Brian Auld, President of the Tampa Bay Rays
Baseball & beyond - a conversation about the St. Petersburg community, entrepreneurship, and education with Brian Auld.
On this episode of SPx, Joe Hamilton sits down with Brian Auld. As President of the Tampa Bay Rays, Auld has a special insight into the evolution of St Petersburg and in this conversation he shares his deep-seated love for our city as well as his thoughts on where the city is headed. And we'd be remiss if we didn't talk a little about the business of baseball. This interview was originally shot on video. Head to the show notes on StPeteX.com to watch instead of listen.
- On Auld choosing St. Pete as home: "For my tastes it is a perfect size city. There is enough going on, there is always plenty to do but not so much that you get lost in the mix. It is that kind of place that you can have a real impact, make a real difference if you want to, but there is always something new to catch your eye to."
- Auld sees St. Petersburg as a unique entity in Florida, drawing progressive minds, young and old from across Florida and the Southeast as a whole.
- Brian and his wife intend to put their children in St. Pete's public schools. Many public schools have come under immense scrutiny in the past years for being "failure factories." Auld wants to defeat this by getting involved.
- On the two major sticking points of St. Petersburg: "I think the two things, if I could wave a magic wand and improve over night, would be transportation and education. And I think there has been a lot of talk around them and not enough action. I hope that those things get moving. It seems like we are starting to see progress on both fronts."
- Auld's thoughts on the Pier: "The pier has been that visible symbol of that brilliant decision making, that environmentally friendly forethought that went into the design of this city... I think anything that draws more attention to that little jewel, not just in Florida and in Tampa Bay, but on the planet, is well worth it."
- Auld argues that the thing we are missing in St. Petersburg is high value jobs, ideally from large, organically grown local companies. High value companies create high value jobs, which then in turn fuel the service economy.
- Areas like Seattle and Austin have had large homegrown companies come in and shape the workforce and the city through their growth. Auld sees St. Pete as a city ripe for that same process.
- Other notable rising efforts in St. Petersburg -the entrepreneurial scene, medical research through John's Hopkins, and Mayor Kriseman's administration.
I think we are attracting the kind of people who that resonates with from all over the State, and maybe from all over the Southeast. And that, I think, is really cool. Because what you have got is a lot of open minded, creative forward thinkers, who aren't bound by the way things are supposed to be."
Brian Auld has made a home in St. Petersburg. He arrived a decade ago as a single person, and has enjoyed St. Pete through many phases of life – from single to married – to married with small children. Now Auld, who lives in Old Northeast neighborhood with his wife and children, is not just the President of the Tampa Bay Rays, but also the father of a kindergartener at North Shore Elementary. Despite the popular trend of “school choice” and sending kids of magnet, private, or Montessori schools, the Auld family and many others in their neighborhood have made the choice to support their neighborhood school, and believe that their involvement can change the outcomes of the school.
“My wife and a bunch of folks from my neighborhood have also committed to sending their kids to the public school, because we think that simply by getting involved we are going to be able to make it a lot better school. It is a school that over the years has lost a lot of attendance for no good reason that I can think of. We are at least going to try to put our energy where our mouths are, and put our kids into school and show up and recruit others to support it as well. And we think it is going to be a great spot, great neighborhood school that is an easy drop off and an easy pick up and fits with the vision I always had of my kids walking themselves to and from school as soon as they are old enough.”
Auld and his wife, and many of their neighbors are behind an effort called Friends of North Shore Elementary. This coalition, started in 2015, when North Shore was rated a D school, was built to raise up North Shore, increase enrollment, and support teachers, families, and staff. The goal is to create a successful elementary school environment that will serve families throughout the Old Northeast neighborhood, and incentivize families in the neighborhood to chose their zoned school over a magnet or private option. Since the group’s inception, kindergarten enrollment has increased year over year from 59 in 2015 to 66 in 2016, to 70 in 2017. They have also successful implemented mandatory daily recess into the elementary’s master schedule. To learn more about Friends of North Shore Elementary, click here.
When you want to continue to attract young, dynamic professionals, you got to be able to educate their children well, and I think we are starting to see progress there too...there is this balance between providing choice in education and trying to get people to go within their communities and there are social, economic and racial issues that permeate throughout, so it is certainly not an easy fix. But I have served on enough committees locally to know that we have got a lot of really thoughtful people thinking about these things the right way."
