Reusse: Success on court helped Timberwolves do strong business

Ethan Casson was in his seventh year with the San Francisco 49ers in 2016 and recently had been promoted to chief operating officer. The Cassons — Ethan and Lisa — were attending a wedding in Minnesota where the guests included Glen and Becky Taylor.

"I had worked with the Timberwolves and Lynx for 11 years before getting hired in corporate sales for the 49ers," Casson said. "Glen talked to me at the wedding, said he was looking for a new chief executive officer for the Timberwolves and Lynx and asked if I was interested."

So, let us get this straight, Mr. Casson:

You were working for the 49ers, one of the great franchises in NFL history, where you just sent notices to season-ticket holders and the money would arrive automatically, where the owners wait to get the annual check for hundreds of millions from the league office, and you decided to join the Timberwolves, a franchise in a bit of a slump with a dozen years in a row missing the playoffs and feeble attendance?

"Lisa is from the Twin Cities," he said. "Minnesota girls always want to come back home."

The sad times for the Timberwolves had been accentuated with the death of basketball president and coach Flip Saunders right before the start of the 2015-16 season. The record was 29-53 that season and official home attendance was 29th among 30 teams.

In other words, it had been a normal season for the Woofies.

Tom Thibodeau was hired as president for basketball and coach on April 20, 2016. Casson took Taylor's offer and became the CEO for business on Aug. 1.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine … the young core, a potential Big Three, right? The record was 31-51 and attendance actually fell to 14,809 per game.

Thibs wasn't the kind of guy to wait. He included LaVine with other assets to acquire Jimmy Butler on June 22, 2017. Attendance jumped to 17,056 and 21st in the league.

"We had what I call the 'first play-in' game," Casson said. "The Timberwolves and Denver for the last playoff spot on the last day of the season. Young KAT against young [Nikola] Jokic; our arena was crazy for that game."

April 11, 2018: Wolves 112, Denver 106 in overtime. Back in the playoffs after 14 seasons.

What could go wrong? Well, Butler could become disgruntled at the Wolves' ability to pay him in the future, show up for an opening practice and bad-mouth various teammates, then go to a prearranged interview with ESPN's Rachel Nichols to bad-mouth the franchise.

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October 10, 2018. Short honeymoon with Jimmy. He was traded to the 76ers one month later.

"What sticks out to me is that the previous spring, our fans had such a belief they were chanting 'Wolves in six' when the series with Houston came back to Target Center," Casson said. "It was a 4-1 series against the No. 1 seed, but we had an incredible offseason off the court, businesswise.

"The following fall, I'll let you reiterate how that all came about, but Jimmy's traded, and we're kind of back in rebuilding mode."

More than "kind of." Thibodeau is fired in January 2019, the Wolves finish 36-46 and average 15,305 in official attendance — 28th in the NBA.

Casson helped find Gersson Rosas to run the basketball operation. "He got us Ant [Anthony Edwards], he got us Naz Reid, he got us Jaden McDaniels," Casson said Tuesday. "Gersson was the right choice from a basketball standpoint."

Rosas fired Ryan Saunders and brought in Toronto assistant Chris Finch as coach on Feb. 22, 2021. And then, seven months later, Rosas was fired because of a variety of workplace issues.

It took until May 23, 2022, to hire Tim Connelly away from the Denver Nuggets — at the behest of prospective owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez, and with the approval of still-owner Taylor.

Then came the Rudy Gobert trade, and a season with Towns missing 57 games, and yet a perceptible change for the better with the vibe of the Target Center crowd over the last half of the 2022-23 schedule.

"Edwards had a lot of do with it, and I believe the style of play," Casson said. "Obviously, if you have success on the court, you're going to be more successful off it.

"You have to be ready to take advantage of it — to have the infrastructure in place to make it a great experience for our fans, pricing, corporate sponsorships … all those things on how we're perceived in the marketplace.

"This is the most competitive sports market in the country, based on population: The Wild, an outstanding hockey franchise; the Twins next door; the Vikings less than a mile away. Now, a soccer team in a great stadium … plus a Big Ten university."

Casson was on the fifth floor of the offices and practice courts that the Timberwolves/Lynx constructed across the skyway in 2015. There was a huge office space down below, with employees getting ready for the NBA playoff series against Phoenix beginning Saturday, and also a Lynx season soon to start.

The Timberwolves announced 41 consecutive sellouts this season, admittedly using bargain tickets with sponsors on occasion, but an average of 18,024 that put the Wolves at No. 18 in the NBA.

The Wolves are the NBA nominee for the Sports Business Journal's franchise of the year, along with the Texas Rangers, Vegas Golden Knights, Inter Miami and the Kansas City Chiefs.

"I've called this approach to our business being '50-Win Ready,' and we were when that season arrived," Casson said. "We're way up in revenues, TV ratings, season-ticket renewals, corporate sponsorships."

There is the complication that started only 20 days ago, when Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, released a statement that Lore and Rodriguez had missed a deadline and the team was off the market. The dispute appears headed for arbitration.

"Can I just say I'm 'sad' over that situation and leave it at that?" Casson said.

You're still the Wolves, Ethan. If there wasn't a bump, we wouldn't recognize you.