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His goal is to win on and off the field

In many ways, Robert Clark’s second season as owner and CEO of Adirondack Sports Group LLC and the Rochester Rhinos will be his first.
Clark, 36, bought the Rhinos in March 2008, less than six weeks before the team was to start its United Soccer Leagues First Division season. It was winless in its first seven matches, with four losses and three ties. It then went 11-6-6 to finish the regular season with an 11-10-9 record. The Rhinos lost in the semifinals of the division playoffs.
“We didn’t have our first practice last year till mid-April,” Clark says from the team’s Oak Street offices, adjoining what is now called Rochester Rhinos Stadium. “Our preseason was those first seven or eight games.”
The Rhinos open their 2009 season April 18 at Carolina. The home opener-nine matches into their schedule-is May 30 against Montreal.
“I almost think it’s more challenging (than last season), to be honest,” Clark says. “Things are more stable, so we don’t have that excitement that we had in year one where we’re walking into places for the first time.
“It went right down to the wire for the (2008) season. I think we had much more public support and corporate support. I don’t necessarily think we don’t have that now, but we’re perceived as a more stable company, so it’s a harder sell.”
The Rhinos lost more than $1 million in 2008, Clark says. He is looking to break even this year and turn a modest profit in 2010.
Clark oversees a full-time staff of 15 people.
“When I took over, it was probably in the realm of 30,” he says. “There was a lot of unnecessary expense.”
On game days, the organization employs as many as 60 full- and part-time workers.
Season ticket sales are up 18 percent from last year, Clark says. He thinks the increase will reach 35 percent by the home opener, to at least 2,300 packages. Including corporate packages, Clark expects 4,000 in total sales.
“We have a lot more marketing now, but I think the stability is probably the driving force behind that increase,” he says. “In years past, I don’t think people found the organization to be very stable. I think there was some apprehension. And I think people are excited to see that the suite level is going to be completed and the stadium will be completed.”

The stadium

Until this year, the stadium in which the Rhinos play was called Paetec Park, with Perinton telecommunications firm Paetec Holding Corp. having signed a 10-year contract for $2.1 million with the former ownership group for the naming rights.
Paetec Park opened June 3, 2006. The 10-year deal was voided when Clark bought the team. He signed a one-year agreement with Paetec, which decided not to renew the rights after last season.
The Rhinos in February gained access to $4 million in state funding that the city of Rochester had held for nearly a year until the city was assured that the organization’s finances were in order. Some $3.2 million will be used to construct 17 luxury suites, with the remainder for locker room renovations and team equipment.
Work on the suites began last month and may not be completed until September, Clark says.
“That’s the worst-case scenario,” he says. “We’re pushing to try to get some suites available by July 1, but that will be a stretch. We needed to start in December to have them ready for the season.”
The Rhinos are counting on $500,000 in annual revenue from the suites, which have an impact on sponsorship sales, Clark says.
“If you go to a company, you include a suite in the sponsorship package. We won’t have that advantage this year.”
Some of the organization’s existing sponsors, concessionaires in particular, are increasing their financial contributions, Clark says.
“It’s challenging finding new sponsors, especially for the dollar amount you’re typically looking for,” he says. “We’re having more success finding smaller sponsors that add up to the ultimate number we’re looking for. Someone used to spend $25,000 to $75,000. Now we’re getting a lot more $10,000 to $25,000 sponsors.”
Clark is counting on larger crowds this season. And the Rhinos for the second straight year are counting only those who pay for their tickets.
“They used to announce crowds based on distributed tickets,” he says. “We announced actual attendance, which typically is not the way teams do that. When I was analyzing the team, I only cared about paid attendance. I don’t care how many people are in the seats. That won’t do you any good if nobody’s paying.
“Physical bodies in the stadium for games last year was up 15 or 20 percent (from the year before). That’s still a challenge, and something that’s not acceptable. I was disappointed with the attendance. Hopefully this year it will increase substantially.”
Average attendance last year was 7,313 in the team’s 12,000-seat stadium.
Perceptions that the stadium is in an unsafe part of the city and parking is limited are unfair, Clark says.
“I don’t think we have a parking problem, and I don’t think there’s a neighborhood problem,” he says. “We’ve never had an incident here. Ultimately, I put it on our shoulders to grow the attendance, not try to make excuses.”
The Rhinos have expanded ticket packages to include a family four-pack season ticket package, a package that includes three 20-ounce draft beers and all-you-can-eat chicken wings, and discounted seats in the end-zone areas.
“A lot of people nowadays don’t like to sit in their seats,” Clark says. “They like to enjoy the game and walk around and do things. We’re trying to create more viewing platforms where people can mingle and enhance the time they have at the game.”

