Sitting because of a bum knee injured in a recent Polar Plunge, Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx president Chris Wright shared reflections on his 26-year career with the franchise during the March 15 TwinWest Chamber’s Leadership Luncheon.
Wright talked about his “incredible journey,” of an English kid and soccer player living in a fishing town, to moving to the United States, where he was introduced to the business side of professional sports.
He also shared what the future will be for the Target Center as a $140 million renovation project is now underway.
Now in his 60s and at “the back end of his career,” Wright credited three role models for having shaped his career path, including his grandfather, who told him to not become a fisherman, rather to leave town and “make a life” for himself.
Wright tried to make his way into English soccer, but became injured and was forced to leave the game and begin coaching.
Later, he took a job working for Edward J. DeBartolo, then owner of the San Francisco 49ers and the Pittsburg Penguins, the second of his role models.
While working for DeBartolo, Wright learned about optimizing a venue by hosting events year-round. To do this, Wright was put in charge of starting a professional indoor soccer franchise.
“At 31, I got a Ph.D. in sports,” Wright said.
“[Edward DeBartolo] saw something in me, that I didn’t even see in myself,” he said, noting he thought all his strengths were working on the team side, rather than the business side, of sports.
“But he changed my life, and he changed my career path. … And really I’m the president of the Timberwolves today because of Edward J. DeBartolo and the opportunity that he gave me to really understand how the business of sports is operated,” Wright said.
Third on his role model list is Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, who he described as “a relationship guy.”
Wright remembers his early days working for Taylor, who at that time cut six members of the executive team, but kept Wright.
A year later, Wright’s contract was expiring. Wright recalled the conversation with Taylor about renewing his contract.
“I’m not going to give you a contract,” Taylor told him. “If you do not let me down, I will not let you or your family down.” They only shook hands. That was in 1995, Wright said, and he still doesn’t have a contract.
“Glen is cut from the same cloth as Edward J. DeBartolo. And when I look at those three men and their influence in my life and where I am today … it’s really down to those three men,” he said.
Target Center renovations
Wright showed a video of the Target Center renovations, which will add to the fan experience with new seats, club level suites, concourse improvements and a new lobby area.
Inside the arena, “we wanted to beat Xcel,” Wright said, noting the new “monster” scoreboard is already installed and is the largest of its kind in the upper Midwest.
With 62 percent of fans viewing the score board from the ends, “we wanted to make sure our fans were having the same experience regardless of where they sat inside the arena,” Wright said, and encouraged those typically watch the game from home, to check out a game for themselves. “It really does change the entire experience,” he said.
Also included in the renovations is a new five-story glass atrium. “We want this to be our Times Square,” Wright said, of the rejuvenated Block E.
Because of the project, the Target Center will close for six months after the Timberwolves finish their season, and the Lynx will play at the Xcel Center, Wright noted.
“We really think we are taking the bones of this beautiful building that is iconic to Downtown Minneapolis and really bringing it to the 21st century,” Wright said. “We really think it’s going to change the experience of every single fan as they walk in.”
Wright recognized the failed attempts by the Timberwolves to reach the playoffs, but offered some confidence in the potential of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, both of whom were named as rookies of the year, and Zach LaVine, a slam dunk champion two years in a row. He also noted how Ricky Rubio was taken off the trading block and “He is playing basketball at a completely different level,” Wright said.
With the average age of the team being 21 or 22 years, he noted that these men are “the future, the backbone, the spine of this team.”
As business owners and leaders, Wright said it’s important to have a clear vision and understand the path to where leaders want to try to take their business.
“The vision has always been very clear, and we’ve been working toward making this franchise storied and great in this marketplace on so many different levels,” Wright said.
He spoke of the “incredible group of women” with the Lynx, which had the highest grossing game last year in the history of the WNBA.
“We happen to be the Golden State Warriors of the WNBA,” Wright said, noting the three championships won by the Lynx in the last six years. “Who would’ve thought 27,000 people would come downtown for a parade for a women’s professional basketball team that had just won a championship? That’s what these women are trying to do. That’s what we’re trying to grow.”
The women are adding to the sports scene, at the top level.
“Everybody talks about the Big 4 – NBA, NFL, NHL, and Major League Baseball, Wright said. “We talk about the Big 5 – plus the WNBA.”
“There is no Title 9 that protects these athletes,” Wright said, noting Taylor was there, he would promote diversity, inclusion, gender equity, and equal opportunity for all players.
“This is the platform from which they work,” he said. “We are trying to create incredible opportunities for female basketball players who love the game as much as Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins do, Lindsay Whalen, Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus should all have the right to basically earn their living in the exact same way.”
“Things are really, really good for this franchise. Somehow we need that to transfer over to the men. We need to do that on the men’s side in an incredible facility where gender equity plays out every day,” he said.
Wright noted how Moore was the first female athlete in the country to be asked by Nike and Jordan brands to endorse their product. “We’re blessed to have her in this marketplace … we’re blessed to have her be the iconic piece of what we’re trying to put together over on the Minnesota Lynx.”
With a professional soccer team added in the mix, Wright was asked whether the Twin Cities market could sustain all of the sports franchises.
Wright noted three recent concerts were back-to-back in one night at the Target Center, in which an estimated $5.5 million was taken out of the market.
“I think it makes you better of what you do … It makes you really think about what you do,” Wright said, of the competition, and emphasized an importance of putting the consumer at the center at Target Center.
The last leadership luncheon of the season is Wednesday, April 19 with Chip Pearson of JAMF Software.
Contact Kristen Miller at [email protected]