It's 'not pretty,' but former baseball exec sticks with plans to make Viks relevant
David Hersh hasn’t changed all that much from the boy wonder who served as general manager of the Triple-A baseball Portland Beavers from 1979-83.
Hersh is much older, of course. He turns 60 next March, his hair still full but now white, his body on the mend after recent knee replacement surgery.
Old-timers remember the cocky young executive who chain-smoked cigars and promoted like crazy, living the good life as he operated the Beavers through their last Pacific Coast League championship season in 1983.
My enduring vision of the swashbuckling Philadelphia native in the early ‘80s is of him holding a Macanudo in one hand and a fist full of $100 bills in the other, rewarding the great Willie Stargell for tape-measure home-run shots into the Multnomah Athletic Club porch in right field of what was then known as Civic Stadium.
Bombastic and aggressive, sharp and convincing, Hersh got things done, or went down trying.
If age has softened Hersh’s rough edges, the shift is subtle as he tackles his latest reclamation project: Portland State’s athletic program.
“I’m not going to be right all the time, but I have to act like I am,” says Hersh, whose “C-Level Sports” marketing company recently signed a five-year contract to promote Viking athletics. “That’s not always going to win friends and influence people.
“You’re never more popular than you are on your first day. After that, you’re always going to make a decision that is going to make someone mad.”
Over the winter, Hersh rocked the boat enough to agitate the Timbers, who through Peregrine Sports LLC own the contract to run Providence Park, where the Vikings play their home football games. Hersh publicly bellyached about the Timbers balking at allowing the Vikings to paint sidelines on the FieldTurf, complaining, “Every single request we make is denied,” and “I’m tired of seeing us bullied.” Timbers owner Merritt Paulson and CEO Mike Golub weren’t amused.
“We share a stadium,” Hersh says now. “I’ve been on both sides of this coin. When I ran the Beavers, we shared with Portland State and the Timbers, and we were the managing group.
“I’m advocating for Portland State. It’s not a problem to fight for our product. Merritt and Mike are going to do everything they can to push for the Timbers; we’re going to do everything we can for Portland State. Maybe I crossed the line. I’m going to make mistakes. I’m not perfect.”
Hersh arrived in town in late 1978 a fresh-faced graduate of Monmouth (Ill.) College who already had served two years as a Single-A GM — one each in Burlington, Iowa, and Appleton, Wisc. He put together an ownership group that purchased the Beavers from Leo Ornest for a then-record $256,000.
“I got letters telling me I was crazy to spend that much for a minor-league club,” Hersh says. “I was 23. What did I know?”
Hersh knew enough to make some noise with promotions. He staged five exhibition games with major league clubs, including two with defending World Series champions (Pittsburgh and Philadelphia). He put on one of the great Old-Timers games ever, featuring Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Eddie Matthews, Whitey Ford, Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller.
Karl Wallenda walked a tightrope across Civic Stadium. Fans came out in droves on “Diamond Night,” a few of them getting real diamonds, most of them cubic zirconia. And a good crowd came to watch the media square off with the “Penthouse Pets” in a pregame softball showdown. Hersh signed veterans Luis Tiant and Willie Horton to contracts and even got Ted Giannoulas, “The San Diego Chicken,” for a series of appearances.
Hersh left in 1983 to become minor league farm director for the New York Yankees, and to work under GM Murray Cook.
“Everybody told me not to take the job, because George (Steinbrenner) was in his prime,” Hersh says. “But Murray told me, ‘You’ll be general manager of the Yankees by the time you’re 30.’ ”
By the time Hersh was 30, he was a former Yankee employee.
“For the first six months, I was George’s fair-haired boy,” Hersh says.
Billy Martin and Yogi Berra served stints as manager during Hersh’s time there.
“Lou Piniella became a good friend,” Hersh says.
Then Cook got demoted, and anyone associated with him became persona non grata.
Hersh went into the family business marketing for casinos and corporations — “I ran the casino part,” he says — got married, had two children, was divorced, then got the itch to get back into baseball in 1990.
He acquired the Double-A Memphis Chicks, moved the club to Jackson, Tenn., sold it in 2002 for $7.25 million, moved to Tampa, Fla., and had been “consulting and goofing off” until he moved back to Portland in late 2012.
Hersh returned in part at the behest of PSU sports benefactor Peter Stott, whom he had befriended during his earlier stint in Portland. Stott wanted Hersh to help put the Vikings on the athletic map. Hersh and his company signed a memorandum of understanding last September, Hersh deciding that, “to take the Vikings to their potential, this is a 24/7 project for several years.”
During his time in Florida, Hersh watched Central Florida (Orlando) and South Florida (Tampa) rise to become players on the national sports scene.
“I’m thinking, ‘Why not Portland State?’ ” Hersh says. “Same exact DNA — commuter schools, urban campuses, top-50 TV markets.”
But Hersh knows the Vikings have a long way to go. They averaged perhaps 2,000 paying customers in football and only several hundred in basketball last season.