Buying the team

Clark rescued the Rhinos virtually at the last minute before last season when the ownership group led by Utica-area businessman Frank DuRoss and partner Stephen Donner became mired in financial problems.
The purchase price has never been disclosed. Clark, the sole investor, describes it as a multimillion-dollar deal.
He was senior vice president of strategic initiatives and head of facilities management at Utica-based Adirondack Bancorp Inc. at the time of the transaction. The bank had issued the DuRoss group $2.1 million in loans as part of $10.6 million in unpaid loans owed by the Rhinos. NBT Bancorp Inc. was the other lender.
City officials took control of Paetec Park while awaiting a new owner.
“It got down to the wire, and we had to make a decision on either writing off the entire loan or take a shot at trying to salvage something,” Clark says. “The actual negotiation for me to buy the team was with NBT. They were the lead bank. We both stood to lose a lot.”
Clark and his father, Adirondack Bancorp chairman Harold Clark Jr., came to Rochester on Feb. 29, 2008, to review the Rhinos’ finances.
“We knew Rochester was a great soccer market and a great market in general,” says Harold Clark, who owned the Mohawk Valley Comets of the North American Hockey League from 1973 to 1977. “I had some prior experience owning a hockey team, and it was a very enjoyable experience. We thought the business end of things could be turned around.”
Matthew Ford, the Rhinos’ executive vice president at the time and now its president and general manager, received a call from Robert Clark on that February day and learned that father and son were on the way to the team’s offices to investigate the finances.
“His dad did most of the talking, so I really didn’t get to know much about Rob at the time,” Ford says. “But he’s a very hard-working guy. I appreciate the fact that he was interested enough to get involved with the franchise.”
Harold Clark says he does not know whether he would have advised his son to invest in the Rhinos if his bank had not been involved in the loan issues.
“It’s turned out well,” he says. “It’s been a lot of hard work, mainly on Rob’s part. He’s done a great job in putting everything together. It’s turning out to be a good decision from a financial standpoint. Although it’s basically a break-even operation now, I think it has a good future.”
Four days after taking ownership, Robert Clark fired three-year coach Laurie Calloway and replaced him with former Rhinos player Darren Tilley.
“It wasn’t necessarily well-received, but I thought it was very important,” Clark says. “We changed our logo. We changed coaches. I really wanted to do a separation of the old ownership group from the new one to give us a fresh, new look.
“A lot of people had complained about the style of play in the past, so we wanted to find a more exciting brand via a coach who produced a lot more goals being scored. Ironically, for the first seven games we weren’t scoring any, but as the season progressed we averaged around two to three goals a game.”

Upstate native

Born and raised in New Hartford, Oneida County, Clark played soccer, hockey and football in high school. He was graduated from Western New England College with a bachelor of arts and sciences degree in business administration.
“I had an offer to go pro in hockey when I graduated from college, and my father wouldn’t let me,” Clark says. “It wasn’t at the level of the American Hockey League or anything, but at one of the lower-level leagues.
“Looking back, it made sense not to do that. Playing until you’re 30 and then starting your business career doesn’t make any sense.”
Harold Clark bought Adirondack Bancorp in 1990, when Robert was a college freshman.
“I started working there when I wasn’t (attending) college,” Robert says. “The interest grew and grew, and I decided that would be a career choice I wanted to pursue.”
His father insisted Robert earn an MBA and become a bank vice president with experience in commercial lending before coming to work at Adirondack Bancorp.
Robert earned the degree at Western New England, then moved to Boston to take a job as a lender with a bank there. After moving up through the ranks, he left in 2000 to join his father’s bank.
His interest in soccer was piqued in recent years when he began to watch English Premier League matches on television.
“I always enjoyed hockey and football,” he says. “I actually just started getting into soccer probably two years ago, a year before I bought the team. I never thought I would end up owning a team.
“I used to laugh, actually, at Frank DuRoss when he started this team. He had a very successful AHL franchise, and I just thought it was kind of crazy that he was risking all that stability on a soccer team.”
Clark has known DuRoss for 20 years. The two talked occasionally before and after Clark bought the team but have not been in contact since last May, Clark says.Asked whether it is because of animosity or lack of necessity, Clark calls it a combination.
“I have had a close relationship with Frank for several years, and Frank was someone that helped us build our business model for the team,” he says. “That business model was vastly different than the reality of the situation. Frank would call to offer advice, and at that point I said, you know, I think I’ll take my own advice.
“Last year was a disaster financially, but it gave me a full year to analyze the company’s balance sheet and income statement. We’ve made some significant adjustments to bring things down to an area where income meets expenses. They used to be way out of whack.”

