How To Fast Track Your Professional Development With Ethan Casson

Any professional in any field is striving for professional development. But what qualities and elements can supplement your path to career growth? In today’s episode, Lance Tyson sits down with Ethan Casson, CEO of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Ethan shares a fascinating journey that includes talking himself into a $24,000 job in professional sports that previously didn’t exist. Lance shares advice on the power of persistence, the importance of patience and timing in achieving your outcomes, and the necessary elements you need to grow in your career and as a person. If you’re looking for insights on how to fast-track your professional growth, you’ve come to the right place. Join in and get valuable tips on networking, leadership, and more.

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How To Fast Track Your Professional Development With Ethan Casson

I’m excited about this episode. I have Ethan Casson on. He is the CEO of the Timberwolves, Minnesota Lynx, their G League team, which is T-Wolves in eSports. Ethan, welcome to the show.

Thanks for letting me be part of this. I’ve followed most of your interviews. It’s an incredible platform. I’m learning as much from watching those. It’s anything that I’ve been able to digest during a challenging time with this pandemic. As a CEO of the Timberwolves, WNBA’s Lynx, our G League team, our eSports team, at the end of the day, I’m ultimately charged with the vision, strategy and overall operations of all of our franchises.

All of that rolls up into me and my relationship with Glenn Taylor, our owner. It’s a special job because it’s a position that hired me as my first professional sports job. To be sitting in this chair, knowing that my career on a professional level began all those years ago at an entry-level position, is very surreal but also a personal and special job to take and live on every single day.

That brings us to the next point. You have such a unique journey with all this. You started at Minnesota. You had this other journey and you’re boomerang back. What was that? You get out of school. Did you know you’re going to go into sports? How did you get there?

I go back. I’ve thought about this often. I’m sure all your readers and leaders that you work with day in and day out probably try to go back and make that determination. “What day did I decide I was going to be?” That answer changes. For me, it never changed. I was born in Milford, Connecticut. I’m an East Coast kid. My family is made up of six.

I’ve got an older sister, a twin brother and a younger brother. We lived and grew up in New Hampshire for most of my young adult life. It’s a small town in the middle of nowhere. My siblings and I were the first generations to go to college. Loving parents were there for us every step of the way but we struggled financially. My dad, for most of his career, was a school janitor but instilled in us a work ethic.

Who we’ve all become is attributed to their hard work and commitment to wanting a better life for their kids than maybe they were afforded or generations before. I went to Colby-Sawyer and played college basketball there. I was not good enough to play division one. My dreams of playing in the NBA were over probably by my junior and senior years in high school, where I realized that I’m good at this sport but not good enough.

At that point, I went to Colby-Sawyer primarily to play. It was one of the first schools in New England that had a program called Sports Management. You think it’s Springfield College and UMass and then there’s this small little school in New London, New Hampshire, that decides that they’re going to have a degree in Sport Management.

ASO 31 | Professional Development
Professional Development: When you’re coming from nothing, the idea of being able to develop a relationship – even if it’s just one person in that organization that used to work somewhere that knew someone – that networking piece was critical.

I thought, “If I could play basketball, compete and get a Sport Management degree, maybe this track, albeit not playing, could lead me down the path of working within the industry.” It was years ago. The industry wasn’t a $100 billion industry. I began that journey. By the time I was 23 and had graduated, I had done 6 professional sports internships. All are unpaid. It’s got to be the record. I never wanted to set the record for most unpaid sports internships. That’s not a goal anyone should be out to achieve. We didn’t know anybody. We had no network.

The school was at the beginning stages of the program. There were no alumni that worked for the Yankees. I started doing these internships for free and worked for the Boston Celtics in college. The light bulb went off when I was sitting there in Boston, being able to walk in the Boston Garden, see the banners and history and go, “What if I got involved in this, turn this into a career, graduate and do a few more internships?” I wouldn’t say the rest is history because there’s a lot of things that happened in between but that’s what set my career in motion. I graduated. I’m doing these internships at CBA. For those who read this, there’s the G League. It used to be the Development League but it was originally the Continental Basketball Association.

Did they have different colored balls too?

