International Homerun

Baseball


RYAN FLYNN
CEO – NEW ZEALAND BASEBALL

Reading Time: 10 minutes

B aseball has always been more than just a game for me. For as long as I can remember, it has been a major part of my life. It’s what I love. Growing up during the 70’s in Upstate New York, I idolized the Yankees. It’s fair to say that from a young age, I was hooked. I continued my baseball career through college as well as various summer wood bat leagues.

I moved to Guam in 1994, immediately after Woodstock. I went right from a concert to the airport. People thought I was crazy, and at the time, they were probably correct. I did little research, had no idea what it was like to live on an island in the western Pacific, and didn’t know a soul on the island.

I had never been to Guam, and even though it was a United States territory, it was a massive wake-up call. But I fell in love with the island, Micronesia, and their unique way of life. Baseball played a major role in my ‘soft landing’ on the island.

My aspirations of being signed by an MLB organization had faded and I was ready to move on. On Guam, I took over the baseball program and used my marketing, PR, writing, communications, and baseball skills to help build a campaign and team for the 2000 Olympic Qualifiers in Sydney, Australia.

Australia was the perennial power in the sport of baseball in this region (the only major player, to be honest). My employers at the time, Anheuser Busch and Ambros Incorporatedthe local wholesaler for Budweiser productsallowed me to do two jobs at once and raise a substantial amount of money for the baseball program. I brought in top coaches from America, took kids around the world, assisted in getting players into college, and helped build a national program that could take on Australia for the first time.

I took a lot of that back to Seattle when I moved home to the US in 2001. And via the winding road that is international baseball, this is what ultimately led me to New Zealand. When the opportunity came up in late 2008, someone in the game said, “This would be a great job for you.” I was living in Washington State at the time with my wife and two kids. We were content, close to her family, and doing just fine.

New Zealand, I thought? 

It would have to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to move my family across the world. 

It turns out, this was that opportunity.

Not in the sense of polished talent or a history of baseball success. Actually, it was quite the opposite. What the country lacked in size, structure, and organization, they made up for in some of the most beautiful ways. The landscape and the people of New Zealand are one of a kind. The athletes are powerful; the people are high character and athletic. They dig in and get to work, which is a necessary trait when you have greenfields in front of you.

I was brought out for a three month “test” stint with the program. To be honest, it was difficult. The program was small and I definitely had my doubts. But in the end, I believed that there was potential, and agreed to return.

New Zealanders played softball, cricket, and had world-class athletes from many different cultures, including a huge population of Polynesian descent. It was all there. There were some truly dedicated board members and good people on the ground already. In January of 2010, my family and I packed up everything we had and never looked back.

It was a heck of a gamble, that’s for sure. I took a serious pay cut because I knew this is what I wanted to do. But, obviously, everyone had to agreemy wife and my extended family, most of all.

I started with a budget of about $100,000, and this number had to fund the entire program: our equipment, my salary, and everything in between. At one stage, all the equipment we had in New Zealand was being stored in my small garage in East Auckland. The first few years were lean; it’s not like we were out of the woods just yet, but I believed many of the hard yards were behind us.

There weren’t many clubs or players. At the time, I don’t think many people believed we could succeed as a country in this sport because the road seemed so long and untraveled.

I don’t know if it was delusion or whatever you’d wish to call it, but I really believed that we could be special. I had seen Scott Campbell from East Auckland make it all the way to Triple A with the Toronto Blue Jays a few years before, and heard about fellow Kiwi Travis Wilson doing the same with the Braves. I’d seen the way the athletes played fast-pitch softball and cricket, and I never wavered in my belief that New Zealand could be a top ten or twelve country in the world. I knew we could be a threat to win any tournament at any age group. I still believe that, and it’s what keeps me going.

When I first started, we had 500 players or less in the entire country playing the sport. On my first day, a few board members took me to a local field where a few young guys were taking ground balls. They were firing the ball around the field, and I turned to one of the board members and said, “Hey, these guys are pretty good! If this is what our kids look like, we’re going to be just fine.”

I came to find out later that out of the entire country, those were the only four players in their age group who could realistically play at that level.

Since then, all four of those players have played college baseball, as well as for their country, and continue to play around the world. They’ve done a lot with the game, and I’m proud that I’ve been able to contribute to their success.

