Q & A with Minnesota Stars CEO Djorn Buchholz Regarding USOC Venue Sale to Real Salt Lake
The USSF released a press statement late Tuesday evening, May 22nd and after the 2nd round US Open Cup games. In that press release they announced that both Atlanta and the Minnesota Stars FC sold their 3rd round home venues to MLS sides, Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake respectively.
Atlanta fans seemed to have lashed out at the club with comments posted on Facebook and message boards. Minnesota Stars fans seemed to be slightly more forgiving. While frustrated, fans seems to be more understanding of the issues that the 2011 NASL Champions have to deal with as they navigate the professional soccer market without an owner. The Stars are league-owned team.
IMS: Djorn, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions regarding the decision you made to sell the home venue for the 3rd round US Open Cup game to Real Salt Lake.
The first question I have for you is when did you first realize that these USOC games could be purchased by a team with enough money and did that play into your original decision to agree to pay the 12,000 to host the Stars 2nd round game?
Buchholz: This whole situation wasn’t even on our radar screen until 30 minutes before Tuesday night’s match when Bill Manning from Real Salt Lake called my cell phone as the players were on the field warming up, so it did not play into our decision to agree to the hosting fee if we were granted a home game.
IMS: You posted on the IMS website comments that this “opportunity was first presented to us just before kickoff.” Can you tell us a bit more about that process how that came down?
Buchholz: I received a phone call just before 7 p.m. from a Utah-based phone number that I didn’t recognize, so I didn’t answer and let it go to voicemail. The message was from Real Salt Lake President Bill Manning asking me to call him back, which I did. In our brief phone conversation he mentioned that there was an interest from RSL in purchasing the hosting rights to the match. As I said, this wasn’t even something that had crossed my mind, so I told him I needed to make a few phone calls and that I would call him back at the conclusion of the match. I waited to call Bill back until after the match and the deal was struck shortly thereafter.
IMS: It’s been discussed on a few forums that the two teams that sold their games, Minnesota and Atlanta, each have ties to Traffic Sports. Was this a decision made by anyone else beside yourself or was it your call from the get go?
Buchholz: Being a league-owned team, I did need to consult the appropriate people at the NASL.
IMS: Did you consult with anyone else like head coach Manny Lagos and how did he feel about the decision?
Buchholz: The first phone call I made after hearing from RSL was to Manny Lagos who happened to be sitting in Minneapolis serving a suspension from the Open Cup. We both felt that under the right circumstances, it was something that needed to be entertained.
IMS: What sort of things did you lay out in your mind that swayed your decision to sell the game rather than host it? Did the attendance of the last Minnesota-hosted USOC game (Thunder in 2009 against the KC Wizards) against an MLS team on a Tuesday evening help sway your decision?
Buchholz: Heading into the Open Cup this year, I knew that if we were to get a home game in rounds two through four that the turnaround to promote any of these matches was extremely tight. That made me nervous from the get go, but we were prepared to do it. In fact, I have a box of postcards promoting the third round match sitting here next to my desk that we ordered on Monday in the event that we won Tuesday night.
IMS: While RSL is a very good team, they are not the Galaxy or the Sounders as far as a fan draw. If you had been selected to play either of those two teams do you think your decision would have been different knowing the gate might have drawn more or would you have still sold the game?
Buchholz: There are a lot of factors that played into this decision, and one of them is the opponent. If we were scheduled to play the Galaxy, chances are we would have hosted the match. But outside of that draw, it made it much more difficult. Real Salt Lake is a great team and there is history between our clubs in that the last time the Minnesota pro soccer team faced Real Salt Lake in an Open Cup match, we upset them by a score of 6-4 in overtime. But, the Galaxy are a different level from a commercial standpoint.
IMS: You have said that this match “was not sold for peanuts.” What does this mean and how will the amount of money you received from RSL help the team? Will it just help to offset the losses the team has every year or do you plan on using the money for marketing, roster improvements or other such things?
Buchholz: Unfortunately, I can’t give you an exact dollar amount. As we would have done with the revenue we would have earned if we hosted the game, we will use the funds to strengthen the Stars.
IMS: Following up, I understand that you also had the team and front office staff flown out to Salt Lake as part of the package and you asked for the game to by live streamed?
Buchholz: There was absolutely no way we would make this decision without our fans being able to watch the match. RSL was not planning to webcast this match so that was a deal breaker for me. The match will be streamed free of charge via Ustream and we will also be hosting a watch party at the Sweetwater for the fans with free Bud Light and discounted craft taps from an hour before kick-off through the final whistle.
IMS: I would imagine the players might have been as disappointed as anyone as they now have one more road game added to a string of 5 consecutive away matches. They also lost the home field advantage to play an MLS team in front of their own supporters in a year the team has called “The Year of the Fan.” How did you tell the players and what was their reactions?
Buchholz: The initial plan was to tell the players Wednesday morning, however, the news started breaking very quickly. So about an hour into the bus trip home to Minneapolis from Des Moines, I informed them of the change. Initially, you could tell some players were disappointed. After the initial shock, I spoke to several players individually at length during the trip home and they get it. They understand where we are as an organization and the nuances of this business. Now you can tell the players are excited. They are excited to once again go against the odds and get a result. I think that speaks volumes of the type of team we have.
IMS: There are some Stars supporters who are very disappointed with the decision yet understand the financial situation of the team without having an owner. Others feel the finances should not have made any difference in the situation and the USOC should be all about the competition. You’ve said that this “was one of the hardest decisions you’ve made in 11 years in this sport.” Is there anything else you want to say to the supporters about your decision and your take on the opportunity for bigger MLS teams with more cash to buy out smaller teams?
Buchholz: Besides having to walk away from the Thunder following the 2009 season, this has absolutely been the hardest decision I have had to make. I completely understand the disappointment of the fans, and I feel it too. Some of my greatest memories working in this sport involve Open Cup matches at home, against MLS teams. But this decision was unlike any other I have been faced with before. I do appreciate the feedback we have received from our fan base, both positive and negative. We take all of it to heart.