Thursday, May 18, 2017

An interview with Brian Auld, President of the Tampa Bay Rays - Part 1

On May 5, 2017, I had the opportunity to chat with Brian Auld, President of the Tampa Bay Rays. Our conversation in the administrative offices of Tropicana Field lasted nearly 40 minutes as the Rays prepared to play the Blue Jays. At the time, the team was 15-15. Many thanks to Brian and Razi Amador Fink for their time.

(This is Part 1 of our discussion. Part 2 here.)

Let’s start with the big picture, what is the state of the Rays right now?

Brian Auld: As of yesterday, we were .500. Hopefully tomorrow we will be a game over. So the state of the Rays is good.

Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way. What is new with the stadium situation?

There is nothing brand new. But the good news is that our due diligence process over the last year has lead us to believe there is a greater amount of support for Rays baseball in the Tampa Bay region as a whole than we are currently generating at Tropicana Field. That’s a positive development for us. The other positive is that politicians, elected officials, and business leaders on both sides of the bay, and certainly fans are intent on keeping the Rays in Tampa Bay and we certainly want to stay in Tampa Bay. So I think that when all these minds get together and get creative, we are going to figure out a way to do that.

The difficult part is that it is very difficult. It is a very big challenge. Your blog has documented it as well as anywhere as. The attendance issue that we face is that we are not missing by a few hundred people, we are missing by 10,000 plus. The goal we’ve had is to be at league average, or certainly be league average or above when we are playing good baseball, which I think we are now, and we certainly have in the last 10 years. So those challenges are very real. And figuring out if/when/how we are able to build a ballpark that will allow us to cross that hurdle is a major endeavor. It is something we are taking very seriously, have a lot of sharp people on, and I am optimistic that we will figure something out in the next year or so at least.

Recently, you had a luncheon with the Tampa Chamber. How did that go?

It was great. Our players cracked a bunch of jokes and showed people their human side, which I think is always fun. Matt, Kevin, and I were able to talk a little about how the team is doing. We were also able to address a little of the stadium issues for those people and let them know we want to hear from them. It’s important to us and it’s important to Major League Baseball that people stand up and say ‘We want this team here. We want this team in our community and we are going to fight to keep it and we are going to help the Rays generate the kind of revenue you need to be successful’.

I’ve gone to one of those luncheons before in Tampa and the first question is always ‘Will the stadium be built in Tampa?'. I would assume your St. Pete luncheons get the same question but in reference to St. Pete or Pinellas.

That’s good and it is great that everyone thinks the best place for the ballpark is right next to where they live. And you much prefer that to the opposite – get them out of our town. So that is a common question. Another question I am often asked is ‘What is wrong with Tropicana Field?’ to which my answer is always ‘Nothing.’. We’ve put 30 million dollars into this facility and made it a great place to watch baseball.

However, it is aging. And as you are aware, other than the very old ballparks that have had significant facelifts, Tropicana Field is among the oldest in the entire game. People forget it predates the team by 10-15 years. We have some infrastructure issues that we have to deal with and that are getting more expensive every year – the pipes are starting to wear, things like that. But my main problem with Tropicana Field is that not enough people come to watch Rays baseball here. That’s really it. If we were bringing 30,000 people a night every night, we wouldn’t be talking about how we to explore the entire region to find the optimal site.

On that note, what I’ve seen is that from 2008-2010 you were doing well – selling out games against division opponents – then there was a slight drop, and then after 2013, your average attendance dropped again. Could that have been because of the front office changes? Or is any of because with Jeter, David Ortiz, and others retiring, opposing fanbases aren’t coming out as much?

Certainly 2008-2010 were the high water marks for us. But for a team coming off an incredible World Series run and regarded as one of the best teams in baseball during those years, we didn’t hit nearly where we wanted to be. And those sell-outs were after we closed off 10,000 seats. It is important that we convey that even during that time, we still didn’t reach the league average that we were shooting for. Then we continued to be successful through 2013. The drop-off after that, I think, has been because of team performance, more than I would say Jeter or Ortiz. When the Yankees and Red Sox are good, their fans do show up more. That said, we would rather be on top of them in the standings and bring in our own people regardless. That is not something we want to be dependent on.