“It is through no one’s fault but our own we’ve been irrelevant,” Hersh says. “I’ve spent a whole year having people tell me why this or that is broken. The first step is looking in the mirror and saying it’s our fault. If we’re not being covered (by media), it’s because we don’t warrant coverage. If our games aren’t being attended, it’s because they’re not worth seeing.
“The first thing that has to happen is getting all the oars going in all the same direction. It’s not pretty getting there. The first year in any turnaround is the most difficult. You’re picking a lot of scabs. It’s part of uncovering where all the bodies are buried, where all the problems are. It’s painful, especially in a culture where people aren’t used to candor.”
Hersh understands the competition from not only the Ducks and Beavers but from the pro sports teams in town. He thinks promotions are a big part of the solution.
“When you play in a town with the Blazers, Timbers, Winterhawks and Hops, you’d better step your game up,” Hersh says. “We have been absolutely deficient in that department.
“If you look at what (Blazers CEO) Chris McGowan or Mike Golub or (Winterhawks president) Doug Piper have done, you can’t be an agent of change and not ruffle feathers. Chris made a lot of changes, and a year later, he looks darn smart. All you ask is for the perspective of time.”
Hersh says a major hurdle will be cleared when 1,200-seat Stott Center, where the Vikings play basketball, is replaced by the “Pavilion,” a $44 million facility that will seat 5,500 for concerts and 4,800 for basketball. About $38.5 million has been secured for the project — including $24 million from the state. PSU must raise the additional $6 million or so through donations by February. Hersh’s company will take a major role in fundraising.
“Once we get to that, it would take 18 months or so” to complete the facility, Hersh says. “With the Pavilion, Portland State becomes a different athletic university. With first-class facilities like Providence Park and the Pavilion, there is nothing holding us back.”
But isn’t attendance, and interest in a program or team, contingent upon winning?
“No,” Hersh says. “Winning is 25 percent of it, that’s it. Winning is great, but it’s only part of the deal.
“We’ve had runs (in football) on the radar over the years with Mouse Davis and Pokey Allen, but we have a spurt, then it disappears. We have to build a base that recognizes that — no disrespect to Lewis & Clark — this is the only football game in town. There is great football in Eugene and Corvallis, but you don’t have to go down there to see good football. We haven’t done a good job telling that to the market and building the next generation of fans.
“We have an identity crisis we need to solve. We’re the state’s largest school. Our programs have not had the type of success that warrant the type of attention that makes us household words. That’s just being honest. We need to develop a new fan base. To do that, you have to go outside the box.”
Hersh says the Vikings must think beyond the campus, and must cultivate a younger set of followers.
“We’re not reaching the next generation,” he says. “Our absence in the under-35 crowd is significant. Too much time has been spent marketing the Park Blocks and not enough to time in a city of 2.2 million people. That’s the first change. We need to reach out to the community and develop our niche.”
Hersh wants bodies in the seats at games — and people who have paid something for tickets.
“We have to build perceived value,” he says. “Nobody gives away their product. There were too many people sitting for free at Portland State games last year.”
Hersh’s promotions started during last basketball season, when the Vikings brought in competitive hot dog eater Takeru Kobyashi and a chainsaw juggler for halftime entertainment. They also offered an “all-you-can-eat” to all paying customers, including students, who get in free (though they contribute to athletics through student fees). There was cost to the athletic department, Hersh concedes, but it was more than made up for through sponsorship generated from the promotion.
“What we’re doing is ensuring, win or lose, that the fan has a good time,” says Hersh, who says attendance at PSU men’s and women’s basketball games increased last season.
Special promotions are planned for all of the Vikings’ five home football games this fall, including the Sept. 6 home opener against Western Oregon at Hillsboro Stadium. Children 14-and-under can buy a ticket for any game for $5. Hersh has booked the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders for the regular-season finale Nov. 21 vs. Eastern Washington.
“Give people something they can’t get somewhere else,” he says. “You’re going to see a season of that.”
Hersh’s goal is to sell 25,000 tickets for the five home games.
“To take a program that was getting 2,500 to 3,000 (paid tickets sold) to 5,000 to maybe 7,500 a game, that’s a good step,” he says.
PSU athletic director Torre Chisholm says he is excited to have Hersh’s company on board.
“We want to increase attendance and interest to our programs,” Chisholm says. “We have high expectations for what Dave and his company can do. He’s a very active promoter, really creative, really hard-working, and has a good knack for connecting with sports fans.
“There’s a lot of room for growth. Dave has lofty goals. He doesn’t expect to achieve them overnight. But Portland is a big market. We play Division I football and basketball. There’s no reason for us not to be ambitious with our goals.”
Down the line, Hersh would like to see some 5 p.m. Sunday home football games and a four-team basketball tournament involving PSU, Portland, Oregon and Oregon State.
“We have to become relevant, and we are going to get there,” he says, adding, “maybe kicking and screaming.”
One thing has changed in a big way since Hersh’s first tour of duty in town. Heeding a doctor’s warning, the guy who smoked six to eight stogies a day during his years with the Beavers hasn’t had one in nearly two decades.
“I was spending $400 a month on cigars,” Hersh says with a grin. “Haven’t smoked one since 1995. It took that long to get the smell out of my clothes.”