Rene van de Zande is the kind of man who invested in soccer not for the profit, but for his passion. He succeeded in his goals to make the Austin Aztex one step away from the MLS.
Rene van de Zande, where does your interest in soccer come from?
As you know most people who are from Europe tend to grow up with soccer. I started playing soccer at age 4 and have played most of my life. I was born and raised in the Netherlands in a small town close to Rotterdam. The last 5 years I played soccer in the east of the Netherlands for the club Achilles “29 located in Groesbeek. This city had only 17000 residents at time and was home to seven different soccer clubs. There was nothing but soccer in that town. I combined playing there with my studies. When I graduated I decided to build a professional career outside soccer, but I have never lost my love for soccer.
When you came to the United States, did you intend to become involved in soccer?
Not at all. I played soccer all my life, then I had to make a living. I was not talented enough to become a professional soccer player so I had to do something else. When I worked in Brussels for 8 years I continued to play soccer and stayed very involved with the sport. When I came to the United States in 1997 I was totally focused on building my business. The new MLS (Major League Soccer) had just been formed but I did not really have any interest.
« Europeans are snobs about soccer when they come in the United States »
Like many Europeans who come to the United States I brought my love for high quality soccer, my own club and my team with me. The level of the MLS was not that good. I would like to say that Europeans are snobs about soccer. When they come to the U.S. they really don’t have an interest or make an effort to see what soccer is about in this country. I think that attitude has started to change and is changing even more rapidly now.
What influenced you to invest in the Austin Aztex and become the club’s CEO?
After five years Washington D.C. and two years Tampa, Florida, I decided to move our company’s corporate headquarters to Austin in 2004. Austin has gone through tremendous growth and so has my company, Emergo Group. I feel that the Emergo Group has been very successful and being headquartered in Austin contributed to our success and therefore I wanted to give something back to Austin.
Selfishly, since I love soccer so much, I wanted to become involved with the previous Austin Aztex team that existed from 2007 to 2010. Our initial decision was to join the team as a sponsor. However, the previous Austin Aztex team left Austin in 2010 so we were unable to become involved. Phil Rawlins, who owned the Austin Aztex at that time, moved the team to Florida. He felt that Orlando was a better fit for a professional soccer team and the city had an ambition to bring MLS there. Phil has proven to be correct to believe he could meet his goals in Florida sooner than when he would have stayed in Austin. But much has changed here in Austin since he left.
« I wanted to give something back to Austin »
David Markley, the minority owner of the ‘old’ Aztex team, obtained the naming rights and should be credited with bringing back the Aztex and high level soccer to Austin. He recalled that my firm had an interest in sponsoring the old Aztex team and approached us in 2011-12. We became the title sponsor for the new Aztex in 2011-2014. As David and I got to know each other we realized that we shared a similar player development philosophy and direction for the club so I decided to join him as a co-owner of the club. Currently I am the CEO and co-owner of the team. After we decided to join the professional league USL (3st division), we expanded the owners group to become financially stronger and to allow the organization to build the foundation of the club with the intention to bring Major League Soccer to Austin in the future.
In the two years you have been the CEO of the Austin Aztex, has it been a challenge to balance your responsabilities as CEO of the Emergo Group with the responsabilities of the Aztex?
I contribute the success of Emergo Group to the fact that I hire highly motivated and competent people, mixing experience with young talent. That is also how we have built the front office of the Austin Aztex. We have a lot of talent who are able to execute their tasks at hand, operate as a team and which makes me feel I can ‘hover’ above as the CEO. Being CEO of the Aztex does require attention and my involvement, but I have always had a lot of energy and I thoroughly enjoy the time I spend in both businesses.
