Editor's Note: Below is the complete transcript from my conversation with Minnesota Timberwolves Chief Revenue Officer Ryan Tanke. An abbreviated version is found in the summer issue of SEAT Magazine.
How did you break into the sports business?
Growing up in Lacrosse, Wisconsin, I had an opportunity in high school to work as a ball boy with the New Orleans Saints during their training camp. I remember observing that the Saints’ employees had a real passion for what they were doing. From then on, I knew that I wanted to work around sports in some capacity.
After college, I sent my résumé to literally every professional sports team in football, basketball, and baseball. I got zero responses. So I figured out that I needed to do something differently. I came to the Target Center later that year to find any job, even if it was selling popcorn. I ended up getting hired in the box office, selling tickets at the ticket windows for the 1996-1997 Timberwolves season.
I made it a point, anytime someone with a credential would walk by, to find a way to interact in some way with him or her, which worked. By doing so, I found out that the team was hiring summer interns. So I took a three-month summer internship that eventually became a full-year internship. That was where I started, and ultimately, I worked in ticket sales, selling season and group tickets for six years.
Have you worked for any other sports organizations?
I was never looking for another opportunity, but it knocked with the San Diego Chargers as the Director of Sales and Service, so I moved out to San Diego for a couple of years. There was no grand plan to return [to Minnesota], but I always considered the people here family, so when an opportunity emerged to come back here in 2005-2006, I did.
That’s the sweet spot though, isn’t it? Doing a job with the people that really matter to you?
It is. It’s been a challenging year on the court, a challenging ten years I should say on the court. We’ve had to rebuild a couple of times, but at the same time, we’ve gotten better as a company. The culture of customer service that we’ve built is off the charts. We’ve had to figure out what is important, and ultimately, that’s your staff and your fans – your people; those are the two important centerpieces of what we do.
During the hiring process, how do you identify who is going to fit into the culture that’s been created here?
I think too many companies hire for task. If you hire for culture, you don’t go wrong very often. If you find the right people who believe in what you’re trying to build, you can teach task, and you can teach skills.
Do you have a specific management style?
I’ve always looked at my job in terms of the staff as my clients. We spend every day trying to make our fan experience great for our key stakeholders. You have to think the same way about your staff. So what’s their experience with us, and how can you make their experience better?
That’s not always easy to do.
It’s really difficult to do. Sometimes you’re managing significant change, which is really hard for people, but you navigate your way through it. If you create that North Star, you find your way back if you veer off to the right, or you veer off to the left.
OK, let’s have a little bit of fun now. I talked to a little birdy to prepare for this conversation; let’s say that little birdy was a little parrot. Well that parrot told me that you are a huge Parrothead.
[Laughing] True story.
What is it about Jimmy Buffet that you enjoy so much?
I do love Jimmy Buffet. I think of him as being the ultimate entertainer. Going to a Jimmy Buffet show isn’t just about the concert; it’s about the entire experience and the spirit. I absolutely love the music, but even more, his whole story is really amazing.
My wife is equally as passionate. For the day after our wedding, we actually found a guy that looks like Jimmy Buffet, plays Jimmy Buffet, and we had him actually play in our backyard for friends and family.
Was his name Jambo Joe Bones? The little parrot told me about him.
Yes, Jambo Joe Bones!
Are you a Hawaiian shirt and grass skirt guy at a Buffet concert?
I’ll mix it up for the show. You’ve got to have some fun with it. We work in an industry where we are constantly on the go, so it’s good for me to unplug and put on the flip-flops and relax.
Is there a more loyal following than Jimmy Buffet fans? That’s about as loyal as it gets.
It’s amazing, and there’s a business lesson in all of it too. He’s built up this amazing trust with his cult-like following to the point where he can put out anything, and people will buy it. He puts his name on flip-flops, on clothes, on beer, on any sort of spirit, and it sells. If people trust it, it sells. He’s an amazing business story.