We are trying to do everything we can. We have tried a lot of different strategies to bring people in. The concert series, for example, use to be a very good way for us to get to 30,000. I think we brought in comparable acts in latter years and didn’t get anywhere near there. So we’ve asked ourselves is it better to have premium giveaways? What else can we try? We are trying a doubleheader this year – a single gate doubleheader. We are going to continue to be creative, to come up with something that works, and then understand that even though we do something that works for a little while, it may not last.

All of that said, if you go back from 1998 to now, the trend has been overwhelmingly positive. One thing I like to tell people is that since I got involved in the organization under Stu Sternberg’s leadership, the progress we have made in the last 10-12 years has been phenomenal. If we can make this same progress over the next 10-12 years, we won’t be having this conversation. And I believe the region is moving in the right direction. St. Pete is a dramatically different city than it was 10 years ago. The Tampa Bay region has become more of a region – there is a lot more cooperation on both sides of the bay. People are getting used to driving over the bridge a little more than they used to. They are saying nicer things about it to each other. So all of that to me means we are moving in a positive direction, and that, more than anything, is why we want to be here. That’s why we never petitioned the City of St. Petersburg to look outside of Tampa Bay. This is where we want to be.

When you look at some of the other local organizations such as the Lightning, and the involvement Jeff Vinik has in hotels and property, and the Rowdies, and all Bill Edwards is doing, do you feel the Rays are falling behind or having to play catch up because of your location and the political hurdles?

I think the Rays organization and brand is very, very strong. We are really proud of that. I think any non-profit the Rays have worked with feels good about how we have supported them. I think we have found a way to touch everyone in the Tampa Bay region and we are getting better and better at doing that every year. You can’t run around Tampa Bay anymore and not see Rays gear. There was a time when we first got here that we gave free tickets to anyone with a Devil Rays hat on. We’ve come a long, long way and I think we continue to move in a very positive direction.

Jeff Vinik and Bill Edwards have a different vision for what they are trying to do than Stu Sternberg and the Rays do. We just want to run a successful baseball team. We want to compete. We want a team that does right by the community, that fulfills our mission to energize the community through the magic of Rays baseball, but we aren’t looking to subsidize our baseball team with development projects. We want to leave that to developers. Which by the way, Jeff and Bill have either become or learned about or hired the right people to bring into the mix. And that’s great. I think it is tremendous. Especially how Jeff is actively involved in shaping the future of Tampa and Tampa Bay. What he is doing with transportation right now, I am incredibly grateful for. But we try to focus on what we know, which is how to run a baseball team and I think we have done a pretty good job of that.

Do you meet with any of the other local sports owners to discuss overall direction?

Definitely. Stu knows the Glazers well. He knows Jeff well. I know Brian Ford of the Bucs and Steve Griggs of the Lightning. I just had coffee the other day with Rick Baker and talked to him about St. Pete. We all have very cordial relationships. We are competitors, but not in a traditional sense. We all recognize that we are all going to do well together, and we are all going to struggle together. We have the same struggles, so we all try to help each other out. We all get along, we root for each other’s teams. We all want each to do well, because more than any other sports region in the country, we are all tied to what happens here. So goes Tampa Bay, so will go the teams. Right now, things are moving in the right direction.

What about in the market of baseball in Tampa Bay with Spring Training, Minor League Baseball, etc.? I’ve heard you have read some of what I’ve written.

Yeah, you have pointed it out very well. Sometimes it scares me how many options there are.

My premise is that if, for example, a family has $200 in January to spend on baseball for the year, there are a lot of different games they can spend it on.

It doesn’t help us, but it is great for baseball and great for Florida. We believe in that. We love having Spring Training here. Our players love it. They get six more weeks at home. It could be a competitive edge for us. We wish all the Minor League and Spring Training teams around us well.

But, does it make it a little easier when you move down from New York and you have the Tampa Yankees right there to hold on to that allegiance and not come over to the Rays? I think it does and it makes our challenge that much more difficult.

I still think we are going to get your kids, though. I think we are seeing that. One of the things I love talking about is that we are just now seeing the first group of kids whose parents grew up as Rays fans. That’s going to start happening more and more. We think that is what is going to make this franchise take off. We don’t have the generational fanbase they have in other markets. And beyond that, we don’t have a group of people who grew up going to games so they think ‘oh, I’ll just bring my kid out to a game’. That’s coming and it’s going to grow stronger and stronger.

Part 2 of this interview coming soon.