Game day

Clark has taken a sabbatical from Adirondack Bancorp, though he remains a member of its board, and lives in Corn Hill Landing.
The best part of his new job is the atmosphere on game days, he says.
“I would probably start at 8 in the morning and end at midnight,” he says of last season. “For a couple of hours, I’d go home and take a cat nap before the real work starts, which is when people start showing up. You want to make sure they’re having a good time.”
One of his most memorable moments was the season opener, at Charleston, S.C.
“It was a really strange feeling, watching the game and realizing that, wow, this is our team,” he says. “That was pretty surreal. And obviously our home opener was a special experience for me.”
The most challenging part of the job is the stress.
“That can happen at any time of the day,” he says. “An example would be dealing with a workman’s comp issue, a player issue, an apartment issue and a concessionaire issue. This is not for everybody. It depends on how much stress you can handle. It’s a very stressful job.”
His father thinks he can handle it.
“I know he’s enjoying it,” Harold Clark says. “Usually, if you have somebody that really enjoys doing what he’s doing, he’s going to do a good job. That’s been the case here.”
But owning a professional soccer team has put a serious dent in Clark’s leisure time.
“I used to golf a lot,” he says. “I probably golfed three or four times last year. Before I came here, I probably played around 200 rounds of golf a season.”
He also has not seen much of the family’s retreat in the Old Forge area of the Adirondack Mountains.
“I didn’t get up there much because we usually have a game,” he says. “This year, hopefully, I’ll get up there a little bit more.
“My dad lives up there in the summer. He was actually brought there two days after he was born. He’s a real big Adirondack guy. I like it in short spurts. I’m more of a city guy, so I’m pulling my hair out after about three hours of being up there because I need something to do.”
Clark’s favorite retreat is the family beach house in Vero Beach, Fla.
“I go to Florida quite a bit to surf, when I can,” he says. “I’ll shoot down there for a few days and hopefully catch some waves. That’s probably my most relaxing thing to do.”
Last year, his most important trip to Florida was for the United Soccer Leagues owners’ meeting in Tampa.
“In November, I’m in Tampa to do our schedule, which is interesting in its own right,” Clark says. “Every coach and owner flies to Tampa for the league conference. In a 48-hour span, we all get in a room and iron out the schedule. You have to fight for your days. Then we’ll launch our ticket prices.”
This year’s schedule includes the return of daytime matches, against Austin, Texas, on July 5 and against Miami on Sept. 13. Both are at 3 p.m.
“That’s going to be a test this year, to see how we do with that,” Clark says.
Clark hopes eventually to separate himself from day-to-day duties with the Rhinos, return to his job at Adirondack Bancorp and come to Rochester a couple of times each week.
“That probably won’t be this year or next year,” he says. “As things stabilize, which I’m sure they will this year, that’ll take a lot of pressure off me.
“I’ll probably go into more of an advisory role at that point and make sure this ship is sailing in the correct direction.”
As for this year, in addition to running his soccer team, Clark is preparing for a June marriage to his fiancee, Kalee Scanlon, who has moved to Rochester from the Herkimer area.
“She loves it out here,” Clark says. “She actually doesn’t want to move home. What will probably happen is we’ll retain a home here and in Utica and be constantly bouncing back and forth.
“I love doing this. I don’t want to be disengaged to the point where I’m not here at all. It’s exciting and stressful and rewarding.”
As for the Rhinos’ future, talk of joining Major League Soccer has been non-existent of late, primarily because of franchise fees in the tens of millions of dollars.
“I’m just trying to get things stabilized and get the numbers to make sense,” Clark says. “I would never say never, but it’s not even on my radar screen.”
He is not, however, eliminating the possibility.
“I think our goals will change in three to five years,” he says. “Right now I’m in a one- to three-year business plan. At that point, we’ll sit back and see where we are and see if there are other opportunities for the franchise, whether it’s an MLS-type franchise or an if-it’s-not-broke-don’t-fix-it mentality.
“We would have to put some major (stadium) additions here if we were to ever consider the MLS. But it wouldn’t be out of the realm if we were drawing 10,000 actual fans a game.”
rbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303

Robert Clark
Title: Owner and CEO, Rochester Rhinos and Adirondack Sports Group LLC
Age: 36
Home: Rochester
Education: Bachelor of arts and sciences in business administration, 1996; MBA in finance, 1998, Western New England College, Springfield, Mass.
Family: Fiancee Kalee Scanlon; son Dylan, 7; daughter Olivia, 4
Hobbies: Golf, surfing
Quote: “Actually, they exceeded my expectations (last season). About four or five games in, we still hadn’t won. We hadn’t even scored a goal. I started scratching my head and wondering whether we needed to make a change. But things came together and took off like a bullet after that.”

04/03/2009 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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