Minnesota United CEO Chris Wright on emergence of MLS in the Twin Cities, the NWSL and WNBA, and his indoor days in Pittsburgh

In September 2017, Minnesota United hired Chris Wright to be its CEO and for him the move ended a long hiatus from working in soccer.

Wright grew up in England and played in the system at Hull City as well as a few small clubs before earning his English "A" coaching badge at age 22 to augment his degree from Carnegie College of Physical Education. In 1978, he found his way to the U.S. to work summer camps in the Pittsburgh area, and in 1981 landed the job of general manager of the Major Indoor Soccer League's Pittsburgh Spirit.

Wright joined the MISL Minnesota Strikers, who folded after the 1987-88 season. He was hired by the NBA Minnesota Timberwolves and rose through the ranks to president. For the past 13 years, he also served as president of the WNBA Lynx, which under his watch won four league titles.

SOCCER AMERICA: Though the Loons came into the league well before hiring you as CEO, you played a role in assembling the soccer ownership group. How did that come about?
CHRIS WRIGHT: From afar, I had watched the league grow incredibly, particularly during the last 10 years. Ironically, with Glen Taylor -- my owner with the Timberwolves and the Lynx -- I went down a path for years and years of encouraging him to look at MLS or even some European opportunities that I had brought to the table.

He’d always said no and if anything were to happen in the local marketplace, he’d love to be involved. Then obviously Dr. [Bill] McGuire bought the NASL team and decided he wanted to take it into MLS. We were one of the first groups he spoke with; I’d known Bill for years and years as a courtside-seat holder with the ‘Wolves, and Glen by then was ready to invest in the league.
The NFL Vikings – owned by the Wilf family -- were originally interested in forming a partnership to buy an MLS team as part of a downtown stadium project. Other locations were also in the mix. How did the team wind up in St. Paul?
WRIGHT: We were looking at multiple sites. One was downtown Minneapolis, one was the Mall of America. We were always looking at St. Paul; it was a question of which governmental agency would work with us best. Obviously, the mayor [Chris Coleman] stepped up and said, ‘I really want this for the city of St. Paul.’

But in the end, look what happened with the Wilfs. They’ve made a large investment in Nashville. They are interested in the game for all of the right reasons. They believe in MLS, they want the MLS to work, and we’ll find a way to partner with them in the Twin Cities. A very close personal friend of mine is Kevin Warren, the COO [chief operating officer] of the Vikings. They have been very involved in the entire process.

We’ll continue to partner with them and be a good friend and a good neighbor and a business partner in Nashville, because we want strong, healthy teams to help grow this league.
With your extensive soccer background, this seems a logical move, but what convinced you the Minneapolis-St. Paul area was ready for MLS, and vice versa?
WRIGHT: It’s been amazing to see not only the journey of MLS but the also the incredible opportunity for us here in Minnesota. When we first got in, it was because we really believed in the community, the stadium, the sport itself, and the great leadership under Don Garber.

What is appealing to me is the quality of the local ownership group, and I think with all the people involved it can be one of the most powerful ownership groups in the country. One of the reasons I took the job was the encouragement of all of those people, because of who they are and what they represent. When they do things, they do things right.

It’s a great sort of litmus test for where the league is today, the level of interest and the type of people who are investing in the sport and building soccer-specific stadiums all over the country. The owners who sit around the table and the executives who are running those teams, it’s sort of a Who’s Who in sports.

We were fortunate enough to get in as franchise that was worth $100 million, Nashville came into for $150 million. How much will a franchise be worth in a few years? It’s a very exciting time to see this growth and return on investment.

You’re attracting more and more of what I would consider heavyweight sports owners into this incredible property that is MLS.
It’s a lot different than it was more than 40 years ago, when the NFL tried to ban its owners from also investing in other pro sports but men like Lamar Hunt [Chiefs] and Joe Robbie [Dolphins] jumped into pro soccer anyway.
WRIGHT: Take our ownership group. We’re Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves, Minnesota Lynx as well as Minnesota United. When you put these ownership groups together, you want different people whose synergistically work together, but number two, can bring value to your business enterprise. That’s why I think we have one of the greatest opportunities that there are.

