Before the game Wednesday night I had a chance to sit down with Red Claws owner Bill Ryan, Jr. Along with his father, Bill Ryan Sr, he is the majority owner of the team. While it was Jon Jennings who originally pushed for there to be a D-League Celtics affiliate in Portland, Ryan helped bring in most of the ownership group through his extensive contacts in the Maine business and sports community. Ryan has experience in the sports business in Maine, of course. He owns Oxford Plains Speedway, one of the oldest tracks in the state and, at 14,000 seats, the largest sporting venue in Maine. Racing has long been an extremely popular sport in the Pine Tree State, with a number of local tracks scattered all over the state. Bill Ryan Sr., of course, is the immediate past chairman of TD Bank, which owns the naming rights to the TD Garden.
All this set Ryan up well to run the Maine Red Claws in concert with President/GM Jon Jennings. The two have a very close working relationship, constantly exchanging e-mails and talking, although Ryan emphasized that Jennings ran the day-to-day operations of the team. Ryan seems to have settled into the role of the team owner quite well. In film terms, he is neither the invisible, mysterious corporate owner from Slap Shot nor the meddling, micromanaging owner from American League.
That working relationship has helped create one of the biggest success stories in the D-League’s seven-year history, especially for an expansion franchise. Ticket sales and merchandise sales have both gone very well, adding to Portland’s reputation as a sports town. For years the only professional team in the city – indeed, in all of Maine – was the Portland Pirates or their predecessor, the Maine Mariners, both American Hockey League teams. A variety of minor-league teams came and went without success, including a few basketball teams. Then the AA baseball Portland Sea Dogs joined the mix, and now the Red Claws.
Ryan also pointed out that not only have they won a lot of games, but most of the home games have been close and exciting, win or lose. Wednesday was no exception: while the Claws trailed most of the evening, the Mad Ants were never able to put them out of the game entirely, and most of the crowd stayed until the final minutes. These close games have also helped build a buzz about the team around the state that has contributed to the Claws’ sellout streak, of course. The high enthusiasm has created an exceptional atmosphere in the Portland Expo. Glowing reviews have poured in: visitors have frequently compared the atmosphere at Claws games favorably to the NBA.
In many ways, the Red Claws are a model franchise for the D-League going forward. The real challenge for Ryan and his team may be to continue this momentum into the second year. While they started the season with no expectations, there will be high expectations for 2010-2011, regardless of the final outcome this year. Still, there strong start this year has set them up well for the future.