Friday, May 19, 2017

An interview with Tampa Bay Rays President Brian Auld - Part 2

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 record was 15-15. Many thanks to Brian and Razi Amador Fink for their time.

(This is Part 2 of the interview. Part 1 is here.)

Are you seeing younger fans becoming Rays fans?

Brian Auld: Well, we put every kid in tee-ball in a Rays jersey. That is one of our community programs. We want them to say they are on the Rays and to be proud of it. And we are on television every night and we are the local team. You go to games here and you might see Dad and Mom in the other team’s gear and kids in the Rays gear. I don’t think the parents are fighting it. I think they get it. I’ve even see a good number of kids who got their parents to change. I think that will really help. And as that strong affinity grows, when you have that $200 and you are trying to figure out where to spend it, I think you are more likely to spend it on your big league team.

That’s our long term plan. It can be frustrating on a daily basis. We do wish we had more revenue so we can compete more aggressively with the other teams in our division. But again, when I think about all we have done in the last 10 years, it has been significant. We have made a ton of progress. And I think ahead 10 years and I really think we will be in a different place and this conversation will be a thing of the past.

Ten years might not be long for a team, but for an individual, ten years is a long time. Are you expecting to be here in 10 years?

It is a thought that crossed my mind. Stu came in as a very young owner and he is 12 years older than he was then. We all want to build that ballpark. We all want to win that World Series and we all want 30,000 people to come in every night. We all want the same type of feeling that rippled through Tampa Bay in 2008 to happen again. It’s hard. You can’t expect it every year. There are 29 other teams gunning just as hard as you are. That’s what’s great about sports.

So it’s crucial we take a long term perspective. But we certainly want things to happen in our lifetime.

If you could compare Tampa Bay to any other size market, which do you look at? On my website, I have used Pittsburgh, is this correct?

I think Pittsburgh is an apt comparison. We look at the Ohio markets as well – Cleveland and Cincinnati. Nowhere is exactly like anywhere else and the Florida markets have a lot of unique things about them, many of which make our job harder. We want fans to be living and dying with us. We want that passion. I think we are generating it. But I understand people want to go to the beach. But the summer is not the most beautiful time to be outdoors. That’s a disadvantage compared to the guys in Toronto, Boston, and New York. But I wouldn’t trade places with those guys at all.

The other thing I would say about Tampa Bay – more so than any other sports market – is that it is still growing, still rising, and still emerging. It is changing every day – physically changing. It is creating an identity. One of the things I love about being in this position is that we are a big part about crafting the future of Tampa Bay. When we stood for LGBT, I think it sent a message about Tampa Bay to the country in the wake of the Orlando incident. When we went to Cuba, it said something about what we are doing here. I meet with the mayors more than my counterparts in any other market. Partly because it is smaller here, and we are a big fish in a slightly smaller pond. I think that is really cool. I like that. I like that no matter where our ballpark goes, it will dramatically affect everything around it in a way that exceeds what it has done in bigger cities because we are less established and we are coming along right now. And anyone you talk to, any of the business leaders, any of the politicians, they all feel like Tampa Bay is coming into its own right now. So it is a really interesting time for us to be doing what we are trying to do.

There is a great energy here. What is going on at USF-St Pete is interesting. Hopkins coming in, the Innovation District, I think I can throw a baseball and hit nine different breweries. And that’s neat. It’s people who are doing stuff. They are starting things and it is cool things. It is redefining what we are all about. St. Petersburg is a really cool place now. I don’t think I would have said that eight years ago or even five years ago. And I think it is great.

On a personal side, can you talk about your decision to take the job with the Rays years ago? What was the career progression that lead you here?

This is a great job. Who wouldn’t want it? (Laughs.) Well, I have always loved baseball and like anyone who loves the game I would have always jumped at the opportunity to work in the game if it came up. But there are 30 teams. I have people all the time ask me ‘How do I get to where you are?’, and I politely explain that there are 25 times more Major League Baseball players than there are people with my job. People understand how hard it is to be a Major League Baseball players, so then they understand that you have to be 25 times luckier than that. Plus, I keep my job longer. So it is really 50 or 100 times more difficult. There are more US senators than people in my job.