I’m thrilled to be a part of that and I feel I can contribute with my knowledge after 26 years in the NBA and WNBA. I helped build a WNBA franchise that has taken its place in the community in Minnesota and I’m really hoping I can do the same with the Loons.
Is the MNUFC ownership interested in a women’s team and what did your experience in the WNBA about the Lynx tell you about marketing women’s professional team sports?
WRIGHT: I’d be a big believer in if and when the NWSL comes to Minneapolis, we would have an ownership stake in that. The launch of teams is very, very important. You’ve got one opportunity to do it right and there’s only one place that team should be playing and that would be Allianz Field.

I was one of the reasons we got the Lynx into this marketplace. We sold 6,000 season tickets for the first season of the Lynx. In that day, you had to sell 5,000 season tickets just to get a franchise. But then I would argue that by most business levels whereby you’re measured by ownership and by the league, we were always in the top three. We were held up as a Best Practices team in the WNBA.

I learned an awful lot of how you put teams together on and off the court through that, and particularly a women’s team and how do you position a women’s team in a marketplace. This is a great market for women’s soccer. Somewhere down the road in the not-too-distant future there will have a women’s team here and we will play a significant role given all the experience that we’ve had a launching a women’s team in another sport.
How different are the NBA and WNBA fan bases aside from the obvious differences in ticket prices they have to pay?
WRIGHT: Radically different. Probably about 72 to 74 percent male for the Wolves and at least that number -- if not more -- female for the Lynx. It appeals to both genders but also a diverse range of segments in the market we have here. The marketing of your WNBA team is completely different than the marketing of your NBA team and so you need a completely different strategy.

It takes a while to learn what that strategy is. I don’t want to pick on teams in the NWSL but if you take a look at the teams, some have attendance that is spectacular and some have their issues.

That’s why it’s really, really important as you launch a franchise in the NWSL you don’t take anything for granted. You plan a go-to market strategy for the team and do it in the right facility and with the right ownership group with the right resources being spent to launch the franchise.
MLS is flourishing in cities that had teams in the old NASL, but it also failed in Tampa Bay. It’s succeeding in areas as diverse as Atlanta, Kansas City, and Salt Lake City. Why does the league seem to be taking hold so strongly in such different markets?
WRIGHT: A lot of different things have happened. On the fan side, on the customer side, these millennials who sort of grew up with the game are having kids who are playing the game and they are the fans of the future. Where some leagues and some sports are struggling and their fan bases are receding, the popularity and the fan affinity of soccer is growing.

With more and more kids playing the game, and parents who have played the game and grandparents who have played the game, the sport has come of age. It’s a great time for our sport, and MLS shows the game on a regular basis along with the Premier League, the Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, etc. There is so much more of an affinity for the game than there ever was before.
A lot of those kids gave grown up to be parents and coaches and fans but many have also moved into business and even ownership roles.
WRIGHT: When I got to Pittsburgh there were 2,000 kids in the local youth soccer association. When I left for Minnesota, there were 18,000. When you see these little things that were happening back then you knew the seeds were being planted. All that hard work in so many places by so many people is beginning to pay off.

The kids we were coaching back then, the ones we exposed to the game, they’re running the show. They’re involved at all levels inside the game and they’re so passionate about the game. That’s what gives me a great sense of appreciation from where we’ve gone but also the belief that the game can take its place in sports culture in this country.

It’s the best investment in sports today. If you take a look at putting $25 million or $100 million into a sport and you’re looking a return on that investment, compared to what values were in MLS 10 years ago and what they are today, the rate of return you can get compared to other leagues is enormous.
The Loons move into their own stadium, Allianz Field, next season. What have these facilities brought to the game besides their economic impact on team and league finances?
WRIGHT: The fact that new ownership inside the league is willing to build these cathedrals to the game in each of these cities, those stadiums represent the game coming of age. As you bring of all that together, the traditional media who were able to give the game the Heisman [stiff-arm] and not cover it have had to take notice. For our fans, media is consumed differently nowadays. Everything is mobile. I watch an awful lot of my sports on my PDA.

It has all coalesced into this massive movement behind the game so, finally, the game is going to have its time in this country and the future is so incredibly bright at all levels for all of us who have worked in the game for a long, long period of time and have loved the game for a long, long period of time.