Britt [Carlson] was telling me about your involvement with the Boys and Girls Club. Why is making time for community service so important to you personally?
I grew up around the Boys and Girls Club; it was a very influential piece of my upbringing. It’s where we played sports; it’s where we went after school. So having the opportunity to be a part of their board and a part of shaping their vision and future is something that is very important to me.
Are there other community initiatives that you’re involved with?
Yes, I am able to get involved through partnerships that [the Timberwolves] have; it’s fun to find out whom our partners are passionate about. I was also a Big Brother for a while, and I guess you always are; the kid is 23 at this point…
So you’re still in touch with the young man?
Oh yeah. To have the ability to help shape youth – it’s going to come back around. They are your future leaders of the community, your future employees, your future fans. There is an incredible value to getting involved. If everybody has the approach that you can influence one kid’s life or one small part of the community, we can make the world a better place. If you get to impact even one person, it’s pretty powerful.
Another story from the little parrot mentioned earlier: Let’s say you and, oh I don’t know, Britt are travelling, and you have a connecting flight. And let’s say that connection is hypothetically in Cincinnati. And let’s also say you are in the danger zone; the time is tight. You’re thinking, hypothetically, are we going to make this connecting flight? We’ve got to hustle if we’re going to make it. And finally, let’s say, hypothetically, you pass a Skyline Chili. What would you do in that hypothetical situation? Would you hustle to the next gate, or would you worry about that later and focus more on the chili?
[Laughing] This is hypothetical, right? Well, when in Rome, you’ve got to find ways to embrace the local culture. So we would probably in that hypothetical example try to get some Skyline Chili. I would hope that there’s still a chance to make the flight, which we hypothetically would, but I would want to do so with Skyline Chili in hand.
Britt, I mean the little parrot, did not share the same opinion, hypothetically. If she were in that situation, she would have been more frustrated. But I guess you’re not as concerned with airport delays. You can just belly up and have a Landshark with some guacamole and life is good, right? Why stress about it?
I say control the things that you can control. As you get older, you have so many challenges and problems to solve every day that I try not to worry a whole lot. If you have a delay, you have a delay. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let things that aren’t within my control consume me because negativity just fosters more negativity.
Ok, let’s change gears and finish up with a conversation about the arena. The Target Center is in the beginning processes of a major renovation. How is your venue making a $100 million dollar renovation investment just as impactful as a new build might be for $1 billion?
How we make this investment into Target Center as impactful as a new building is something we wrestle with every day. It starts with the location of our facility. If you were to take a map of the State of Minnesota, picked the one city block in the entire state that is best to put a sports facility, we have it. I can honestly tell you that we spent less than 15 minutes talking about a new building, because we kept coming back to this location. If we were to build a new building, we would likely have to relocate, and this facility is in just too great of a location.
We want to create an experience for the next generation of Timberwolves fans that’s comparable to other great venues in our market. But it’s also got to be built with the idea that we’re going to differentiate ourselves in the market. What we’re ultimately going to build has to be built with the flexibility to make enhancements and adjustments along the way, because the fan experience expectations will be different in five years than they are today.
What story are you trying to tell with the building right now?
For us, it’s the totality of what we’re trying to do here. We’re in what I call our “perfect storm” right now, and not the perfect storm where George Clooney is sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Our perfect storm is the convergence of unique circumstances. We’ve got the Lynx product on the WNBA side that has experienced ridiculous growth over the last four years to the point where every game is a virtual sellout; the corporate partnership side has exploded; that fan base has astronomically grown over the last couple of years, and we’re set up to grow continuously over the next few years.
At the exact same time, we’re building something that we really do believe in on the Timberwolves side. We believe passionately that we’ve got a tremendous on-court story, that this team is going to be not only competitive but a helluva lot of fun over these next few years.