I was aware that if I limited my options to just sports, it would be a rough, rough road. That said, we have people here working for at least $10 an hour – because that’s our minimum wage – people who could be making more money somewhere else, who chose to be in baseball and are running down that track as fast as they can. And I admire them for it.

When I graduated college, I wanted to be a teacher. No baseball team was offering me a senior level position at the time, so the option wasn’t there. I absolutely love teaching. It was a very strong passion of mine. I went to business school with the idea of opening up a charter school and coming out of there was a principal of a public school. Then Matt Silverman called me and said his new boss at Goldman Sachs was thinking about buying the Devil Rays and if his boss did that then Matt would be the team president and he asked if I would be interested in being part of that team. It was too cool to say no to.

I didn’t believe him at first. We were 27 and 28 at the time. I didn’t understand why someone with the means to buy a baseball team would hand the keys over to us and Andrew Friedman as well. But he did and the three of us came down here and had an absolute blast trying to get this business turned around. We worked as hard as we could and so far, so good.

How has the perception of the Rays front office changed among other teams since the days you began here?

I spent my first eight or nine years here very focused on the internal. It was building the mission, creating an “employee-first” culture. We created a great place to work and then told people to do more with less. I think that foundation is important to what we have done here. And it extends to the clubhouse. I think a lot of players want to be here because they feel like we do everything we can for them. Matt was the team president then, so when I got there I was relatively young compared to most of them. We had stopped being the Devil Rays and become the Rays. We were highly respected on the business and baseball side.

I’ll tell you Stu and Matt both think a lot of minds changed after 2008. They were invited to sit a lot more tables. And not everyone has been to a World Series. It is a big deal that we did it and we sustained it for a few years. We won a lot of people over in the room. And that’s a really important room. Going back to the ballpark, we have to convince 29 other teams that building a ballpark here is a good move. Not just for us, but for them. They send a lot of money down here through the revenue sharing program and as the A’s have found out in the most recent CBA (collective bargaining agreement), those payments are not necessarily guaranteed. We certainly cannot build a new ballpark if it means sacrificing revenue sharing. So we are going to need baseball’s blessing and we going to do what we have to to get that. If they think we are on a foolhardy journey and a new ballpark won’t improve revenue, they we might as well stay here in a paid-for ballpark.

Are they sold on Tampa Bay? What is the feeling of other owners and front offices?

There is a healthy skepticism. I think it is warranted. Prior to 2008, I think a lot of folks thought it was the organization. We hadn’t had a lot of winning and we hadn’t done a lot to earn corporate partnerships nor sell season tickets. But that six year run we went on from 2008 to 2013, when we won 90 games five times and made the postseason four times, that was really good. I don’t know how long you have been doing your website, but anyone writing back then thought attendance would jump dramatically and it would have far exceeded what it did. That has given rise to some skepticism.

What I tell everyone in this process is that we need skeptics. You should be challenging everything I say. Our elected officials need to make decisions they feel good about. Don’t trust us or believe in what we are saying. Go find your own numbers and do your own studies on economic development opportunities and whether or not we can be a catalyst and everything else. We are talking about a very big endeavor and a huge public-private partnership. The more people who look at it skeptically, the more people who need to be convinced, the more people with open minds, the better. I don’t want to go forward unless a lot of other smart people have looked at this with their own angles and biases and determined that this is what we should do.

Do you think there has been a shift in awareness of public-private stadium funding? We are now seeing people such as John Oliver analyzing it, as well as several websites and other media. Do you foresee more resistance because the public is more aware?

