The Waiting Game
A Dispatch Q&A with Storm Chasers and Union Omaha owner-CEO Gary Green
Like baseball and soccer fans, Gary Green is anxious to begin the 2020 season for the Omaha Storm Chasers, and for the new professional soccer team, Union Omaha, which was set to make its debut this spring.
But Green (pictured above) also wants to be sure the games don't begin until it is safe to do so.
"I've been on the phone with the (Kansas City) Royals (the Storm Chasers' parent team) weekly just to hear what's happening from MLB's perspective, and right now they don't know when their season is going to start," said Green, owner and CEO of the Storm Chasers and Union Omaha. "When it comes to sports, really you need the entire country to be safe. It's not just enough to have one region of the country safe. So, this is unprecedented territory.
"If you told me right now we would have games July 1, I would feel like I hit the lottery. That would be great. It's going to take a month for an abbreviated spring training, to get the players back into shape."
We chatted via phone last week with Green from his home in New York, about 45 minutes outside of NYC. In addition to daily briefings for the upcoming baseball and soccer seasons, Green has also helped our ongoing battle with COVID-19 in the Omaha area.
USL League One club Union Omaha announced April 16 the donation of its 2020 Inaugural Season jersey partnership to CHI Health and Nebraska Medicine – two prominent health organizations at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 – in order to build awareness, raise funds and assemble support for “bending the curve.”
“This is about all of us playing a role in bending the curve and ensuring our healthcare heroes have the resources required to treat those that need it most,” Green said.
Green has also donated 45,000 masks to local hospitals, including CHI Health and Nebraska Medicine. In total, Union Omaha and its investment group are donating nearly $250,000 in funds and assets to help build awareness and to support those on the frontline of fighting COVID-19. Both the donation of the jersey partnership and addition of a community-building and health awareness hashtag are unique elements never been done before by any other American soccer club.
Omaha Dispatch: it's heartbreaking to see so many people fighting, getting this virus, so many people dying from the virus, and we certainly think of them and what their families are going through. We know that people are also anxious to get back to what I guess will be as normal as possible, to get back to their lives. Can you talk about where things are with the upcoming seasons? What can you tell fans of the Omaha Storm Chasers and Union Omaha?
Gary Green: First of all, I'd like to tell them when they can look forward to it, but I have no idea. I've been on the phone with the Royals weekly. We're keeping in touch with people and we've doubled down on social media to make sure that we can be a nice distraction from the everyday events that's going on. We've doubled on Union Omaha and the Omaha Storm Chasers. Some teams have cut back on that, and we've decided to double down. I think it's a real opportunity to connect with our fans and stay connected with our fans, just because so many jobs have been lost and companies have... It's not the right time to desert your fans. It's the right time to really focus in on connecting with your fans.
Omaha Dispatch: Everybody in Omaha is very familiar with the Omaha Storm Chasers and what an awesome part of the community that's become. I watched the video again of you talking when you had Warren Buffet there and announcing the team and you talked about how professional soccer has been able to transform communities. Maybe talk a little bit about what you see Union Omaha doing, and is it the same community that is connected with Omaha Storm Chasers that will also be connected to Union Omaha, more so, completely different? Tell me about how those communities.
Green: Well, it's the same philosophy of fans first and fans as family, and staying connected. The philosophy is the same, but the demographics are a little different, and the presentation's a little different. With Union Omaha, 14 regular season games, two special events, and overall a season ticket is obviously much less expensive because there's less games. So, it reaches a millennial group more so, not exclusively but more so. We have a strong base of season tickets, it's into 2,000 now and had momentum to it before we had to stop, before everyone stopped. And that's without selling groups of single tickets.
So, with the millennials you have this strong supporters group, which kind of feeds on the energy, and the supporters group to me is the key for everything with the soccer team. Soccer being the world's game and baseball being America's pastime, it's just two different things. It's just very different that way. It's just very different that way.
Omaha Dispatch: I know what a huge baseball fan you are, so it absolutely made sense that you would get into baseball ownership. How did the soccer come about? Were you a fan long before this? Have you ever played the game as far as in high school or college? I guess same goes for baseball, too. I'm curious what your experience of playing the sports, was it just rec(reaction) ball growing up, or how far did you take your enthusiasm for playing those games?
Green: Well, I played hardball tournaments and baseball into my mid-40s. Soccer, I used to play at summer camp. I used to love to play goalie, but that was it. Nothing more than that. When the USL came to us and said, "Hey, you're the premier operator in the area, would you like to do this?" I looked at it and I said, "I can't say I'm a soccer expert." I had been to the World Cup in '94 and some other games, and I said, "Sure, let's take a look at it." We didn't rush to it and we took a barometer and temperature of the soccer market in Omaha, and realized more kids are playing soccer than baseball, more soccer families than baseball families.
We saw a need for a professional soccer team in Omaha and Nebraska. But that took a period of time to really understand. Then things started to unfold. Jay Mims reached out to me and Jay, he is Nebraska soccer and Omaha soccer. It was a slow build, and then once we got there, it was very exciting. But soccer fans understand, you have to be transparent with your fans. The last thing that I wanted to be or we wanted to be was baseball guys who were filling up a soccer stadium.
So, I made it a point to travel around the country, visit with different teams and different ownerships and sit across the table with them, learn, spend time with their supporters groups, speak to the supporters groups and what they need and how they feel supported. I marched with the fans in Madison to the game and sat with them while they chanted and went to LAFC and did the same. Went to Phoenix, went to Virginia. Then you come back and you sit with the supporters group and you sit with the fans in Omaha. You pull out your phone and you say, "Look, this is, this is what I did." And you put them on social media, and I'm roughly 50,000 social media followers. They're like, "Hey, you know what? This guy may be not an expert coming in, but he's taking the time to learn." And it's important to them. It's important to the soccer fans that they see you're making the effort to dive in and learn and doing it in a positive way.
Omaha Dispatch: I'm excited. I'm assuming you'll be here whenever we get to have the first game, whether it be baseball or the soccer, you'll be here for that?
Green: If I need to do a 60-day quarantine in an Omaha hotel room to be at that game, I will do the quarantine.
Omaha Dispatch: Do you get a chance to come to Omaha quite often? People have taken you in here and what are maybe some of your favorite things to do when you're in town?
Green: Oh, yeah. Honestly, I've been doing business in New York since I was 22, and coming out to Omaha in 2011, it's been such a pleasure to do business there. I feel like it's reinvigorated me in all the businesses I do because coming out there, everybody's so nice, even when you get a no, people are so nice about it. It's just a pleasure to do business there, and everything's straight up and nice and no ego, which is the opposite of New York. It's my adopted city and sometimes it feels more like home than New York. I'm in Omaha anywhere from 25% to 50% of the time now, especially with watching the soccer. Some of the things I love, I love the 801 Chophouse, my favorite restaurant. And Mahogany. Mahogany's great.
Omaha Dispatch: Absolutely. Well, thank you for taking the time to chat, and hopefully we can make June 1, would be amazing, but whenever it comes, we'll be ready.
Green: Absolutely. I look forward to it and just hoping and praying it's this year. That's what we want.