I also enjoy the contrast of working in an established and mature business and being involved in a new business that has not reached that mature stage yet. With the Austin Aztex there is still much to do to build a strong foundation for the future. For me it is so easy to put more time and effort into the Aztex. Being involved in a sports franchise has given me so much energy and excitement and I very much enjoy this dual role. I am CEO of a successful global company surrounded by an excellent staff and colleagues which allow me to also spend time with the Aztex. My role in Emergo Group is well defined and everything is working very well. As for the Austin Aztex, I see my role as CEO as a temporary assignment and will make room for another CEO as soon as the club is well on its way.
In 2013, the Aztex won the PDL championship. As the new CEO, what changes were made that lead the team to win the championship?
The philosophy we apply in the Aztex organization today is the same one we applied when we won the PDL (4th division, amateur) championship. At the time we played in the PDL, the goal David Markley and I set was to bring professional soccer to Austin and to play in the professional league, USL. After we won the PDL national championship and the move to USL became a reality, we changed our vision for the club and announced that our ultimate end goal is to bring Major League Soccer to Austin. Playing in the PDL gave us a nice foundation to make the next step to USL. In order to reach our goal of MLS in Austin, we firmly believe we need to build the club grass roots. PDL gave us a good head start and we will continue to do so playing in the USL in the coming years. When we started playing in the PDL, we brought in a very successful and talented young coach by the name of Paul Dalglish. We were also looking for a certain type of player and believed Paul would be able to recruit those players. And we proved to be right. We attracted very talented players from all over the country, including locally grown Austin players. Although these amateur players, some of whom were still in college, give up their summers to play in PDL, we treated them as professional players. In 2012, our first year in the PDL, the Austin Aztex made the division finals.
Because of our coach and the professionalism of our organization, many of the players on the 2012 team returned in 2013. This team gave us an advantage over many other PDL teams where new players need time to “glue” together. As a result, we won the PDL championship in our second year. The three years in PDL allowed us to build a foundation and we received nationwide recognition for our organization from the league, players and other teams. We were ready for to make the step up to USL.
How was the Austin Aztex able to move into the professional USL division since there is no promotion/relegation?
It is very interesting how soccer works in this country. It is very different and unique from many other markets in the world where the system is based on promotion/relegation of teams. Not so in the US. The way you move into USL, NASL or MLS is based on meeting a set of criteria, one of which is financial. In order to be part of USL, you need to pay a one-time franchise fee (between $750K to $1M) and show the league that you have the financial backing needed to support the team long term. PDL is part of USL and the league front office had already been working with the Aztex for three years and knew that we ran a good operation that would suffice for USL Professional League. The Aztex met all of the criteria and obtained the franchise rights to operate a USL team in Austin and transitioning from PDL to USL was easy.
This is your first season in a profesional league. How did your management of the franchise change when you entered the USL?
During the time we played in the PDL we only had two full time people in the front office – one in marketing and one in operations. When we made the transition to the USL we had 4-5 months to prepare and to strengthen the front office.
We hired eight more staff members for the front office and expanded the technical staff operations and team. After our 2013 PDL championship, Paul Dalglish left the Austin Aztex to become an assistant coach for a MLS club, Real Salt Lake. We brought him back as our head coach as well as his assistant coach who was with us our 2013 and had taken over the head coach position in our 2014 PDL team. We also hired a former Aztex player, Zach Pope, as an assistant coach. We were well prepared for our first USL season and feel we have the right team in place and that they understand what the tasks at hand are. All the players have to do now is win
Your coach Paul Dalglish is the son of a soccer legend. Is he valuable part of the future of the Austin Aztex?
Paul Dalglish is talented, very smart, a quick learner and is very good working with young talent. He is representative what we want to be as a club. He also carries what we like to call ‘the player development gene’ we carry as a club and in our vision for the club. We want to contribute to developing players in the U.S. who will lift the quality of soccer in this country. Paul shares our vision and that made him a perfect choice for our club. Paul is, of course, the son of soccer legend Kenny Dalglish. I have not yet met his father but they do look alike and I understand that they share the same sense of humor which I understand and appreciate very much. We both are from Europe (Paul is Scottish) and we are philosophically very much on the same page. Even though he has a famous father, Paul is very much his own person and has built his career on his own merits. He was a professional soccer player and played for numerous clubs in England. While playing for the Houston Dynamo he was faced with a career ending injury. He was also part of the Houston Dynamo team when they won a MLS championship. After his injury he decided to focus on a career in coaching and he made a good decision – he is perfect for coaching. I like that he is young. He is very talented. His family name is a nice bonus but it has nothing to do with his qualities and as I said, he is making a name for himself. I am sure that his father’s experience helps him and the advice he receives from his Dad is valuable to Paul. I am happy for him that he can tap into his father’s experience.