They must have. Any of these leagues had to have a different colored ball. I worked for the Connecticut Pride. I was working in selling group sales.

There was an internship but you’re selling group sales. You do everything.

I would walk into these interviews. I would start by saying, “I work for free. What is in your organization can I do to help advance your business organization and brand?” I moonlighted on the weekends during the summer at the Pilot Pen International, which at the time was an important tennis tournament that had all of the best players in the world at New Haven, Connecticut, in preparation for the US Open. When that was over, I worked at Starter Corporation, which was also headquartered in New Haven, Connecticut. I thought apparel was starting to create a ton of momentum. It could be a different story.

As I’m listening, I’m thinking of John Clark or even Al Guido’s conversation. In your mind, you’re trying to network yourself or you’re trying to grab a foothold somewhere?

As you get more experienced in sales or leadership or management, you’ll have a better sense of when to strike or ask for the order.

Both. 

What was the priority, though? Was it more foothold or the network?

It had to be both. When you’re coming from nothing, the idea of being able to develop a relationship, even if it’s just one person in that organization that used to work somewhere and knew someone. The networking piece was critical.

Where do you get that? Where’s the instinct coming from? You went back and talked about how important your family is and that goes back to your compassion. That instinct to create a connection with somebody, is that something that’s taught to you? Is that a family value? Where does that come from?

At its core, it’s something that can’t be taught. If we’re talking about the human connection, I’m not sure that’s something that we could train our staff on. There’s maturity, growth and tools that could get people to be wired a little bit differently. I realized early on that connecting to somebody means that I have the opportunity to inspire that person. If I can inspire that person, I could influence that person. If I could influence that person, that ultimately leads to an incredibly opportunistic sales path. This story is interesting and I’ll keep it very brief but it sets the stage for what you and I are talking about.

As I was doing these internships, I got a full-time job at ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut. I’m living on my aunt and uncle’s couch. I’m working part-time while I’m working full-time. When my managers would go home at night, I would grab my 1995 Boston Celtics yearbook and media guide. I would fax a resume and call every sports team in the big four leagues at that time. When I didn’t hear back, I would do it again and again.

I didn’t care if I was 23, 24 or 44. I was going to do it until somebody took that call. A woman by the name of Jean Sullivan, in 1999, picks up the phone. I happen to be on the letter M in my media guide. My media guide was like the old-school CRM. I write down the notes of what happened beforehand. I must have called Milwaukee right before and then Minnesota was the next call.

This incredibly amazing woman that I felt bad for answered the phone. I refused to let Jean Sullivan from HR for the Minnesota Timberwolves get off the phone until she allowed me the chance to pay for me to come out and interview for a job that didn’t exist. The long story is I flew myself out. I had credit card and student loan debt. I showed up one afternoon in the offices of Target Center in February 1999.

ASO 31 | Professional Development
Professional Development: Connecting to somebody means you have the opportunity to inspire that person. If you can inspire that person, you could influence that person. If you could influence that person, that ultimately leads to an incredibly opportunistic sales path.

By the end of the visit, I talked myself into a $24,000 job to begin my professional sports career inside Minnesota. I went back and sold what little I owned. I had a TV, couch and car. I sold it to afford enough money to get back to Minneapolis. I lived downtown because I couldn’t tell people on staff that I didn’t have a car because I was in sales. I started my job there in ‘99.

I’m starting to see a pattern involve. You usually do when you talk to a leader. Number one, I’m a firm believer in Green Eggs and Ham. That’s the greatest sales book ever because the first objection in that book is the objection of the salesperson. I don’t like Sam-I-Am. Nobody knows that. Everybody thinks I don’t like green eggs and ham.

I believe successful people always focus on selling themselves. That’s what it comes down to. Before the Minnesota job, you were also in a couple of internships. You’re getting some stuff sold. Do you remember your first sale other than that first sales job? Tie that together. Did you sell a group sale when you were in Connecticut?

