By Travis Nyhus
Come the last day of May, fans will file into Carson Park to take in the 2016 season opener for the Eau Claire Express baseball team. Some, hard-core fans, others just there for the game day atmosphere. The focus won’t be on behind-the-scenes events that led to the Express’s formation.
Bill Rowlett spent over 20 years as a part of Eau Claire Cavaliers organization and was instrumental in bringing the Express to the City of Eau Claire. He now is the majority owner and managing director of the Eau Claire Express. Rowlett oversees business operations and other aspects of management.
Growing up in Eau Claire, Rowlett played three sports, including baseball. He led his team to a state title his senior year. His amateur days playing baseball also included four years at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire as well as the Eau Claire Cavaliers. Rowlett transitioned into coaching and eventually into management positions where he has spent all of his time during his tenure with the Express.
In the late ‘90s a number of professional teams interested in bringing an affiliate to Eau Claire contacted city leaders. However, Rowlett and others involved with baseball in the community were hesitant to align themselves with one of the professional teams.
“A professional organization will come into a community and take ownership of the facility and then put demands on the community with regards to improvements that they see necessary to bring the facility up to professional standards,” Rowlett said.
Dick Radatz Jr., co-founder of the Northwoods League, a collegiate summer baseball league, approached Rowlett among others about their interest in starting a new team in Eau Claire. The Cavaliers struggled to find a league where other teams were competitive with them. Rowlett decided to leave his position with the Cavaliers management. He then started looking towards the Northwoods League in hopes of starting a new Eau Claire baseball team.
After years of debate about how to handle the future of baseball in Eau Claire, Rowlett partnered with Dr. Jeff Jones to start the Eau Claire Express. Jones would later leave the partnership.
The Northwood League is a developmental league and that is the way Rowlett likes it.
“Getting to see these players make the big league is as gratifying to us as maybe the parents of the players themselves,” Rowlett said.
The league gives them a chance to experience professional baseball before they are professionals.
“When you look at the number of players drafted on an annual basis, we don’t have to take a backseat to any league in the country,” Rowlett said.
When the season ends, the front office doesn’t slow down. It is never too early to start lining up business partners for the next season, including stadium billboards. As soon as that last hog dog is sold during the last game Rowlett is concerned with supplying the concessions for the following year.
“You always have to have a passion for what you do,” Rowlett said. “I don’t consider this a job. During the season you work longer hours, but they are entertaining hours.”
To provide fans with the best experience possible, Rowlett says he works closely with the city to keep Carson Park up to the standards of the ownership group, as well as the league.
The most critical aspect of keeping a baseball team functioning is creating revenue. Rowlett has to not only promote the sale of season tickets but also divulge a plan to get less committed fans to the ballpark. One approach involved creating a fan deck. The deck provides a social area for fans who want to focus less on the aspects of the game and more on the game day atmosphere.
“I can’t say enough about the support from the community,” Rowlett said. “It has been tremendous since day one.”
It is the goal of the team to provide entertainment to the fans, whether it involves game play or just the environment.
Andy Neborak, a minority owner and the chief financial officer for the Express works with Rowlett on the financial side of the organization along with developing a vision and plan for the future.
“He helped make what the Cavaliers are today, and got the Express off the ground,” Neborak said. “He has had a pivotal role in the success that both of these organizations still see today.”
As Rowlett and his wife near retirement he will look to do less and less of the hands-on operations and let those responsibilities be passed on to the staff he has assembled.
The plan, says Rowlett is to sit back and enjoy the game he has been involved with for so many years. Rowlett helped bring baseball back to the Eau Claire community and now, he says, he’ll take the time to enjoy it.