All it took was a rumor. Once people began hearing speculation that Kevin Garnett would be returning to the Timberwolves, Ryan Tanke said, they took to the telephone, Internet and box office and snapped up several thousand tickets to upcoming games at Target Center.
Tanke, the Wolves' senior vice president and chief revenue officer, said he can't yet estimate the long-term financial impact of Garnett's return. In the short term, the team is expecting a windfall in ticket and merchandise sales, and excitement over a player that Wolves coach Flip Saunders called "an icon."
As of Tuesday afternoon, only a few hundred tickets remained for Garnett's homecoming Wednesday against Washington at Target Center. Team spokesman Brad Ruiter said 6,000 individual tickets for games this season had been sold since last Thursday's news that the Wolves had reacquired Garnett. The team also began marketing 2015-16 season tickets to new buyers Friday; Ruiter said deposits have been paid on 400 packages already, one of the larger numbers in the NBA.
The team will have Garnett jerseys and T-shirts available at its Target Center shops on Wednesday, and those items are expected to be hot sellers as well. Tanke said Garnett's enduring connection to Minnesota created a strong bond with fans. They are returning the affection through both their hearts and wallets, as they rush to celebrate an athlete who appeals to their sense of nostalgia and their hopes for the Wolves' future.
"I don't recall anything like this," Tanke said. "It's such a great thing for our fans, such a great thing for our staff. To be honest, I think we underestimated the emotion behind it.
"I've talked to a number of people that were younger when KG was here. And now they have kids, and they're excited they get to bring their kid to see one of their idols play. It's that type of emotion. He has that connection with our city and our fans."
Ruiter described the atmosphere in the team's offices — particularly in the ticket sales and marketing areas — as "incredible," adding that the public reaction has been the same. "It's something we haven't seen around here in a really, really long time," he said.
Last Thursday, Ruiter said, the Timberwolves' website drew record traffic of 195,000 page views and 61,000 unique visitors as people sought details about Garnett's return. Those numbers were surpassed the following day, as the site drew 259,000 page views and 72,000 unique visitors.
"This isn't just a marketing ploy to have him come back for two months and sell a bunch of tickets," Ruiter said. "People can see the genuine affection he has for this area, and I think that plays into it. I think people understand we're not getting Kevin from 20 years ago, but what we are getting is somebody who wants to be here. I think that resonates well with the people in this market."
Tanke said the long-term impact of the Garnett deal won't be known for some time because it takes months to bring in new sponsors and corporate partners. Ruiter and Tanke both said young players such as Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine had drawn new interest to the Wolves before Garnett's arrival, and his return adds to the enthusiasm.
"The fans generally understand what we've got from a young talent standpoint, and everyone is so excited about the core [players]," Tanke said. "This just throws a big cherry on top."