I don’t know if I can remember the exact transaction. I remember a lot of people. Those organizations are so small. Even when I got to Minnesota, I do remember a lot of people scratching their heads like, “Who is this kid? Why is he making all these calls and these thousand-dollar transactions?” What I was doing, though, was less to do with how much and more to do with the reps. Getting my story down, getting comfortable being on the phones and recognizing that you’ve got to go after it and that’s an interesting thing.

That proactive piece is part of your core. When you’re in Minnesota, how are you as a salesperson? If I’m your manager, then I would say Ethan is what?

Relentless, obsessed, every part of me was built around outperforming. I know this is a theme. There’s a reality to themes like this. You’ve talked to so many different leaders, great leaders and people that I look up to. I first went in, the last one to leave. I still live in downtown Minneapolis. Part of my motivation is to be in the office, as long as I can be and quickly as I can get. That’s been something I’ve been doing since the beginning of time.

I would go in when we were on the road and make calls while the team was on TV in Los Angeles, Utah and Portland. I would be leaving voice messages for folks making it seem as if they must be watching the game like I’m watching the game. I wanted to let them know that in the next 24 hours, I would be reaching back out. I used every part of outperforming to cultivate my craft.

Be patient enough but intentional at the same time.

I was talking to Mark Jackson. He is out in Denver. He arrived at the Broncos and asked me a question. He goes, “Do you have a lot of hobbies?” I go, “Businesses are my hobby. I enjoy business because I’m not that good at it.” I would much rather focus on making something I enjoy. It’s not an overwork thing. It’s something you enjoy. It’s a focus of yours. Is that true?

The weekend component to me, I find peace in it. I do. The pace is different because you don’t have a staff in the organization that’s working the volume of things coming into you and the things you need to get back to. I find this relaxing, almost euphoric meditation-based process that I go through when I’m able to come in. We’re all creatures of habit. There’s a Starbucks in the building. The woman knows my name. She knows what to leave up on the counter. I grab it at a certain point and I’m back up at this desk but in the past, a cube. It’s been very therapeutic. I would not say that I’ve got a great balance. I don’t have a ton of other hobbies.

Could that be your balance at the end of the day? I spend time with my family. I’m not a huge group guy where I have a couple of friends but it’s cathartic for me. I can’t even see my suffering because it’s something I’m constantly getting better at. I take pride in that and enjoy it. It’s not much work. I’m ruling that. I don’t get stressed.

I enjoy figuring stuff out. I feel like I found a little bit of a kindred spirit. I’m not the only one out there that is like that. Go back to that first sales job. What did you get coached on the most? What frustrated your manager about you? Were you that obsessed with getting work done? What was the feedback you were getting at that point?

My first sales job was in third grade. There was a children’s book called Nate the Great. Nate’s a kid. I don’t know how old he is. He goes around the neighborhood. His service is to offer other people, families, neighbors and classmates. If you lost something, Nate the Great is going to find it, like if you lost a bicycle or misplaced a soccer ball at the park. I had this idea in third grade, “I’m going to start the Nate the Great detective agency.”

I’m going to go to school, got flyers built, hand out these flyers and they’re going to go, “Nate the Great Detective Agency. Founder and CEO Ethan Casson is going to offer you this service.” I’m going to sell you the service and the service is whatever you’ve lost. Frankly, it’s a lost and found business. “Whatever you’ve lost, the Nate the Great detective agency is going to find this good that you’ve lost.” That was my first job. I can’t tell you what my sales goals or what I was able to achieve from that.

Fast-forward, with managers that were coaching me at that early stage in Minnesota specifically or even some of the positions in the minor leagues, I wasn’t patient and I don’t think that’s unusual. That was a fault or certainly an area of opportunity to get better. As you get more experienced in sales, leadership or management, you have a better sense of when to strike or ask for the order.

When I talked to our staff and others, there’s that moment and you train about this, where it’s no longer a transaction. That exchange between buyers and sellers is suddenly not a transaction. It’s this natural occurrence that takes place. By being patient enough but intentional at the same time, when you merge that, it takes time.

ASO 31 | Professional Development
Professional Development: If you merge the timing of it and the intentional approach together, suddenly you’re not even asking for the order, you’re not asking for a deal. You simply get to a point where it’s time to broker this.

