It was a bad year for the Rapids. It was a second straight year of somebody flying a banner over the stadium begging for Kroenke Sports Entertainment (KSE) to sell the club. So, things are not good in Commerce City. But still. DPs were bought. The team was in the playoff hunt for some of the season. There were other good things. The fans kept coming. The team did not get relegated, or Chivas'ed. It could've been worse.
Still, I think overall, Tim Hinchey can't be happy, or comfortable, with where things are. The team is struggling, both financially and in terms of won-lost record. There's no young stud savior coming up, like the Red Bulls Matt Miazga or Chicago Fire's Matt Polster. The acquisition of Kevin Doyle, while a nice first stab at filling the DP slot, was mostly hype, based on the paltry five goals he bagged. Plus there's no comparing Doyle to other teams big DP pickups this year, like Didier Drogba, Andrea Pirlo, Giovani Dos Santos, and Kaka. The team was, at best, second rate in 2015. And the fans noticed.
The responsibility starts at the top. This is an evaluation of the club's overall leadership, which to me means Tim Hinchey and Josh Kroenke, together, without differentiating between the two. Basically, I don't know where the responsibility of the club president and the ownership begin and end: I can't reasonably blame Tim Hinchey for failing to bring in a big time DP if the Kroenkes have only given him an allowance of $1 million for DP signings. Why aren't I evaluating Stan Kroenke? Josh Kroenke seemingly has the responsibility of being his father's local proxy for the running of the Avalanche and the Nuggets. The Rapids owner is listed as Stan Kroenke, but I've never read anything that leads me to believe he's even aware he owns a soccer team. So, it's Josh and Tim.
I'm gonna break it down on the things I think the team's president should be evaluated for. Remember, the goals of the fans and the goals of the owner are sometimes, but not always, aligned. That tension gets felt primarily by the club's president. A good owner/president should do the following things:
1) Craft a winning soccer team
2) Provide a Quality Fan Experience
3) Anticipate the Teams Needs for the Future
4) Turn a Profit
Here we go.
Craft a Winning Soccer Team
The Rapids were bad this year. For documentation to this claim, you could just read this.
Or go back and read everything on this website since March 2015.
Provide a Quality Fan Experience
Divorced from the on-field product, the experience at DSGP is quite good. Parking is free. Ticket prices are reasonable. Food is OK. Beer choices are excellent. The clubs kits and overall merchandising decisions are good: I loved the burgundy kits the past couple years, I loved the alternative kits the past couple years.
There are a couple of areas to improve, for sure. For one, the Rapids have to do more to build C38. I've seen a variety of opinions as to how the club treats its primary supporters group. One gripe I've heard is that C38 is given a block of tickets to sell on it's own, as if they were a de facto sales team, rather than a value-added attraction of Commerce City.
The thing that makes the Colorado Rapids stand out in the crowded local sports market IS C38. The tifo. The drumming. The manic, fervent chants. The Rapids need to grow C38 however they can: free tickets, more banner space, cool giveaways, an improvement to their seating situation, safestands, etc. That's how you get from where we are, which is a respectable MLS originals club, to the dominant sports phenomenon of the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders.
Also, the Rapids should probably expand that supporters group love to the new split-off, Stout Street Bulldogs. Apparently, they don't have recognition from the Rapids. That should change.
The Rapids do well with special events, but there's room for improvement there too.
The Rapids also did a couple of player meet-and-greet events, which looked really cool. (I couldn't go, because they happened right at the time I pickup my kids. Bummer.) They have their annual gear sale. There's fireworks nights for July 4 and for Military Appreciation night.
But other teams have big events like a cool Octoberfest, or a neat fundraiser for a local charity. Other teams have provided free buses for big away matches. Other teams put a lot of energy into Gay Pride Night, or Irish or Jewish Heritage night. The Rapids, notsomuch. Those last three have been poorly organized attempts to sell a few extra tickets. My club in Israel changes its corner flags to rainbow flags for their LGBT pride game. The Rapids need to go beyond selling tickets to the LGBT community and needs to recognize and honor them. Jewish night, for example, basically was totally unpromoted or organized this year, for some reason. Special events needs to grow, and diversify, not shrink and become monolithic.
Anticipate Needs for the Future
How do the Rapids see into the MLS crystal ball to be ready for what comes with MLS 3.0 and 4.0?
The first emergent trend is MLS teams creating a USL B-team as a midway stop for their Homegrown players. The Rapids are one of the few teams in MLS that haven't done this. I think it's a blunder. I know that the Rapids affiliation with the Charlotte Independence gives them many of the benefits of a ‘Rapids 2' type team, but in the end, it's just a place to stash three or four players that would be sitting on our bench. It's not a place to bring up our best academy players and give them game experience. It also doesn't promote the Rapids brand or build soccer fans in the state, like a USL team in Boulder or Colorado Springs or Fort Collins would. It costs money. But it's really just a smart long-term investment in the brand.
Another emerging trend is the focus on developing homegrown talent. That comes with a strong youth development program and a strong academy. There's no strong indication that things have been going especially well, as the Rapids haven't promoted a player from the academy to the big club since 2012, and the academy teams haven't particularly distinguished themselves.
On the other hand, the Rapids did hire an Executive Director for their youth program, Charlie Slagel, a former D1 NCAA head coach of Davidson College. The team also named former Rapids player and Scottish international Jamie Smith as Head of Development for the academy. Those are good steps.
