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Auld: Rays Focused on Building Rowdies Up in USL, Still Dreaming Big

Now over half a year into the Tampa Bay Rays’ tenure as owners of the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Rays President Brian Auld believes the transition has been seamless.

The trick to achieving that has been letting the people who know the ins and outs of the sport and the Rowdies do their thing. Auld, who also serves as vice-chairman for the Rowdies along with Rays President Matt Silverman, says they felt comfortable taking on a more supportive role at the outset after meeting with Rowdies Chief Operating Officer Lee Cohen and Head Coach Neill Collins.

“More than anything with the Rowdies we have done the same thing we try to do with the Rays, which is give really good people the space they need to do their jobs in a really great way,” Auld tells The Unused Substitutes. “Right out of the gates when we met with Lee and Neill it was clear that they had a vision and a plan. It happened to be a vision and a plan that we really liked the sound of also. So we just wanted to support them 100% and see what we had in those two leaders as well as the rest of the organization.”

It’s hard to argue with the results on the field so far. Despite a significant amount of roster turnover the Rowdies remain unbeaten and at the top of Eastern Conference 12 matches into the USL Championship season. The mostly new-look squad did suffer its first setback of the year on Tuesday as it exited the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup with 4-3 loss to Oklahoma City Energy FC.

The high number of changes of the roster was at the impetus of Collins and his staff, who aimed to establish a younger energy heading into his first full season in charge. Jordan Doherty, 18, and Caleb Richards, 20, have contributed well to the Rowdies while on loan from Sheffield United and Norwich City. Both of those English sides recently earned promotion to the Premier League and the Rowdies have struck up a formal partnership with Norwich City that the club hopes will see more future youth players make their way to Tampa Bay.

Auld thinks having the Rays onboard, and everything they offer as a major league franchise, helped make the Norwich City partnership happen.

“I think having our training staff at (the Rowdies’) back is enormous, knowing that they can go to Rays’ doctors for the top doctors and trainers anywhere in the area is certainly helpful,” he says. “We made it very clear that we wanted this be an organization that was attractive to players. We weren’t necessarily just competing financially for the best players in the USL, but also through the product that we provide to players as a developmental tool. I think those things have been heard loud and clear.”

Perhaps the biggest difference with the ownership change is between the people cutting the checks. In his time as owner, Bill Edwards liked to have a hand in nearly in every decision across every department at the Rowdies. Rays principal Stuart Sternberg has remained mum on the Rowdies since the purchase. He has taken in a match at Al Lang this year and apparently loves that they’re already winning a lot, but his focus remains primarily on the Rays, according to Auld. Running the Rowdies and seeing that they have what they need to be successful is squarely on Auld and Silverman’s shoulders.

Their task with the Rowdies is very different from their focus with the Rays, mainly because of the drastic financial differences between the two organizations.

“We are, with the Rays, competing against the New York Yankees. That never leaves our mind. Everything we do is about trying to make sure we fight that uphill battle,” according to Auld. “With the Rowdies it’s a little more fun. We’ve gotten to the top of the table and I think there’s good reason to believe we can stick around there for a while. I think the plan that’s been executed on that front has been a little simpler but every bit as effective. We think if anything we bring a little bit of management expertise, a little bit of cushion financially to the Rowdies organization. But the people who were with the Rowdies are running it today and they’re just doing a darn good job.”

Auld attended a few Rowdies matches with his family before this year, but his trips to Al Lang for match-days this year have been a bit more regular, including last week’s win over Swope Parke Rangers.

“I was just giddy with the number of people in Rowdies shirts and Rays’ hats. The baseball game had gotten delayed so it was being played at the same time and I saw I wasn’t the only person checking the score on my phone. I certainly think the St. Pete and Tampa Bay sports fan definitely has space in their heart for both teams, but the Rays crowds and the Rowdies crowd certainly look different, they feel different.”

The numbers in the stands have been solid so far for the Rowdies. Their season attendance average of 5,963 is only 0.8% down from last year’s number at this point. The May 18 match against New York Red Bulls II drew 7,210, which is the first time they’ve had a crowd above 7,000 for a match that wasn’t a home opener, finale, or attached to post-match concert or fireworks show.

“We need to do better, and we need to build on what I think is a pretty compelling argument that for $20-30 you can watch a great soccer team in one of the best venues on the planet. We need to be selling more tickets in that way,” Auld says. “We need the Rowdies to become a more sustainable enterprise than they are so far. What I’ll say, it’s no different than with the Rays, we’re gonna take whatever revenues we have and reinvest them into the product. It’s about building soccer in the community. It’s about making them the best organization they can be, but one of the ways you do that is with a dedicated fanbase that supports the team financially. That’s the long-term plan.”

