Wolves' promise on court has helped fill seats

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 19, 2012 - 6:59 AM

The Wolves no longer need to discount tickets to draw a crowd.

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Rookie guard Ricky Rubio not only helped the Wolves improve on the court before he was injured, but his marketability has also made it easier for the team to sell tickets.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Chris Wright clearly remembers walking out of Target Center into the Minneapolis night. It was May 19, 2004, and the Timberwolves had just advanced to the Western Conference Finals after a thrilling Game 7 victory over Sacramento.

"That was one of the greatest nights of my sports career," Wright said.

Wright is in his 22nd season working with the Wolves, his eighth as team president. He is in charge of the business end of the franchise.

Wright was sitting in his office, which affords a view of the Target Field plaza. One wall is dominated by a huge framed picture of Ricky Rubio smiling and holding a basketball in each hand. Another wall has a picture of Kevin Love taken before the Wolves All-Star adopted the Paul Bunyan look.

Wright, a 62-year-old native of England who came to the United States in 1978, and his 120-person staff have endured some tough times since that warm May night in 2004. But Love and Rubio are two of the reasons why Wright sees a bright future.

This despite a difficult, injury-riddled end to this season.

Without Rubio and Love in the lineup, the Wolves, in contention for a playoff spot when Rubio was hurt March 9, have stumbled mightily down the stretch, with 11 consecutive losses. But Wright believes -- and he has the numbers to prove it -- that people saw enough promise in the young team to invest in its future.

"It's bizarre, the injuries we've been faced with," Wright said. "But I think people really get it, that we're young, and there is such an upside for this team."

Attendance surge

The Wolves had four home crowds bigger than 20,000 this season, including a three-game stretch starting March 9, the night Rubio was hurt. But the Wolves, in the thick of the race at that point, were starting to approach critical mass in terms of fan interest. Before this season, the team hadn't drawn 20,000 since the 2009-10 season, when it happened once.

They have had 11 sellouts in this abbreviated season after having one in 41 home games in 2010-11.

Wright will admit that there were challenges to getting folks into seats and suites during a downturn both in the economy and on the basketball court. Early on, when the Wolves were in the rebuilding process, Wright and his staff started laying the groundwork for when things got better.

Wright calls it being 50-win ready -- being able to respond quickly when the team's play improved. What did that mean? An intense process of getting to know every season ticket and suite holder as well as corporate sponsors. The goal was to find out how the team could enhance the experience of a game in ways Wright and his staff could control. Indeed, Wright said, the Wolves started doing things concert promoters had done for years: Allowing behind-the-scenes access to management, coaches and players, for example. An Alumni Club was even started, where former season ticket holders were kept in contact with the team. The Wolves also discounted many tickets to get fans in the stands.

"We did an awful lot of things since 2003-04 to get ready for what is going on right now," Wright said.

Wright saw things building. Love became an All-Star for the first time last season. When Rubio was finally signed prior to the lockout, 700 new full season tickets were sold in the next three weeks.

There was another uptick after Derrick Williams was taken with the No. 2 pick in the draft. Then, coming out of the lockout, the Wolves had veteran coach Rick Adelman heading a strong staff.

"The reason why we got it back so quickly is all of the above," Wright said. "It's Kevin's break-out year, and his play this season. It's signing Rubio and that Rubio played beautifully in this marketplace. It is because of Rick Adelman and Derrick Williams. But it is also because of the way we built our infrastructure around our consumer base."

Future plans

The Wolves had 920 new full season tickets sold for next season as of last week. Wright said 98 percent of the lower-bowl season ticket holders renewed. Overall, more than 95 percent of all season ticket holders renewed, among the top three in the league. And this despite the discounts of recent seasons disappearing.

By the beginning of next season, Wright expects to have at least 8,000 full season tickets sold, which would match the number the team had entering the 2004-05 season.

On the business side, there has been movement as well.

The Wolves were able to extend its naming rights agreement with Target for the arena. Ford Motor Company returned as a sponsor after being absent for four years. Wright said the teams' relationship with Life Time Fitness has expanded, and the team added Juhl Wind as a sponsor for signage both outside and inside the arena.

"We're looking to grow our [corporate] sponsorship levels by as much as 30 percent for next year," Wrght said.

And suites? Wright said the team was able to keep suite capacity fairly level -- at about 60 percent -- thanks to a plan that bundled Wolves games with concerts and events at Target Center. The team also did a good job of renting suites for single games. For example, Wright cited the recent game with Oklahoma City, when 21 suites were rented just for that game.

Going forward, that could change. The Wolves are planning a new suite initiative, one that will be announced in the next couple weeks, that will put more emphasis on games. Wright also said the 120-seat Cambria Club has renewed at 100 percent.

All that work during the lean years could be paying off.

"What a training ground for this staff to go out there, operate under [difficult] circumstances, where the team isn't performing to what the market would like, and to figure out with consumers what they really want from their experience from us," Wright said. "Now that the experience on the court is better, imagine how much easier it is now."

So, Wright was asked, does it feel as though he is emerging from a dark tunnel into the light? He didn't like that analogy. So he offered this:

"I prefer that you're in the forest," he said. "Because at least there is light coming through, and it's alive, a great environment. But, at times, you don't know your way through that forest. We've been in the forest for a while. But I think now we have a clear path as to how to get out of there. ... I've been here for 20 years. I can't remember being this excited about the prospects for this franchise."

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