Table of Contents
(0:33 – 0:38) Introduction
(0:39 – 1:54) Living in St. Pete
(1:54 – 4:01) The Future of St. Pete
(4:01 – 7:41) Education System in St. Pete
(7:41 – 9:33) Great Things in St. Pete
(9:33 – 12:21) The New Waterfront Pier
(12:21 – 14:44) What Does St. Pete Need?
(14:44 – 17:23) Shout-outs
(17:23 – 23:49) Baseball
Joe: Thanks for sitting down. Very good.
Brian: Thanks for having me.
Joe: Yeah, I’m excited. So, why aren’t you packing up all your stuff and leaving St. Pete tomorrow? Why are you here?
Brian: Oh, man! I love living here. I cannot think of many better places to live. For me, personally, it is just a great place to raise my family. Great homes, relatively affordable area, terrific community, everything is accessible, everything is simple, weather is phenomenal. Is that enough for you?
Joe: That is good.
Brian: And I think St. Pete is just terrific. Also, for my tastes it is a perfect size city. There is enough going on, there is always plenty to do but not so much that you get lost in the mix. It is that kind of place that you can have a real impact, make a real difference if you want to, but there is always something new to catch your eye to.
Joe: Yeah, that is one of the themes we actually put forth on our website, we have three or four headlines and one of them is “Make an impact” And it seems like we are still on a size and a landscape where a good idea can catch fire and grow.
Brian: Definitely! We are not fully baked, and so we see every day that different people, different groups of people are coming in and changing the flavor of the city just a little bit for the better. And this is the kind of community that welcomes that, which is wonderful.
Joe: So, as you mentioned we are not fully baked. Where do you feel like we are headed? Where do you see St. Pete in ten years?
Brian: Oh, man! I don’t know for sure. I know I like the direction, I know what is driving it and I think there is a really progressive thought process behind where we are going, a very welcoming and very inclusive environment. And I think that makes us unique in Florida. I think we are attracting the kind of people who that resonates with from all over the State, and maybe from all over the Southeast. And that, I think, is really cool. Because what you have got is a lot of open minded, creative forward thinkers, who aren’t bound by the way things are supposed to be. And we see that every day. There is a new brewery opening up it seems every quarter mile, and it is just people who don’t want to hear that there are too many breweries. They like making beer, they are going to make some beer, they are going to figure it out. And that kind of thing just keeps happening all over this place, and I think every day something new and cool happens that makes this city a little bit better.
Joe: Yeah, we had, as I mentioned, Mike – the founder of 3 Daughters – came in earlier and he actually says he feels like there is a lot of headspace left for breweries, he said there is really about seven right now and he sees there being twelve within a year, which is a 40% increase, and plenty of room to support them all.
Brian: Yeah, and I think you see… Look, I am not a professional urban planner by any means, but I think when you see people with energy choosing to live in a place and figuring out what they are going to do there, which I think is what is happening now, I think people want to live in St. Pete, they want to be near the downtown, they want to be near this core, this energy. And then they are asking themselves alright, well what do I want to do? Here is where I am going to be, what do I want to do? And it is manifesting itself in cool restaurants and really neat stuff, that is primarily probably service sector related at the moment, but I think it is going to attract even more people, even more bigger business, and it sets just a great launching pad. What we have seen happen in this city over the last ten years is truly remarkable. And it has been, I think, largely organic. It is happening in a really natural way and I dig it.
Joe: What is your experience with the kids, what is your experience with the education system? My kids are in Montessori, which we love. We have been there since they were three.
Brian: We live in the Old Northeast and are sending our daughter to kindergarten next year, and my wife and a bunch of folks from my neighborhood have also committed to sending their kids to the public school, because we think that simply by getting involved we are going to be able to make it a lot better school. It is a school that over the years has lost a lot of attendance for no good reason that I can think of. We are at least going to try to put our energy where our mouths are, and put our kids into school and show up and recruit others to support it as well. And we think it is going to be a great spot, great neighborhood school that is an easy drop off and an easy pick up and fits with the vision I always had of my kids walking themselves to and from school as soon as they are old enough.
Joe: That is brilliant, that is really great to hear.
Brian: I hope it works. I think it speaks to, again, this new energy. You have got a lot of people who, if they wanted to, could be sending their kids to private schools, they are opting into some of these fundamental schools. But I have said “Hey, the public school is good enough for us for sure, and we can make it even better, and let’s get involved.”