Now that the Rays have their bearings with the Rowdies, they’re exploring different ways to synergize the two. Select Rowdies merchandise is already available at Tropicana Field, you can find Rowdies pocket schedules throughout the MLB park, and they’ve had some Rowdies promos play between innings.

A bigger step towards synergizing the two teams is selling combo tickets for both when they’re playing on same day in downtown St. Petersburg and start times line up. A lot would go into pulling it off, but it’s something they hope to implement in the near future.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be a massive success right out of the gates, but on the Saturdays where we have a day game for the baseball team and an evening game for the Rowdies we think it’d be a lot of fun to get those fans of both to figure out a way to build a little community and join one another and sort of head from one site to the other, stop at maybe a couple sponsors along the way and get a cocktail or two and really just make an incredible Saturday out of it. I know I’m planning on doing that so maybe I’m just trying to find an excuse to get some friends to do it with me,” Auld jokes.  “It kinda speaks to how we feel about the Rowdies franchise. It’s such a great place for us to experiment within our larger organization. We’ve given some real leadership opportunities to try special things, so we’ve got someone who’s gonna try to make those days special. We’ll see how well it’ll work, what it works for and what the outcomes are. But regardless I think that trying those makes the organization stronger as a whole.”

Bring the two teams together also presents other challenges, such as with public perception. The Rays stepping to buy the Rowdies caught most by surprise considering the Major League Baseball franchise’s uncertain future in the area. With the Ybor City proposal falling through late last year, the Rays can only seek a new stadium deal in Pinellas County. Meanwhile their lease to play at the Trop is set to expire at the end of 2027. Sternberg expects to give St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman an answer this summer on if the Rays will pursue a new stadium in the city.

All the drama obviously gave Rowdies supporters pause when they learned the Rays would be taking over from Edwards, who included a provision that the Rays keep the Rowdies at Al Lang in St. Pete for five years.

“Regardless of what happens with the Rays, we expect the Rowdies to be here for a very long time. Bill Edwards put some provisions into our agreement to make sure that we would honor that and it wasn’t anything we objected to,” Auld says. “I would tell Rowdies fans this organization is gonna be around for a very long time. I hope to be at the helm to the degree that I am for a very long time too because it’s great fun and I think it’s a really exciting way to be involved in this community. I can see why people would be worried that the future of the Rays is linked to the Rowdies. But we don’t actually see it that way internally. What happens with the Rays is probably going to be largely independent of the Rowdies unless there’s a chance for the two organizations to really grow together in way that’s truly compelling, in which case we’ll try to take advantage of that.”

One of Edwards’ big ambitions with the Rowdies was pushing to bring the club to MLS. That took a backseat in his final year of ownership and the Rays have indicated reigniting that cause is not in their immediate plans. However, Auld admits the idea of MLS is something they find intriguing.

“When we allow ourselves to dream, we get really excited about an MLS franchise, just to be candid about it. The best way for that to happen is to have a phenomenal USL team, and that means crowds that are coming out and willing to pay for soccer at that venue and that means a team that continues to excel on the field and an organization that continues to attract players to this destination. What’s nice about it is I think keeping laser focused on the USL team is the best way for soccer to grow in the area anyway. So we don’t have to make a choice between the two things. If we have great success in the USL, we show that this area really loves soccer, and that there’s an opportunity for expansion, I’m sure some doors will open at some point. We like to think we’re pretty good at taking advantage of doors when they open. We’ll just see what comes. But it’s really important for us not to lose focus on what we’re doing now locally here today because of the possibility of something bigger happening in the future.”

While building the fanbases up is a major goal for Auld with both the Rowdies and the Rays, the unique history of the former does not seem to be lost on him. That is in part due to the fans that have come up to him at Al Lang to express their appreciation.

“The Rowdies fans are the oldest sports fans we’ve got in the entire area. I’ve had so many people come up to me and tell me how much the organization means to them, how important our stewardship of this franchise is to them and their families,” he says. “We want to honor that and do a good job for folks who’ve been Rowdies fans much longer than we have. We’re as deep into the fandom as anyone. You can get there pretty quickly when you get an ownership stake. Hopefully some of the ways we’ve decorated Al Lang, the tributes we’ve put up to the Rowdies history indicate that we appreciate the shoulders on which we stand and that we intend do our very best to take the Rowdies to the next level. What we learn, how we learn, what we implement, that’s still very much to be seen. But the early success on the field and the fact that attendance has maintained a nice clip for us are good signs.”

Jake Nutting
Writer at Large for The Unused Substitutes and NASL Beat Writer for Empire of Soccer. Fullbacks are people too.