Sports Business: Bringing Coffee to Baseball

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David Robinson expects to make it big in baseball, although he won’t be throwing or hitting a ball as his late father, Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson, did. Robinson’s game is coffee, and he’s negotiating with several major league teams, including the Dodgers, to sell them his Sweet Unity Farms gourmet brand. “We’re in the process of developing our relationship with Major League Baseball,” Robinson says. “We’re in the first stage of the relationship with several teams, and we hope that by the end of the year the relationship [will be] sealed.”

M.L.B. has spent more than $300 million with women- and minority-owned businesses like Robinson’s through its Diverse Business Partners program, considered the premier supplier-diversity program in sports.

One of the largest and fastest growing industries in the country, the business of sports is buttressed by providers of goods and services—from food, clothing and equipment to transportation, event management and medical services. Accounting for some $213 billion in transactions last year, according to Sports Business Journal, the sports business is more than twice the size of the auto industry and seven times the size of the movie industry. With his name recognition, Robinson sees baseball as a natural entrée point for Sweet Unity Farms to the sports business.

At 53, Robinson has lived in Tanzania for the more than 20 years, although he returns frequently to the United States to help market his coffee. Coffee is a multibillion-dollar industry worldwide, but the farmers in Africa earn barely enough to feed their families, he says. He hopes to help change that. “There are no funds to improve our schools, build basic medical facilities or expand the horizons for our children,” he says. Sweet Unity Farms, a coffee-growing cooperative, is committed to seeing “that every farmer within its group has the facilities and equipment to produce the best coffee possible and receive the maximum financial return,” he adds.

The 350 or so small-scale farmers in Robinson’s Sweet Unity Farms cooperative produce 100 percent African arabica coffee, blending arabica beans from their own home region in Mbozi with beans from the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. Robinson founded the cooperative in 1994. It bears the same name as the farm owned by Robinson and his Tanzanian in-laws. The cooperative exports the green beans to New York, where they are roasted by Eldorado Coffee, a third-generation roaster, in Maspeth, Long Island, and marketed by UpCountry Inter-national Products, the U.S. marketing arm of Sweet Unity Farms.

Clinching contracts with major league baseball teams will be a boon to the cooperative. “The goals of providing consistent services and expansion are hindered by a lack of firm export markets and credit facilities,” Robinson says. Sweet Unity Farms is currently working with Aramark Food Services and Sysco Food Services, two of the top providers to the corporate community. Its biggest client to date is the Cendant Co. in Parsipanny, N.J.