Interview, Russell Geyser, principal owner, San Diego Aviators, Rancho Santa Fe, CA July 14 2014
WTG: How did you come to own the Aviators? What made you want to acquire a team?
Geyser: My best buddy, Lorne Abony, bought this team in Austin. He actually bought the Orange County Breakers, moved them to Austin, signed Andy Roddick, and then called me and said: “You’ve got to buy a team and we can play each other!” And I thought “No, I can own half of your team.” And he said, “No, you can’t! I won’t sell you half of my team.” And then, I thought, “It really would be fun to bring professional tennis back to San Diego.”
And given that we’ve lost La Costa, and given that we don’t have a men’s event here, and that we don’t have an event in Los Angeles anymore, and the fifth most well-attended event in the world is two hours inland, at Indian Wells, and a third of those attendees are from San Diego, it seemed to make a lot of sense from a business perspective, that people would come out and support the team.
I think the unusual thing here is that I have had a relationship with Dave Macpherson, the coach, for awhile. And the Bryan brothers and I have been good friends for awhile. And so David and I started together when I bought the team in December, planning out exactly who we would draft, exactly how we would set up the team, what the slate of players would be, how we would approach the format collectively, and so it’s been a team effort from the beginning. With the coach on board from the first day.
WTG: And how did you know David Macpherson?
Geyser: David is the Bryan brothers coach. I had been friends with Bob and Mike for a few years. And they had introduced me to him
because he’s a big part of their lives. Before Macpherson, I think they won eight or eleven doubles titles, and now they’ve won 98. I
think they’d won either one or none grand slams and now they’ve won 15. So he’s been a dramatic contributor to them.
WTG: You’re in your seat, you’re cheering; you’re on the bench, you’re cheering. You’re high fiving the players and coaches. You’re glaring at the umpire who makes a bad call. Is this the role of a financial boss? Or is this a fan enjoying his team?
Geyser: This is a fan enjoying his team. We have some fantastic people in the organization working on the financial side of things. But I’m really focused on what is the best player experience? What is the best fan experience? And I’m fortunate enough to try to create for the other two partners I have for the best owner experience…
Geyser: A friend who brought me into the group, Lorne Abony, who owns the Austin Aces. “He’s very hands on. He’s very involved with the team, travels with them to every match. He’s involved in all the decisions.
WTG: What are the names of your two partners?
Geyser: Fred Luddy and Jack McGrory, who I’m sure you know he is the former city manager under (Mayor) Susan Golding.
Now, that said, first years always very difficult. Because no one knows what to expect and most people aren’t familiar with World Team Tennis. And secondarily, San Diegans have a lots to do in the summer. It’s the best place in the world to be. And you have a lot of choices of what to do with your time. So we recognized that the first year had to be demonstrative of putting on the best fan experience that we could with the best tennis, and so far the tennis has been spectacular. To go to two supertiebreakers, to go to overtime, to see these kinds of matches ten feet from the players. I mean, I’m close, but so are the fans really close, too. And the fans are talking to the players and the players are talking to the fans. It’s gotta be fun for them, I would think.
WTG: What is the process by which you become an owner? Besides having a good friend tell you you gotta buy a team?
Geyser: We had heard that there was an owner that wanted to sell. So we went directly to that owner, but the other way you would become owner is you would contact the league and you would look to get a franchise expanded to your city, you city approved within the league, and then meet the very stringent criteria that the league sets forth for ownership. It’s a huge franchise document, not unlike getting a McDonald’s franchise or any other franchise. Where the brand is very protected and the brand is owned a long time by a single iconic player. You know, when McDonald’s was owned by Ray Kroc, they protected the brand like they do now but very vigorously.
Billie Jean King, this has been her brand for 40 years, and she protects this brand. I mean, you have to do everything the way the league sets forth.
WTG: You have to convince her that you’re a worthy owner?
Geyser: You do, but she’s a wonderful lady. She’s been an ardent supporter of bringing tennis back to where she grew up, which is Southern California.
WTG: Do you have to put up a sum of money, a bond?
Geyser: You have to put up a bond, or cash. You have to buy the team. Obviously, there’s a number for that. It’s obviously not as expensive as the Clippers or the Chargers. Or the Padres.
WTG: Who’d you buy it from?
Geyser: I bought it from a gentleman named Claude Okin. He owned the New York Sportimes and he had a fella named John McEnroe playing for him. We didn’t want John because we didn’t think it made a lot of sense for John, who lived in New York, to play in San Diego. He wasn’t really the most competitive-level current player we could go draft for that position. So we told John we weren’t going to renew the agreement with him. And we were going to look for a marquee player and the first marquee players obviously we called were the Bryan brothers.
