by Corrine Casanova
In mid-September, bizNEVADA Publisher, Richard Moore and I sat down with the following three gentlemen for a joint interview
- Chris Hoff, Tournament Director, Barracuda Championship
- Eric Edelstein, President, Reno Aces and Reno 1868FC
- Dustin Toms, Vice-President, Business Operations, Reno Bighorns
Here’s some background:
Reno 1868 FC was founded in 2015 and made its debut in the United Soccer League (USL) in March 2017. It is one of 30 teams in the league. The USL is a Division II Professional League and is placed under Division I Major League Soccer. In 2016, they announced a two-year partnership with the San Jose Earthquakes. Previously, Nevada had three other professional minor league soccer teams.
The Reno Aces are a AAA affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. They began their inaugural season in 2009 in the new Greater Nevada Field stadium in downtown Reno. Prior to the Aces, the Reno Silver Sox played in Reno from 1977-1992. Following their 1992 season they moved to Riverside, CA to become the Riverside Pilots.
The Reno Bighorns are an NBA G-League team and are owned and operated by their NBA parent club, the Sacramento Kings. Darrick Martin was named head coach in 2016. They were founded in 2008.
The Barracuda Championship is a professional golf tournament which was founded in 1999 as the Reno-Tahoe Open. The tournament is played at the Montreux Golf and Country Club. Barracuda Networks became the title sponsor in 2014.
RM: Why Reno? Why now?
EE: For the Reno Aces, the decision was made during the last economic boom in 2007 and it started as the community began to bust. I think we were a breath of fresh air during a time when the city and the community was reeling. It was this bright shiny building in downtown Reno. The location was critical and it was literally the other side of the tracks so it was good for redevelopment. The team was in Tucson and they wanted to look for a location that made sense for AAA baseball. People were saying that’s a risk. If you are just looking at market size, Reno is the size of single A markets but there is an underdog mentality to this community that just fits well. Oh, you are going to tell us we are too small? We will just show you. Reno is the smallest in the AAA market in the country.
RM: Why Reno, why now, bottom line?
EE: It’s an outdoor community with the right type of mindset to come out and support our team. People are looking for that experience that we can give them here. Otherwise you have to go hundreds of miles and spend thousands of dollars to get that experience.
RM: Why Reno for 1868 soccer?
EE: We had a venue that we felt could possibly do more. Soccer is a good fit for this community. When you see the Hispanic base continuing to grow at 25 percent and cross that with our baseball attendance, we saw this segment of the population wasn’t attending. Baseball is a 35 plus age group with a relatively Caucasian audience. Soccer is kind of everyone else. It’s 35 and below, it’s Hispanic and just multicultural, period. Anyone who has had direct descendants not born in the United States is probably a soccer fan. We saw that as a completely underserved demographic so the fact that we had an available facility with capacity and then we just looked at the community at large and where it was headed and where soccer was going in the country.
RM: Were you surprised at the support?
EE: I was pleased. I made the recommendation that we go forward with it so I definitely put my own future on the line to some degree and took a big risk but I just believed it was going to work. We are the smallest market in the United Soccer League as well. We are competing market to market with the big boys in larger cities like Phoenix.
RM: What does it mean to Reno down the road to have these professional sports teams and events here?
CH: It puts Reno on the map. What we like to do is take a look at the markets that don’t have a PGA Tour. Places like Portland and Salt Lake City. These are markets that Reno is often ranked below that have similar geographies but they don’t have what we have. There are only 32-34 PGA tours left around the country and Reno has one of them.
RM: People will be shocked that there really is a relationship that can be built through having a relationship with you with some of their other markets. They just don’t know.
RM: Did the city of Reno reach out to you guys initially to start the Reno Aces?
EE: No, Sparks initiated it. The community was interested as they had affiliated professional baseball and they lost it. They wanted it back so they were definitely knocking on the door and then an interested party came forward.
RM: How about the PGA?
CH: It was really the developers of Montreux and the Reno Sparks Convention and Visitors Association (RSCVA). The PGA Tour was looking for playing opportunities for its members and we had the venue. It was pretty straightforward from there. So, when you say, “Why Reno?” the first thing is the geography and the venue.
We have spectacular golf courses all around us and I would say Montreux is on the top of that list. The other side of the coin for us is why our title sponsor, Barracuda, chose Reno. We use the Modified Stableford method of scoring which is different than every other tour event. Barracuda liked that because they stand out in this market as different but I think the market itself was just as big a factor. Barracuda is based in Silicon Valley and they saw the potential of Reno. It made logical sense to invest a significant amount of money, not only in our event, but in the community. Now we have a global publicly traded company that is invested in us and our community and it kind of legitimized a lot of what we’ve been doing.
RM: For the Reno Bighorns, Why Reno? Why now?
DT: Basketball is the fastest growing sport globally. The Reno Bighorns are in our 9th season and similar to the PGA Tour, there was mutual interest. Reno wanted the team and we had some supporters in the NBA office looking for ways to work here. We actually had Tommy Smith, who is one of the NBA’s VPs. He was the go getter that pushed the Bighorns to make that happen.
