Q&A: Timberwolves CEO Ethan Casson on Team’s NBA Draft Approach

    • As one of the eight NBA teams left out of the Orlando bubble, Minnesota focused all year on the draft.
    • Now with the top pick, Casson sees two pillars of excitement for generating ticket and sponsorship sales.

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Eight NBA teams didn’t make the trip to Orlando when the season restarted in July. Instead, those teams worked to stay relevant to fans in a rapidly changing world. 

The Minnesota Timberwolves took the approach of focusing on the 2020 NBA Draft Lottery and NBA Draft. Winning the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, the team is hoping to use it as a springboard to launch into what executives believe can be a successful season, starting just over a month after draft day.

FOS caught up with Timberwolves CEO Ethan Casson to chat about how the organization has managed during the pandemic and made the most of the NBA draft opportunity. 

FOS: What’s it been like trying to stay in front of fans the past eight months when you weren’t playing?

Ethan Casson: Since we stopped playing in March and were not one of the teams that qualified to go to Orlando, we were fortunate enough to host a mini bubble here that the teams that didn’t qualify could come to. So we did have a little time together. What we tried to do was just staying in touch with the ticket members, corporate and community partners and fans at the early stages. Just to stay connected, there wasn’t a lot of information, but to be connected.

But we really targeted the draft lottery and now the NBA draft; those are two signature moments as we lead into training camp for ticket and corporate sales, digital engagement. It was really important to build out a multi-faceted touchpoint plan that would engage and ignite a fanbase in a creative way since we haven’t had a chance to watch the Timberwolves play at Target Center.

What we started to do was use the draft lottery date, regardless of outcome — history would tell you we wouldn’t have much luck moving up — but let’s use that as a marketing piece, generating interest to see what number we actually get. Let’s build marketing and social and connection strategy in and around that. 

FOS: So leading up to the lottery, what did the organization do?

EC: We had a preshow and 2,300 fans and ticket members participated. Then as luck would have it, the [NBA] Deputy Commissioner [Mark Tatum] turned over the last two envelopes: Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves. We had a plan baked in to launch the following morning and there were a number of different virtual things.

We had a virtual coffee with coach [Ryan] Saunders, where season ticket members could ask live questions. They were about the excitement around the pick, questions around the offseason, things planned for the season. Then there were virtual lunches, more geared toward corporate partners. We could pivot the audience to hypotheticals of what a season looks like.

There were draft preview events. Basketball personnel would host conversations around the draft. And that was interesting and a successful platform to introduce personalities our fans aren’t accustomed to hear from. It gave fans a chance to hear from Sachin Gupta, our executive vice president of basketball operations and his role. If you do a quick bio check, he’s the founder and inventor of the trade machine and part of ‘Trust the Process’ in Philly. He’s widely looked at as a leader in data and analytics in how to make decisions. It was a peek behind the curtains.

FOS: When did it go from offseason preview to draft specific?

EC: We pivoted last week into member kits that were delivered to each season ticket  members’ homes. It was a letter from [Saunders] thanking them for their support and a special gift. As that was happening, we also unveiled the ultimate at-home draft party. Five members were randomly selected to get a draft party. Some front office execs will show up in socially distanced fashion on the day of draft with merchandise, decorations, party snacks and food and a big screen TV from our partners TCL. 

Lastly, we’ll host — a little bit like the lottery — but a much more extensive, virtual preshow in-lieu of a draft party. It’ll give fans a chance to see exclusive content, draft analysis, and how didn’t different scenarios might play out. It’ll feature staff and former players like Wally Szczerbiak and Latrell Sprewell. We’ll talk about the No. 1, No. 17, and No. 33 picks and everything everyone wants to engage and talk about. That’ll end and people will move to ESPN to watch the outcome. We’re anticipating about 3,000 folks to tune in virtually.

FOS: I can’t expect you to tell me who’s going No. 1, but are their plans to focus on any campaigns on the top pick? 

EC: This is what I know of our front office: they are always about team. It’s when they talk about offseason, plans for the upcoming season, style of play, building a culture, the types of people we want inside the locker room, staffing and hiring — it’s always about the team.

Without even knowing what we do, it will be pivotal to the success and future of this team. But everything we do is inclusive of everyone and it’s been a long time since this team is consistently good. It takes role players, draft picks, All-Stars, personnel in the office, coaches to collectively build it back to a sustainable organization.

FOS: Still it has to be a point of excitement and optimism for next season, right? 

EC: We really are looking at the current state as we have two very unique opportunities to generate excitement. In February, we made one of the biggest multi-player, multi-team trades in the last couple decades, bringing in D’Angelo Russel to pair him up with his dear friend Karl-Anthony Towns. That took place just weeks before the league shut down.

What we saw at that period of time was a huge infusion of interest and new member sales and renewals during that window. It just so happens our roll out to members hit basically at that time and we were early on, we were a top-five team in new business members sold-to-date during the window. Now fast forward to the draft lottery, we look like we have another opportunity to capitalize with the No. 1 pick. 

We have these two different tent pole scenarios that will shape the organization for years to come. Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns only played together once, so we get to reintroduce that back into the market and that’ll be a huge success rolled into having the top pick as well.

FOS: So with all this being said, were you able to make up sponsorship campaigns? Who was the overall target of it all?

EC: There’s several key audiences, influencing groups that this has been geared toward. Some, it’s been the more the merrier participating in those preshow environments, gifts for partners and members. The feedback we’ve gotten, everyone is appreciative. 

At the start it was just being transparent, not having information to share but staying connected, ‘How are your families?’ and ‘Hope you’re staying safe.’ Then it was continuing to get back to a focus of basketball and what makes them fans and the heightened interest in ping pong balls and No. 1 picks and future players. It kept a membership base wondering whether or not they can attend games, which is challenging, intrigued in the next season. 

In the short term, members won’t be in attendance, so it’s so important we’re doing everything we can do to bring the NBA and T-Wolves experience to them as often as we can.

On the corporate partnership side, now it’s about what activations can we do to prepare for the upcoming season? How to make sure the brand is resonating through digital and organic content? We need to make sure it’s through things that allow us to tell that partnership story in a safe way. It’s also now about how creative can we be to get virility and brand around the court with our TV partners and using innovative in-arena assets.