I think there is more awareness. As I said, I welcome that. I take great pride in how we have done this. It probably has been slower that it could be otherwise. I think with the right political donations, I think we might get a vote through the St Pete City Council a year or two early. That’s never what we wanted to do. If the representatives who were elected to represent St Pete didn’t think that deal was the right deal – I still to this day don’t understand why they didn’t want to let us look on both sides of the bay given the circumstances – but if we couldn’t convince five of the eight of them, we still have a place to play baseball. That’s their job and we welcome that.

Same thing with the public. One thing that I like to tell people is we have to have a conversation about the value of Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay, because it is expensive. What troubles me is the “not one public dollar to stadiums under any circumstances” or even worse the supposition that we can pay for it ourselves but we don’t because we are whatever negative terms people want to use. Then people often point to franchise valuations that exist in magazines but aren’t necessarily real and certainly can’t be monetized.

The best example I have been able to come up with for that is if you are living in your house and it goes from a $100,000 to million dollar house, you still just have your house. The only way to get $900,000 in cash is to sell your house. Then the person who buys your house, they don’t have the $900,000 either. So we can’t access theoretical franchise increases in a way to pay players. It’s not doable. We may be able to borrow a little bit more, and over the years we have done that, and we are able to increase payroll. It’s not as easy as saying Forbes just estimated us at $900 million, so we can pay our players $300 million, because that cash does not exist. And when you look to buying a new ballpark, that money doesn’t exist for that either. We have to finance whatever we put into the new ballpark.  And whatever we put into the ballpark could be used for payroll or other operations of the ballclub. In the event we were able to finance a ballpark – and the most recent ones have billions in the price tag – we would need 85,000 people paying $100 a night to be able to do that. That’s just not how it works.

That’s why our vision has always been for our ballpark to be a public asset and for the community to have a say in how we go about it. We want to meet as many public needs as possible.

What are some of the more unique ideas you have received in regards to the ballpark?

First, whatever we do has to be tied to a transportation plan that can unlock all of Tampa Bay’s potential. My favorite is that we started by saying we wanted to create a baseball experience like no other. Baseball is king. Second, we want to make our ballpark accessible for public use 365 days a year. Why not open the gates and let kids play wiffle ball here in the winter?

As we thought it through, the ideas to make it an accessible place to be 365 days a year are blending with the baseball experience. For example, we need a place where we serve 30,000 people food. What do we do with those kitchens in the other 280 days a year? Could we turn it into a community kitchen? What would that entail? What would it look like? When you start thinking about those things, a community kitchen that can serve fans would be even cooler.

Building it in an open and accessible way might make for a different experience. Bellying up the bar to order your food might not be the way we do things in the new place. My favorite idea, and I am not sure if we are going to do anything with this, is that we have been watching sports the same way since the days of the Greeks and the Romans. Long rows of seats. If you are stuck in the middle, it is a horrible seat. So can we not do something like a horseshoe with a table in the middle?

We don’t have to jam 50,000 people into the smallest footprint possible. We have a smaller market. Let’s take advantage of that and have a place where people are more comfortable and it is more conducive to watching baseball and rethink how we put the seats out there. Engineers are mulling this over. I’m sure I am not the first ever to think of this. But it is that kind of thought process that we are bringing to this endeavor.

I think when we get this done, you will see the first in a new generation of ballpark. People forget Tropicana Field was the last of a previous generation.

I think about the energy they must have had to get Tropicana Field built. We mentioned the growth in St. Pete. It is still the smallest city in Major League Baseball. Although it is growing incredibly. I can’t imagine the foresight people had years ago to imagine Major League Baseball here without a team.

Last question, are you optimistic about the rest of the season? Do you think the Rays can compete?

I think so. We’ve played a very tough schedule so far. And we are .500. Without the guy we thought was going to be our starting shortstop. We just got Colby Rasmus back. Mallex Smith, who is supposed to fill some holes for us, he has been hurt for a little while. Some of our bigger names are not having career years. And we are hanging in there. I think if we keep fighting the way we are, you will see a team that is in it for the long haul. It is a fun team to root for. They are not concerned with any of the things we have been talking about. They just want to win ballgames.