When you’re a young seller, you see your number, the guy, woman or executive that’s in front of you and you want their job. You see their book or business, all you can think about is being impatient. What’s so interesting is if you merge the timing of it and the intentional approach to it, suddenly you’re not even asking for the order or the deal. You’re simply getting to a point where you’re at that stage where it’s time to broker this.

It’s trying to land the plane. It’s time to conclude. It is about good sales, getting business deals done and starting a business. It’s all about timing too. Over time, you understand where they are. You have some great people in staff and realize that the bottom line is that elite salespeople don’t think every single opportunity will be a deal. Great salespeople get those out.

Three interviews before this, Ron Skotarczak, Eric Sudol, Brent Schoeb, were all great examples of, “I’m not going to sell every deal,” especially Sudol. Sudol is like, “I’m not going to get every deal.” You’ve got to vent it out a little bit. Take us on a journey. You start at Minnesota. You’re there for how long? Where do you go up in the organization? Where do you go from there?

I was with the organization for eleven years. As a guy from the East Coast, that certainly wasn’t the plan. The plan was to get in, get as much experience as possible and see where that took me. I was lucky enough that I had some early successes. The job I was hired for was in corporate activation. They moved me over to sales six months into the job because sales executives are paired with a services person or an activation person in corporate. It’s this tandem relationship.

I was on the activation side right away. That was a job that would only be afforded to me based on that cold call to the HR manager at that time. What I would do was while my sales executive could go home at night, I make cold calls on his behalf as the activation coordinator. When he came in the next morning, I had some leads and meetings set up for us to go out and do together.

I remember that first day where I’ve got a meeting with the regional manager at Blockbuster Video. The agency that represents McDonald’s is going to give us an hour in a couple of weeks. These are real accounts. I remember him looking back at me like, “This kid’s crazy. Why does he think he can do my job?” The light bulb went off, “This guy’s booking meetings for me. This is going to help me.”

It didn’t take long for the manager of the department to go, “This is somebody we have to put in sales very quickly.” I started there. I was lucky enough. I had a lot of people that I have talked with. My track primarily has been in corporate and then as I’ve grown as a leader, ticket sales and premium have been something that has been very intimately involved in. Corporate was the vertical lane for me. It was corporate sales executive to manager, director, vice president, senior vice president and senior vice president of multiple other areas of the organization. That led me to 2010.

Not knowing more became a strength.

You ran the gamut in that whole sponsorship partnership piece, corporate sales all the way through. You went from the basement to the ceiling, every job 360.

The only job not available was the president or CEO position. I also knew there’s great value in staying in an organization for an extended time but there’s great value in being comfortable with the uncomfortable. I knew in 2010, for me to grow as a professional, I needed to put myself back out there in an environment where I didn’t know anyone and didn’t have a network. I look back on it almost every day, that window of time with the San Francisco 49ers, Jed York, Paraag Marathe, Al Guido, that team, the opportunity to work on a new building the stadium.

Did you come as they were building the new stadium?

In 2010 and then Legends had started maybe 6 to 8 months earlier on the premium side. The team pivoted and then said, “We’ve got to bolster up the corporate side.” When we got on the ground, there wasn’t a guarantee that one, the building was going to happen and two, that it would happen in the timeline of the 2014 opening that we ultimately were able to end up achieving. Starting with those incredible leaders inside the organization, the Legends group with Al, Mike Drake, Chad and many others, that was something that I would have never been exposed to had I not been willing to go out there and go, “Get comfortable with the uncomfortable.”

For everybody’s who’s reading, Ethan’s going there from a top-level in a very established organization to this more open platform because there’s no new stadium. They’re relooking at 49ers at how they’re doing business. They have this brand new state they’re going from a 1942 aircraft carrier Candlestick to this brand new building. You’re in a rebuild of a brand almost at that point.

There’s some irony to that. A startup football team that is the tenth longest-standing football team within the NFL but a startup built miles away from Silicon Valley. You begin to see the synergies between that. One other point, which was even more daunting to all of us, is this was going to have to be something that was privately financed. Your day job is to run the corporate business for me at Candlestick.