As a veteran of the days when indoor soccer seemed to be the version preferred by Americans, do you look back on that brand of the game as a novelty?
WRIGHT: It was a novelty, but for me it was an incredible opportunity to take this great game we’re all involved with and market it in a completely different way. I realized for the first time that in the United States you sell a sport more as entertainment than as the sport itself.

Yeah, there were a lot of people involved who loved the indoor game and thought it was a great way to develop certain skills and techniques, a sort of microcosm of the training ground: Playing two-v-two, three-v-three, four-v-four, five-v-five. And putting it in an arena I realized it had to be sold as a complete entertainment package.

Because it was so intense and so much back-and-forth with a plethora of goals and great saves, it was a unique form of the game. In the end, I honestly believe there’s a place for it. You see the incredible growth of futsal and all the great things Keith Tozer has done with that version of the game.

I saw the MISL as a way to introduce the game on a completely different basis and completely different level to an American public that was hungry to be entertained. And boy, was the MISL entertaining.
MISL teams used spotlights, fog machines, loud music, etc. to pump up the fans. How did you jazz things up in Pittsburgh?
WRIGHT: You think of the Baltimore Blast and the flying saucer coming down from the roof. In Pittsburgh, our players came out to “Hot Legs” sung by Rod Stewart. That was our theme. All of the Leiweke brothers – from Terry to Tod to Tracy to Tim, the four ‘T’s’ -- all worked in the league. You think of Joe Machnik, who was in charge of the referees, and what he’s doing today. The commissioner of the league, Earl Foreman, was a great visionary. There were some incredible people in that league. The players were so accessible, more accessible than any other pro league in the country.

The basic reason that everybody loved that league is that we all loved the game. We all loved the great game and indoor happened to be the version at the time that was resonating with the American public, and we all wanted to be part of the growth of soccer inside of this country. It gave all of us, so many people, an opportunity to be a part of that.
One of your head coaches in Pittsburgh was John Kowalski, who had a lot of success with the U.S. five-a-side team and was recently presented with the Walt Chyzowych Lifetime Achievement Award. He’s a good story and he always seems to have a good one to tell.
WRIGHT: Oh, he’s got plenty of stories. And trust me he’s got plenty he can’t tell you.

As you do, I expect.

WRIGHT: Oh yes.

The Spirit never won an MISL title but always had some excellent players. Who do you remember most fondly from those teams?
WRIGHT: I would put Stan Terlecki right up there with [Steve] Zungul and [Branko] Segota and Tatu and Karl-Heinz Granitza and whoever else you could name. There were some incredible players and Terlecki was a different class. You talk about a nose for goal, a guy who could go either way and hit a ball like I’ve never seen. He scored goals from incredible angles and used the boards incredibly well.

On another line we had Paul Child and Johnny O’Hara, who were amazing players. Peter Dudek played in Pittsburgh and I brought him here to Minnesota Strikers. Erhardt Kapp in ’84 and ’85 was a young American on our roster in Pittsburgh and now his son, Alex, is one of our goalkeepers. It's just incredible.

Adam Topolski was one of the toughest defenders I have ever been around in my life. Peter Mowlik and Joey Papaleo were amazing goalkeepers.

In MLS, the fans often provide their own entertainment with flags, tifos and songs. Is that what you expect when you have your second "grand opening" next season when you play at Allianz Field?

What we’re really bullish about is we believe we are the sport of the future, that as this millennial audience grows up we will be the sport a lot of them will want to be a part of. Maybe some of the other sports leagues will suffer a bit because they can’t change to what that part of the millennial audience wants.

In our city, MLS has phenomenal opportunities at a number of different levels. Number one, the sport is a unique environment for fans to go and support their team. It’s very much supporter-driven and when you look at all the kids who are at the game with their dads, it’s amazing to see our supporters’ section and who’s standing in there.

It’s really difficult to recreate that environment in TCF Bank Stadium. When you go into a brand-new stadium like Allianz Field, and you have 2800 people in our standing area, those supporters will drive the experience in that stadium. It will help establish who and what we are in the marketplace. It will attract a fan base that is unique and very different, but it is millennial-driven.

Yes, there are soccer enthusiasts but there are also sports enthusiasts who really want to be part of that environment. I think MLS will easily take its place inside our community. All our key indicators are going in the right direction.

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