You have said that USL was a necessary step before thinking about MLS. Was bringing Major League Soccer to Austin always your ultimate goal?
Not at the very beginning. David Markley and I discussed it over a glass of beer and thought that, for sure, Major League Soccer in Austin would be nice end goal. We thought it would be amazing if we could build a professional franchise in Austin that could eventually become the base for MLS in Austin. Our overall goal was to build the club and fan base from the ground up and turn Austin, a city that is growing, into a passionate soccer city. We saw playing in PDL as the first step and the USL a second step to build the foundation to bring MLS to Austin. We are excited about Austin. It is a city that has everything needed to be considered by MLS. Our mission and vision that we were speaking about both publically and privately were to bring a professional soccer franchise to Austin. We had a lot of decisions to make – one of which was whether we should move into USL or the second division league NASL. We discussed our options but decided in favor of USL since we were already playing at USL’s PDL league, enjoyed good relations with the league’s executive management and were excited about the direction USL was heading. So our initial goal was really to play in the USL and now that is a reality. We are in our inaugural year and are having a blast. We continue to learn and build a great foundation. It is now up to the Aztex and Austin fans to show that Austin is a viable city for Major League Soccer.
During your last radio interview on « the throw in » you also said that there will be more opportunities in the next three to five years to enter MLS. Specifically, what needs to happen for the Atex to move up to MLS?
Based on MLS experience and the success of its franchises there are a number of benchmarks or criteria that we need to meet. The under-35 population in Austin, the Millennials, are well represented. As we have seen in other MLS cities with a strong fan base, Millennials are very important to a soccer club’s fan base. So the age of the population is one criteria and household income is another. We believe that our fan base has the discretionary income to attend multiple sporting events with friends and family.
« Build a stadium within the next 2-3 years »
Our biggest challenge and a must-have criteria Austin does not yet meet is having a soccer-specific stadium. We are currently playing at House Park, which is a high school turf field in downtown Austin. We are happy with our relationship with the Austin Independent School District (AISD) and appreciate the opportunity to play there. House Park stadium was built in 1930 and seats about 5000. MLS however requires a stadium that seats 20,000. Our goal is to ensure that we continue to build our fan base while in our current stadium as we plan for building a soccer specific stadium in Austin. Without a soccer specific stadium it will be hard for our franchise to be sustainable let alone be considered for MLS.
A soccer specific stadium is definitely in the future for the Austin Aztex?
We are in the process of locating a piece of land, hopefully downtown, or in close proximity to downtown, where we could build a stadium within the next 2-3 years. Austin is growing so fast that land in and around downtown is very limited and there is a lot of competition for that land. But we will first look for a location in downtown or in close proximity to downtown – ideally no more than 2-5 miles from the center of Austin. The owners group has taken the lead in searching for a location, determining the costs and financing associated with this endeavor. In order for the Austin Aztex to compete in the USL long term we will need to have our own stadium or a stadium that allows us to draw more revenue than we are able to do today.
It has just been announced that the Aztex have partered with Univision, a spanish TV channel in Austin. What impact do you think that partnership will have on your fan base?
Univision has always been a strong supporter of soccer and the Austin Aztex so we are very happy that we are partnering with them. Univision has the ability to reach out to the Hispanic community in Austin where we find many supporters of the game. Those soccer fans often support teams outside the US. We now need to gain their interest to come out and support their local soccer team. We feel that Hispanic soccer fans are in many ways similar to European fans. I look at myself, a Dutch guy born and raised in a country where soccer is the #1 sport.
