Executive Profile: Brenda Tinnen

Brenda Tinnen, General Manager of Kansas City’s Sprint Center, has wrung up some impressive awards: Missourian of the Year, Woman on the Move, a “Women Who Mean Business,” Pollstar’s Facility Executive of the Year and more.

And she has a résumé that lists organizations and venues like the Minnesota Timberwolves, Target Center, the Houston Rockets, Staples Center, Kodak Theatre and the Colosseum at Caesars Palace.

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But few probably know how long Tinnen has been working on her qualifications.

Try the first grade.

Kansas City Municipal Stadium acted as summer school for Brenda; her mother was in the entertainment industry for more than 40 years including working for the Kansas City Blues.

“I always say my mother invented ‘Take Your Daughter To Work Day,’” Tinnen told Pollstar. “I basically grew up at the ballpark. I would spend summers watching baseball, waiting for my mom to finish.

The groundskeeper, George Toma, used to take his son to work and the two of us could hang out in the ballpark pretty much all day long. We’d watch the teams practice and run around. We knew who would give us a hotdog and money for the candy machine, or we’d walk out on the field and watch the grass grow. It was a unique childhood.”

Tinnen has worked in the industry ever since, except for one break during her early 20s. As she grew to be a teenager and gained the nervous energy that accompanies it, Tinnen was given chores at the baseball park.

She’d run back-and-forth from the main box office to the satellite offices in the outfield, carrying hard tickets or the Will Call envelopes. She’d collate season tickets and label the envelopes. By high school she was answering phones, selling tickets, double-counting cups for the concessionaires and counting the deadwood – the unsold hard tickets in bundles of 200 – alongside the secretary of the visiting team.

When the city was about to launch the Kansas City Scouts hockey team, her mom was hired at the city’s new crown jewel – Kemper Arena. That was when Brenda earned income at her first and only venture outside of this industry. Tinnen’s executive profile will begin there and it includes plenty of her tales as a journeyman — because there’s so much to tell.

So your mom never told you to go flip a burger or work at Pizza Hut?

When my mom was at Kemper, I worked at Hertz Rent-a-Car at the airport in Kansas City. I had a lot of background dealing with the public but Hertz sent all new rental representatives to a customer service course in Denver. It was a whole week about commitment to service and clean cars. It just gave me a really great background. I worked at Hertz for about four years. Also when Kemper Arena opened, I worked part-time doing whatever they needed to have done – collating season tickets for the Scouts and worked a lot of the Feld events, like the Ice Capades and I worked concerts too.

So when did Minnesota come in to play?

Things changed pretty dramatically in Kansas City in 1981. That’s when soccer’s Kansas City Comets moved here. They were the San Francisco Fog, and they were owned by Dr. David Schoenstadt. That’s when I met Tim Leiweke. I was still working part-time at Kemper. Tim and his brothers Tracey, Tod and Terry served in various capacities with the Comets.

The Leiwekes changed the dynamics of customer service, sports marketing and how people enjoyed sports at Kemper. It was more than just an indoor soccer game; it was an experience. Tim and his brothers stressed giving the fan their money’s worth. The Comets would go out into the community to form one-on-one relationships with their fans, whether it was season ticket holders, casual ticket buyers or groups.

I think the string of sellouts was four or five years long. And for major league indoor soccer, that was huge. It became the hottest ticket in town. It wasn’t just about the soccer games. It was about the pre-event, with all the smoke and lights. I remember the lights would go down and the music would start, and people would run from the concourse to get to their seats. Of course it took a couple years before the Comets made it to the first round of playoffs, but if they’d win a game they’d run around the field and high-five everybody. People just had a real connection not only to the Comets but to Tim and his brothers.

But with Tim and his brothers, and you, and where you all ended up, it was the Big Bang theory. You just scattered all over the universe.

It was the Big Bang theory! We had a very small staff and everyone had to do at least 12 things really well. Even though I may have had the title of box office manager, we were a team in the administrative office.

Tim had been recruited in 1988 to go off to Minneapolis to launch an NBA expansion team, which is now the Minnesota Timberwolves, and open a new arena. Tim left somewhere in the middle of the season and I was thinking, “OK, am I going to stick with Kemper Arena or take this a step further?”

Tim and I had a conversation and talked about the Timberwolves. I was offered an interview for Director of Ticket Operations, not only for the Timberwolves but for the new arena.