Your other day job was to begin building not just the strategy and vision but the opportunity to privately finance a building, not in San Francisco and do it with the group of people I listed before. One of the most special chapters of my life was a Master’s degree and so many other areas that I didn’t have experience in or I wasn’t sure of myself being able to be in some of those areas. You grow from that. I got married there. We had an incredible time, about six and a half years or so of that chapter of my life.

I go to cryogenics a lot and get on one of these tanks where it freezes you down below minus 180. It seems like several times in your career, you have jumped into the cryo tank a little bit and figured it out. From a perspective standpoint, the 49ers of Candlestick is one brand. You’re trying to finance this new version plus the new stadium, which is a whole new thing. You almost have 2 different jobs or 2 very different aspects of the same job. There’s a lot of dichotomies there. When you go to the 49ers, what title do you come in with? Can you bring to us the transition there?

ASO 31 | Professional Development
Professional Development: There’s great value in staying in an organization for an extended period of time. But there’s also great value in being comfortable with the uncomfortable.

I was hired as the vice president of corporate partnerships. At the same time, they hired a chief sales officer named John Vidalin. He is the Chief Revenue Officer of the Miami Heat. John was coming over from the Texans. I was coming out of the NBA from the Timberwolves. Jed and Paraag Marathe came up with an interesting idea. One that I have not seen before is they decided to take an interview for the chief sales officer. As they went through the interview process, they wondered if there was a way to split the job up. It’s 1A, 1B where John is taking the 1A based on his background, an incredible leader and sales executive.

John and I developed. We didn’t know each other before. I interviewed for that job ironically and we developed this incredible partnership. Legends is on the ground with all things premium SPLs. We built this band of brothers. We created this chip on our shoulder around. A lot of people don’t think this is something we can do but a group of people that sat in that room every single day believed we could. I was then promoted to chief sales officer to a chief revenue officer and finally chief operating officer in that six-and-a-half-year window.

Your trajectory and title go up. You move up, get more responsibility and take on more property. As we start to bring this down to a landing, how did your leadership philosophy around driving results change or get deeper to where you are in those six years?

It’s certainly changed. When I was hired, it was entirely about contractually obligated income booked with like-minded brands against what is known as Levi’s Stadium. The naming rights being a core part of what our job was those founding partners, technology partners, green partners and blue-chip brands. That was the core of it and what we obsessed over, day in and day out. Like any promotion where additional people and departments are added, you begin to recognize. This is the crossroads that any leader faces. Oftentimes, if we’re using sports as the case study, you grow up. If you grew up through the ticket sales rank, that’s what you know the most.

I grew up through the corporate track. That’s what I know the most. If you grow up through the social responsibility track or finance track, you get to a certain point. When that promotion presents itself, you’re going to be taking on other areas that you don’t have that level of experience in. You couldn’t possibly understand. I’m thinking some of the incredible women and men in that organization, consultants or vendors that we brought in that were not the best at what they did in sports, maybe the best at what they did in its entirety. These folks are the best of the best. You’re sitting in a room and you’re their boss, in some cases.

You’re taking on marketing, business intelligence, stadium operations, special events, on and on. You have that moment and it takes some time to determine, “Am I not qualified for this management role?” If I’m keeping it real and when I go home at night, “Am I not qualified?” This is somebody that started their own business, sold it to a tech company, made a bunch of money, engineers, Ivy League grad, all the things that you know that get in your head a little bit. For me, the moment was in a one-on-one like we have with our direct reports.

Something happened in that environment where suddenly not knowing more became a strength. Something about looking across from the person that we either hired or that was in that position, giving me their recommendations, pushing back at me or the organization on a decision that we need to make or that we’re not thinking, blind spots in the organization. I ended up developing at that moment. The more aware I am around the people in the room who know more, the stronger a leader I can ultimately be for the company.

You can’t understand every single piece of institutional knowledge that drives something forward but the idea that someone could take all that and compose music from it is a gift or a skill very few people have.

