Thursday, July 20, 2017

Interview With Chris Wright: Minnesota Timberwolves & Lynx President

Welcome to part two of my interview with Chris Wright, the former General Manager of the Pittsburgh Spirit and current President of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx. Please click here to read part one about how Chris went from England to Pittsburgh and everything you didn't know you needed to know about the Spirit. In part two, Chris discusses the end of the Spirit, how he went to Minnesota, his role with the Timberwolves and Lynx, and memories of Pittsburgh.

Sean: When did you know that there wasn’t going to be a next season for the Spirit? Is there a certain time that you knew?

Chris: At the end of the [1985-1986] season, we got called up to a meeting in Youngstown, Ohio, met with Mr. DeBartolo, and Mr. DeBartolo at that point said, guys, I’m sorry, but I think we’re done with the MISL. At that point, although our attendance was terrific, it was still at a difficult time when the NASL teams had come into the MISL, so they’d closed down their sort of indoor league, and now the NASL teams were coming in, payrolls were not necessarily out of control, but the investment that you were making in players, if you're looking at it from a business standpoint, it didn’t make an awful lot of sense because the owners were writing checks at the end of every year, and you know, in hindsight, if the one thing that the league had ever done was sort of impose some type of a salary cap, you know, on the league, it might have been really helpful for the indoor game particularly to have continued to grow because if you went to a Cleveland Force game, if you went to a San Diego game, you went to the Strikers game here when I came here, and saw the number of people who were really appreciative of the sport, loved the sport, loved the quickness of the sport, loved the prolific goal scoring in the sport, you know, it had an amazing following for a young league. But unfortunately the players’ salaries outweighed the revenues that you were able to bring in.

Sean: I remember in the mid-80s, the Spirit definitely drew more than the Penguins.

Chris: There was one year I can remember we drew on average just underneath 11,000 a game.

Sean: Before that meeting, did you have much interaction with Mr. DeBartolo and his family?

Chris: Oh, yeah. My boss on a day-to-day basis was Paul Martha, and Paul Martha was in charge of the Civic Arena, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Pittsburgh Spirit, so I mean, his office was right around the corner from mine, so I would see Paul every day, whether it would be senior or junior, all people from different areas of Mr. DeBartolo’s sort of business operation, they were in our building all the time. Mr. DeBartolo would come down for games. Junior would come down for games, which was terrific, then every now and again, whether it would be player transactions, whether it be budgets, whether it be attendance, you would be invited up to Youngstown to explain some of the things that either you were doing or were happening inside the franchise. So yeah, I got to know that drive pretty well.

Sean: That’s funny. So the team ended, and then I guess you went to Minnesota from there?

Chris: I was asked by Mr. DeBartolo, the way that he looked at it, he said Chris, he said, you were the first one in when we hired you and we decided to bring the team back, I want you to be the last one out. Your job for me is to close down the franchise, all of our obligations, etc., and obviously get the players, as many of them as you possibly can, a home somewhere else in the league. So that’s what I did for probably about almost three months. And while I was doing that, and I asked permission to do this, I said, look, obviously I want to be able to sort of continue in the league if I possibly can, if I close it down by a particular date for you, are you OK with me going out and interviewing for different jobs around the league that might be available. And he said absolutely, and there were three jobs that were open, I interviewed for all three of them. I was in conversations to accept all three of them and decided that Minnesota was the place to come for a lot of different reasons. I knew Alan Merrick very well here, the coach here. I liked the fact that Joe Robbie was an NFL owner and had sort of “deeper pockets," and I just loved Minnesota. Every single time that I came here, I always had a great time here. It’s cold during the winter, but it’s an incredible place to live and a very good place to raise a family. So a very good friend of mine, John Best, who was running the Tacoma Stars at the time, was somewhat disappointed that I didn’t go out to Tacoma. A very very good friend of mine, Kenny Cooper, was disappointed that I didn’t go to the Baltimore Blast and that I chose to come to Minnesota. And it was sort of in hindsight it was meant to be. Even though we closed the franchise down here two years later, it was when the World Cup was being bid for 1994, and Minnesota back at the time was looking to bid to be one of the cities where games would be hosted. So I was invited to be part of that group of people that were going to bid for games to be played in the World Cup in Minnesota, which led to development of something called the National Sports Center here. So I was one of two people who went to the state legislature, got $17.4 million, built the National Sports Center here. We weren’t fortunate enough to get games here in the World Cup, but then the Timberwolves expanded to this market in ’89, 90, and I came to work for them during the 1990-1991 season.

Sean: You just answered my question. That’s what I was wondering, how you went from MISL in soccer to the Timberwolves and later the Lynx.

Chris: Yeah, so a lot of people, a lot of people from the MISL found their way into the NBA. Because the MISL was very creative from ticket selling standpoint, unique promotions, to this day, one thing that people don’t realize, the creative group that we had in Pittsburgh was unbelievable. We actually were the first team in the history of sports, back in 1986 I think it would be, maybe ’85, we developed what was the equivalent of a family four-pack that was four tickets, four hot dogs, Cokes, Pepsis, and a tub of popcorn for a particular price. That still exists in sports today, and we were the very, very first team to do that in sports in Pittsburgh. So, you know, you’ve got everything from those, think about introductions back in the day, think about Hot Legs, think about neon sort of rolling up and down in smoke and ice, and think about the Baltimore Blast with basically a space ship coming from, you know, the rafters to introduce their players, and now think about sort of NBA-style introductions today. Well, an awful lot of that actually started back in the MISL, and the creativeness of the people who were involved. Because everybody saw it as outside of the big four, they saw it as this upstart league, nobody could figure out why 10,000 people on a night were going to go and watch these games be played. So, you know, fast forward now to Minnesota in 1990-1991, there were already three or four people working for the Minnesota Timberwolves who came from the MISL. One of them was a guy called Tim Leiweke, and Leiweke ran the Kansas City Comets, and he said, Chris, we’re moving into Target Center, we played our first year in the Metrodome, they built a building here, we need more talent, come on down and come work for us. So there we were in 1991, and I’ve been here ever since.