Concurrently, we have two incredible facility-based opportunities. One is our team’s practice facility in partnership with Mayo Clinic, arguably the most iconic healthcare provider in the world, which is going to be literally across the street in the heart of the metropolitan area. It will be a true gold standard of practice facilities within our league and within sports. At the exact same time, we’re constructing this $97-plus million dollar renovation in partnership with the City of Minneapolis (building owner) and AEG (building operator).
What are some of your priority design elements as part of the renovation?
One is very simply to become a state-of-the-art NBA facility – that is the overarching theme from the team perspective. But two is we’re looking at the entire experience from the time people leave their houses to the time they get back home after a game – that whole driveway-to-driveway fan experience. How do we create the best experience and how do we enhance every piece of that experience along the way is the mentality driving the investment into our facility.
We’ve talked before about the premium experience and reimagining premium spaces – that is the most fun part of this process and the area that I have the most anxiety around. The premium seating industry is changing so fast that I truly believe the best idea doesn’t exist yet. Somebody was the first to come up with theatre boxes; somebody was the first to imagine loge boxes. So we’re looking at what’s traditional and we know is tried and true, but also the out-of-the-box ideas that we can bring to this venue that don’t exist yet.
So, post-renovation, walk me through what your premium mix will be (as it stands now).
We’re looking at a really powerful mix of products. We certainly are going to have a tremendous courtside club that is going to be the crown jewel of our premium offerings. We are also reimagining some of the other club spaces. We’re looking at sideline clubs that give those folks, who are paying a premium for their seat, access to a community space where they can entertain clients at a different level, and they can have a unique food and beverage experience.
We will be transforming our suite level. [Minneapolis-St. Paul] is a tremendous marketplace with 19 Fortune 500 companies; it’s a great corporate community. But we have a lot of competition for entertainment dollars, so we have to provide something that is a little bit different. We’re looking at our suite level as a completely open canvas and saying, “what is the right number of traditional suites?” And once we come up with that number of traditional suites, “how do we create a very nontraditional experience?”
We’re looking at every aspect that can impact the suite experience. We are looking at products that other venues are having success with, such as theatre boxes; they will certainly be a part of what we’re building. But we’re also challenging ourselves to find something that doesn’t exist yet in this marketplace. We want to create a new space.
Do you have that number of traditional suites identified yet?
There’s not a specific target number; it’s a little bit fluid. Just last week, we had a great meeting with the architect (Sink Comb Dethlefs) where an entirely new concept was introduced that brought that number down. It’s probably going to be in that 25 to 35 range of traditional suites, some of which we’ll use for event rentals.
By decreasing the suite inventory, my guess is you’re freeing up some of that existing space for other products. How are you going to repurpose the rest of the suite level?
We’re looking at the transformation of existing suites into concepts that have been successful in other buildings: theatre boxes, loge boxes, ledge seating, terrace tables, banquettes (the Premier Tables and Lounges) which I’ve seen recently at Staples Center; I thought those were a great innovation.
Did we miss anything?
There’s one more renovation piece that I think is important. At some point the Minnesota Vikings will open up a brand new stadium in the fall of 2016. There will be one ribbon-cutting grand opening, the doors will open, and it’ll be awesome. Our opportunity will be opening the renovation in phases. We’re looking at it as if we may have six, seven, or eight “grand openings” as each space or place is transformed over the 16 months of construction (spring of 2015 through fall of 2016).
Will you have any kind of preview center, or marketing center, or whatever you want to call it?
Yes, we’re looking at opening up an experience center in our Mayo Clinic Square location. As our front office moves over to that location, it creates this unique opportunity for us to build this experience center at the heart of a highly trafficked downtown location. And since our offices will remain there for the long term, it’s won’t just be a one-year center; it can be a living, breathing laboratory for our entire sales and service experience for our fans, partners, and suite holders for years to come.
View More Photos of my trip to Minneapolis
Next Stop: U.S. Cellular Field, Home of the Chicago White Sox
Last Stop: ALSD 2014, Kansas City
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