It is the first full month for professional soccer and lacrosse seasons at Sahlen’s Stadium, and Pat Ercoli is in the middle of it.
A former player, and a coach and general manager for the Rochester Rhinos, Ercoli, 55, is president and chief operating officer of the Rhinos’ corporate parent, Adirondack Sports Club LLC.
He oversees 10 full-time stadium employees and as many as 300 contractual workers on-site for an event. In addition, he handles the stadium’s operations and scheduling and is the top Adirondack Sports executive in Rochester now that Rhinos owner and CEO Robert Clark has returned to Utica as senior vice president of retail banking at Adirondack Bancorp Inc.
"At this time of year, I’ll try to take a day off here or there, depending on how the events fall," says Ercoli, a Greece resident. "But it’s hard to do that because you’re working the weekend, and during the week is when most other people are working. You’re trying to schedule appointments for sponsorship deals and things like that."
The Oak Street stadium has been home to the Rhinos since it opened in 2006. The team plays in the United Soccer Leagues, a notch below top-tier Major League Soccer.
It also is home to the Western New York Flash of the fledgling National Women’s Soccer League. The Flash is based in Buffalo and owned by Joseph Sahlen, president of Sahlen Packing Co. Inc. The Rochester Rattlers of Major League Lacrosse are the stadium’s third professional tenant.
"Pat has brought a great deal of stability, local knowledge and business acumen to the position and has gone a long way in securing a long-term vision for the franchise and the stadium," Clark says. "He’s doing a fabulous job."
Ercoli, coach from the Rhinos’ inception in 1996 through 2004, returned to the organization in October 2009 as general manager after four years as a business owner in the Rochester area. He became president and COO in November 2010.
"That corporate environment is pretty demanding and pretty different than the professional sports environment," Ercoli says of his former businesses. "But, in general, it comes back to leading people and taking care of customers and making sure you’re servicing people the right way.
"It’s the same way in this industry. Whether you’re a player or president of a company or one of the employees in the company, it’s all about servicing the person and enjoying what you’re doing and having a passion for it."
Scoring key deals
The Rhinos were the stadium’s only drawing card when Ercoli rejoined Adirondack Sports in 2009. But Clark had reached an agreement to bring field lacrosse back to Rochester with the relocation of the MLL’s Chicago franchise.
The move was announced in November 2010, with the new Rattlers replacing the MLL charter member that moved to Toronto following the 2008 season.
Ercoli was instrumental in closing the deal with the Flash, including a five-year stadium naming rights agreement with Sahlen and the option of a five-year renewal in 2016.
The stadium originally was Paetec Park for three seasons, then Marina Auto Stadium for two years until becoming Sahlen’s Stadium in 2011.
"They had a passion for the sport as well," Ercoli says of the Sahlen family, "and they had a business they wanted to grow in this market. We were able to sit down and work out a deal for a long-term naming rights contract. And then the concept of bringing women’s soccer came in, so we did that."
The Rattlers and Flash helped Adirondack Sports generate additional revenue to offset the nearly $1.5 million required to run the stadium and the Rhinos, but additional support was needed.
"The three sports teams were the staples, but then we started to look at other channels where we could do things to make us successful," Ercoli says. "We looked at how we could incorporate this building into the community so there’s a charitable side to it that shows value in what we do."
The stadium is fully functional for seven months, with the water turned off from late November to mid-April.
"During that span, we do have some things going on in the building, depending on the weather," Ercoli says, "but it’s nothing where there’s a lot of attendance because you don’t have bathroom facilities and you don’t have concession stands."
The stadium’s peak season runs from mid-April to September. Most weekends then are booked. Two community kickball leagues play there on weeknights, and the Rochester Rhinos Development Program for youngsters occupies space during early evenings.
"We have 60 kids that are part of our youth program," Ercoli says. "We’re looking at doubling that for next year."
Sahlen’s seats 13,768, and its record attendance was 15,404 for the July 2011 debut of the Flash and Pittsford native Abby Wambach. The U.S. Women’s National Team, also featuring Wambach, drew 13,208 last September against Costa Rica in its first match after winning the gold medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Last year’s schedule included a professional boxing event, a two-day religious festival featuring Franklin Graham, and the Summerland Tour with Sugar Ray, Everclear and Gin Blossom.
"We have the seating capacity to do concerts," Ercoli says. "With seating on the field and in the stands, this facility could hold up to 24,000 people.
"Now, trying to get a concert is not easy. You’re dealing with LiveNation that’s out at Darien Lake. You have CMAC. The jockeying to try to get the promoters to come here and actually use our facility has been the difficult side."
And the financial commitment, he says, is daunting. "Aerosmith, for instance, is a million-dollar concert," Ercoli says. "There’s some big risk involved.
"We’re looking at somebody similar to Aerosmith-I can’t really say who it is-that’s a half-million dollars. We’re doing the numbers to determine whether it’s feasible for us to take that risk. That’s, I think, the next step for us."
Sahlen’s annually plays host to Section V high school football playoff games, the Drum Corps Association World Championships and the Courage Bowl football game between St. John Fisher College and the University of Rochester.
