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Building A Successful Empire--Like The Tampa Bay Rays

Baseball pundits have called the Tampa Bay Rays run into the World Series a Cinderella story. I call it a great business model for fledging startups and even venerable companies.

In case you were too busy watching your stocks plummet and checking out Sarah Palin’s wardrobe, there’s a World Series being played right now pitting the Philadelphia Phillies versus the Tampa Bay Rays. Regardless of who comes out on top, one thing is certain, the Rays have surprised everyone.

Before the 2008 baseball season started, the Rays were 200-1 odds to win the World Series title. Currently, Vegas has the Rays favored to win it all (not that I’m checking). How did this team turn around their fortunes and what can we learn from their success?

At the end of 2007, the Rays owned the worst record in baseball. They finished dead last, which left their fan base wondering if the Rays could ever leave behind their stained image of being the laughingstock of the league. Granted, they weren’t spending cash like the upper-tier teams (in fact they had the lowest payroll in 2007 of the 30 teams), so what should their immediate reaction be?

If they were the Yankees and had pockets as deep and indulgent as Hank Steinbrenner than the most obvious reaction would be to go out into the free market and acquire the best players money could buy (which has become the Yankees MO). Instead, the Rays decided to inject their organization with some much needed vision.

While the Boston Red Sox were sleeping away a hangover from their 2007 World Series victory, the Rays held a press conference unveiling a new team uniform complete with a name change as well. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays of 2007 suddenly became the Tampa Bay Rays of 2008. Principal owner, Stuart Sternberg stated, “We are now the Rays—a new and improved version of the Devil Rays.” Then shortly after, the Rays began running ads with the slogan “We Are One Team,” a direction that the Rays president Matt Silverman said highlights an “improved team with talent allied with a fan base that reaches across the Tampa Bay region.” Did I mention, they were the worst team out of 30 in the MLB in 2007? Yet, they were optimistic. In other words, the upper management had vision when it came to their organization. They saw potential and promise when others were writing them off.

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Still, with a fan base hesitant about latching on to the Rays, the organization’s main goal was to create a winning team. After all what breeds fan loyalty more than success. But again, instead of spending large quantities of money to acquire big-name talent (they’re still the second lowest payroll in baseball), the Rays continued to stay the course by concentrating on building their team around young talent. By focusing on young talent, they were spending a minimum in salaries for what could be long-term rewards. Not only that, but they were allowing their fan base to build around talent that would become household names for years to come.

Currently, the Rays feature some of the best young talent in baseball, many of whom are grossly underpaid in market value due to the fact that they were signed long extensions early. Names such as Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford and Matt Garza will be players to be reckoned with for years to come. Especially savvy was the six-year, $17.5 million contract that the Rays signed Longoria with earlier this year before he had even proved himself on the MLB stage. Currently, Longoria is considered one of the premier players in the league, and by comparison to others in the league, the Rays are paying pennies on the dollar for his service. In other words, the Rays are benefiting for their prescience.

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  • Lastly, the Rays’ players have all adopted the vision of playing as one team. Their latest slogan has been “9=8,” which is a formula their manager Joe Maddon created that means, nine players going hard for nine innings equals one of eight playoff spots. To further emphasize the team’s unity, the players including the manager sported mohawks the past month to galvanize the team as well as loosen the clubhouse. It’s worked.

    So if you were following along, the Rays have done the following:

    - stayed the course

    - chose to patiently grow success and not just buy success

    - invested early into young talent

    - built a fan base around long-term acquisitions

    - fostered unity

    - cultivated some fun

    - expanded vision (when there was none)

    - got mohawks

    All of the bullet points above can be applied to your company in some way or another. Especially in a time when morale might be low, profits are slim to none and there’s a lack of employee loyalty—a renewed vision, commitment to your talent, team building and staying the course might just be what your company needs. I’m also guessing that sporting a mohawk can’t hurt.

    Caveat: this analogy will be completely inconsequential if the Rays end up winning the World Series, which will mean by 2009-2010, most of the young players will be asking for huge contracts. The Rays most likely will not be able to meet the demands of the large salary requests, which means you’re basically watching what will inevitably become the Yankees future roster.

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    Won Kim is an editor at Vault. He graduated from Rutgers University and is an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan.

    Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com