If things go according to Dean Johnson’s plans, the Minnesota Thunder may have a new look next year. Not necessarily on the field, but in regard to the team’s overall image and business operations. Johnson is the owner of the Thunder along with WingField business partner Henk Habers. Johnson said in an interview conducted via phone last Saturday that he plans to recapitalize the Thunder.
“We’re not public so none of that information has to be public information,” said Johnson from Chicago, Illinois where he was wrapping up some WingField business. “WingField is a separate organization obviously. WingField is the owner but effectively it’s me and Henk (Habers). We did a huge capital increase in equity this past year. We have a very stable and positive outlook in our company.”
Johnson answered questions concerning rumors that the Thunder had not yet paid their players for the second half of their September paycheck and still owed some players bonus money. The Thunder front office was also said to have been forced to take a mandatory vacation the week of October 5th.
“The players should be paid within the next week for sure,” stated Johnson. “We’ve been making numerous transfers throughout the year, some more significant than others. I was under the impression that we had enough to cover that but there wasn’t so I had to transfer some more money.”
The St. Paul native who now lives in Brussels, Belgium, which is WingField’s headquarters said, “We transferred significant amounts of money over the course of the last 9 months to address the numerous operational shortfalls with the Thunder which I think most sports franchises are experiencing this year. So I don’t think we are in any way unique in that regard. Unfortunately because of the economic dislocation in the world the budgeted income wasn’t what was anticipated. Therefore we had some shortfalls that exacerbated things.”
Johnson said that he and Habers are dedicated to the club and will continue investing in it. “It was my decision to go forward to buy the Thunder. I was always in contact with the former owners of the Thunder, both when Bill George was the owner and (Saeed) Kadkhodaian. I had been speaking to various people and kept in touch with Jim Froslid. I wanted to make sure that if the opportunity came about to purchase the Thunder that I was in line to do that. Henk Habers, being a good business partner and a great sports fan, was very eager to go along. The local passion for the club is about my being from Minnesota.”
“I don’t expect it to turn a profit in the next year or two or three,” said Johnson. “This is an investment phase we are in. We purchased the team in August of 2007. From that moment on we invested significantly in the club. We enhanced the professionalism of the club. We enhanced the quality of the team by investing significantly in the player budget and we will continue to do that.”
Johnson went on to say that they will continue to invest in the player budget as other teams improve their budgets, and he wants the Thunder to be an organization in which “our fan base can be proud of and can identify with.” He also stated that he agrees with those that have said that there may have been too much player turnover in the past several years and hopes to keep this year’s core group of players together, adding strategically to the team to make them better and stronger.
“One of the reasons the level of play is so good in USL is because player budgets have gone up,” stated Johnson. “Some of the significant improvements in some teams in USL from 2008 to 2009 was their willingness to invest in players which obviously I think we need to do. It’s our ambition and aspiration to be at a level as high as possible. We will also be looking at the overall performance of last year and make some changes and adjustments as necessary.”
The Thunder owner said that even though the results on the field may not have shown it, the Thunder were an improved team from when they took over the club in August of 2007 and said he thinks people have already become used to the improvements the organization has made.
“I think people become accustomed to what we’ve achieved and take that for granted, whether that’s the quality of the stadium we play in or the Thunder Lounge or the quality of play on the pitch,” said Johnson. “Granted our results didn’t look as great as we would have liked them to this year. But taking a step back, the level of play was never as high as it was this year with the Thunder and I think our second half of the year proves that.”
Johnson also said that the Thunder would address and improve their marketing in 2010 stating the organization never had an explicit marketing budget under past ownership groups. The Thunder owner said, “In 2008 as people were aware there was a huge increase in marketing. The effectiveness of that was questionable but it wasn’t the amount that was important but how we spent that money. This year, as many people are aware, we worked closely with Russell Herder in developing a strategy. We had a lot of different ideas for commercials both print and TV. We didn’t get that together like we should have and we will certainly be picking up where we left off in preparing that so we can launch into next season with a much better marketing strategy and budget.”
Johnson also addressed corporate sponsorships which appeared to be minimal at best this past year. He said that while the Thunder’s stadium at NSC is good for the fans, it’s not the best for corporate sponsors. “We have one of the best stadiums in the league as far as the quality of the pitch and the grandstands,” said Johnson. “But we have to do better with venues for corporate sponsors to come out and entertain guests and that’s a prerequisite for getting corporate sponsorships. We need to be able to entertain corporates at the game as well as have corporates entertain others at our games. Our front office spent a lot of time and energy towards corporate sponsorships in 2008. We unfortunately had this economic situation. Last year at a time when corporates were normally making decisions on things like that they were making no decisions or the decisions were negative for everyone. So we are looking at dedicating staff towards that end and look to come off that low from last year.”
Johnson also said that with the recapitilzation of the franchise, the organization will also be addressing this issue of sales in regard to both corporate and individual tickets.
Minnesota Thunder fans who attended games regularly may have noticed the absence of Johnson and Habers at games this past season compared to 2008. Johnson addressed that saying, “Even though the real estate market has been difficult we’ve had a very active year. We have projects even more geographically spread out than before. Manny (Lagos – team president) and I speak multiple times a day and we’ve had an awful lot going on this year which meant I personally wasn’t able to get over to see the team as often as I wanted to. Ideally I would have been at every home game as well as some of the away games. It was more the wrong times pulling us in the wrong directions. We spent a lot of time in Europe and east Asia as well as a project in South America. Henk and my absence this year was in by no means our lack of interest but more our business commitments.”
The St. Paul native said it was his hope to attend more games in 2010.
Johnson said at this time he would prefer not to talk about the ongoing dispute between the Team Owners Association, which the Thunder are part of, and the United Soccer Leagues.