Joe: One of the things we talked about as far as the expansion in St. Pete goes earlier today was how there can be dead spots in development where you know, 4th streetdeveloped, started on 38th Ave and started moving down and stalled around 9th Ave North, and Central started moving out. And they are finally starting to squeeze out the gap and putting some… as far as safety and visual appeal of the new businesses that are going up there. And it is easy to see that when it is real estate, connecting two areas and then all of a sudden, with that contiguous corridor, things blow up. I think you can almost make that same connection to education as well. I feel like there are some really sharp places, pools of education. But there are some places, and some of them are the public schools, that get left behind a little bit on that. And so, I think that closing the gaps by making the effort to support the public schools, as far as the population goes is pretty important.
Brian: Yeah, I do to. I think the two things, if I could wave a magic wand and improve over night, would be transportation and education. And I think there has been a lot of talk around them and not enough action. I hope that those things get moving. It seems like we are starting to see progress on both fronts. What I will tell you is I think there is a lot of committed people who get this. You have got people moving in who have no interest in owning a car, and so you got to give them a way to get around and they will pay for that, there is economics that makes sense for it. And then when you want to continue to attract young, dynamic professionals, you got to be able to educate their children well, and I think we are starting to see progress there too. Like so many areas, there is this balance between providing choice in education and trying to get people to go within their communities and there are social, economic and racial issues that permeate throughout, so it is certainly not an easy fix. But I have served on enough committees locally to know that we have got a lot of really thoughtful people thinking about these things the right way. And again, I think that is being driven by a progressive thought process that is dedicated to inclusiveness of all.
Joe: Tell me some of the things that you love about St. Pete, some of the things you like to do. What are you taking the family to do, where do you like to be?
Brian: I have grown up here over the last ten years, so I loved it as a single person, I loved living downtown. And now I like it with young kids and I hope one day to like it as an old person with kids out of the house. And I think we see all those stripes moving into the area right now, whichever stage of life you are in. If you are a retiree, what better place to be able to walk to dinner and engage in all these activities? And I think the youthful energy that we have in St. Pete now is an enticement as opposed to a problem for those folks. And then with the young people, there’s more bars than there have ever been, there’s more other people your age trying to do interesting things. You see people out and about sharing ideas and trying to figure out what they can do to make a buck, to move the city forward, to address some of our problems. It is a really thoughtful populace that we have right now, and an engaged populace. I laugh a little bit at the number of people writing letters to the editor and showing up at City Council meetings and things, but it is evidence of a healthy society where people think their opinions matter. So that is all really great. What I love about St. Pete is I can wake up on Sunday morning and pretty much do just about anything I want, whether with the kids or without. There’s so many parks, so many great places to go, so many terrific restaurants, so much you can do on the water, so many places you can walk to, all of that just makes for a really robust, full experience for me. And that it is a quick commute for me to work and gives me plenty of time to do all those things is pretty great too.
Joe: Brilliant. Talk about the pier for a little bit. Obviously, we are just breaking ground on the new one, we are in the process of opening that up, the design has been approved.
Brian: Yeah. You want to talk about an involved populace, everybody’s got an opinion on that pier.
Joe: That is right. So, money aside, you can argue whether the value is there or not, I don’t think there is too many folks that don’t think there is some value to having a pier there. What does the pier represent for you, what is its place in St. Pete’s past and its place in St Pete’s future?
Brian: It has been the most visible point on the water right there, and that is the jewel of St. Petersburg, that is the piece that the city’s founders – our forefathers, our fore grandmothers, whoever it was that decided we are going to keep this land, we are going to make it park land, we are not going to make thoroughfares here, we are not going to put buildings right up against the water, we are not going to let people buy homes that go right up against this water, we are going to preserve this for the city as public space – just nailed it. Because you walk around down there and it is one of the most beautiful pieces of the planet. I think about it all the time when I am walking along that shore way, this is the lion on the map by the water. And it is unbelievably special and it is accessible to everybody. And the pier has been that visible symbol of that brilliant decision making, that environmentally friendly forethought that went into the design of this city. It is why we are not struggling to attract residents to downtown, we can barely keep up with it. And other cities are really struggling, it is because they don’t have that, that unbelievable, beautiful scenery. I am personally almost always in favor of big public projects, I think they provide benefit to a whole slew of people, I think they promote tourism, they give you something to talk about in the share. When we talk about building a new Rays ball park, we always talk about doing something iconic. And putting something iconic down on that waterfront I think just lends even more esteem to this great city. So, I would love to see that done, I am strongly in favor of it and I think anything that draws more attention to that little jewel, not just in Florida and in Tampa Bay, but on the planet, is well worth it. That said, I sympathize with anyone who says tax dollars should go here, there or anywhere, every teacher and police officers should make more money and nobody wants to pay more taxes. These are problems for people who have to win votes.
