He is almost as anonymous as the young people inside those Spikes and Mittsy mascot costumes. And that suits Gary Larder just fine, because the Rochester Red Wings chairman has never been one to seek the limelight, to toot his own horn. He always has been quick to deflect praise to others. The affable 76-year-old is quite content doing his work behind the scenes.
And few have done it better than Larder, who in his 36 years with the ballclub has played a major role in making the Red Wings the most stable of the local sports franchises, as well as the best entertainment value in town. Unlike many executives in business and in sports, Larder truly does put the customer first.
“He’s the fans’ man,’’ said Wings General Manager Dan Mason, who considers Larder a trusted mentor and friend. “He always keeps their interests at the top of his list, and he makes sure that everyone in our organization does the same.”
And that shouldn’t come as a surprise, because Larder regards himself as a fan first, a ballclub executive second. The Houghton College and University of Rochester graduate believes the two roles need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, they can work harmoniously, like a hand in a baseball glove.
“I love the way we do baseball in Rochester,’’ said Larder, a retired Xerox controller. “It’s very community-oriented. It’s something you can feel very proud of. At the end of the day, I like us to be able to say that the world is a little better off because of what we did at the ballpark. People came out and had a good time at a reasonable price.”
Some measure baseball success in traditional ways: wins-and-losses, batting average, on-base percentage and earned run average. And while those statistics interest Larder, he relies on different data. The 2016 season was a success, in his eyes, because it cost a family of four $69 to purchase tickets, parking, four beverages and four hot dogs at a Wings game at Frontier Field—$6.39 less than the average cost of attending a Triple-A baseball game nationwide. By being below average, the Wings were above average. That’s a grand slam trend Larder hopes to continue.
“At every board and shareholders’ meeting I start out by reminding everyone that our corporate objective is to provide wholesome, family-oriented, reasonably priced sports entertainment,’’ he said. “I try to emphasize that we are not about trying to make a zillion dollars in profits, dominating the market or anything like that. Yes, we need to operate in the black, because you can’t stay in business if you don’t. But we keep in mind what our corporate objective is and measure our performance that way.”
The Wings’ approach is such a breath of fresh air in the highly competitive, often avaricious world of professional sports, where many franchises seem intent on gouging the fans out of every last cent. Under the leadership of President, CEO and COO Naomi Silver, Larder and Mason, the Wings have become a model franchise in keeping a lid on fan expenses. And much of the credit belongs to the modest Larder.
“Gary is one of the most genuine, humble people I’ve ever met,’’ Mason said. “Because he doesn’t seek the limelight, his contributions to what we’ve been able to accomplish often get overlooked by the public. But I can tell you from personal experience, there are few people who have put in the time and effort that Gary has dedicated to our organization. His passion and energy are infectious. And the truly amazing thing is that he’s done it all as a volunteer.”
He’s so devoted, he even pays for his season ticket each year, even though as a member of the board he could attend every game for free.
Larder came to the sport by accident, stumbling upon a Cleveland Indians game on a grainy, black-and-white television in the summer of 1953. He began fervently following the Indians the following season, and it proved to be an unforgettable summer as the Tribe won a then-American League record 111 games before being swept by the Johnny Antonelli-led New York Giants in the World Series.
Larder became treasurer of Rochester Community Baseball in 1982, and since that time has held numerous positions on the board. He played an integral role in hashing out the new stadium lease with Monroe County—a complicated, but fair-to-both-sides deal that ensured the Wings financial stability. Larder also worked with Silver and Mason on the Major League Baseball affiliation switch from the Baltimore Orioles to the Minnesota Twins.
“Both moves have worked out beyond my wildest expectations,’’ he said. “People forget that we had a deal to go to Canal Ponds in Greece, but I’m glad we wound up downtown. And the Twins organization has been fantastic to work with. They’ve been great partners.”
Finances are always a challenge, and Rochester’s transformation from an economy driven by a handful of Fortune 500 companies to one fueled by hospitals, colleges and small businesses hasn’t been easy. The Wings find themselves in competition with cable television, other local sports teams competing for the same advertising dollars and a lineup of high-profile festivals. Plus, there’s the challenge of appealing to a new generation of multi-tasking fans who might regard the dead time of baseball as unappealing.
Still, Larder remains bullish on the Wings future as an entertainment option.
“Minor league baseball has always been resilient, even in times of recession,’’ he said. “And we’re always thinking about ways to make the fan experience better. We’re willing to try different things, and if they don’t work, we are willing to try something else. As long as we remain responsive and creative, I think we’ll be fine.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
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