By Megan Carpenter, Staff Writer
Over five years ago, Ted Lavender was approached with an opportunity. In taking that opportunity, Ted and Lisa Lavender’s lives were changed forever. Already the owners of one company, Berks • Fire • Water Restorations, and the busy parents of two children at the time, the Lavenders had a full plate. Nonetheless, the decision was made and an adventure began. It was a little over five years ago that Ted and his wife, Lisa, purchased the Reading Express.
However, Lisa wasn’t onboard with the idea at first. It took some convincing, or as Ted refers to it, “a week long process.” When first asked, Lisa’s response was “absolutely not.” That was on a Monday. On Tuesday, Ted asked again. Lisa’s response, “Are you crazy?” She adds with a laugh, “I pretty much thought he was nuts.” On Wednesday, Ted had a serious talk with Lisa about all the wonderful things they could do for the community by owning a football team. By Thursday, Lisa was warming up to the idea. The idea of providing a good to the city of Reading while having some fun themselves began to look appealing. On Friday, Ted asked again, adding that it was something he really felt they needed to do. Later that afternoon, the Lavenders were the owners of the Reading Express. The first game was that Sunday. Ted admits they hadn’t a clue what they were doing.
Five years, four division titles, two conferences titles, and a national championship later, the Lavenders have made the decision to bring their ownership of the Express to an end.
The City of Reading
Reading is a city that loves its sports, and that has been apparent long before the Express came along with the popularity of the Reading Phillies in baseball and the Reading Royals in hockey. However, with citizens loving these two teams already, would there be room for a football team? For Ted, that was never an issue, “I felt that there are sports teams here already. The community supported those sports teams already. It’s a sports environment. To me, I thought that made perfect sense already.”
The reception the team received by the citizens of Reading and Berks County during the Lavender’s ownership was something Ted and Lisa were very pleased with. They are especially thankful for the support received from fans after winning the national championship in 2009.
The Express has seen different leagues over the course of Ted and Lisa’s ownership. This season marked the beginning for the Express in the Indoor Football League (IFL), after leaving the American Indoor Football Association (AIFA).
Ted’s decision to move to the IFL was one he felt was better for the organization because where the AIFA is run by two people, the IFL is run by the owners of the teams involved. He says, “It’s in their best interest to control the organization in the most professional way and in the most profitable way.” Ted also adds that the IFL has a larger spread of teams across the nation. The IFL is considered the “next league up” in comparison and the move was one of growth for the Express. “We were very excited to be a part of the Indoor Football League,” says Ted.
Remembering the National Championship
In 2009, under the Lavender’s ownership, the Express won the AIFA National Championship. This was the first time any professional team from Reading won a national title.
“That was very exciting, especially since it was in another part of the United States in Casper, Wyoming,” says Ted.
Something particularly memorable about that win was the happiness that followed upon returning to Reading.
“There was definitely excitement from our fans. They actually led the charge. We have the loudest fans,” say Lisa. She adds, “I actually went to a Jonas Brothers concert and I thought that was the loudest thing I ever heard, the little girls screeching, but our fans can actually be louder than that when the game is tight.”
Those fans took their excitement beyond a loud volume when they put together a parade for the team after they returned from Wyoming following winning the championship. That will be something that the Lavenders will always appreciate, and always remember.
Charity and Community Service
“Owning the professional team, the things we get to do for the city and the charities, has certainly met if not exceeded our expectations.” -Ted Lavender
A big mission of Ted and Lisa’s throughout their ownership of the Express has been getting the team involved in the community. Having the football team has only expanded the outreach of what they could have achieved before. Lisa explains, “It adds a whole platform for all the different organizations to do different things, and you can help them whether it’s just giving them a concourse table to do a raffle, or bring attention to special events.”
Those philanthropic values were prevalent this year with the makeover given to the Steam Team as ambassadors for different charities and organizations.
At the last home game against the Fairbanks Grizzlies, Special Olympics athlete Jessica Houck shared two of her medals with Chris Malleo and Matt Sola after meeting and being inspired by them when the players played in a softball game to support the Special Olympics. Lisa says, “It was a very touching moment. It was just one of those moments that you go, that’s what this is all about.”
The Creation of the Family Atmosphere
The Express games have always been a place to bring your family. The key success has always been having the games be a place to go have fun with your family. Ted says that from day one, the team was developed that way. Players go through an extensive interview session when they try out. Even if they are talented, if their behavior or attitude is less than desired they won’t get a spot on the team.
“That’s one of the things we specifically designed for our team, to be more of a family environment,” says Ted, “Just like with the Steam Team and the players, we expect them to do so many appearances in the community. If it’s the players going to the elementary schools to read at library time or things of this nature with the kids, we want them to be the role models.”
The Lavenders consider the players and Steam Team members to be role models for their own children as well. Ted fondly remembers his daughter, during the first two or three years of Lavender ownership, being on the field with her Express t-shirt after games to get all the autographs of members of the Steam Team. “She wasn’t into the players,” laughs Ted, “but all the members of the Steam Team. She was so proud to have that t-shirt all signed by every single one of them.”
The Lavender kids still go to the games, even the little guy, one-year-old Josh.
Ted’s father has even gotten a piece of the Express action, as he is Papu the Engineer, the conductor of the train that makes its way onto the field prior to each game. That began with Ted’s idea to have a train that looked like the one from the logo. His dad was all for it, and the two began making some sketches. “He lives for the Express,” Ted says referring to his father, “The appearances, and running that train, and the kids. He takes the kids out on the field before the game.” The Lavenders joke that the train has become popular with adults too. “He [Papu] has to fight them off and let the kids on,” says Ted.
The Express in Entertainment
While the Sovereign Center is home to the Express games, it also houses many concerts. Ted and Lisa will often have Express jerseys made up for the singers performing at the venue. Notable people who have worn these jerseys include singer Kid Rock, comedian Frank Caliendo who actually wore his during his performance, and Rev Run of Run DMC who wore his Express jersey on his MTV show, Run’s House. Seeing the Express gain notoriety that way has been memorable for the Lavenders.
Hopes for the Future
“It’s a bittersweet transition for us.” –Lisa Lavender
The Lavenders say they are surprised with how quickly five years have gone by since first purchasing the team. Lisa says those five years have been full of experiences and a lot of learning. Ted and Lisa believe that they have taken the Express from one spot to another as far as team development, but that for the team to grow further, a different owner would be better suited for that role. Lisa says, “We’ve seen and kind of helped Express get from like a Point A to a Point B situation, and we really think somebody else can get it to that next plateau. We’re not looking at it so much as a sale as kind of handing over the torch.”
Lisa would like to see a future owner secure some more buy-in from the community at large. “I think you have to have the background, and maybe more experience with the advertising or marketing piece of it. That is a very different approach than what we have had.”
Ted and Lisa feel that someone knowledgeable with aspects local government or certain city agencies would be a good fit as owner, as that could provide a better relationship for the team and the city. “I think that there’s some headway that could help go to that next level for Express in working with all the agencies in our area, from the different authorities that are involved, and the city. The right person may be able to pull all those people together.” Having stronger connections could prove beneficial in many areas.
Being owners of the Express is something that forever changed the lives of Ted, Lisa, and their family. When asked the big question, if they could go back to that week when Ted tried convincing Lisa to purchase a football team, would they do it all over again, the reply was something truly poignant. Ted and Lisa took a pause in which they exchanged glances, both cracked a smile, and said yes. While they admit that they would choose to do certain things differently if they could go back to the beginning, they would choose to do it again.