I had been born and raised in Kansas City so it was exciting to move to another city. It was also very scary because I was married and the mother of three. In 1988, it wasn’t the norm for “the wife” to make a move. The husband was the one to move the family. But I talked to Tim, Ed Rubenstein and Bob Stein, the president, and I met owners Marvin Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner. I was offered the position and we moved.

Marvin and Harvey were local businessmen but they really wanted to bring NBA basketball back to Minneapolis; it had been 30 years since the Lakers had left. They were awarded the franchise, and to be guaranteed a franchise by the NBA you had to have 10,000 guaranteed season tickets. So we were working very hard to convert 10,000 season ticket deposits to 10,000 real season tickets, which we did. The Minnesota Timberwolves opened at the Metrodome. Target Center didn’t open until the year after. And I am very proud to say it was another great group of people. Tim has an incredible ability to put together a team that works well together and sees the goal.

We knew what we needed to do. It was about selling tickets but making certain, once again, that anyone who invested their discretionary dollar on the Timberwolves got their money’s worth. Keep in mind; the Timberwolves were an expansion team. The first year we only won 25 games but it was a great opportunity for Minneapolis. They got to see all the other teams come and play, that was the era of Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. The capacity was so large we actually set an NBA attendance record of over 1 million people in one season. I don’t think anyone can do that today because the facilities are so large.

And you still kept your home.

Yes! My husband and I bought this house in Plattsburg, Mo., in the mid-’80s. It’s about 40 miles north of Kansas City. We wanted our children to have a small-town neighborhood experience. We thought it would be good to know we always have a place to come home to, where the kids can come and see their grandparents, aunts and uncles, and still enjoy small-town living.

So how long were you with the ‘Wolves?

I was with the Timberwolves for six years. That first year was the best win record we had but opening Target Center in 1991 was great. We started to do a lot of concerts.

In the meantime, Tim went to Denver to work with the Nuggets. I loved my time in Minnesota. I had a lot of responsibility, doing all the season ticketing and all of the other shows. Unfortunately, Marvin and Harvey had some unsecured funds in a Savings & Loan that went bankrupt. They lost a great amount and decided to sell the Timberwolves. My loyalty was to Marvin and Harvey and a lot of the folks I had been working with were moving on, knowing the team was for sale.

Meanwhile, I had an opportunity to speak with the Houston Rockets. They had just won their first NBA championship.

You think winning a championship cures everything. But if you’re not prepared it can be overwhelming. I spoke to [exec VP] John Thomas, who had been with the Timberwolves, and he said they needed to get their arms around all the positive championship marketing, and to develop more customer service and a loyal season ticket base.

So the day Marvin and Harvey announced the team was sold, I resigned, packed up my office and headed south. I was in Houston, at The Summit, for two years. While I was there the Rockets won their second championship. But Houston wasn’t my cup of tea. It was very team-only. I missed working on all the other events. We made a decision that before the children could put down roots we would move on and ended back at our house in Plattsburg.

We stayed there for a little bit, and I did a little consulting. Then I got a call from Shawn Hunter, another Timberwolves alumnus. The Winnipeg Jets was moving to Phoenix and he asked if I would be interested helping him launch what we lovingly referred to as ice hockey in the desert.

Houston is hot, but isn’t Phoenix hot, too?

Well, it’s a dry heat! (laughs) I was in Phoenix for five years. Shawn was president; I was senior VP of marketing and sales. It was great to be a part of the launch of that team – everything from collecting season ticket deposits to the Name the Team contest to the logo contest. And introducing NHL hockey to the city was great. Phoenix has a lot of snowbirds, so if the Coyotes were playing Detroit, you’d see more Red Wings than Coyotes jerseys.

So marketing that team was interesting. But we had great ownership and a great staff.

When we left Houston, I made a promise to my family, because my younger ones were in high school (my oldest was in college), that I would never make them change schools again. So I was solo, and my husband and children were in Plattsburg.

So this is the time you got another phone call from Tim?

Yes, it was. This was one of those miserably hot days you just mentioned in Phoenix. I had kept in touch with Tim over the years, even though he was in Denver, then Los Angeles. Tim’s been a wonderful mentor. Any time you need a good idea or need to bounce something off someone, he’s great to talk to.

He had talked about building Staples Center and I had read how he was going to host two NBA teams. Bobby Goldwater [the GM at the time] asked me in August 1999 to take a look at the construction. Staples Center was 60 days away from opening. There was no looking back after that. It was such an incredible facility with the luxury suites and unprecedented two NBA teams, along with an NHL team, and an AFL team was coming.

