Double vision: Baseball executive tries his hand, er, foot at soccer
After the acquisition of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Tampa Bay Rays President Brian Auld faces the challenge of guiding not one, but two, local sports franchises to victory.
| 6:00 a.m. April 5, 2019
It didn’t come as a big surprise when St. Petersburg real estate and entertainment magnate Bill Edwards sold the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer club in October. Entering his mid-70s and just more than a year removed from double-bypass heart surgery, Edwards had a great five-year run overseeing the franchise — capped by an energetic and expensive yet ultimately unsuccessful push to join Major League Soccer — but acknowledged it was a break-even enterprise at best.
The surprise came in the form of the buyer: The Tampa Bay Rays, Major League Baseball’s attendance-challenged bargain-bin shoppers — but also one of the sport’s most innovative and forward-thinking franchises. The acquisition was a head-scratching move on the part of Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg, who last fall was in the midst of negotiations to build a new $892 million stadium in Ybor City — a deal that collapsed in spectacular fashion in late December, leaving the team contractually bound to play at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg through the 2027 season.
With big questions surrounding both franchises as their 2019 seasons begin, the Business Observer queried Rays President Brian Auld, who also serves as vice chairman of the Rowdies, about the Rays’ search for a new home, the Rowdies’ growth potential and other topics related to the high-risk, high-reward business of sports. Auld, 41, is entering his 14th season with the franchise, and fifth as president, after beginning his career as an elementary school teacher in California. His responses have been edited for grammar and clarity.
“We are a proud organization … but the challenge we’ve faced at the gate, in terms of attendance, has been very humbling.” Tampa Bay Rays President Brian Auld
For a major-level sports executive, you have an unusual background. How has your early experience as an educator contributed to your success?
Teaching is just incredible experience. While my colleagues were just getting started in the business world, when you have to be “on” every single day and you’re responsible for 25 kids, you learn about planning, you learn about how to connect with people, no matter what. There’s something about trying to get an idea through to a 9-year-old that makes you realize that just yelling at them for not understanding is not going to be productive, so you have to try another route.
Bill Edwards put a lot of money into the Rowdies but didn’t turn much of a profit. How do you intend to make the team successful on the field but also profitable and a good return on investment?
Anyone who's looked at the Rays’ way of operating over the past few years would be hard-pressed to suggest that profitability has been the main goal. The priority is making sure we have people at Rowdies games, making sure we’re spreading soccer in the region and making sure we're good stewards of this incredible community asset. Our ownership group has enough of a long-term focus that we believe that if we do things right, we’ll see some good cash-flow years, some bad cash-flow years, but when all is said and done, we’ll look back and it will be a pretty decent investment.
Many businesspeople like to use sports metaphors and jargon when talking about their work, but how is running a professional sports franchise different than, say, making widgets?
We truly believe we are stewards of a community asset. We have a responsibility to the fans of Tampa Bay, to the people who secured these franchises, to the organizations’ histories, to do it right. That doesn't always mean maximizing the bottom line — and that's just fundamentally different. But other businesses don’t have some of the built-in advantages that we have. You can't just drop another Major League Baseball team down the road from us and compete against us. And when we have a tough year, the rest of the league props us up because we need all the teams to be healthy.
How many hours of soccer do you think you’ve watched since the Rays acquired the Rowdies?
Fifty, if I had to put a number on it. I'm one of those people who, when the World Cup was in Korea, was waking up at 4 in the morning to watch the games. I’ve been one of those soccer fans that the United States laments, the ones who tune in every four years in a big way but haven’t had that local team to really grasp on to.
Did that mindset factor into the Rays’ decision to acquire the Rowdies? In other words, did you sense that the market for soccer in the United States, and particularly Florida, was ripe for exploration and potential exploitation?
The Tampa Bay region is on the rise. St. Petersburg, specifically, is on the rise. Soccer is on the rise. And we feel like we have some expertise around sports, around this region, around this city. And so it just made a ton of sense for us. Ultimately, we did it for a lot of the same reasons that went into purchasing the Rays in the first place: a belief in west-central Florida, a belief in the industry, in sports, and that it would be a lot of fun. Truly, that’s it. If we thought the Rowdies were going to be a giant headache, I don’t think we’d be the new stewards of this team.
The Rays were competitive last year, winning 90 games and narrowly missing the playoffs, and they became national media darlings due to their innovative use of an “opening” pitcher. Yet they drew just over 14,000 fans, on average, per game — the lowest attendance in more than a decade. What needs to be done to capitalize on the buzz around the team in terms of boosting attendance?
We are a proud organization … proud of what we’ve done and how we’ve done it — both the success we’ve had on the field and the way we run our business. But the challenge we’ve faced at the gate, in terms of attendance, has been very humbling. We believed that winning would be the cure-all, but the challenges are more than that, and so we continue to try to attack those. We try to do it with a candor that can make it difficult in terms being darlings to the local community. But it’s the only way we know how to do it … we think it’s the right approach. I know I hear a lot of buzz around the team and my fingers are crossed that people will come out and experience it, but attendance is the single biggest challenge we face.
As a business leader, how do you deal with a major setback like the demise of the Ybor City stadium deal?
I don’t have a lot of regrets about how that went down, what we did or the way it happened. In our minds, we were up front with people about what we needed to make it happen: a heck of a lot of corporate support, a lot of public financing support and a lot of political support. We needed those three things for it to be successful. If those three things aren’t there, we're not going to stomp our feet and scream and yell that they should be. But I think we’ve learned a few things about how to approach it going forward.
Does that mean you will consider stadium sites in St. Petersburg or Pinellas County if you find “those three things” there?
That’s a major challenge. We need the support of Major League Baseball, not just Stu Sternberg, which means attendance is going to have to increase — and increase dramatically. We’re going to need commitments — commitments with teeth — from local corporations that demonstrate that a lot more season tickets are going to be purchased. We're going to need the public to come out with full-throated support for it, both at the city and the county levels, and then we’re still going to have a boulder to push up the hill. I am eager to get to work on pushing that boulder and hope we have the opportunity to do that. But it needs to happen soon because our lease expires at the end of the 2027 season.
In a perfect world, where would you locate a new Rays stadium?
In a perfect world, we would build a Rays stadium anywhere that we're going to be able to draw a lot of fans in the Tampa Bay region. We would absolutely put it anywhere that solves the problem of keeping the team in Tampa Bay and getting people to come out. That’s what we've been struggling to figure out. We don't have that answer. If I did, I wouldn't be sharing it just with you … I'd be screaming it from the rooftops.
Will you continue the effort, begun under Bill Edwards, to transform the Rowdies into a Major League Soccer club?
We don’t have any plans to put in an effort. If we catch anyone working on an MLS plan, we are going to say, “Get focused — we’re a USL team.” We’re going to bring a USL championship to this town and this great franchise. But when I’m daydreaming, does it not sound amazing to have an MLS team? Of course it does. But it’s not the right time for us to be doing that. Let’s just stop and smell the roses that are right in front of us, which is a terrific league and a terrific team.