmus--everyone loves that photo. When you have people dressing up like you, celebrating you at Halloween, you know you've arrived. So we'll have him with the goggles and the hair on the celebration bobble head." [ed. note: Dunsmore has already pre-purchased the first 10,000 tickets to that game.]
On the new uniforms:
Finally, Ryan touched on the new uniforms that were revealed to the general public during a press conference not thirty minutes after his interview:
"These tweaks have been driven by the players. Their comfort, their feel, what they want to wear, what they fall back onto as being some of their favorite uniforms."