You didn’t have to be an expert in everything else. When Al went there and Chad asked to set me early with Legends, he goes, “Sit down with Al.” Al and I sat at Marriott, right down the street from Levi’s Stadium. We had this deep conversation. He’s dealing with all these Stanford grads, Cal grads, MBAs and people from Boston Consulting or McKinsey, wherever they’re from. He goes, “They challenge everything. They ask all these deep questions.” I don’t think he used the word intimidating very similar to yours. I came back the next day and did all this research.

I went online and said, “This is how they’re taught to think.” He goes, “This is genius. This is great stuff. This is what they teach at Cal U or Stanford MBA. Where did you get all this research?” I go, “Wikipedia.” He’s laughing. I go, “Don’t be intimidated because they’re looking at you the same way you’re looking at him. He must know something that he’s coming in to get this job done very similar. You don’t need to know what they know. You need to know what you know.” That’s such a great example because you’re pulling that stuff together as a leader. You don’t know what’s the expertise. That’s the leader’s job to hear that.

Early on, I don’t know if it’s training or experience. Maybe that’s a weakness of mine. You can’t understand every single piece of institutional knowledge that drives something. You described it with Al and in so many others. The idea that someone could take all of that and then compose music from it, that is a gift or skill that very few people have.

Some people who can compose music can’t even read sheet music. I liked what you said, the other thing that makes me think, especially leading a high-performing team or a team of rivals and stuff like that. There’s one thing about being the smartest person in the room. There’s another thing about acting like you’re the smartest person room and you don’t need to do that. I love that humble pull in, come from a place of, “Let me understand,” then pull the resources together. That’s special. From there, it brings us right back to the beginning as we’re going to bring this bird to a landing. You get an opportunity to run the organization you started with. What year was that?

It was 2016. I went to a wedding of a mutual friend who had been doing financial service business with the owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Glen Taylor. It was a wedding in South Beach that my wife, Lisa and I were invited to. My friend called me the night before and said, “Glen and Becky Taylor were kind enough to fly to Florida from Minnesota and join us for the wedding. He doesn’t know a lot of people there so I’m wondering, would you and Lisa be comfortable sitting with Glen and Becky at the reception part of the wedding?” The answer is yes.

It’s interesting. We all go through this sense of, “Have I done enough? Have you arrived?” I had an incredible job in San Francisco. I looked at being the Chief Operating Officer of the 49ers. We had venue next and all of these other things that I have been working behind the scenes that you get to see rolled out. I looked at our lives, likely staying in the Bay Area. We’re at this reception and Glen is sitting to the left of me. Lisa and Becky are to the right of me. Before the salads could get dropped off, he leaned over. We didn’t have that close of a relationship.

Remember, I’m a kid that started in 1999. The owner doesn’t know Ethan Casson’s name. I was lucky enough that he even pronounced it the right way. He starts talking about San Francisco and following my career. He said, “I’m starting to think about making a change. How would you feel about coming back to the Twin Cities and being the CEO of all my sports properties?” You have that moment where you almost don’t even believe what he asked. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is you feel your wife’s fingernails dig into your leg underneath the table like, “This is an interview. Don’t screw this up.” The third thing that goes through your mind, if I’m being brutally honest, is as the waiter comes over to pour the wine, I go, “I’m good. I’ll stick with water from here on out, knowing that this could end up becoming a real interview.”

ASO 31 | Professional Development
Professional Development: The more aware you are around the people in the room that know more, the stronger of a leader you can ultimately be for the company.

This is probably as deep of a conversation as I had with somebody with you sharing your thinking around things. It is exceptional. You allowed us to get into your inner Holden Caulfield a little bit like, “What am I doing? How am I going to do this?” I love that. I’m going to end this like I end all of my interviews. This has been a blast. I usually ask 1 or 2 questions. What song do they play at your funeral and as the casket comes up?

My mother’s maiden name is Flynn. It’s likely an Irish funeral. Tell me if I get this right. Irish funerals are celebrations. I’ve heard there’s drinking, eating and dancing. I can’t go with anything morbid because we’re at a party. I would never throw a party or want to go to a party that didn’t have an overdose of Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z. I don’t know if our guests at that funeral would be thrilled with that music choice but it’s my funeral. We’ll go with Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z and then I’ll let the DJ take it from there.