Joe: Outside of what the government can provide that is not civic, that would come in from a private source, whether it would be an investor or an entrepreneur. What do you think St. Pete could use? Is there something that is stuck out in your mind that, if someone came into St. Pete and did this, this would be cool? Or more of something we have now that is not done enough? Anything jump out of you?
Brian: Most of what I have been talking about are great things to do on your leisure time. What we lack, I think, is really high value jobs. And we need to bring those in, you need people who are going to spend their money at the restaurants and buying the craft beers and keeping the whole economic engine going. And I would love to see really big headquarters, hopefully organically grown, grow here, where we are making something that the entire world is using and that really helps us put our stamp on the map. One of my favorite cities is Seattle. And way back in the day Boeing really put Seattle on the map and started employing a lot of people in this high service area. And then it wasn’t long before Microsoft and Amazon and Starbucks kicked in, and those four companies have revolutionized that entire city. I feel like St. Petersburg is ripe for something like that. And those four companies also have had a very strong and thoughtful say in the way Seattle has grown. And I think that we do lack a little bit of that here. We have a lot of great companies, don’t get me wrong, and a lot of headquarters and a lot of great business leaders who are helping to direct all of this. But someone who is really employing thousands of people and producing something that you can point to as being used throughout the world, I think we would really neat to have.
Joe: That is one of the other things we talk about on the site, the trajectory that we are on and how it is pretty clear that we are moving upward – on the hockey stick, or someplace on the hockey stick. And so, there is still great value here to be able to come in…
Brian: Yeah, and you guys are a perfect example. We have these services that are ready to serve these Behemoth companies. We just need a few more of them to keep everybody fed, or eating even better.
Joe: Even one of our great farm-to-table local restaurants is to that end.
Brian: That is exactly right.
Joe: Anybody you have seen doing something interesting in Tampa Bay that you think deserves a few more eyeballs on it? I am sure you get a lot of stuff come across your desk. Something that you would like to give a little attention to, either private, non-profits…?
Brian: We have been making a ton of progress, I think, in the startup space. And originally, I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult than it has been. You see real entrepreneurs coming here and finding the support resources that they need, whether in the Innovation District here or Tampa Bay WaVE, that is promoting these companies that are really making some inroads and making some pretty cool products and kind of spreading a tech vibe throughout. Which is not inconsistent with what we have seen in a place like Austin, which is another city that I like to compare St. Pete to. So I think that is all we really need. I think the beer and restaurant scene is, again, phenomenal. And I think it can be easily dismissed, but I think that would be a mistake because I think that type of activity leads to the larger growth that I spoke of, I think it creates a baseline that makes your city really attractive to others, whether they are coming with whole companies or they are just bringing what they have to offer to your city, you end up benefitting from that. So, let’s see, outside of the tech space… The John Hopkins development and the fact that we are becoming a real hot bed of medical research is tremendous, it is only going to benefit all of us too. It doesn’t hurt to have world class hospitals in your back yard, so I think that is pretty great. I think that the current administration, Mayor Kriseman and his people have been – and we don’t want to get too political here – but have been steering this organic growth in a really wonderful way, demonstrating a welcomeness and a willingness to cooperate with anybody on anything. And I suspect that attitude will continue regardless of who is the mayor. But when you come to St. Pete and you have an idea, I think you get a lot more attention than you would in some other cities. And that speaks to the size issue too. As the guy who runs the baseball team, where we are maybe along the smaller markets in all Major League Baseball, if not the smallest. And one of the benefits of that is everybody cares a lot. And we have the ear of the city, we have the ear of the City Council, the business community, we are all in it together working cooperatively. And so I think that that spirit that has only been growing as St. Pete has grown is going to be a key factor going forward..
Joe: Alright. Maybe I will switch gears a little bit, I want to talk some general baseball stuff if that is alright.
Joe: Just a couple of topics if that would be cool, to put some content out and around. I would like to start with Baseball Memorabilia. So, assimilate, think about that. I grew up collecting and a lot of kids grow up collecting, there is a big bit of it moving into game used things hitting the market now, and I think the Rays have actually incorporated that into the gift shops now, right? With photographs and…
Brian: With a lot of game used stuff and autograph memorabilia, yeah.