« We need to overcome the skepticism that exists with people who grew up with soccer elsewhere »
We all share a long soccer history and loyalty to the team we grew up with. This is the same for many people in the Hispanic community where they support a team from the country of their heritage, whether the team is from Mexico, Argentina, or elsewhere in Central or South America. We need to overcome the skepticism that exists with people who grew up with soccer elsewhere or who are used to watching a certain quality or level of soccer. I did. We need the Hispanic community and all soccer fans to give their local professional soccer team a chance and come to a game. In order for Austin and the country to get exciting and better quality soccer, we need fan support. Those who say that professional soccer in the U.S. is not good or worth their time should come, support the Austin Aztex and judge for themselves. Those who have come to believe in US soccer, like I do, need to convince them to come and be a part of something that is growing on all levels. Soccer is a great sport to watch and offers a fun fan experience for all ages. By getting and growing that support today, we will be able to achieve our goal to have a soccer specific stadium in Austin sooner than later.
How was the Austin Aztex USL announcement received in the greater Austin community?
The announcement that we were bringing professional soccer to Austin was well received and covered by the media. It was not as big news as for example in Louisville, Kentucky, where Louisville FC announced their USL 2015 debut. Louisville had no history as a club in the city so there was a lot of excitement in Louisville when the city welcomed a USL team. FC was able to sign up thousands of season ticket holders well before they played their first game. The Aztex had been playing PDL in Austin for the previous three years so the excitement in Austin was different. For us in Austin, that was and continues to be more of challenge and will take more time to do. The choices for entertainment in Austin are abundant compared to Louisville so people in Austin have more opportunities to attend events.
Many people continue to move to Austin daily so there is a large audience here that may not even be aware that we have a professional soccer team. From a marketing perspective I think we are doing everything possible based on our current budget (between $1.5 and $2.5M) but we are always looking for creative ways to reach the citizens of Austin and the surrounding communities. I am convinced that over time we will see the fan base increase and sellout crowds will become a fact for the Aztex.
Does the commissioner of the MLS, Don Garber follow the Aztex? Are you in contact with him or someone else in MLS?
Yes, MLS does follow the Aztex and see how we are developing the market. The USL is considered a very important piece of the puzzle to increase the quality of soccer in the U.S. and MLS in particular. Although USL is an independent division, it does have the function of a development league for MLS players. MLS teams are required to either have their own USL franchise or be affiliated with an existing USL team. The Columbus Crew MLS franchise and the Austin Aztex became affiliated. The Real Salt Lake, Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps and the New York Red Bulls opted to have their own USL franchise teams. That has triggered the rapid growth of USL.
« Don garber is very familiar with Austin »
All of these developments make USL an important league that has the close attention from MLS and Commissioner Garber. The Commissioner is very familiar with Austin. After attending SXSW in 2014 and experiencing how exciting this city is he understands that Austin has many of the elements MLS looks for in a successful MLS franchise city. Aztex owners have met with MLS to discuss Austin and the possibilities for MLS in our city. We know what is needed to keep Austin on the MLS radar. We are still looking at least 3 to 5 years before we believe the Austin Aztex and the city of Austin will be ready to join the MLS. As I said, we don’t have a final plan for a stadium as of yet, but we are working on it as we speak. We are taking our time to build Austin Aztex since there are no franchises available today. However, recently the Commissioner did speak publically that the MLS and USL will continue to grow and by 2020 there will be more MLS franchises made available for those markets that are ready. From our end we feel very comfortable where we are today and know where we need to be in order to achieve our MLS goal. We are very focused on building the Austin Aztex fan base and are working to make sure that all criteria needed for MLS will be met by the time MLS makes more franchises available.
How do you feel about the MLS expanding to include teams in Minneapolis, Atlanta and Los Angeles?