What book do you gift the most? If you have to gift a book to employees or friends, what would you give them?

I’ve got two. I’m a huge fan of Simon Sinek. We had the opportunity to work with Simon at the 49ers in some leadership training. We watch him and his team up close on how authentic he is. I gravitate towards any of his stuff. For me, with Simon, The Infinite Game, is the one. It’s interesting. I only think it’s been out a year and a half or so.

It’s so interesting when folks, like yourself, in the positions that you’re in can write something that’s timeless or you will author something and it almost feels like you knew something was about to happen but you wrote it. We can go back to that time. Here’s this book, The Infinite Game. Let’s call it a year and a half in circulation. Leading and living through a pandemic and social injustice or trying to solve or close the gap to social justice, I’ve found myself diving into it. I grabbed a quote from it because I was trying to think why this book resonates with me.

This is from The Infinite Game. “If you live your life with the finest mindset, your primary goals are to be richer than others.” This is a finite mindset. “Get promoted more quickly and have a bigger house than others. In other words, you’re always looking to win. If winning is always your goal, the only alternative to winning is losing. It’s one or the other, a binary result. However, if you choose to live your life with an infinite mindset, you see a bigger picture in life. You look to build relationships with others. You work hard toward the common good. Your goal is centered around making progress in these areas, as opposed to an end game with a win-loss result.”

Ethan, I love our time. Thanks for being on. You’ve been a great guest. I hope to have you on again.

Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.

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About Ethan Casson

Ethan Casson is entering his fifth season as Chief Executive Officer for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Minnesota Lynx, the Iowa Wolves, and T-Wolves Gaming. Casson also serves on the NBA Board of Governors as the Timberwolves and Lynx Alternate Governor.

As CEO, Casson oversees all business-related operations, working closely with ownership and the executive team on setting the organization’s strategic vision. In the spring of 2019, Casson was charged with leading the executive search for the President of Basketball Operations resulting in the hiring of Gersson Rosas. Rosas was previously an executive of the Houston Rockets for sixteen years and is considered one of the most innovative minds in the game today. Rosas also became the first Latino President/General Manager in the history of the NBA. The hire aligns with the focus of diversity, equity, and inclusion Casson champions for the organization. Under his leadership, diversity of the organization’s senior management has increased by more than forty percent.

Another critical focus for the organization under Casson is the importance of Social Responsibility. Serving on several nonprofit boards locally and nationally, Casson is committed to using sports as a platform for providing support to the community. Prior to the 2019-20 NBA season, Casson announced the organization’s “Pack Gives Back” campaign, unifying all four franchises in committing to maximizing social impact over the next five years. Deemed “Drive to Five”, the organization has committed to the following: securing $5 million in monetary and in-kind donations, positively impacting over 500,000 Minnesota youth and families through programming initiatives, donating 15,000 hours of community service by employees, serving 2,500 Twin Cities nonprofit organizations, and completing 500 hours of player appearances. As a result of the significant social impact and community outreach, the organization was recognized as a 2019 Keystone Honored Company by the Minneapolis Chamber. During summer of 2020, Casson spearheaded efforts to revamp the organizations Fastbreak Foundation by creating a new public facing Board of Directors focused on creating a more substantial grant-making program. And the Timberwolves & Lynx were recognized by local non-profit, MATTER, with the 2020 Community Assist Award for their impact in the Twin Cities community.

In his tenure with the team, Casson implemented additional initiatives as part of an aggressive rebuild of the organization. In the Fall of 2016, Casson led a brand overhaul that included the rollout of a new logo and court, the unveiling of team uniforms, and the launch of a new marketing campaign. In an effort to re-establish Target Center’s resurgence in downtown Minneapolis, Casson oversaw the completion of the building’s $150 million renovation, the first major facelift in the venue’s 27-year history. The success of the project resulted in a nomination for the Sports Business Journal’s 2018 Facility of the Year and was chosen as Minnesota’s Finance & Commerce Top Project of 2017.In the interest of growing the franchise’s popularity, Casson worked with the NBA to secure the Timberwolves as a participant in the 2017 NBA Global Games in China, playing against the defending NBA Champion Golden State Warriors. Additionally, the franchise purchased the NBA’s G-League team from Des Moines, now the Iowa Wolves, expanding the organization’s footprint throughout the Upper Midwest. On a local level, Casson partnered with the WNBA in bringing the 2018 WNBA All-Star Game to the Twin Cities, where the Minnesota Lynx played host.

