Photo courtesy Rochester Rhinos
Since his arrival last March as the Rochester Rhinos’ Chief Business Officer, Mark Washo has led the club’s efforts to establish relationships with local businesses and the community at large. Those efforts have begun to pay off, with the establishment of numerous new features at the club’s home venue, which will now be named Capelli Sports Stadium for the 2017 USL season under a new naming rights deal.
USLSoccer.com caught up with the Rochester native about his first year with the Rhinos, how he’s tried to re-energize existing relationships and create new partnerships in the community, working for Rhinos owners David and Wendy Dworkin, and taking a historic brand and making it relevant for a new generation of fans.
Q: You’ve overseen rebuilding the business relationships for the Rhinos since arriving with the club, how successful do you feel that process has been over the past season?
Washo: Yes, we’ve put a great deal of effort towards building relationships both new and old since I arrived at the club. One of the former MLS team Presidents I used to work for told me once the key to building business for a professional soccer team is to be on an endless pursuit of relationships. I’ve brought this mindset here to the Rhinos. Along with outreaching to previous relationships to rekindle those, we’ve put an even greater emphasis on starting new relationships too. This effort has been across all important target markets such as youth soccer, adult soccer, corporate, and community organizations.
We’ve also spent time creating new relationships within the millennial audience who have become soccer big fans all around our country. We’ve been on a big “listen and learn” campaign this season, where we’ve been listening to feedback before attempting to sell people into new programs. Overall I believe this effort has been successful, and we hope to start Benefiting from our relationship building this upcoming season.
Q: We’ve really enjoyed seeing some of the deals that have been made, in particular the new beer garden in collaboration with the Genesee Brewery. What has the response from local business been like to the Rhinos’ new ownership and direction?
Washo: Outreach to the local Rochester business community has also been a key priority for both myself, as well as our team owners David and Wendy Dworkin, since I arrived here in Rochester late last March. In additional to approaching literally hundreds of local companies, we’ve also focused on connecting with established Rochester “legacy companies”, which includes a company like the Genesee Brewery, but also brands such as Zweigle’s, who have been in business in Rochester for over 130 years. We’ve made good progress overall, and have also have new exciting local market partnership announcements on the horizon soon from Rochester-based companies.
All of that said, however, when examining the overall corporate roster here in Rochester, due to the size limitations of our market, we also must connect with regional brands where Rochester is a priority, as well as national brands. Our most recent naming rights partnership with Capelli Sport is a great step for us, for example. Even though they are not a Rochester-based company, they are interested in growing their brand presence all over our city, and want to have a stronger presence in Rochester to help us continue to support our local community.
Q: The team has obviously continued to do its part, again putting in a successful campaign in defense of its 2015 title. Is the success the side is seeing a good selling point for you on the business side?
Washo: Without question, having the team perform well on the field is important and can provide a lift on the business side. It helps us with our overall storytelling of our team, plus helps us create an identity for the club. Having a winning team on the field, and being able to boast that we were 2015 USL Cup champions helps our cause. Making the playoffs this past season helped us too. We learned who many true friends of the Rhinos were last season by identifying those who stepped up to support us for our home playoff game when we had less than one week to market and sell it.
We also need to be realistic about how much winning will positively impact our efforts on the business. We still have work to do gaining coverage from the local media. We must transition casual soccer observers into Rhinos fans. With greater media attention, more people will become aware of our strong team on the field, and this should help us increase our following. I’ve seen in other soccer markets I’ve been in, if the team is performing at a high level, with exciting players, the casual sports fan can have switched on because people like to follow a winning team, and are attracted to exciting players.
Photo courtesy Rochester Rhinos
Q: You’ve had a wide range of experience in your career, including multiple stops in Major League Soccer. What’s your feeling on where the USL as an overall organization is as it prepares for the 2017 season?
Washo: I’ve been very impressed with the USL and league office staff from the moment I started exploring this opportunity with the Rhinos. In many ways, they’ve taken the best practices from MLS, and it feels very familiar to me. This includes the league’s investment in a team services division, creating a high level of minimum standards, as well as investment in experienced executives within the league’s front office. The new broadcasting platform will be a big boost for all the teams.
Lastly, with the USL recently being sanctioned as Division II by the U.S. Soccer Federation, the USL is positioning itself for future success. The USL has taken the best of the best from MLS, while also building its own identity, all of which is very impressive.
Q: David and Wendy Dworkin have obviously led the process over the past year, what has it been like working for them?
Washo: David and Wendy have been fantastic owners to work for so far. They are very passionate about both soccer and the Rochester Community. They are extremely focused on making the Rochester Rhinos franchise sustainable and successful. Their commitment can be seen by everyone in the community. They attend all our home games and are accessible to our front office staff, they genuinely want to help us accomplish our objectives. They also attend countless meetings, including sponsorship, ticket sales, youth soccer and community meetings. Along with being motivated to help the team be successful both on and off the field, they also care deeply about the Rochester Community.
When I first started speaking with David and Wendy about coming back to Rochester to lead the Rhinos, they told me how much they view the Rhinos as a community asset, which creates jobs and stimulates the local economy. They are investing in the Rhinos to make Rochester a better community overall. They told me this would be one of their priorities, and they continue to seek for ways the team can give back to the community.
The team supports many local charitable organizations, and the outreach is an ongoing effort. The newest community initiative is our Rhinos Cares program, where the club will match tickets donated by local companies to underprivileged youth groups. As a native of Rochester, and someone who loves this community as much as they do, I also want our city to thrive. Supporting the local Rochester community is a motivating factor for all of us.
Q: How are you feeling about the direction of the Rhinos as the club gears up for the 2017 USL season?
Washo: We have a lot of positive things to look forward to as we look ahead to the 2017 season. For starters, we have a new stadium naming rights and apparel partner in Capelli Sports. They are a soccer brand and can help us gain more momentum within the soccer community. In addition, most of the stadium upgrades we made last season are now complete. Last season, we were introducing new in stadium enhancements all the way until late August. While we still have new upgrades in store for the 2017 season, there are far less than what we endeavored upon last season.
We also now have a year of experiences working together as a front office team with our owners. We also continue to build our front office staff, and tighten our business operations overall. It was very difficult for us last season to plan and be strategic when we got started late so close to our season. David and Wendy began operating the Rhinos less than three weeks prior to our opening game last season. We had little time to plan for the season, as we entered the race while the cars were already going around the track.
While our offseason is short, we have more time now to be more strategic than we did last year. We are all benefiting from more planning time. We are also continuing to grow our corporate sponsorship roster, with committed partners that will help us expand our marketing and promotional reach out into the community. Our group sales platform is growing too, with both those will be growing their relationships with us from last season, and a number of new groups who are planning to visit our stadium this season for the first time. All in all, we have plenty to look forward to and be optimistic about this upcoming season.