Sean: My brother-in-law is from the Minneapolis area, and he mentioned that the Target Center is doing some renovations. How that will benefit the team and the fan experience?

Chris: We’re putting $150 million into Target Center. The building was built in ’89-90. We moved in here in the 1990-91 season. Basically the building has pretty much stayed the same for all of those years. The bones of the building are very, very good. It’s in a great location right in the center of downtown Minneapolis. And so rather than tear it down and build new, we worked out a relationship with the city of Minneapolis. And the city of Minneapolis is now the owner of the building. We don’t own the building. AEG manages the building. We’re the major tenants in the building. And so some money from AEG, some money from the team, some money from the city, $150 million all told, basically we’re renovating this incredible building in downtown. So it’s everything from clubs to skyways to concourses to concessions to seats to scoreboard to the outside cladding on the building. It’s going to look really, really beautiful when it’s finished.

Sean: Another question about your day job. So I will admit that I follow the NBA the least just because growing up in Pittsburgh, we had the Penguins, Steelers, Pirates, but I’ve certainly followed enough of the off-season to know that you acquired Jimmy Butler and a couple of signings just happened. Have you noticed an increase in ticket sales or merchandise sales or even sponsorships?

Chris: Yeah, I mean, just so you know, we’re involved in a number of different things. So, you know, you talk about a day job. It’s fascinating because we own the Timberwolves, we own the Minnesota Lynx, we won three championships in six years in the WNBA. We just bought a G-league team in Des Moines, Iowa, and we’re a major investor in Minnesota United, the MLS expansion franchise that we got here last year, and we’re actually building a stadium for the MLS team to play in in two years’ time, in 2019. So a lot of my responsibilities are across multiple platforms. Actually, yes, Jimmy Butler is here, and [Jeff] Teague and [Taj] Gibson and we’re not done yet in rebuilding our roster around sort of some really good young talent, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and we will be very, very good on that side next year, and we’ll be able to capitalize on that. We’ve sold over, I think we’re just shy of 15,000 new full-season ticket memberships right now for our next season. We have the highest base in the WNBA season ticket members. We lead corporate sales on the WNBA side. The G-league team that we now own is the second most profitable team in the G League. And we are getting more and more and more and more involved in the MLS and basically sort of helping run that franchise. So there’s a number of us on the senior executive group that we have here. We have different roles and responsibilities to all of our franchises, but the idea is that we make every single one of those franchises as healthy as we possibly can for Glen Taylor, who is our primary owner.

Sean: Do you have any other memories of Pittsburgh or the Spirit? Do you get back to Pittsburgh at all?

Chris: Yeah, you know what, there was a big retirement party for Paul Martha, and it was just before the Igloo was imploded, so I got back there for that. I haven’t been back since. I have a lot of great friends there. The best man in my wedding, Dan Frasier, who lived out in a community just south of the city, unfortunately passed away about a year ago. A great, great friend. So I used to do an awful lot of different things with him outside of the soccer world there. We lived in Shaler for a while, we lived in Upper St. Clair for a while, still got many friends that we go backwards and forwards with, you know, in the Pittsburgh community. I absolutely love Pittsburgh. I love the sense of a diverse community. I love Shady Side. I love Polish Hill. I love the German Quarter.

Sean's Note: Is the Deutschtown area of Pittsburgh also referred to as the German Quarter?

I love the Gandy Dancer over on the other side of the river. Pittsburgh was this incredible melting pot of cultures, and that’s why I really believe that soccer, football, the real football, sort of worked there, because there was an appreciation from a heritage standpoint of the world’s great game, and although everybody said, no, this is a Steeler town, it’s a University of Pittsburgh football town, I always saw it as more than that. It was always more than that to me just because of the depth of sort of heritage in the majority of people there. And a lot of them sort of coming from Europe. So I loved my time there, miss my time there, miss a lot of my friends there, but I remember those days as being great days for me and my family.

Sean: Last question for you. If the Vikings play the Steelers, do you root for the Vikings or is it a toss up?

Chris: You know, I don’t. I root for every Pittsburgh team. So I root for the Penguins, the Pirates, which has been tough, and the Steelers. So I am a huge, I love Roethlisberger, and I love those guys, I love watching them, and I actually, when I’m looking at schedules during the NFL season, the very first thing I look for is what time is the Pittsburgh Steelers game.

Thanks again to Chris for taking the time to speak with me and answer my questions. The Spirit had a huge impact on me and many others in Western Pennsylvania, and Chris played a huge part in this. You can follow Chris on Twitter.

Thanks to Patrick McCarthy, probably the most active Pittsburgh Spirit fan on the internet, as well. This interview wouldn't have happened without his connection to Chris. Please follow him on Twitter @pwmst1. In addition, I'm still amazed that my friend Ellen agreed to transcribe this interview. There are a lot of tough names to try to type! Thank you!

Finally, please feel free to follow me on Facebook and Twitter where I'll also include some outtakes of this interview.

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