A Conversation with Minnesota United CEO Chris Wright (Part One)

After 26 years with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx, Chris Wright has taken the reins of Minnesota United FC as it prepares for its second year of competition in MLS and its relocation to Allianz Field in 2019.

  • Chris Wright, CEO, Minnesota United

 

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Most of us in this business know you, Chris, from your 26 years with the Timberwolves and the Lynx. What led you to transitioning over to Minnesota United in the same marketplace?

Number one, I came from soccer. I played, I coached, I was the general manager of a couple of franchises over here – the Pittsburgh Spirit, the Minnesota Strikers – before I found my way to the NBA. So I'm back to my first passion and back to my love. And really, what a way to maybe end a career by building a brand new stadium, building a team, building a business, and establishing the franchise here in the marketplace.

The other piece that was very compelling is the ownership group, led by Dr. [Bill] McGuire, with [Timberwolves and Lynx owner] Glen Taylor, [Minnesota Twins owner] the Pohlad family, the Binger family from the McKnight Foundation, Matt Mithun from the Mithun family and Campbell Mithun, the Mortenson family – one of the top-three builders in the country, and Jeremy Jacobs from Delaware North.

That piece of it was really compelling for me because when you look at the power of the ownership group, if we can harness that power, this [organization] can be a gold standard in the MLS.

Even with all that experience, this is more of a start-up company than an established brand. Why did you, at the end of your career, want to shift to a startup mentality?

I've been involved with really two startups previous to this one – the Pittsburgh Spirit, and then the Minnesota Lynx when we brought them to market here. So this is really the third time that I've been down the path of a quasi-expansion/startup franchise, getting in on the ground floor of what you want the stadium to be, what you want the fans to feel when they walk in and walk out of this stadium. We want [Allianz Field] to be iconic and declare a vision for the franchise in terms of fan experience and how we're going to put it all together.

But then, what is this team going to represent, what is the style of play, what type of players are we looking for, and then obviously to build a front office and build a business to support all of that – that always has been an incredible challenge for me.

This is my opportunity to invent, with 72 great professionals, what this franchise is going to be. And for me, there is the potential of leaving a legacy for what this franchise can be in this marketplace for a long period of time.

How does Allianz Field compare to what we've seen come online in Major League Soccer in recent years?

The very first differentiator is the fact that we are not supported by any form of public financing whatsoever. It’s a privately financed stadium, which is very unusual today. There is a level of maybe stadium fatigue in this marketplace.

“This is my opportunity to invent, with 72 great professionals, what this franchise is going to be. And for me, there is the potential of leaving a legacy for what this franchise can be in this marketplace.”

– Chris Wright, Minnesota United

The ownership group here is funding not only the $100 million expansion [fee], but a $200 million stadium. We have a great architect (Populous), who is bringing an awful lot of different ideas, but we have a real vision for the look and feel of the stadium.

The iconic piece of the stadium is going to be something that we’re going to call “Wonderwall”, which is 2,800 safe-standing areas inside one end of the stadium, where there will be no seats, where our supporters section will be. That end of the stadium will drive the experience for the rest of the fans.

It will be singing. It will be chanting. It will be smoke. It will be a lot of different things that will drive this iconic feel that we have inside the stadium.

It’s a very tight stadium. It’s being designed so that there is not a bad seat in the house. Arguably the worst seat in the house will be a very good seat. Everybody will feel on top of the playing surface. So in terms of creating a home-field feel for our team, we’re going to be able to do that very easily with 20,000 rabid fans that we’re going to have in there every single game.

I’m glad you mentioned Wonderwall. You’ve done a phenomenal job here of creative storytelling, Wonderwall being one chapter of that story. Just so people aren’t making assumptions or wondering what we’re talking about, what is Wonderwall?

Soccer is built around traditions, and we have three incredible traditions. We have a march to the match. We have something that is called “Scarves Up”, which is our marketing theme this year. And then we have this Wonderwall tradition, where at the end of a game when we have won, all of our players go stand in front of our supporters section, link arms, and our fans sing the Oasis song, “Wonderwall”.

It’s an incredible tradition. Go YouTube a video of Minnesota United fans singing to the players. It gives you goosebumps when you hear it. So we’re going to name that area of our stadium after that song.

Taking a step back to look at the entire site, what are the advantages of the site in St. Paul, and why did you select to put your stakes down there?

The land deal was very important. There were a number of different areas where we could have placed a stadium, but in the end, if you begin to take a look at its position between [Minneapolis and St. Paul], it’s equidistant between the two cities on a major highway, on the light rail transit, and on the Greenway. These days, there are so many different ways that people get to games and leave games.

And then there are six universities within six miles of the stadium, some within walking distance of the stadium, some within three miles, so not only from a staffing standpoint, but from a fan support standpoint, it seemed like the ideal location.

And the Midway area, that’s the name of the geographical location, embraced us. We’re beginning to work with Chambers of Commerce and the nonprofits inside of that area to build relationships so that we’re accepted into the neighborhood in the right way.

Watch Part Two of our exclusive interview with Minnesota United CEO Chris Wright.

 

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