First Pitch: Why was Dunder Mifflin Scranton So Successful?

“I know this place. I know how many hospitals we have, I know how many schools we have. It’s home, you know? I know the challenges this county’s up against. Here’s the thing about those discount suppliers. They don’t care. They come in, they undercut everything, and they run us out of business, and then, once we’re all gone, they jack up the prices.” – Michael Scott in The Office, Season 2 – Episode 7 “The Client”

Why was Dunder Mifflin Scranton the most successful branch?

Is it because:

A. They have the best sales people?

B. All of the office hi-jinx leave them fresh to perform at 100% in the little time they’re working?

C. Kevin Malone is so bad at accounting that he’s been artificially inflating their books for years with made up numbers?

D. The Office is a fictional show, and it wouldn’t work any other way?

E. They know their niche so well that they can compete against the bigger companies?

The answer is probably a combination of C and D.

Going back and watching Season 2 – Episode 6, titled “The Client” had me thinking about the possibility of option E.

Dunder Mifflin is a regional paper company, constantly at risk of downsizing due to an inability to compete with the bigger box stores. Those stores can afford to offer lower prices, which is ultimately putting smaller companies like Dunder Mifflin out of business.

In this particular episode, Michael Scott — Regional Manager of Dunder Mifflin Scranton — and Jan Levinson Gould — Vice President of Sales — are meeting with a representative of Lackawanna County for a potentially big sale that could keep the branch alive.

Jan comes in from corporate with a sales approach that is no different than what you’d expect from most big companies that they’re up against. A short meeting at the Radisson that she expects will only take about an hour. A hyper focused approach on getting down to business and getting all of the cold cards out on the table ASAP to get to the bottom line price.

Michael approaches the situation with what appears to be pure chaos. He changes the meeting from the Radisson to a Chili’s restaurant. He constantly interrupts the early sales pitch to order Awesome Blossoms and baby back ribs, while telling jokes in between. He makes no attempt to get the sale until the very end, when he simply points out the reality of what the county can expect when they go with the bigger guys. And then, just as a hopeless looking Jan starts to realize that the sale is going down in their favor, Michael closes the deal.

The reality Michael paints is one seen all over America. The big box companies come in, offer name brand products at low prices, and eventually put all of the smaller stores out of business. Once those companies are gone, the big box stores start raising prices, as they can charge whatever they want with no competition in the area.

Dunder Mifflin sells paper. That’s their niche. They go up against Staples, OfficeMax, and Office Depot, who can afford to charge less for their paper products due to more national volume, and due to a diversification of products that doesn’t put all of their eggs in the paper basket.

The big sales pitch for Dunder Mifflin is their customer service and small company feel.

None of that matters to their customers who are just looking to cut costs.

*****

If you’re on Twitter, you’ve probably seen that The Athletic has a sale going where you can subscribe for $1 a month. You’ve probably seen this about 462 times a day, depending on how many writers from The Athletic you follow.

Objectively speaking, it’s an amazing deal. For just $12, you can get a year’s subscription to a site that covers all sports in almost 50 cities. That site has poached a lot of big name talent from newspapers and web sites all around the country.

So if you’re a fan of Pittsburgh sports, you can pay $12 for a year of Pirates, Steelers, and Penguins coverage, featuring writers who were previously writing for the Post-Gazette and the Trib.

The Athletic launched their Pittsburgh site in 2018, around the same time they received $20 million in venture capital money. This was after they had previously raised almost $8 million to that point.

To date, The Athletic has raised $139.5 million in capital investments, including $50 million at the start of this pandemic ravaged year.

With the sports section providing the funds for most news papers, and The Athletic directly poaching the biggest names from each paper, they’ll probably lead to the closure of a lot of their competition around the country in the future, if it’s not already happening.

That would be like an online paper company wiping out Staples, OfficeMax, and Office Depot.

This doesn’t really change the view for Dunder Mifflin. Their competition can still afford to provide lower prices. But you know those prices are eventually going up.

You know The Athletic will charge more. It’s stated in their discount, where the normal price is $7.99 per month, or just under $100 per year. That’s assuming the normal price stays the same.

This also comes with the assumption that they will still offer the same service going forward, and won’t lay off writers, which they did just a few months ago.

Meanwhile, all of the smaller companies will be fighting for their survival against the Wal-Mart of the sports writing world.

*****

“Hey Tim, who is that guy?” – Random Pirates reporter asking me about a minor league player that walked by at Pirate City.

Somehow I’d always know the names and faces of all 200+ prospects in the system, regardless of whether they were projected to make the majors. I could give you basic information about their draft position, their progress, and what they projected to become.

It would become common practice for other reporters to ask me who a player was, followed by the reporter doing a story on the player for an off-day when there was no big league news to write about.

This gave me an advantage, in that I always knew what minor league stories the other outlets were working on, and could match their story with a deeper layered story that you couldn’t get elsewhere.

This all culminated in the spring of 2017.

I was standing on the benches of the dugout at Pirate City, taking photos of the pitchers in the bullpen. I had noticed something different about Tyler Glasnow — a new grip.

I was always looking for an edge in Spring Training. With so many reporters and so few topics, it was always a challenge to come up with something that no one else had.

Tyler Glasnow was working on a new changeup that year, and I had spotted the grip with my camera. I talked with Glasnow about the pitch, and broke the story in a very slow camp for news.