Joe: So as much as you can think of on short notice, talk about the place that memorabilia and baseball card collecting, game used equipment collecting plays in the sport, and how has it changed in how the teams themselves have dealt in there. Because many years ago they didn’t have that sort of thing at the gift shops, it was just hats and jerseys and now they have moved into that arena.
Brian: Well across the board, sports have become really big business, and that has happened in our lifetimes. Thirty, 40 years ago, sports teams were literally just small family businesses, usually passed from generation to generation. Often times your former favorite player was the general manager running the team, and so and so was the manager, and we certainly weren’t doing all these analytics to try to figure out how to win baseball games, and we weren’t putting sophisticated pricing software together to figure out how much to charge for tickets. As the game is growing and becoming more competitive, every dollar counts down much more. And we have been talking about big multimillion dollar businesses now that are run by people that have gone to business school and have real experience training in the business world, so they look for ways to monetize things. And certainly, the game used memorabilia has become a huge piece of that. Autographs have gotten to the point where… I actually think we are on a little bit of a decline right now because players have gotten so upset seeing the stuff they sign show up eBay constantly, as opposed to signing for a kid. And you have got folks who buy ten kids tickets to the game and send them down to get stuff and collect it, sell it on the backend, and it leaves people with a bad taste in their mouth. It has changed a lot, and I think the biggest thing is that it has become really big business. And when really big business comes along, things change. The College sports world is dealing with all that right now too. I grew up with baseball cards and worshiped them and had huge collections, I don’t know where they are right now. I know that the world has become more digital, and so most of the kids these days who are keeping up with baseball are doing so on their cellphones. And the industry has created a bunch of equivalent baseball-card products, although you can’t flip them and throw them and put them in your bike spokes and do all the things that I remember being super cool back in the day. I just think it’s kind of a natural evolution and that we will continue to see things evolve going forward.
Joe: We are now riffing off the digital space, so where now has revenue started to creep up in the digital space that it wasn’t, say, three to five years ago?
Brian: Major League Baseball as an industry has done a great job monetizing the digital space through mlb.com, taking a fee on all the tickets that it sells across the league and then they use the revenue from that to build Major League Baseball advanced media, which is an incredibly robust video platform. And because we have a bunch of really bright people, who saw where the world was going up there. And at the same time, we were saddled with an enormous challenge at the time, which was to air three hours of live programming in 30 different markets every single night. They got really good at streaming before a lot of other people did and ever since taken on additional projects, including being the backbone of HBO, for example. The digital infrastructure that baseball has led out has become an important part of all of our businesses. We are not yet making a ton of money off of our Twitter posts or our Facebook walls or anything like that, we use those more as marketing tools to connect with our fans and make the relationship with them a little more personal. But I think all of that is good in the long run, we want people to feel very close to our product, to feel like they are part of the Rays family, which they are. And to keep them entertained all day long with whatever little bursts of news we can send their way.
Joe: Cool. And how much is fantasy baseball under your radar? I know for the NFL it has been pretty large for them. Do you feel like baseball is catching up? Any thoughts on fantasy baseball?
Brian: Baseball has been growing steadily. Baseball was the first fantasy sport. Rotisserie baseball, and I remember playing that back in the day. It is certainly a lot easier now with the Internet. The baseball season and the football season are so different. One is a slug, 162 days, it is with you every single night. I think very few people watch every single minute of every single game, just stays with you throughout the summer and gives you something to tune into constantly and it is like a long story. Whereas football, you can gear up for a particular day, you get your fantasy team out, you check on it, you want to see your stats, it is a little more interactive. I think it is different strokes for different folks, really. The promotion of the fantasy baseball game is something in Major League Baseball and the Rays are certainly very interested in seeing it happen, because it makes the sport a little stickier. I suspect we will see some evolutions over the years, I think you will see different ways. The daily fantasy sites, for example, are really trying to change the game for a while there and we will see where it all lands. But there is no question that people like having a little juice on the outcomes of what they are watching anyway, and the world seems to becoming more and more okay with that. And we will see how it all falls out.
Joe: Thank you.
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About the host
Joe Hamilton is publisher of the St. Pete Catalyst, co-founder of The St. Petersburg Group, a partner at SeedFunders, fund director at the Catalyst Fund and host of St. Pete X.