The success of the Salem Red Sox leadership team has created new opportunities for two of its key members.
On Thursday, the club will announce that Sox president and general manager Ryan Shelton is leaving next month to accept the position of vice president of business operations at Michigan International Speedway.
Salem assistant general manager Allen Lawrence, who’s entering his 18th season with the club, will take over as GM on an interim basis for the 2019 campaign.
“Ryan has done a really great job,” said Tim Zue, executive vice president and chief financial officer for the Boston Red Sox. “He’s just a unique person who is so incredibly passionate about providing a great fan experience, maximizing the opportunity from a ticket-sales perspective, building strong relationships throughout the community.
“He has grown, and he’s ready for his next challenge. There’s natural disappointment whenever you lose someone you feel is an important part of your team, but I couldn’t be more excited about his opportunity to grow in a new role.”
Shelton and Lawrence have overseen considerable progress since the club put them at the head of their leadership team at the end of the 2013 campaign. Since that time, the Sox have drawn 45 of their 50 highest-attended crowds in Haley Toyota Field history.
Season ticket sales have grown nearly 500 percent and group sales have nearly doubled over the past five years, the club said.
Shelton said the increases have been a total team effort.
“We have a pretty good family tree of people who’ve moved out into other fields,” he said. “A lot of the things that I talk about, they’re not sexy. It’s taking these kids who are out of college and helping them develop and helping them grow these careers.
“The second is just making us financially viable and keeping this sustainable. … My goal is to make sure that baseball in Salem is strong and it’s here 10 years, 20 years, 50 years from now.”
The Sox drew an average of 2,735 fans in 2013. In Shelton’s first year as GM, that average spiked to 3,345.
Shelton was named the Carolina League’s executive of the year in 2015.
“The way he thinks about selling tickets is like nothing I’ve seen before,” Lawrence said. “I’m just glad that we can take bits and pieces of his knowledge and things that he’s trained our staff on and will be able to implement them in Salem. And those are things that are sustainable, that we can keep as we move forward.”
Lawrence, a 40-year-old North Cross graduate, served as the interim GM in the second half of 2013 and was a finalist for the position that Shelton received at the end of that season.
“There’s nothing that he hasn’t done in his 17, 18 years there,” Zue said. “He has more experience, both in minor league baseball overall but in Salem specifically, that anyone could ever hope for.
“From a transitional standpoint, not all organizations when they lose their general manager have a No. 2 that has the experience that Allen has.”
The Sox will hire a vice president of ticketing to aid the transition, Zue said.
In Michigan, Shelton will assume a prominent position at one of International Speedway Corporation’s 11 NASCAR tracks. He’ll be charged with boosting ticket sales, sponsorships and marketing in a challenging time for the stock car racing circuit.
He’ll lean heavily on the lessons learned at his many minor league stops, including Salem.
“As I like to say, it’s not rocket surgery,” Shelton said. “Blocking and tackling is what’s missing. It’s a lot of what Salem was missing. It’s a lot of what Manchester was missing. It’s a lot of what South Carolina was missing. Each stop has been a turnaround.”
The Sox have already mapped out their promotional strategies for the 2019 season, which opens April 4 at Wilmington. Shelton’s last day as GM will be April 14 — the finale of a four-game series against Frederick that launches the home slate.
Lawrence says he’s even more prepared for this role than when he was initially a finalist.
“I’m five-and-a-half years older and five-and-a-half years more experienced,” he said. “I can look back and say that bringing Ryan in at that time was the best thing that this organization’s ever done. And I think that’s set us up for a lot of successes from this point forward. It’s certainly set me up to be successful. Ryan’s been just tremendous these last five and half years.”
And while he won’t miss the 6 a.m. tarp pulls, Shelton does depart the Roanoke Valley with conflicting emotions.
“A lot of great moments, great memories,” Shelton said. “This is a bittersweet thing. We’re legitimately sad to leave. It’s just honestly something we couldn’t turn down. Both financially and the opportunity that they presented, it’s too good to pass up.”