SAN FRANCISCO — In the beginning — which is to say, back in 1992 — Larry Baer was part of a Giants baseball ownership group that he acknowledges had “no business plan.”
Know why that’s so hilarious? Here we are, 23 years later. Baer sits in his ATT Park office as the team’s president and chief executive officer. And he has nothing but plans. And more plans. And still more plans.
In fact, sometimes you wonder if the Giants’ current business mission is to grab the eyeballs and disposable incomes of all Bay Area residents and make them pay attention to nothing else. Because it’s going in that direction. Things have never been better for the franchise, right?
“I hate saying that,” Baer says. “Because I feel like you lose an edge if you say that. If I answer that question ‘yes,’ I worry that people around here would feel that way. I always want to have that piece of urgency, that reason for us to come up with that one great idea that’s going to make us better — whether it’s a great idea to sell tickets or sign a Cuban player or whatever it might be.”
That quote, in one paragraph, sums up how Baer has become, at this moment, the most powerful sports person in the Bay Area.
Who says? We say.
For the past 10 years on a regular basis, the Bay Area News Group has ranked the Bay Area’s most influential movers and shakers of an athletic nature. The rankings aren’t created to outline a strict pecking order. They are more of a tool to help fans understand how the gears of Northern California’s broadband sports machinery function — and who operates those gears.
As always, the ranking is completely subjective and hardly arbitrary. The list is run through a panel of BANG editors and reporters, with any ties broken and final decisions rendered by yours truly. There is just one exclusionary rule: Newspaper folks cannot be part of the list, for conflict-of-interest reasons.
This year, there is not much debate about Baer’s top status. The Giants are coming off three World Series titles in five years. Credit for that goes to the baseball side of the operation headed by executive vice president Brian Sabean. But it is Baer who provides Sabean the resources to get the job done. And it is Baer who is in charge of everything else. With the Giants, that’s saying a lot.
The Giants own the ballpark in which they play, selling millions of tickets and garlic fries and T-shirts. The Giants own 30 percent of Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, the cable network that televises its games as well as Warriors basketball. And now the Giants are becoming real estate developers, as they work to build a mixed-use complex across McCovey Cove from their stadium.
“The ultimate end game, I think,” Baer says during an hourlong interview, “would be to create a gathering place here that is as iconic to our community as Fenway is to Boston and Wrigley is to Chicago. And to actually see a neighborhood around it that, when we all hang it up, has grown and become a great piece of the quality of life of this community.”
Baer, 58, is not shy on ambition or shy about marketing his team relentlessly, as you might already know. Many names on the Most Powerful list are largely unfamiliar to the general public.
But that’s not true with Baer, who for two decades has been out front and all over your radio speakers and television screens as the franchise’s public executive face. Because of this, some fans might assume Baer is the majority team owner.
In actuality, Baer owns a very small slice of the Giants. The largest chunk, by far, belongs to 82-year-old Charles Johnson, the Franklin Templeton mutual funds main man. Johnson is worth an estimated $6.4 billion according to Forbes magazine. He could pull rank on Baer at any time but prefers to remain under the radar.
However, with the franchise’s success, Baer has earned the clout to frame for Johnson how the franchise should be operated, not vice versa. This explains why, in our previous Most Powerful rankings, Johnson was No. 1 on the list. Baer was just underneath him. The equation is now reversed.
It’s a far cry from those adventurous times of 1992, when former Giants owner Bob Lurie had agreed to sell the Giants to interests in Tampa Bay. Living in New York City at the time, Baer was taken aback. He is a fourth-generation San Franciscan who was then working for the CBS Television Network but rallied home to help Safeway Supermarkets executive Peter Magowan save the team for the Bay Area.
Magowan and Baer will tell you they had no plans to run the team themselves, just assemble other investors. But it turned out no one else wanted to be in charge, either. In a fateful meeting at real estate mogul Walter Shorenstein’s office, Magowan said he would take on CEO duties but only if Baer agreed to serve as the No. 2 man in the organization.