Those are large cities and, as long as those clubs meet the criteria I spoke about earlier, I think these are great markets. It’s important to have a nice geographic spread of MLS teams so more communities can enjoy and participate in professional soccer. We know that Minneapolis has a long soccer tradition so I think they will be very successful and it makes sense to have an MLS franchise there. Atlanta is a large city with many major league sports teams already and a strong ownership group so I am sure that they will also be successful. Los Angeles is another large market that should be able to sustain two MLS clubs and perhaps develop a strong and exciting rivalry between both clubs.
« Why not have four teams in Texas if you can create excitement with regional rivalries »
In Texas we currently have two MLS clubs – the FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo. In addition to Austin, San Antonio also aspires to have an MLS team. I think MLS expansion in Texas and specifically in Austin and San Antonio could create a great rivalry between these two cities. I believe both markets are viable as long they have the right ownership group and infrastructure. Why not have four teams in Texas if you can create excitement with regional rivalries? We all know those rivalries exist in Europe and contribute to a unique fan experience. The MLS ownership group will decide when and where MLS expands in the US. We feel very confident that Austin has all the ingredients and will meet all criteria to be a successful MLS market – just not today. We will continue to work very hard for that day to arrive.
Why did you decide to become affiliated with the Colombus Crew? How does being affiliated with that MLS Team affect the Austin Aztex?
Early on the Columbus Crew showed an interest in the Austin Aztex, so we have been in contact with them for awhile. Their interest in the Aztex had a lot to do with our success in the PDL, how we took good care of our players as well as our overall philosophy on player development. The soccer world in the US is small. Everyone knows each other and talks about each other. So they knew we had a professional organization ready to begin our first season in the USL and therefore were confident we could work together. Austin also has a lot of similarities to Columbus, Ohio. Both cities have large universities and have roughly the same population. The philosophies of both clubs are similar.
« The soccer world in the US is small. Everyone knows each other and talks about each other »
The Columbus Crew is a club which is structured to develop young talent. That is something close to our heart and is in line with what we want to do in Austin. Our affiliation allows for the Columbus Crew to place a maximum of four players with the Austin Aztex. These players remain on the payroll of the Columbus club since they are contracted with them. We take care of their housing and make sure that they don’t party too much on 6th Street ☺ . We take good care of them. They get guaranteed playing time with the Aztex so they can further develop as a professional. We currently have two players from the Crew in our team: forward Adam Bedell and central defender Kalen Ryden. Ryden was a former Austin Aztex player and was drafted by the Crew so we are happy to have him back with us. The Columbus Crew coach Greg Berhalter and Aztex coach Paul Dalglish speak with each other frequently. We are extremely pleased with our relationship with the Crew.
Before beginning your first season in the USL, the Austin Aztex organized a tournament (the ATX Pro Challenge) with MLS teams that was held in Austin. What were your expectations of the ATX Pro challenge? Will it become an annual event?
The ATXS Pro Challenge is something we came up with while we were doing a million other things like focusing on our entry into the USL. We thought it would be a nice to wake up Austin in February since we played our last game in the summer of 2014. It was also a great opportunity for us to work with the University of Texas as well as with the invited MLS clubs (The Columbus Crew FC, DC United, and FC Dallas). We wanted to show MLS clubs what it is like to play here in Austin and also show the MLS league that we can organize an event of this size and also to create a good opportunity for MLS clubs to participate in a well-organized and effective pre-season event.
I have to be honest that we initially planned this tournament for 2016, but when we inquired with the league and MLS clubs if this would be of interest to them, we were so encouraged by their positive response that we decided to have it organized this year. The cooperation with UT was excellent – very professional and without them we would not have been able to pull it off. UT’s management of the stadium was flawless and the quality of the field is one of the best in Texas. All MLS teams complimented us on this tournament and players enjoyed the overall experience of playing in Austin. Despite the fact that we were challenged by the limited time to promote the tournament, we were pleasantly surprised that close to 6000 people attended each day which is a great turnout for MLS pre-season games. We were very happy with the event. We have not made the decision if we are going to do the ATX Pro Challenge again in 2016. We will decide soon since MLS teams are asking about it and want to include it in their pre-season schedules. The event requires a large investment on our end so we want to be sure it will be successful again.
