A True Collaboration

The Minnesota Timberwolves’ Ryan Tanke details how the team worked with various partners to upgrade its venue, the Target Center, rather than move to a new home

Built in 1990, Target Center became the home of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves. Its unique location, in the middle of downtown Minneapolis, is part of what makes the arena so special. So, after nearly thirty years, when the team began to discuss a venue upgrade, chief revenue officer Ryan Tanke says, the idea of finding a new home for the Timberwolves (and the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx) didn’t sit right.

“When we first started this process, we spent very little time talking about a new building,” Tanke says. “We have what we believe is the best city block for sports in the state. Our location is the epicenter of downtown Minneapolis, where sports, entertainment, theater, and the commercial business district intersect.”

Instead, an extensive $145 million renovation of the arena was initiated (and completed in 2017), which has not only updated the aesthetics of the arena but also taken advantage of new and existing partnerships to make what Tanke believes are immeasurable strides in fan experience, food and beverage offerings, and collaborative and enduring sponsorship opportunities.

Ryan Tanke Minnesota Timberwolves
Ryan Tanke, Minnesota TimberwolvesPhoto: David A. Sherman

Tanke says the timing of the renovation couldn’t have been better. The team’s new training facility and Mayo Clinic Square, built in partnership with the Mayo Clinic, had just been completed directly across the street from Target Center. “To own a two-block campus in the heart of downtown gives us a competitive advantage in recruiting staff and players,” Tanke says. “You do that with perhaps the most iconic healthcare provider in the world, and it becomes a really compelling story in downtown Minneapolis.” Traditionally, teams will head to the suburbs to build training facilities, but Tanke says the all-in-one location provides both players and staff a unique feeling of always being home.

That home has had Target’s name since it was first built, and Tanke says the renovation gave the team and the retail giant a chance to realign around what the future of their relationship would look like. “Target does such a great job with guest experience in their stores,” Tanke says. “We wanted them to have a front-row seat in the renovation of Target Center that we imagined could be.” Target actually has the longest-running naming-rights partnership to date on an arena, and its streak will continue now that it has reached an agreement for a long-term extension with the Timberwolves.

After naming partners were solidified, Tanke says, there was a significant opportunity to use the renovation to create what the organization calls founding-level partnerships. “It’s a way for us to take a less-is-more exclusivity approach to partnerships,” he says.

Local insurance provider and longtime partner Federated Insurance, partner US Bank, casino partner Treasure Island Resort and Casino, and China-based TCL, the fastest-growing TV brand in the US, were secured early on. Jack Link’s also came on board and ultimately wound up moving 350 of their executives to Mayo Clinic Square office space. Life Time Fitness, headquartered in Minneapolis, maintains a flagship club underneath Target Center and also made significant investments in the team.

The NBA’s jersey-patch program, which allows advertisers to partner with teams via a 2.5 by 2.5 inch patch on team uniforms, has been a huge revenue success for the league, and it provided an additional brand-partnership avenue for the Timberwolves during the renovation.

Tanke says partnering with Silicon Valley-based Fitbit has lead to incredible health and wellness engagement from all employees. “It’s been a complete organizational integration with their company and something that’s obviously a significant partnership for us,” Tanke says. “It’s so much more than just a sponsorship; it’s deeply wound through the fabric of our company. And, Life Time memberships and Fitbit devices not only create high engagement among our employees but give our people the tools to lead healthy lives, which is paramount in a city such as Minneapolis, which continually ranks high among the most healthiest cities in the nation.”

When it came to the arena’s food and drink upgrades, Tanke says, the team chose to ignore a tried and true model. “There have been teams or venues that have put celebrity chef names on things, but it’s really just a name,” he explains. “We wanted to not only bring in a celebrity chef who could transform our menu to be better and more nutritious—but do the same for our players and their meal and nutrition plan. We saw an opportunity to do something that we don’t think any other team had done previously, which was go out and hire a well-known local chef to really lead that transformation for us.”

Minneapolis-based chef David Fhima was hired to work in conjunction with partner Levy Restaurants to redesign the arena’s menu from scratch. Fhima had previously helped develop Life Time Fitness’s Life Café concept, and Tanke says the additional work the chef has done for the team’s player nutritional program as well as for a nearby restaurant has made him a well-rounded partner.

Tanke, who got his start on the Timberwolves ticketing team in 1997, is especially proud that the Timberwolves and the Lynx became the first teams to move exclusively to digital ticketing. About 90 percent of fans now enter using just their smart devices, and the move to digital tickets has eliminated the need for will-call space entirely.

It also makes purchasing fraudulent tickets, an increasingly prevalent problem in all ticketing environments, virtually impossible, and it creates a digital trail so that, regardless of who winds up with the ticket, the team knows the end user and everyone who touched that ticket along the way. “It’s really provided us with this incredible amount of safety and security for our fans and the team,” Tanke says. “And, the data allows us to better serve our customers.”

Tanke says the success of the renovation inside and out is due in great part to CEO Ethan Casson’s passion. “In many ways, we’re a thirty-year-old company that every day feels like a start-up,” Tanke says. “Casson has had an incredible impact on the culture and the belief that we can be the best sports and entertainment company.”

Like so many of Target Center’s longtime partners, Tanke’s passion for Minnesota’s NBA team has endured decades, and though the Timberwolves may still be struggling to find an NBA championship, he says, fan loyalty remains strong. “We’ve had this incredibly loyal fanbase that has supported us and really believed in our vision,” Tanke says. “That’s ultimately led us to such strong corporate support and partners across the board.”