Since Casson’s arrival, the Timberwolves experienced consistent growth in all key metrics including season tickets, attendance, television viewership, corporate partnerships, merchandise, and social engagement. The Minnesota Lynx remain one of the model franchises in the WNBA, having been named WNBA Franchise of the Year for the 2017 and 2018 seasons including being crowned WNBA Champions in 2017. Further, Casson led the efforts in securing an NBA 2K team, joining 22 other NBA franchises with a 2K eSports team. In its inaugural season, T-Wolves Gaming won the 2019 NBA 2K Championship. Additional recognition for the organization includes: the prestigious 2020 MarCom Platinum Award for crisis management work during the pandemic, 2018-19 NBA Digital Innovation Award, the CLIO Award for the Prince Inspired City Edition Uniform platform, and the Hashtag Sports Award for Best Multi-Platform campaign.

Prior to his current role, Casson spent six seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, serving as the team’s Vice President of Corporate Sales, Chief Revenue Officer, and Chief Operating Officer. Casson led a team focused on generating corporate revenue associated with the 49ers’ new stadium project. He spearheaded the organization’s effort in securing a 20-year, $220 million naming rights partnership with Levi Strauss & Co., one of the largest naming rights deals in NFL history. Additionally, the team sold more than a dozen founding partnership deals, resulting in over $600 million in committed corporate revenue prior to the opening of Levi’s Stadium.

Under Casson’s direction, Levi’s Stadium accomplished record-breaking growth in several areas of the 49ers business, inclusive of ticket and premium sales and corporate partnerships. In addition, Casson helped procure some of the most prominent events in sports and entertainment, including Super Bowl 50, WrestleMania 31, the NHL Outdoor Stadium Series, Pac-12 Championship Football, various music headliners and was awarded the host site for the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship. The success of Levi’s Stadium resulted in several industry awards including the Sports Business Journal’s 2015 Facility of the Year and Venue of the Year at the 2015 Stadium Business Awards in Barcelona, Spain. Leveraging technology with sustainability, Levi’s Stadium generated international acclaim for its green efforts, becoming the first NFL stadium to be twice LEED Gold certified and was named the 2016 Green Sports Alliance Environmental Innovators of the Year.

Prior to his tenure with the San Francisco 49ers, Casson worked at the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx as the Senior Vice President of Corporate Partnerships and with ESPN in sponsorship development.

Casson has garnered industry-wide recognition for his accomplishments throughout his career, including being chosen by Sports Business Journal as one of the “People Who Influenced Sports Business in 2020”. The annual list celebrates 79 individuals who, during an unprecedented year, set the standard for leaders in the sports industry. He was named to Minnesota Magazine’s 2018 and 2019 Minnesota 500, profiling the most influential business leaders in the state, C-Level Magazine’s CEO of the Month in February 2017, and being featured in Profile Magazine’s 2017 Q1 Executive Leadership Edition and Twin Cities Business Journal’s list of “100 People to Know” in 2016. He was honored as a member of Sports Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class of 2014 and Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class of 2008.

Casson earned a Bachelor of Science in Sports Management from Colby-Sawyer College in New London, New Hampshire. A former college basketball player, he was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013 and the Colby-Sawyer College Athletic Hall of Fame in 2015.

Casson previously served on the Board of Directors for the Make-A-Wish Foundation Greater Bay Area, the Make-A-Wish Foundation Minnesota, and the Board of Directors for YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Timberwolves and Lynx Fastbreak Foundation, the Executive Board of Minnesota Sports and Events, the Advisory Board for Positive Coaching Alliance, and is actively involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters Twin Cities. Casson is also a member of the NBA’s Team Advisory Committee.

Casson and his wife, Lisa, reside in Minneapolis.