Baer signed on and moved back west. Yet events unfurled so quickly that the only immediate goal was to somehow keep the franchise afloat.
“Trust me,” Baer says. “There was no business plan. The thing that’s always given me comfort about this role with the Giants is that the motivations of the ownership group that Peter and I stitched together were really good, pure motivations. Everybody wants to make money. Everybody wants to win World Series. But first and foremost, they wanted to keep it as an institution in San Francisco.”
That was then, however. Today is much different. By most estimates, the Giants franchise’s worth has increased tenfold from the Magowan group’s original $100 million purchase price. Once the team built its ballpark in 2000 — an achievement never to be underestimated — everything changed. Today, with Baer at the center of the vortex, the Giants have become a constantly whirling fulcrum of Northern California sports. That’s quite a statement for a baseball franchise in an NFL-obsessed region.
The 49ers are still the Bay Area’s most popular team by any subjective measure.
That includes television ratings and web clicks and total viewing audience. But the Giants’ choice to expand their brand and exert influence far beyond their ballpark walls has propelled Baer’s position into a heavier weight class than the usual MLB executive.
Baer has held several job titles while rising through the Giants’ executive ranks. And at each step, he has stretched the team’s grasp. The team was involved in marketing the World Baseball Classic at ATT Park and the America’s Cup yacht races along the San Francisco waterfront. Baer also was at the forefront of the failed Bay Area bid for the 2024 Olympic Games. At one point, the Giants thought of forming their own television network, but Baer discovered that the financial benefits “weren’t discernibly better” than their Comcast deal.
Key MLB player
Meanwhile, on a political basis within baseball, Baer has successfully stopped the A’s from moving to San Jose by clinging firmly to the Santa Clara County territorial rights granted to the Giants. He also serves on MLB’s strategic planning committee and legislative affairs committee, to better keep an eye on those territorial rights.
Baer’s biggest move, however, has been to create a separate entity, Giants Development Services, for which he also serves as president and CEO. The goal is to remake the 28-acre parking lot across McCovey Cove into a full-fledged neighborhood called “Mission Rock” that will include residences, offices, restaurants, retail stores, a park, an Anchor Steam Brewery and a parking garage.
It’s a very bold play. And it will surely run into opposition from certain locals because every building project in San Francisco runs into opposition from certain locals. Witness the Warriors’ planned arena a little more than half a mile from ATT Park — on which the Giants have adopted a gently neutral stance, although it would surely affect their traffic and parking on game nights.
Baer is winning on almost all fronts right now, though, so don’t count out anything. Given all that, it seems fair to ask why the Giants cling to their stubborn stance on territorial rights and the South Bay. Couldn’t they have succeeded on all those fronts without those rights? Wouldn’t they have won three World Series and been immensely profitable, anyway?
Baer pauses when asked about this.
“I want to give you a thoughtful answer,” he finally says. “Look, we define our marketplace as it relates to Silicon Valley, as from where we are sitting right now in a contiguous stretch to downtown San Jose. Others may define it differently. And it’s been important to us in building this business … it’s been really important for us to be able to throw a blanket over this entire region, which is San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. It’s been vitally important. I can’t tell you where we’d be if we didn’t. But we would not be where we are now.”
Some of us can agree to disagree with Baer on that point, even as we respect his accomplishments.
Does he feel powerful?
“I feel empowered,” Baer responds. “I feel empowered by the amazing organization we have, on and off the field. I feel grateful. I feel appreciative of this community. … We’re blessed with an amazing marketplace that is changing the world in a lot of ways. Why can’t a sports franchise be emblematic of that?”
Formidably and potently emblematic, to be more accurate. Baer understands all those words. It’s why he is No. 1 on our list. With plans.
See where 49ers general manager Trent Baalke, right, ranks on the list of the Bay Area’s most powerful sports personalities. PAGE 5.