It also was the site of last September’s Hillside Community Shield, a lineup of soccer and other events benefiting the Hillside Family of Agencies. The featured matches were between the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology men’s teams, and the Aquinas Institute and McQuaid Jesuit High School boys teams.
The second annual event is this September.
"I was the guy who had this notion that it would be great to have a charity soccer game here in town," says Thomas Hilde-brandt, president of the Hillside Children’s Foundation.
"I went to the men’s coaches at RIT and the U of R and to Pat with the idea. Pat has put the Rhinos’ resources fully behind this, which is terrific. He is helping to promote the community through soccer."
Ercoli, a native of Toronto, has fit right in as a business executive after 10 years as a soccer player and nine years as the Rhinos’ coach.
His playing career began with the Rochester Lancers in 1978 after he moved here from Toronto. After three seasons with the Lancers of the North American Soccer League, he joined the NASL’s Jacksonville franchise for one year after the Lancers folded. He also played five seasons with indoor teams before retiring in 1986 from the Cleveland Force.
He returned to Rochester with his wife, Karen, whom he met during his first season with the Lancers. Karen’s father was part of the Lancers’ ownership group.
"We knew we were coming back to an environment where, chances are, we’d never be involved with soccer again," Ercoli says. "But her family was here, so we moved back and I got into business here."
He purchased a car wash in Canandaigua and was a franchise owner of TCBY frozen yogurt stores in Canandaigua, Henrietta and Penfield.
"The car wash was probably the most successful," he says. "It was the first thing I did when I got back here. It was something I didn’t want to let go because I really enjoyed it."
Ercoli was a jack of all trades in that endeavor.
"There is a lot of maintenance and repairs in the car-wash business," he says. "You can have somebody do them, but it’s more costly to do that. I was pretty handy, so I pretty much took care of my own repairs and minimized the costs.
"I just learned through trial and error. From a business standpoint, it was learning the accounting side of it and paying the bills and all those kinds of things. I was always pretty good about making sure I controlled things properly, as a young person coming to Rochester."
Ercoli has become a civic leader, says Hildebrandt, a friend for more than 20 years, since their days as teammates in the Rochester District Soccer League.
"Pat has a tremendous love for the game of soccer, but he also loves the community," Hildebrandt says. "He has found a great way to blend his two passions into not just helping to promote soccer but to promote the community."
In 1996, Ercoli was asked to coach the Rochester Raging Rhinos, an A-League expansion team. He gave up the TCBY stores over three years beginning in 1998 and relinquished the car wash in 2002.
"It got to a point where it didn’t make sense for me to continue with it," Ercoli says. "And I had also signed a long-term contract with the Rhinos. I felt I was secure in my contract. It looked like I was going to be able to stay in the sport."
The Rhinos led the A-League in attendance and were considered a premier minor league franchise. They won A-League titles in 1998, 2000 and 2001 and won the U.S. Open Cup against MLS competition in 1999.
In December 2004, Ercoli left the team after his contract as coach was not renewed. He was offered another job in the organization but did not accept it.
"We had won four championships and made the playoffs every year," he says. "We had gone to seven finals over the nine years. The way I look at it is, we had so much success that they really thought it was easy. Sometimes, when you have that success, people don’t think coaching is needed."
He laughs at the thought.
"Unfortunately, it’s sometimes viewed that way. But to be able to do what we did four years in a row, it doesn’t happen all the time."
His departure came as the franchise was preparing to move from Frontier Field to a soccer-specific home on the city’s west side. Ownership also was weighing the possibility of jumping to the MLS.
"I thought maybe they were looking at bringing in somebody different in regards to being in the MLS and they wanted to bring somebody in that might be able to take them to that level," Ercoli says.
"I think I could do it, but I wasn’t really saying that I wanted to. They just wanted me to step down as the head coach at that point, so we decided to part ways. It wasn’t a favorable parting, because I had a contract and I felt that needed to be honored. They obviously felt they could get out of it."
He returned to the private sector, eventually becoming senior manager of a Jo-Ann Stores Inc. crafts and fabrics shop on Ridge Road. He was familiar with the chain because his TCBY store in Henrietta adjoined a Leewards Creative Crafts Inc. store that had been closed after that chain was purchased by Michael’s Stores Inc.
The Leewards owner approached Ercoli about opening a craft business. They opened Karen’s Crafts Inc.-named for Ercoli’s wife-in a former Jo-Ann Fabric & Craft location in Fairport. It was closed in just over a year.
"We felt it was a great location, but it turned out to be a bad location," Ercoli says.
The economy, meanwhile, was beginning to teeter as the Great Recession approached.
"I saw the economy turning in a negative direction at that point and wondered whether to even get involved in another business," Ercoli said.
He saw a newspaper ad for a senior store manager being sought by Jo-Ann Fabrics and put in an application. He was hired in September 2006 to oversee 50 employees.
"The store was triple the size of the one that we had," Ercoli says. "It was a big undertaking."
Ercoli made the most of it, despite having no formal training in the business world.
"Everybody in my family has had that gene in them as sole business owners," he says. "My father had his own business. My mother’s parents had their own business. I was always brought up with that mentality.