Many MLS clubs are eager to win the tournament so they can receive the ATX Pro Challenge cup- an armadillo dressed up as a cowboy. This cup went viral after we presented it to this year’s winner, D.C. United. It was even covered nationally by ESPN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Dallas Morning News. All the positive publicity ensured that the tournament achieved its main goal, which was to put Austin on the map as a good city for professional soccer.
Are you interested in investing in other franchises in the future?
My initial reason for getting involved in soccer and in the Aztex was to bring professional soccer for all to enjoy in Austin. I have reached that personal goal. Now we need to make sure the club remains sustainable and can continue growing. We spoke about the things that are needed to have a sustainable franchise and the ownership group is strong and very committed to the future of the Austin Aztex. The need for a soccer specific stadium and the costs associated to obtain and operate an MLS franchise require that we expand our ownership group to make the Aztex even stronger financially. I absolutely want Austin to enjoy professional soccer for a long time. When we take the team to MLS other investors will join the ownership group.
I have to say I really enjoy being back in soccer – obviously not on the field – but to see it from the management and operational side. Investing in a soccer team is very interesting. We will have to see how it evolves and whether it is truly a good financial investment or not. There are a lot of signs that the USL organization is trying to create value for franchise owners so it might be a good investment on the long term, because soccer is on the rise in this country and is becoming an important sport in the U.S. If someday I were to leave the Austin Aztex or be less involved after others have taken it to the next level, I would not be surprised if I was involved in building a USL franchise in another market. I love the building aspect of a club in a market. My experience so far in Austin has been great and I truly enjoy the Austin Aztex so there is no reason I would not want to do something similar in another city in the future.
What influence do you want the Austin Aztex to have on the future sports landscape in Austin?
Soccer is one of the fastest growing sports in the country so I think we have a great opportunity to build something very special in Austin. As soon as we have our own soccer specific stadium our fan base will grow even more and will enjoy watching and supporting the Aztex in Austin. Everyone who comes to Austin embraces UT football – I love college football and I am a support of the Longhorns. I think the University is also very excited about seeing professional soccer develop in Austin and would welcome Major League Soccer. Their support is very important to bring MLS to town. I hope that the Austin Aztex will make history by bringing the first major league sports team to Austin. I also hope that the citizens of Austin will embrace the Austin Aztex and be proud of their team.
What do you think the soccer landscape in the U.S will look like in 10 years?
All the trends and statistics seem to be pointing in the right direction. There is still a lot that needs to be done. As I said soccer in the U.S. has a very unique system compared to other countries. If you look how talent is developed in the U.S. it is also different from markets in Latin America and Europe. Many youth clubs in the country are very well organized and overall play an important and positive role in developing talent to a certain age. The college system has a very important role to play as well for many players. It would be better for some of these talented players to have an option to develop and play in a professional soccer environment. This is needed if we want to have more home grown quality players in MLS and raising it to a higher quality level. The Austin Aztex are trying on a very micro level to be part of the professional development of talent. We have recruited some college players to become professionals and as a result they are not completing their college degrees. We have done that in combination with constructing contracts to make sure they have the opportunity to complete their college careers at a later date. I think that young talented players need to have this option to forgo college in order to have a better chance to fulfill their dream to play professionally and reach the highest level professional soccer has to offer. It is also will contribute positively to the quality of U.S. players in MLS. Everyone involved in soccer will have to participate and contribute to improving the quality of soccer in the U.S. in order to make MLS a great and exciting league that can compete with other professional soccer leagues around the world. I think that is a real possibility if everyone stays committed to the game and is open to change.
Interview done by Jerome Cortinovis. Thank you to Alicia Itria.