MINNEAPOLIS (AP) In the winter of 1998, Ethan Casson started calling professional franchise after professional franchise, begging them to get his foot in the door in any capacity.
One night, a human resources employee for the Minnesota Timberwolves picked up the phone and Casson talked his way into a meeting. He flew from the East Coast, met with several Timberwolves executives and, during the third quarter of a game against the Golden State Warriors, was offered an entry-level position on the business side of the operation at $24,000 per year.
“To think that what started as a cold call of me begging an HR person to let me come in and prove my worth 18 years later turned into me coming back as a CEO is amazing and certainly very special to me,” Casson told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Casson had to sell his car and some other possessions to raise the money to pay for his move from Boston to the Twin Cities, but the leap of faith has paid off. Six years after he left the Timberwolves to climb the ladder with the San Francisco 49ers, he is returning as CEO to breathe new life into one of the NBA’s struggling operations.
Timberwolves President Chris Wright remembered the impression Casson left in those first face-to-face meetings.
“I told him we’re going to find a place for you in this franchise because you are exactly the type of person that we want build this franchise around,” Wright said.
Casson’s first stint with the Timberwolves lasted 11 years. He worked his way up to senior vice president of corporate partnerships and met his future wife here before leaving for the 49ers in 2010.
When he arrived in the Bay Area, the once-proud 49ers were in the midst of an eight-year playoff drought. Their revenue had dropped to near the bottom of the league and they were playing in an outdated stadium that couldn’t compete with the shiny new ones popping up around the league. He leaves after helping to secure a 20-year, $220 million naming rights deal with Levi’s for the new stadium and rebuilding the franchise’s business operations.
The Timberwolves have not made the playoffs since 2004, the longest active drought in the league. That futility has contributed significantly to plummeting revenue and a dwindling season ticket base.
“I’m not saying it’s apples to apples, but I certainly feel I’ve been on a six-year journey that involved a lot of similar themes,” Casson said. “And I’ll apply all of those lessons to this next phase of my career.”
Casson replaces Rob Moor, the longtime CEO who stepped aside to work more closely with Wolves owner Glen Taylor’s other business interests. At 42 years old, Casson is part of a youth movement coming into the organization. Taylor also brought in 41-year-old New York real estate mogul Meyer Orbach and 35-year-old Chinese entrepreneur John Jiang as minority owners, and he hopes the three of them help bring a new perspective and energy to the business side that mirrors the vibe youngsters Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are bringing to the team.
“I was very aware and respectful that taking on this role wasn’t about coming in and fixing things that were broken,” Casson said. “I don’t look at opportunities like this as somethings not working. I look at it as an opportunity to reset and plot out a different course or a different version of a course that moves the business forward.”
The challenges are real. The Timberwolves’ competitive dormancy buried them in a crowded sports marketplace. Tickets have been hard to sell and the NFL’s Vikings, the NHL’s Wild and MLB’s Twins are competing for the corporate dollars.
“I’ve been here for a long time,” said Wright, who is entering his 25th season with the Wolves. “I’ve tried to do it what I consider the best way for the franchise given all of the different sort of environments we’ve found ourselves in over the last 12 years as we’ve not been making the playoffs. And I think Ethan is going to just bring a completely fresh, new look to all of that and lead us in the direction we need to be as a club in the 21st century.”
The Wolves have one of the most promising young cores in the league, a brand new practice facility in downtown Minneapolis and have begun renovations on the dusty Target Center.
“There’s a lot of momentum in and around the organization that made it very exciting for me as a fan and now as someone who is coming back as CEO,” he said. “That will come and go. The renovation will eventually be complete. The team will stabilize and be competitive. You still have to make sure the business model is sustainable and drivable. That’s what we’re going to be.”