Geyser: We thought they (the Bryan brothers) were the superstars of the league, and they have been. And we can’t wait to get them here. We get them here next Sunday (July 20).
WTG: It would have been nice to have them for opening night.
Geyser: It would be really hard for them. They were in the (Wimbledon) doubles final the night before, basically 27 hours before.
WTG: Did you know that when they signed on?
Geyser: I was pretty sure they’d be in the doubles final. It’s almost always, ah, they win a third of the tournaments they enter. So the bet that they’re going to make the finals is probably 50-50 on any tournament.
WTG: Fans see matches and wins and losses. Investors see revenue. What revenues does a team like the Aviators produce? What are the streams?
Geyser: Well, there are three. There’s obviously attendance. There’s sponsorship. And then there’s national and league sponsorship. The league has sponsors that are league sponsors that sponsor every match in every city with every team.
WTG: And so some of that revenue comes to you?
Geyser: Yeah, we get a portion of that revenue. Just like when the NFL has an NFL sponsor — like Nike — that sponsors the whole league. Each team shares a portion of that revenue. You have to go out. The majority of the revenue that you make though, is attendance and local sponsors. And in the first year, that’s really hard. You have to be prepared for a loss the first year.
WTG: What have been the numbers the first five nights here?
Geyser: Umm. In terms of attendance, we’ve been hovering around, 15-hundred to 2,000, I think.
WTG: You sell advertising, do you not?
Geyser: We sell sponsorship. But the issue with selling sponsorship on a local basis is that if you haven’t been here for 30 years, nobody knows what it looks like. ‘What am I buying?’ ‘What’s the court look like?’ ‘What’s the layout look like?’ ‘Where’s my banner placement?’ ‘What are the impressions (unintelligible)…’
WTG: Do you have a staff that sells ads? How’s that happen?
Geyser: We did this year. It was pretty tough, because again, they were just up against the unknown. We started, I didn’t buy the team until December 28th. So we really missed the fourth-quarter buying period for sponsors. And so most of the sponsor dollars, the big sponsor dollars were spent. The other thing was going into the Sports Arena, the three biggest sponsors that we would go get, we couldn’t go get. Which are beer, soft drinks, and casino. Because the casino, the Valley Casino Center, already has those. They already have pouring rights deals and they obviously are a casino. So that is something that other teams around the league have faced. They can get beer sponsors, especially in San Diego, where we have a spectacular craft beer industry, it was a shame not to be able to go attach a craft beer — or do some kind of craft beer experience.
WTG: Is that out of bounds for some kind of commercial agreement?
Geyser: It was for this year. So that just made this year a little bit more challenging.
WTG: Do you have any idea what it costs to stage a single match, one night? What it costs the team to play before an audience.
Geyser: It’s hard to allocate that out, because really what you’re doing when you buy a team, if you buy the Chargers you have home games, you have away games, some player salaries are for the season, you have some player salaries that are marquee players that you only pay for certain nights. People like Andy Roddick, when they come in, we pay them, because that’s how the marquee system works. It’s kind of like getting Lady Gaga or Serena (?) Gomez to show up, I mean, you’re paying for that appearance.
WTG: Or the Cher concert.
Geyser: Yeah, and the Cher concert made our life a little more difficult. We had to tear down and set up the court again.
WTG: What does it cost to do something like that?
Geyser: I would be guessing. Off the top of my head I don’t know the number.
WTG: Somebody would know it.
Geyser: Yeah, I don’t know if they’d give it out. The league has certain rules and restrictions on disclosing financials.
WTG: Okay, so you rent the hall. I’m just going to run over these things if there is anything you can tell me about. The fans, they would know wins and losses, and the players, but they wouldn’t know what goes into the mechanics of it. And I think it’s an interesting story, especially for someone like yourself coming into it the first time. You rent the hall. What does that cost a night? I gather it’s spread over a season? Is that it?
Geyser: No. It’s actually very expensive per night. Again, because we were so late to the game, we didn’t have a tremendous venue choice, ah, scenario. Our biggest issue was we were so late to the game we had to pick a location — and get going. You couldn’t identify sponsors if you didn’t know where you would be. Right? You couldn’t set up fans in boxes and seating arrangements if you didn’t know where you were going to play.
And so we had to immediately pick a venue. I don’t know that the Sports Arena is San Diego’s number one option for viewing sports, because historically it hasn’t supported the Clippers and so forth. And people love to be outside in the summer, especially in San Diego. So there’s a decision process that goes into that, and right now, all we’re saying is ‘we’re there right now, we love the venue right now, for the players. Like the players like playing on that court. They like the width, they like the depth. The only negative it’s got and you’ve noticed this probably, on the one side, the lobs hit on just the one side, hit that machine. And lobs hit on the other side don’t typically hit that machine.
