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LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE

Motivation? Take me out to the (minor league) ballgame

Larry P. Vellequette covers Fiat Chrysler for Automotive News
Root, root, root ...
These dealerships go to see minor league teams
• Honda of Mentor, Audi Mentor: Lake County Captains
• Don Chalmers Ford: Albuquerque Isotopes
• The 4 Yark dealerships on the list: Toledo Mud Hens, Walleye

These dealerships favor major league games.
• Audi Turnersville: Philadelphia Phillies, 76ers, Eagles
• Warren Henry Jaguar: Miami Heat, Dolphins, Marlins
• All Bergstrom stores: Milwaukee Brewers, Green Bay Packers
• Kunes Country Ford-Lincoln of Delavan: Milwaukee Brewers, Bucks
• Porsche of North Houston: Houston Astros
• Royal Palm Nissan: Florida Panthers
• Sheehy Lexus of Annapolis: Baltimore Orioles

TOLEDO, Ohio -- When an auto dealership treats its employees to an outing at a major league sporting event, there are rarely motivations beyond improving morale or rewarding people for a job well done.

But what's the message employees are getting? There on the field or court some distance away is a collection of elite, narcissistic millionaires who have reached the pinnacle of their craft. These are top-flight athletes on display, and variations in performance are measured in minuscule amounts.

In short, they have arrived. And barring an ongoing pennant race, they're usually not hungry.

Which is why I love minor league sports.

A confession: I grew up and still live in a metro area -- Toledo -- that Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal considered the second-best minor league market in the country in 2015. Toledo won that same contest, which is based on attendance against a region's population, unemployment and wealth, in 2013.

Toledo's Triple-A baseball club, the Mud Hens, drew more than 531,000 fans in 2015, despite finishing the season with the second- worst record in its league. In fact, attendance at the nation's 176 Minor League Baseball clubs topped 42.5 million fans in 2015, the third-highest number in minor league history, behind only 2008 and 2007.

Toledo Mud Hens mascot Muddy the Mud Hen poses with fans of the minor league team at Toledo's Fifth Third Field. Photo credit: GIRL IN THE GLASS CITY

Why? Win or lose, fans have fun at intimate minor league ballparks such as Toledo's because of their affordable cost, the proximity to the game and the opportunity to see rising -- and falling -- stars up close.

It helps, of course, that ticket prices in the minor leagues are generally a fraction of those at a major league stadium. And the same usually goes for ballgame staples, such as hot dogs and beer.

For dealers, taking employees to a baseball or hockey or basketball game is about team building. And in the minor leagues, that's exactly what's happening on the field.

"They're hungrier, and they hustle," explains Lee Butler, director of performance excellence for Don Chalmers Ford in Rio Rancho, N.M. "And eventually, when they move up, you can say, 'I knew that guy when.'"

Young Toledo Walleye fans keep an eye on the action.

His dealership splits a luxury suite for the season with a local bank to watch the nearby Albuquerque Isotopes play Triple-A baseball, and each employee and a guest usually get to see two or more games a year with others from the dealership.

"It's not just one night where we all go, like a church group," Butler said. "It's nice because the dealership provides a buffet in the suite. The whole thing costs us about $800 a night, but the food is incredible."

Don Chalmers Ford is one of more than a dozen dealerships in this year's crop of Best Dealerships To Work For that use outings to sporting events as motivational and team-building tools.

Most have recently chosen to watch major league teams, such as the Miami Heat, Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Phillies. Those dealership employees no doubt enjoyed themselves and probably feasted on ballpark cuisine.

But for me? No, thanks.

I'd rather see them hungry.

Root, root, root ...
These dealerships go to see minor league teams
• Honda of Mentor, Audi Mentor: Lake County Captains
• Don Chalmers Ford: Albuquerque Isotopes
• The 4 Yark dealerships on the list: Toledo Mud Hens, Walleye

These dealerships favor major league games.
• Audi Turnersville: Philadelphia Phillies, 76ers, Eagles
• Warren Henry Jaguar: Miami Heat, Dolphins, Marlins
• All Bergstrom stores: Milwaukee Brewers, Green Bay Packers
• Kunes Country Ford-Lincoln of Delavan: Milwaukee Brewers, Bucks
• Porsche of North Houston: Houston Astros
• Royal Palm Nissan: Florida Panthers
• Sheehy Lexus of Annapolis: Baltimore Orioles

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@autonews.com -- Follow Larry P. on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LarryVellequett

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