When Art Savage and his partners purchased a Minor-League Baseball team and moved it to a new stadium in West Sacramento in 2000, his wife, Susan Savage, never imagined that one day she would own and operate the Sacramento River Cats.
“Art was the love of my life, but we were never business partners,” Susan says. “Certainly, we discussed the team, and we were very close, but I was never a part of the business until his cancer diagnosis. Even then, I worked down in the team store, and not until his death did I have a formal role in the management of the team.”
Art, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007 but was pronounced cancer free in 2008, collapsed suddenly and died in his East Sacramento home on Nov. 21, 2009. He was 58. Susan became majority owner and CEO, and she says it wasn’t easy. “The first few years operating the team was a huge learning curve for me,” she says. “Discussing the team over dinner is very different from running the day-to-day operations. In the early years, I spent a lot of time asking myself, ‘What would Art do?’”
Susan’s sons, Jeff, 42, and Brent, 38, work for the team too. Jeff is president, overseeing the operations side of the business. “I love the fact that Jeff is involved and loves the River Cats as much as Art did,” Susan says. Brent is coordinator of the merchandise department’s website and research and has, Susan says, “worked for the team longer than either Jeff or me.”
Jeff says he always wanted to do what his father did — run sports teams. When Jeff was growing up, Art was president of the Cleveland Cavaliers of the NBA and CEO of the San Jose Sharks of the NHL. But when Jeff graduated from Southern Methodist University, he took a position at Deloitte in San Francisco. He says he gradually became involved in the sports business, working with his father on special projects, before eventually deciding to move to Sacramento and focus on the River Cats.
But taking on a larger role when his father died was difficult. “It was like drinking from a firehose at first,” Jeff says. “I ended up taking on roles that were not quite my strong suit. … Gradually, you start to figure it out and surround yourself with the right people to complement your skills and fill the gaps.”
Now Jeff works with his mother every day. “I have had the unique experience of working for both my mother and father,” he says. “Both are great in their own way; they each have different styles and strengths. My mother is determined, and when she sets her mind to it, there is no stopping her. She is not afraid to take risks, and when a decision is made … it is time to move forward and execute it. … (It) has been a great learning experience.”
The River Cats recently completed one of their most successful seasons, beating the Columbus (Ohio) Clippers to win the Triple-A National Championship for the third time. They won the Pacific Northern division, making the playoffs for the first time since 2012, then beat the Las Vegas Aviators in the opening round and swept the Round Rock (Texas) Express to win the Pacific Coast League championship, their first PCL title since 2008. They also drew 549,440 fans during the regular season, eighth in all of the minor leagues. And Forbes magazine in 2016 valued the River Cats at $49 million, the highest for any Minor-League Baseball team.
As for the continuation of family ownership, Jeff and his wife Ulrike have two children, now 11 and 8. “I’d love for the kids to work for the team once they are old enough and to eventually own the team,” he says. “However, it needs to make sense for everyone involved, and they need to have that desire to carry on what my father started.”
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