The very next morning, reporters were swarming around Glasnow, trying to copy the same story, down to a video of the grip. There was no mention of where the news originally came from, which is devastating to a small niche site trying to find an edge over the bigger, billionaire owned newspapers.

I was already onto my next subject, writing about Jameson Taillon’s adjustments to his changeup grip, and his adjustments to his two fastballs.

That was also stolen.

My focus that camp went to a story about how changeups are thrown. It became difficult, because after my first two stories, reporters would just randomly ask any pitcher “Are you working on a new changeup?”

It got to a point where Clint Hurdle started getting frustrated at the daily changeup questions, and to the point where the news out of that slow camp was over-saturated with the changeup topic, forcing me to search for another edge in camp — abandoning the one that I originally dug up.

$108

That’s how much we raised in new subscriptions in the days following the Glasnow news. The news that became the biggest topic in camp, which was broken on our site, led to very little revenue.

I’d like to think that there’s an intangible benefit here, that we maintained revenue from long-time subscribers by giving them more of what they signed up for originally: Articles that no one else has, with the depth that no one else can provide.

But I also know that this was at a time when subscriptions were starting to decline a bit. We lost $60 in subscriptions in the days after the Glasnow story, just from people who emailed to say they’re no longer following the Pirates anymore.

We needed new revenue to off-set the losses, and that was impossible when our stories were ending up on free sites just days later. This was before The Athletic came around, and when subscription sites were still largely unheard of. Dejan Kovacevic made the first jump in this city, and I had been dreading the same, knowing that it could be detrimental for a niche site that had no interest in covering the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Pittsburgh Penguins.

My mistake during that time was treating things like business as usual. I was trying to be another news outlet covering the Pirates. I was paying to fly reporters down to Bradenton, letting them stay in my guest bedroom, and paying them for live coverage to justify our subscription prices.

That slowly backfired, and then quickly backfired starting at the end of the 2017 season. It didn’t matter what we did or what we covered. People weren’t interested in the Pirates or their prospects enough to pay for coverage.

We went from 6,000 subscribers at the end of 2015 to 3,000 by the end of 2017, to a little over 2,000 now.

The whole time we were providing information that no other outlet originally had. But we were trying to hold meetings at the Radisson, rather than switching things to Chili’s and having a more relaxed environment.

We also stayed a paper company, which was a mistake. We only covered the Pirates, and our expansions were to cover the Pirates in even more depth. I knew I couldn’t expand to another MLB team, because it took way too much to cover the Pirates in the way that we did.

Ultimately, the thing that hurt us was the switch to a subscription site, combined with the Pirates turning off their fans almost immediately after that switch, which led to a slow decline. There was nothing we could do to reverse the decline, especially with other outlets copying our biggest stories and putting them out there for free with no credit.

But, like Dunder Mifflin Scranton, we’re somehow still here. And I think we’ve got a way to survive The Athletic, just like we’ve survived The Trib.

*****

We know this team.

We know how many prospects they have.

We know the challenges this organization is up against.

Here’s the thing about those bigger sites: They focus on reporting. We focus on the game.

We’ve had an advantage over the Post-Gazette and the Trib for years, because of a difference in how we cover the game. They tell stories about where the players have been, looking largely at the personal side. We show you where the players are going, relying on our unmatched time studying and being around the game.

We will always have the deeper, more comprehensive story about the game, because we cover this game in a deeper, more comprehensive way than anyone else.

Our focus going forward is to be less like one of the other news sites, and more like Pirates Prospects. We’re not trying to be the number one source of Pirates information. We’re looking to be the number one source of Pirates analysis.

Our focus for expansion is to take our baseball knowledge and apply it to the college and prep levels. If we can provide analysis that is unmatched at the highest level, we can surely do the same focusing on the lower levels.

By the start of next season, our intention is to have an NCAA site on here that covers Pitt, Penn State, and West Virginia baseball. We also intend to have a prep baseball site, giving a unique look at high school baseball development.

We’re going to always be competing against bigger outlets like The Athletic, who will either provide information for free, or for a lower price, until everyone like us is out of business.

We are still here, even two-plus years after a call for help when we almost went out of business. Our longest supporters stepped up then, and it was enough to get us to now.

We’re not going to get millions of dollars of seed money like The Athletic to grow our site. We can only rely on the people who have followed us for the last decade to either give us a boost, or to spread the word to others.

If we sell out our supply of Prospect Guides this year, that would be all of the seed money we need. That would ensure that John Dreker and I can pay our bills, that the site can stay running, and that we have enough to expand on operations to the point where we can hopefully diversify away from the Pirates, while still being able to provide unmatched analysis of the Pirates.

I heard from some of you recently that you’d be more interested in donating money, or paying for a product for someone else, rather than just buying a book for yourself. We have that option available through our gift cards.

There are times when I’m skeptical that Dunder Mifflin can stay in business against the big box companies over the long-term. The only way we can make it over the long-term is by providing a service that is unmatched by the bigger outlets, and by our customers realizing that they’re supporting a true small business in the process, and not a billionaire owned paper or a company backed by over a hundred million in capital investments — neither of which really care about your interests in the long-run.

The 2020 Prospect Guide returns to print for our tenth  we are releasing three variant covers, featuring Mitch Keller and Ke’Bryan Hayes. Visit our shop page to order these extremely limited items!


 

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