A Big Hit
In the world series of preseason buzz, Round Rock wins! Round Rock wins!
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NOLAN RYAN MAY BE THE FACE OF THE ROUND ROCK EXPRESS, the latest addition to the Class AA Texas League, but his son Reid is the mastermind of the operation. It was 28-year-old Reid, for instance, who led the campaign to fund a ballpark, buy Mississippi’s Jackson Generals, and move them to the North Austin suburb. And it’s Reid who, as president and CEO, does the hands-on, day-to-day work of running the fledgling team, which is the envy of the league without having played a game. “Do they really have all those skyboxes?” Midland RockHounds general manager Monty Hoppel asked with a reverent sigh when I told him I’d seen the brand-new Dell Diamond, where the Express will play. Yes, they have 24 luxury suites — unprecedented for the minors — as well as a hot tub and a swimming pool in right field. But that they have a franchise at all is just as remarkable.
The Express is riding the crest of a minor league boom that began in 1991, when the Professional Baseball Agreement, the contract between the major and the minor leagues, was amended. To protect their investment in increasingly expensive young prospects, who were more likely to be injured on subpar fields, and to increase their revenue streams, major league owners required that minor league parks be modernized or razed and replaced. Minor-league brass began promoting their teams more heavily in the hope that greater revenue from ticket sales would more than offset their costs, and it worked: Minor league attendance rose from 25.2 million in 1990 to 35.2 million in 1999.
Enter the Ryans. Reid had pitched briefly at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas Christian University and in the Texas Rangers' farm system before parlaying his degree in communications into a job in cable TV. Within six months, he had decided he'd like to own a minor league ball club, having gotten a taste of the business world while sitting on the board of his father's bank in Alvin, and in 1997 he broached the idea with the old man. Nolan bit, enlisting one of his business partners, Don Sanders, a former minority owner of the Houston Astros. Reid began negotiating to buy the Generals, which were for sale, and scouted locations that he could call home. He says that he quickly decided that Austin was "the biggest and best Texas market in baseball that didn't have a team."
In 1995 Austin voters had rejected a proposal to build a stadium for the Class AAA Phoenix Firebirds, who were looking for a new home after the Arizona Diamondbacks were selected as a big-league expansion team; Round Rock also had voted down a stadium in 1990. But Reid attributed those failures to the hefty sales or property tax increases required to fund the proposals. Even when the Ryans got involved, Austin was still unwilling to help much. But then-Round Rock mayor Charlie Culpepper suggested that the hotel-motel tax fund could help build a ballpark without raising taxes. The catch was that they'd have to build a convention center on the site too, because the fund was meant to promote tourism. "That cost us a couple million extra," Reid says, "but if we'd had to build the park ourselves, the price of tickets would have been so high that people couldn't have come."
On April 30, 1998, the Ryans and Sanders bought 70 percent of the Generals for an undisclosed sum (reportedly about $3 million). The next morning, they held a press conference announcing their plans to bring the team to Round Rock and build a $15 million stadium at Old Settlers Park, with the city's contribution capped at $7.35 million. The city would own the ballpark, and the team would lease and run it. Reid and his wife, Nicole, immediately moved to Round Rock.
But there was a problem he hadn't anticipated. "This stadium and convention center would bring lots of people to the city to spend money and would not cost one person in this city one cent," he says. "I was thinking, 'Why would somebody be against this?'" But a small group of citizens were. Crying "boondoggle," they collected more than the three hundred signatures necessary to put the stadium issue on the November ballot. Their funding came primarily from the Texas Hotel-Motel Association, which felt that building a convention center at the ballpark was a ruse for dipping into funds meant for the promotion of tourism.
To combat the opposition, Reid devised an elaborate public relations campaign. Volunteers raised some $50,000, mostly to put pro-baseball signs in front yards all over town; they also ran a newspaper ad in which former presidents George Bush and Ronald Reagan and Governor George W. Bush attested to the Ryans' character. For a set fee, five hundred fans were loaded into buses and driven two hours down Interstate 35 to see the Generals face the San Antonio Missions; Nolan greeted them when they arrived. Reid and Nolan each spoke at service-club meetings. The team staged an ExpressFest for the Downtown Business Association, luring 3,500 potential shoppers downtown one Saturday with a promise to meet Nolan — and since it just happened to coincide with the first weekend of early voting, the poster listed the locations of three ballot boxes. Round Rock residents also received a handwritten appeal from Nolan in their mailboxes. The hard work paid off: Of the 12,000 voters who turned out on Election Day — four times more than the average — 72 percent went to bat for the Ryans.
Eager to prove he wasn't a rich kid playing with Dad's money, Reid began planning the team's maiden season before a single ballot had been cast. His first job was to assemble a crack front-office staff, and he did just that; vice president and general manager Jay Miller and his two assistants, R. D. Sneed and Dave Fendrick, have more than forty years of major league administrative work among them. One year before the franchise's first home game — an April 16 contest against the El Paso Diablos — Express merchandise went on sale. To drum up interest in an I-35 rivalry, Reid staged five regular season games last summer between the Generals and the Missions at UT-Austin's Disch-Falk Field. And the Express began selling season tickets with great gusto. Twenty-three of the luxury suites went for between $22,500 and $27,000 for the season; three rooms in the conference center went for $1,500 per game. The club sold 4,300 season tickets at $450 each and 2,600 Friday Fireworks packages for $90 or $100. At a certain point they had to cut off season ticket sales, because after allowing for about 600 tickets that are designated as comps for players, scouts, and the league, or sold to fans on game days, the 7,816-seat stadium sold out every Friday except for the general admission areas on the outfield berms.
The biggest challenge of all was designing the stadium. Reid imagined it as a composite of perhaps ten ballparks he had seen in the majors and the minors, and it's a marvel to behold. Concession stands would be designed so fans in line could still watch the action on the field, as at Zephyr Field in New Orleans, while Boston's Fenway Park inspired a narrow foul territory, which would allow seats to be close to the baselines. A sports pavilion in right field would set up for basketball, soccer, and the like; nearby would be a swimming pool and hot tub rented to groups on game days. When it became apparent the construction cost would exceed $15 million, the team owners paid the overage. Ultimately, the total cost — including the purchase price of the team — approached $25 million, so it was fortunate that Reid swung a deal with Dell Computer, which agreed to pay $2.5 million over fifteen years to name the park the Dell Diamond. "We got in with a base bid of what was bare bones," he says, "and then we dressed up everything, tried to take it to the fullest. We wanted this to be a facility we're proud to rest our names on, and we found a way to do it," he says. "We wanted a nice, good-looking, upscale ballpark."
They got one, in the process raising the bar for the minors. Now all that remains is for the Express to pull into the station.