WTG: Maybe next year, an outside venue?
Geyser: Perhaps. (pause) Perhaps.
WTG: Do you have to hire the ushers? Do you have to hire the security? The waiters? You print the programs. Does all that fall on you?
Geyser: Either directly or indirectly, everything falls on us. I mean, if we hire a venue that includes security and other staffing costs then the staffing costs of the security are built into the venue costs.
WTG: How about the linespeople?
Geyser: The league provides them, and there’s a certain remuneration we pay to the league and then the league provides certain things back to us. I mean, it’s, ah, all of that is subject to non-disclosure contracts and things. Nobody wants anybody to know what anybody makes anywhere? In some cases, we have the Green Bay Packers, and it’s a public company, where stuff is disclosed (chuckles) and in places there is a private entity and the league is a private entity, nothing can be disclosed without lots of legalese.
WTG: In this first week here, what do these home attendance figures tell you about how well or how poorly the Aviators will do?
Geyser: Ummm. They tell me a couple of things. They tell me that the fans are enjoying it, the fans that are there are enjoying it. They don’t, they tell me that we haven’t done a good enough job in outreach. Both at the kids’ level and the club level. And probably at the general level.
This is a building experience. This is a first year. And if you’re going to look at this as I have to make money the day I open a restaurant, and pay the entire restauant off, you’re probably going to be disappointed, unless you’re Wolfgang Puyck. In the movie business we don’t expect to make money on the first, on opening day. We expect this movie to have a certain release period, to be sold internationally, it’s got OD (?) rights, it’s got all kinds of monetization strategies. Tennis is the same way. You’ve got to be in this for more than the long haul. If I’d just bought it for this season, it would be a hard row to row.
WTG: Do you have monetization strategies in mind for the Aviators?
Geyser: I think we just want to build the fan base. And we want to do a better job or have more runway time to get out front of sponsors. You can’t go to sponsors after they’ve spent their budget, because even if they love you, they don’t have any money. And, you know, car companies are notorious for planning fourth quarter expenditures, so you come to them December 28th, and they say ‘Phenomenal! We would have loved to be your car company. Can we do it for free?
WTG: Did you have that experience?
Geyser: We had that experience with four different car companies. ‘You’re too late. We’d LOVE to talk to you about next year.’ We said, ‘Great. July 28, we’re back in here, for next year!’ And we have that with 50 different sponsors, we have a whole sponsor list that didn’t have money, post-fourth quarter 2013, and we believe they believe they will be interested. But we have a lot more to show them. I mean, we have ESPN footage, we have Tennis Channel footage, we have photographers that have taken spectacular shots. All of that gets put into a better storyboard, than ‘Hey, trust me, this is really good stuff! You’re gonna love the way it looks. Let me describe to you how World Team Tennis looks. It’s like, ‘Imagine a guitar with a nose in it. Now that’s a Picasso!’
WTG: Tell me more about yourself. Where are you from? Where were you born?
Geyser: I’m born in New York, raised in Los Angeles. Love L.A. L.A. just got too crowded and not the best place to raise a family. And I thought San Diego was the ultimate place to live.
WTG: Born in New York. Manhattan?
Geyser: No, much poorer than that. Out in Queens. The Bronx and the area where I lived in in Queens — at the time — are probably not terribly dissimilar. Queens has certainly enjoyed some resurgence and the Bronx has had a tougher time. But I have a partner who grew up in the Bronx and ran to the bus everyday so that he didn’t get beat up.
WTG: When were you born? What year?
Geyser: 1960. I lived in New York until I was three. I moved to the San Fernando Valley when I was three. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. I went to Emmerson Junior High in Westwood, and then I went to Santa Monica High School, and then I went to Berkeley, and then I came back to L.A. to go to USC for business school. I got my MBA from SC in 1965.
WTG: What did you do then? You went into movies?
Geyser: No, I went into real estate finance. And for the next 25 years I labored in real estate. I was really fortunate. We did all institutional quality real estate. Syndication, deals. We tried to pick the big shopping centers, deals that we thought had the most long-term traction cause they had star tenants and star anchors. They were less susceptible to the ups and downs and vagaries of real estate.
WTG: What were some of them?