But, I want the Rapids to go further. I'd like to see the Rapids add a residential school in the model of Barcelona's La Masia. The Philadelphia Union opened their own academy school this past year. We should be aggressively pursuing cutting-edge practices in developing soccer talent. I'd like to see strong growth from and focus on the academy, since Colorado lacks the ‘cool MLS destination' status of a Los Angeles, New York, or Miami. The Andrea Pirlo's are never going to want to move to Denver. We need to generate our own Pirlos, not wait till they're past their prime and want an Upper East side condo to grab them. It's unclear if the Rapids leadership holds the same view.
Another area the Rapids struggle with is mass appeal with a Latino fan base. In a city that is 30% Latino, Rapids games are, well, not representative of the broader population, lets say*. There is so much untapped potential in the hispanic community. Spending more on marketing and advertising to Latinos; developing Spanish-speaking youth clubs on the west side of Denver and in Aurora; buying a Mexican DP; crafting a real relationship with a Liga MX club; helping to develop a Barra Brava supporters group; all of it could grow the Rapids fan base into a community that Univision has proven can really put MLS on the map. They also will buy scarves, and cable packages, and family four-packs, and put their kids in Rapids youth leagues.
While the Rapids still struggle to appeal to Latinos, the Rapids do do an excellent job of getting many soccer families to come see the senior team. The South Stand is lousy with youth soccer players and their parents from leagues and teams all across the Front Range. The ‘Pids have done a great job growing the game beginning with local kids. And long long term, that may have an impact in both player development and turning the turnstiles with more soccer fans. So they should be lauded for that.
Turn a Profit
Tim Hinchey and Josh Kroenke had two big profit generating successes this past year. First, they forged the first successful kit sponsor in Rapids history, bringing insurance and financial company Transamerica in as the club's primary sponsor. It's a great step for the club, and helps to give the club more of a chance to spend in order to compete going forward. Second, Kroenke was successful at getting Don Garber to locate the 2015 MLS All-Star at Dicks Sporting Goods Park. In an MLS with newer stadia than DSGP, in nicer climates, with newer and more successful teams, and teams that draw much larger attendances, convincing Garber and company to have the ASG in Commerce City was a great accomplishment. It showed off the beautiful facility and re-established the Rapids as a club to be envied. Remember, kids, it could be worse. Fellow MLS originals DC United and the New England Revolution are still waiting to get out of decrepit throwball-specific stadia.
Still, the Rapids brass would be happier if those two financial coups had resulted in a profitable year.
The most important thing to Stan Kroenke, as a man who owns sports teams not as a vanity project or as a superfan, but as a money-making venture, is, well, making money. On one metric, the Rapids only slightly fail, and on another, they are a resounding success.
According to a recent report by Forbes, the Rapids lost around $3 million this year. That's holding steady from past years: in 2012 they lost $2.9 million and in 2009 they lost $2.2 million.
So that's not great for Mr. Hinchey and Mr. Kroenke. However, having Altitude as your broadcaster hides some of that income. That's because the amount the Altitude ‘pays' to the Rapids for the rights to broadcast home games is perhaps artificially low - there may not be any payment at all. Essentially, the right hand pays the left hand for the programming, since both are owned by KSE.
Still, the Rapids didn't make money; they lost money in 2015, and that's bad. It might be about the losing.
Having a winning team might be the magic bullet to generating a profit in the near term. A winning team would sell more jerseys. The Rapids might be able to justify raising ticket prices. They might sell more season tickets. They could generate higher ad sales on television. However, it also costs more to produce a winning team. Although the teams that reached the MLS Cup final did not have any superstar Euro talents on them, the trend in MLS is that it takes two or three $2 million+ DPs to compete. Dropping $4 million on two players with no guarantee of return is a risky investment, and one that KSE may not be inclined to make.
That's because, in reality, having an operating profit or loss from year to year is unimportant. The real money is in the club's valuation.
The Rapids were estimated to be worth $31 million in 2008. They were estimated at $76 million in 2013. This year, they were estimated to be worth $105 million. That's an increase of 27% from 2013 to 2015, and more than a tripling of value in seven years. If your retirement was getting those kinds of numbers, you could quit working in your 40s. KSE's not in this to win championships, or turn annual operating profit. They're in it to hold onto a reliable and valuable asset that triples in value every couple years. As long as MLS and the Rapids stewards don't completely run the team into the ground a la Chivas USA, they can be considered a success.
Which is kind of a bummer for fans, since there's no clear mandate to produce a winning team; the thing fans desire the most. That's not to say that a ‘for profit' sports ownership mindset can't produce winning sports teams;. It's just that the evidence isn't there that KSE cares about winning. The only Kroenke team has ever won a championship in the time that Stan was the majority owner... was the 2010 Colorado Rapids, and that was a bit fluky, since the team finished 7th in the regular season.** Arsenal has a decent shot this year, too, though. If the Rapids turn it around in 2016, we'll have some positive evidence that KSE wants to produce winning teams. If it doesn't, I think we can expect that axes will fall. KSE may not care about winning, but I doubt they'll stand idle if their mismanagement of their investment threatens to wreck the sell-on value of the club.
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* - The fan base is overwhelmingly white.
** - An earlier version of this article forgot that the Rapids won in 2010 and that Kroenke owned the team at that time. Oops.