So, fast forward up to now. The Sacramento Kings looked at this market and they noticed the gaming community isn’t the big piece anymore and the tech companies are moving in like Tesla, Apple, Microsoft and Breadware. Companies from the Bay area who couldn’t afford to pay their office space rent went to Sacramento because it was the next best spot. Well, the Kings partnered up with that and built the Golden One Center which is now dubbed the best arena in the world. What that is doing is raising the prices similar to what happened in the Bay area so it’s funny to see that now people that were looking at Sacramento are now looking more toward Reno.
Our Kings ownership group has 38 owners which is the largest ownership group in the NBA. They are either tech conglomerates in the Bay area so they see Reno as an opportunity. The rest of them are real estate/land developers who have property in Sacramento but they’ve already invested in Reno. They see Reno as the next spot so it is the best coincidence in the world that our minor league affiliate just happened to be here in Reno. It made all the sense from a business operations side to the basketball operations side so it is going to become a true 1/1 relationship across the NBA. You will see NBA first round talent play here in Reno. We saw that last season. We will see more of that this season. Some of the most highly touted young basketball athletes in the world will be here in Reno.
RM: What is it that corporate northern Nevada is missing the most about soccer and baseball?
EE: There still might not be a complete appreciation for just how good these guys are. We have two players that now have been called up to their national teams for soccer. We have nations who are filling out the best 23 players in their country and we have two guys on 1868 that have been recognized in that pool. That is wild to me. The level of talent that you are seeing here is right on the cusp of that next level and probably could be said for all of our sports.
CH: I would say the talent on the field. There were about 50 of the top 100 players here. I think it is also a testament that Jason Day and Adam Scott have played here multiple times. Beyond that, our broadcast is seen in over 200 countries around the world and is available to over 1 billion households.
RM: Are you televised in other markets?
DT: All our games are broadcast on Facebook Live. NBA parent clubs share the broadcasts on their Facebook so it is letting NBA fans know these are where your next NBA stars are coming from. This is who you can watch and get ready for. That way when they get to Sacramento or wherever they are going, you will be ready for them.
The NBA is considered the most proactive league out there. They were the first ones to put a big push on social media. Now they are tapping into the esports market by creating NBA 2K. It’s introducing a brand-new market to the NBA. The video game NBA 2K turned itself into more of a consumer game rather than a sports game. And that is a market that the NBA never was able to tap into because it has always been viewed as sports, sports, sports. Now it is turning into a player association where people are fans of players, not just the teams. They started to expand on that and are talking to people they have never talked to.
RM: The Barracuda Championship was a lot more hip hop this year in certain sponsored tents. How do you create those kinds of diversified experiences for you guests?
EE: That is the event experience we are trying to create. You can’t completely remove that traditional experience for people that want that but you also have to have a different experience for those people that are looking for it. We try really hard to program those experiences. For example, the Coors Light Party Zone is where you get the cheap beer and your home plate will be quieter. You can even play around with the volume on the speaker. The same noise that you are hearing all over the stadium can be softer in one area and louder in another. And you can play with that to bring those experiences to people that want them. We can’t just say this is the one baseball experience.
CH: That is what minor league baseball has done in the last 20 years. They have just lapped everybody else. The onfield stuff is going to be there no matter what. The quality is going to be there but the amount of fans who are paying attention to it I would bet is decreasing every single year. It’s not a decrease in attendance. They are just decreasing the amount of focus they are paying to the game. Now they need to find something outside of the sport to bring people there and bring them there with their dollars and keep them entertained. The tournament will always be the focal point but inside the ropes is inside the ropes. We want to find new things to draw people there. Our demographic is skewing to the baseball demographic, older, Caucasian, 60 percent male, 40 percent female, higher income than normal which helps us with our corporate clients because it does skew more to that higher demographic.
RM: You guys are accessible. It’s not extremely expensive.
DT: If you want to talk about the accessibility, we are all accessible. It’s not just the affordable piece. At our games, you can walk up and high five a player when they walk off the court and shake their hand. We have season ticket holders who have developed relationships with these players. They get to know them as a person and human being. When they get called up to Sacramento, you get 100 feet from them and the security guards tackle you.
CH: Same thing at the Barracuda. Tickets are way less than you think. People think Montreux is way out there but when you take our transportation system it is so easy. It’s not the Phoenix Open where there are 200,000 spectators. The players love coming here because of the fan base and because it is not an absolute mob scene. It’s a nice change of pace for them and the fans reap the benefit of that.
RM: If there was a byline that we put out nationally, what would it be? Would it be Reno is the Happy Gilmore town of professional sports or Reno is the best kept secret? What would you want people to know across the country about baseball or soccer in Reno?
DT: I haven’t been in Reno that long. I am still learning the market and the perception of the local residents have and I get this huge sense of pride from people that have grown up here. But people don’t like to talk about that pride. I don’t know if they want to keep it a secret so they don’t get all these people coming in with the tech boom.
EE: We have a world class destination in Tahoe. People travel from all over the world to come here. We can now say “Oh, by the way, we have world class sports here too.” It’s the same way I was sold on why I should come take this job in Reno. You can golf and ski on the same day. That kind of stuck with me and I don’t do either but it’s just the idea of it. It’s remarkable.
Our owner who also owns the Indiana Pacers has been involved in the NBA and the G League as well and what he always says is, “I just don’t know why Vegas didn’t happen here. Everything is better here. The weather is better. The typography is better. It is a prettier place. Tahoe is right there.” His point is we have everything that Vegas has plus all these things they don’t. This is a much better place and it’s hard to disagree with that.