Ed Ragain knew starting a professional sports franchise in Colorado Springs would be a challenge. The former engineer spent his professional career around the business of sports, having consulted on and constructed elements of sports stadiums since he began M-E Engineers in Denver nearly three decades ago. But Ragain’s vision for retirement looked a bit different from most. The owner of the Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC spoke with the Business Journal this week about traveling the world, soccer in the U.S. and how lucky a small city like Colorado Springs is to be playing in the big leagues.
Are you from Colorado?
I grew up in Springfield, Mo., and met my wife in St. Louis. I moved here when I was 27 and started an engineering firm, M-E Engineers in Denver. We have an office here in Colorado Springs, and the business has grown to an international firm, with offices in New York, Los Angeles, London, the Middle East, Dallas, San Francisco.
I retired about two years ago. I was spending so much time out of the country and, as you get older, you tend to want to reset. Having a family business was always a dream and being involved in sports as an engineer and consultant sort of reinforced this idea of finding a way into the industry.
What did the firm specialize in?
For a big part of my career I did stadium designs while working with architects.
The last 10 years I was a consultant to the Olympic Broadcasting Services and FIFA. That drove a lot of the international travel. I was in Brazil and South Africa — traveling every two years for the Olympics and every four years for the World Cup — and they are staggered so every year there was some major event on the planet.
We designed mechanical and electrical systems, and lighting was certainly a very visible part of that. … For us, digital content, broadcast and lighting was rolled up into one package. Twenty years ago this was a fairly new idea, and it drove me to focus on that area. I had a chance to carve out that industry and wrote the guidelines for FIFA and for broadcast services for the NBA, NFL and NHL — all these Tier 1 sports programs.
How did the Switchbacks come about?
I was in New York consulting with Major League Soccer. This was 2013, and they were on the verge of teaming with a new league called the USL [United Soccer League]. I was looking into retiring at the time … and [MLS representatives] said if I’d ever had any interest [in owning a team], this would be a good time to jump on board.
I went home, and had lunch with my son Nick, now the president of the franchise, and said I was too old for this. But if he got on board, I could help fund it and help with
He was running a software business at the time, but we decided we’d meet with the league. We went to Tampa, the home base of the USL. After about an hour they said, ‘You guys aren’t really soccer guys, are you?’ And we said no, but we’re sports guys and business guys. They said, ‘You’re the kind of guys we need. This isn’t a hobby to you. It’s a business.’
So we were approved and bought the franchise. We made the announcement in December 2013; 2015 was our first season and this is our third year.
Assess the club’s first two years.
It’s a building process, and we’ve certainly been building. Has it been fast enough? I think the league would say we’re a little bit behind. I think we’re on track. But we’re the smallest USL market. Tier 2 cities tend to be around [a population of] 1 [million] to 2 million. If you count all of El Paso County and Pueblo, you could make the case that we’re around 800,000. But we don’t have a lot of big industry here, which is really a key part of these business models, because they like to put their name on things. We’ve had a hard time making that happen. We have five or six of the best business partners in town. I just need another four or five.
This year is a critical year for us.
Has the stadium been renovated?
If you went to the old Sand Creek Stadium, one side had concrete and blue seats. Today you see a stadium with an electronic scoreboard and concessions. We just opened our business club this year, which is in an enclosed space and catered. We’ve spent between $3 [million] and $4 million in renovations. The league wants us to be at about 8,000 capacity by 2020. Right now we’re at about 5,000. We’re retaining an architect this year to look at the best way to grow. … We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
Soccer has had a hard time catching on in the U.S. How do you think it’s faring?
If Americans can compete at the international level, the game will continue to grow here. Soccer in America is older than the NFL. But we’ve gone through lengthy spans where the U.S. [men’s] team can’t even qualify for the World Cup. There are more than 200 countries vying for the World Cup and the top 30 qualify.
The U.S. [men are] at about 30th — right on the edge. We didn’t qualify for the last Olympics. If we can’t qualify, I think soccer will see some dark periods, but if we qualify, it will explode.
As for here, our Millennial demographics are right on — from 18 to 35 with one or two kids and an annual household income of $70,000 to $120,000. … We’ll never be a Tier 1 city — an NBA team will never come here. But for Tier 2 cities, our community needs to appreciate what’s here because we’re playing beyond our scale. We need community and business support to compete. We would like to see the city really embrace that.
What are your expectations for this season?
Winning. That’s an expectation every season.
We’re also working really hard to grow our business partnerships. We’ve identified some possibilities. Also, the league gives us metrics to follow and goals to hit, and we averaged 3,200 [fans through the gates] last year. This year we hope to get up to 4,000. The league average will actually be closer to 5,000. … We’ll go to Sacramento and play in front of 12,000 people. Our expectation is to continue to grow our fan base. …
We just hope the business community can get behind us.