Geyser: Here in San Diego, we bought and revamped the center at Poway and Pomerado, the old (Kaymon?) center? We bought the San Marcos Edwards 18 theaters, that cineplex there on San Marcos Boulevard, where the 18 theaters are; it was a Regal deal. Syndicated that deal. And then I built another 18 shopping centers all over the place. We did the North Mall Center in Tucson, which was 170,000 square feet. That was a local partner here, Excel Reality Trust — you might know of them. They are a New York Stock Exchange publicly traded company.
WTG: Couple of others around the country?
Geyser: Lots of others, around the country. We did the WOW! store in Las Vegas on Sahara Boulevard, which was the House Good Guys-Tower Records sale. I left real estate a couple of years ago. I teamed up with a gentlemen, two gentlemen actually, named Clay Pecorin and Justin Zackham, and they wrote and produced “The Bucket List” and “The Big Wedding.” And we became partners. They wrote and produced that under the name of Two Ton Films. And then we created together a company called Two Ton Media, which is now the parent corp of everything Two Ton is. And so Clay and I own that together. And Two Ton Media, we just did this movie called “Lost in the Sun” (points to logo on his T shirt), with Josh Duhamel, and we just did a movie with Mark Wahlberg, co-produced a movie with him, “Stealing Cars.” It will come out at Sundance next year.
We have six or seven more movies in pre-production. Stars attached. Scripts written. And we’re just crankin’ along, kind of like what we did in real estate, but this is way more fun.
WTG: You’re an investor. You’re not behind the camera. You’re not writing scripts. You’re not shooting…
Geyser: Oh, my goodness, I have so little talent in any of those spaces. Justin was the writer of “The Bucket List” and Clay and Justin produced that. And Rob Reiner directed it, a guy with quite a bit of talent. Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman starred in that one. We were just announced in Variety as having signed Morgan Freeman to our latest movie, called “Beautiful Jim Key,” which is a wonderful story about a horse trainer back in the turn of the century, the 1900 period. And Morgan Freeman played Dr. Key, an incredible, incredible story, a true story, and it’s an amazing story.
WTG: Do you read scripts?
Geyser: My favorite thing on the planet to do. After the tennis, my favorite thing on the planet is to read scripts. We’re reading, we’re negotiating on a script right now that has some stars attached to it. And we are just in love with the script. That to me is the joy of — and it’s almost the same joy you get in the tennis world — is identifying players that you think will make a great team and putting them on the court — is the same thing as attaching great stars to fabulous scripts and putting it on screen. You have to go through the same process of visualization. Is this star perfect for my team? And putting them on the screen. Is that going to work for us, will these people work together? Does the script work for them? Do they work for the script? Is the director right? Is the writer happy?
One of the benefits of being not a studio is that we get to stay true to the vision and the artistry of a writer or a director who brings us a script. And the differentiator there is that studios can have their own agenda and are very biased toward what they want and we tend to be much more independent in our thinking in terms of the writer or director got the script at least to this level, why would we want to change it? Unless there’s glaring flaws, we tend to go with what they bring us.
WTG: As you look at the current week (July 13-18), what’s your goal for where they should be a week from tonight (July 21)?
Geyser: My goal would be that we’re still competitively in the top two in our division and that — there’s a couple of really tough road matches out there; obviously the Kastles have a spectacular team, Kevin Anderson, Martina Hingis, they’re playing ridiculous tennis; Leander Paes in the doubles. That’s a tough road match for anybody. Kastles tend to win every night. Philly at home is hard; you get big crowds. Azarenka plays for them this year, so that’s going to be a tough singles match for Danny (Hantuchova). But she’s capable. Vicki hasn’t played that much lately. So there’s chances for Danny in that match and it’s not a three-set match, it’s a five-game match, and anything can happen, we’ve seen that already.
On the men’s doubles side, I don’t think there’s anybody that can compete with the Bryans. Before the Bryans play, I don’t think there’s anybody that can compete with Raven Klaasen. Raven right now is top five in the world on the road to London. If you pull up the doubles rankings on the road to London, which is this year’s points, he’s number five. Raven is considered to be — even by Rick Leach, coaches Austin and seen Raven play lots of time; he coached Leander Paes as well — said Raven, he thinks, is one of the pre-eminent doubles players in the world, puts him in a league with Mike and Bob and Nestor and Leander. And that’s good company.
So I’m hoping we’re competitive at that stage of the game.
WTG: Last question: Any advice for any investors who want to own a World Team Tennis team?
Geyser (smiling): Call me.
The San Diego Friars were a franchise in the league from 1975-1978 and again in 1981-85 (played as the San Diego Buds in 1984-85), primarily playing in the San Diego Sports Arena. The team was best known for signing its all-star player, Rod “The Rocket” Laver, in 1976. — San Diego Aviators website