"Even when I started here at 18 or 19, I had it in the back of my mind about what I was going to be doing when I’m done playing. … I was always putting things aside to make sure I was ready for when I wasn’t going to be playing."
He never considered sports as a post-player career because of its limited opportunities, Ercoli says.
"There are a lot of players out there," he says. "But there are few coaches, few positions that pay well where you can be involved in the sport. And the question at that time was whether this sport would actually be around. Now it’s on solid ground, but at the time it wasn’t."
Ercoli signed on as radio analyst for Rhinos games in 2009 and was named general manager in October 2009.
"Through that, Pat started taking on more and more roles," Clark says. "At that point, a decision was made that he was more than capable of handling the transition of becoming the full-fledged president.
"He brought Joe Sahlen to the table for us and cultivated that relationship. He got us a new naming rights sponsor. He helps in driving ticket sales. He’s gone from being a Hall of Fame coach to having a full-fledged business acumen in sports management, not just on the field but in the office."
Even after becoming GM, however, Ercoli continued to manage the Jo-Ann Fabrics store.
"They asked me to come back here as the GM, and I was a little skeptical," he says. "But the ownership had changed.
"After one or two years here, (Clark) didn’t see the success that we had seen at the beginning. He wanted to see if I could come in and make that happen."
Ercoli left Jo-Ann Fabrics in November 2010 after being promoted to president and COO.
Across the border
Ercoli played just about everything but soccer growing up in Toronto. He was a member of the football, basketball, volleyball, hockey, tennis, track and field, and swim teams at Catholic prep St. Michael’s College School.
"In Canada, soccer wasn’t that important at the high school level," he says. "They usually called me when they were in the playoffs or toward the end of the season, because I was playing semi-pro at that point.
"Soccer was always my best sport. It was always the sport I wanted to focus on in becoming a professional."
His parents moved to Toronto from Italy in the early 1950s. Ercoli was born in Toronto, his older sister in Italy.
"My father actually came over as a prisoner of war," Ercoli says. "He spent time in the U.S. as a prisoner of war and then was able to go back to Italy and then was transferred into Canada."
His dad loved to watch car races, and Ercoli accompanied him to Watkins Glen in the mid-1970s for a Formula One event.
"There was a security guard there," Ercoli says. "They kept looking at each other. They couldn’t understand where they had known each other from. Come to find out, he was one of the guys who had guarded him when he was a prisoner of war. And this was like 30 years later."
Ercoli played semi-pro soccer in Toronto and Montreal. He was invited to try out for the Lancers after their coach saw him play for Montreal. He made the team and moved to Rochester in February 1978.
His longest stay with one franchise was three seasons with the Baltimore Blast of the Major Indoor Soccer League. That team won the MISL title in 1983-84 and was a finalist in 1982-83 and 1984-85.
Ercoli spent his last five seasons as a player on the indoor circuit, including one season with Cleveland in 1985-86 before he retired and settled here.
He played recreationally for a few years before becoming the Rhinos’ coach in 1996.
"I played locally and had a good time with it," he says. "When I saw that I was going to be getting involved with the Rhinos, I stopped doing it because it was going to take time away from what I wanted to do. But I still keep in touch with all the guys I played with."
His priority away from work last fall was watching his daughter Melissa play NCAA Division I soccer at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania.
"We traveled out there for all her home games," Ercoli says. "While my other kids were growing up, I did as much as I could to go watch them play.
"The older kids, the first three, probably had that opportunity to see me play because I was playing locally. But my younger daughter probably has never really seen me play. But she has an incredible amount of passion for it. She works hard at it and wants to be successful at it. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree."
Ercoli’s oldest child, Marybeth, is 30. He also has 29-year-old twin sons, Ryan and Christopher.
Ercoli concedes most days now are tied to Adirondack Sports and the stadium.
"I enjoy taking time off and going on vacation," he says. "My wife and I will do that once a year. That’s pretty much when we let our hair down and relax and don’t think about anything."
The Rhinos played their 18th home opener last weekend, losing to Harrisburg 1-0. Ercoli hopes for an increase in attendance at Sahlen’s for all three pro teams this season.
Last year’s gates averaged 5,000 to 6,000 for both the Rhinos and the Flash, Ercoli says, with the Flash drawing as many as 10,000 when Wambach was in town.
"In our heyday, we were drawing 12,000 at Frontier, but even that started to come down every year," he says. "It’s just a matter of popularity at any given time, the synergy between the fans and the players.
"But we have a solid core of fans that have always been loyal to the team. I think you find that even with the Bills. When they’re not doing as well, their crowds aren’t as good. Whether we like it or not, it is about entertainment. But the bottom line is still winning."
Title: President and chief operating officer, Adirondack Sports Club LLC
Education: St. Michael’s College School, Toronto, 1976
Family: Wife, Karen; daughters Marybeth, 30, and Melissa, 18; sons Ryan and Christopher, 29
Quote: "I had that experience because of being in business, and being at JoAnn’s in the corporate world, and how to deal with people. I came back more polished."
5/10/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.