Even early on, Ethan Casson knew.
OK, so maybe as a high school senior in Keene, N.H., he didn’t know that he’d spend his 30s making “40 under 40 to watch’’ lists from Minneapolis to San Francisco. Or that he would one day negotiate a 20-year, $220 million deal for the naming rights to Levi’s Stadium while working for the San Francisco 49ers. Or that, one day, he would return to the Wolves, the team he cold-called into an entry-level job way back in 1998, this time as the organization’s CEO.
But, way back in high school, he did know what he wanted.
“I remember being too young to have it all mapped out,” said Casson, 42, who was hired by Glen Taylor to run the Timberwolves and Lynx in July.
But he knew he wanted to work in sports. Professional sports. And so, as a productive high school player getting notice from several small colleges, he chose Colby-Sawyer College in nearby New London. Not because of tradition — the men’s basketball program was just two years old — but because the school offered a sports management degree.
“I felt it would lead me down that path,’’ he said.
Months into his new position, Casson is elbows deep in the Target Center renovation process. In a competitive marketplace, the Wolves’ corporate partnerships are up 15 percent. This week the organization announced five new founding partners. The Wolves are in the top half of the league in new season ticket sales, and the new premium seating level is 90 percent sold.
Of course, there is a lot left to be done. While full and partial season ticket sales are up, game-to-game attendance is still a work in progress, though Casson looks for post-holiday improvement.
“We’ve got to take the momentum that I believe exists in this marketplace,’’ he said. “We have to stabilize that renewal base, and grow that base.’’
He says it with a convincing confidence.
Back in 1998, he started cold-calling looking for a job. Any job. He got ahold of Jean Sullivan, who used to work in human resources for the Wolves. She could not shake him. Ultimately he convinced her to let him come — at his own expense — from the East Coast.
“I spent the day with the team,’’ he said. “I had a final meeting with [Wolves president] Chris Wright. At the end of the meeting he said, ‘I think we’ll find something. It will be entry level, and you’re going to have to make your way out here, but we’ll give you a shot.’ That was April of 1998. Eighteen years later, I’m sitting here across from you.’’
In just over a decade with the team, Casson moved from that entry-level position to become the senior VP of corporate sales and game presentation, and met his future wife before moving to the 49ers in 2010.
Coming to an NFL team that had fallen on hard times, with an outdated facility, Casson went from vice president of corporate sales to chief revenue officer in 2014 and chief operating officer in 2016.
It was a chance meeting with Wolves owner Glen Taylor that sowed the seeds of Casson’s return. Taylor has gone all-in, hiring Tom Thibodeau as president of basketball operations and coach and Scott Layden as GM. He had recruited two young, forward-thinking minority owners in Lizhang Jiang and Meyer Orbach. He wanted that same forward thinking in his front office. Finally, after another meeting in Mankato in early July, Casson agreed to return.
Perhaps, this time for good.
“The only thing I can think of right now is this organization,’’ he said. “And building something truly world class. I’m obsessed with that mind-set. We can do it as a group, and I can do it in a market I know so much about.’’