In 2018, we have more than 8,000 players around the country. That is over an 18x increase in just eight years.

“I never wavered in my belief that New Zealand could be a top ten or twelve country in the world.”

They hired coaches before me, including some very good ones, but I approached the role and program differently. My goal was to build a support network, an infrastructure, to inject structure and systems into the program, and expand from that original 500 players. In the beginning, we didn’t have the funds to hire staff. Instead, I would rake the fields, set up the marquees for nationals, write the grant applications and press releases, put the teams together, pick out and purchase the medals and trophies, apply to get the teams into tournaments, and anything else that came up. I worked nonstop, and I loved it.

I’ve given it everything I have, and have been called the most accessible sports CEO in NZ, because I think the job called for that. I had to be available, because I had nothing to give to people other than my dream before the picture could be visualized.

The best thing you can do when you are trying to grow from square one is to hire people who are just as passionate as you are. One by one, I hired people who really cared. Now that we have such a great staff, I do a little less of the ground work, but I will never forget where we started. I still roll up my sleeves, which I think is crucial at events and in other instances. We all wear many hats, and this has contributed to our success and growth.

We were a small-time program going to small tournaments. Much like a hustling startup, we were trying to get everybody to think we were bigger than we actually were. We had to push the envelope in order to gain some respect and get invited to the bigger tournaments. This worked, too. We were granted entry into the World Baseball Classic Qualifiers by Major League Baseball in only my second full year, and three years of lobbying got us into the prestigious Ripken World Series for our best U13 players.

“The best thing you can do when you are trying to grow from square one is to hire people who are just as passionate as you are. One by one, I hired people who really cared.” 

One major step for our program was when we were able to open up our National Team trials to anyone with a Kiwi passport. This move allowed our coaches to see a brand new range of talented athletes across the nation and the world. We didn’t stop there, though. At first, many were skeptics; but as we started to become more talented with our teams and coaches, it became easier to convert some of the most successful athletes over to baseball.

I am proud to say that of the 8,000 or so players in our club and school systems today, we expect to have nearly 30 of them competing at US college programs by the end of next year. We have one prospect in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, and two more recently returned from playing professionally in Japan.

We’re also pushing more people into college programs. Many players are still raw and have a lot to learn. We don’t want to see these players get sucked up by the minor league system and then spat out straight away just because they aren’t ready yet. Our responsibility is to prepare them for the best leagues and schools in the world, and this is a work in progress. We want most of them to go to college, get an education, and see how far they can go down that avenue. Some will go straight to pro ball, and these will be the ones who are ready for the grind.

If we had a goal, it would be to become the premier summer sport for young men in New Zealand. We think we can offer as many if not more avenues for our athletes than any other sport. You’re guaranteed to produce world-class players if you start to have bigger numbers at the grass-roots level, and that’s what we’re digging into today. We’re trying to break down that tall, poppy, small nation syndrome that has existed for many years. We tell our kids that anything is possible, and it’s up to us to do everything we can to make sure they have every opportunity to achieve great things. We have the athletes here, and we believe there is the desire to get bigger and better, so we’re strategically taking steps each and every day.

We are currently working on creating a professional team to compete in the Australian Baseball League, the only professional league in the Oceania region. Our team would be located in Auckland, New Zealand, and would be the first ever professional baseball team in the country. It would help propel the sport forward in so many ways. Getting a team into the ABL would change everything for us. It would give us an aspirational model, a commercial arm for the sport, and change our development pathways overnight.

These are big goals, and that’s why we’re working so hard to achieve them. While we do not formally find out about the ABL decision until late April or mid-May, we feel pretty good about the group we have right now and the direction in which we’re heading. We’re putting it all on the table right now and it’s pedal to the metal for our entire team.

Looking back on the past eight years, I couldn’t be more proud of our team for what we have achieved. We have grown quickly, but we still have a long way to go. While you may not have thought about New Zealand as a place for baseball success before reading this piece, hopefully you will now. We are becoming a legitimate national baseball program with goals of being a great, top ten program in the world.

Now it’s up to us to continuously put in the work, and continue the dream that has always been a part of my life’s journey.

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  • Ryan is a College of Saint Rose Graduate. He is a published author, a former speechwriter for two heads of state, and former marketing director for Anheuser Busch (Ambros) in the Western Pacific Region. He specializes in building baseball programs and has an unconditional love for the game.

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