They had already confirmed the Democratic National Convention as well as the Grammys. Bruce Springsteen had gone on sale to open the building.

I flew back to Kansas City to talk to my husband and we decided to just go for it. I went back to Phoenix to wrap things up there, hopped in my car and drove to L.A.

So what were the first things on the agenda?

(Laughs) Number one was hiring a staff! We were in temporary housing. To get to know the building, confirm seating manifests, to put some structure to the front-of-house event services, box office, merchandise and finalize the collective bargaining agreements. Hire an entire front-of-house staff and get them fitted for uniforms. And, number two, learn my way around the construction and get to know the building.

How does all this play in with the formation of AEG Facilities?

It really was Los Angeles Arena Company Inc. I think there was always the grand plan of LA Live. I saw it move around on paper for about six years. I know that Tim, Philip Anschutz and the development group were always working on a bigger plan around Staples Center. Home Depot Center was being contemplated and I was a part of that project. We continued to operate the Forum. I hope no one will take this the wrong way but the AEG Facilities division at that point was Brenda Tinnen and Lee Zeidman. I was front of the house and Lee was back of house. And we operated Kodak Theatre.

And you also got involved with The Colosseum at Caesars Palace?

Oh yeah! That was really exciting. There were some conversations with John Meglen and Concerts West about this idea of Celine doing a residency in Las Vegas. That led to working with Caesars Palace. Once again, Lee Zeidman and I got involved with the construction and the design – bricks and mortar only.

If AEG was awarded the contract for Sprint Center, was it a foregone conclusion you’d spearhead the project?

Well, I knew the project obviously, because Tim had spent some time in Kansas City. In 2003, Mayor Kay Barnes, along with Herb Kohn, who was legal adviser for the city, along with City Manager Wayne Cauthen, came to Staples Center. Wayne had known Tim in Denver. Both Herb and Mayor Barnes had known Tim when he was in Kansas City and the mayor had been on the City Council.

They came to Staples because it had such a great reputation and still does – I lovingly call Staples Center the mothership of all AEG facilities. And they came out to talk to Tim. I ended up giving the group the tour and having dinner with them. The mayor is such a lovely woman. I truly wanted the city to have a newer arena because I obviously vacationed there, kept in touch with a lot of people, knew the Big 12 Championship was leaving and the NCAA events were few and far between as Kemper became more antiquated.

I thought about going back to Kansas City and talked to Tim about it. I think Mayor Barnes wanted me to come back. I think she understood my passion for my hometown, for sports and entertainment, and operating great facilities with diverse events.

I was lucky to come to the city the day it was voting to pass the rental car fee, which was going to fund the arena. When it passed, I saw Kansas City celebrating, and it was such a great feeling. I saw so many people that I worked with before. So here I am.

What do you think an artist would find uniquely satisfying about the Sprint Center?

I was really nervous when Elton John opened the building because he literally sang the very first note in this building. And when you open a building you have all of the experts, the acousticians and the architects telling you how great the sound is going to be but until you hear it, you really are just nervous about it.

And he didn’t do a soundcheck! It gave me so much anxiety. They did tune the piano and said everything was good but it was a relief to hear Elton say that the sound was really good and the room feels really intimate. Garth Brooks was incredibly complimentary about the facility and how close he felt to the audience.

For ease of load-ins and outs we have six loading docks, into the back of the building – you don’t have to push a cart more than 100 yards. There is a dedicated, full service production lounge with four private offices (each with a restroom and shower), washers and dryers, fresh coffee and a sink – so they can come in and really unload. All of them are pretty close to the loading dock.

Then, right next to that – we call it media dining but on show day that’s where they have crew feeds. If you’re the production manager or the artist, there’s little space to cover. You’re right there in the backstage area. And on top of that we have five-star dressing rooms that are completely separate from any team locker rooms. We use our team locker rooms if an artist or if a show needs additional space and we have both NHL and NBA home and visitor locker rooms available. We have a weight training facility that’s separate and then we have what we call the auxiliary locker room that can host up to four teams and be divided up. And that’s all separate from the dressing rooms.

And the building is designed in quads so our concession staff from Levy Restaurants can go in one direction and not have to cross paths with anything that’s going on with the show. They have their own loading dock, delivery area and commissary. All of our part-time staff enters on a different floor in a different quad.

We have an extensive grid over the floor and we do have a complete fall arrest system for the stagehands. From the floor to the first steel is about 100 feet.

We’re a completely glass building so I joke that I’m the Queen of Curtains. We have curtains within the arena bowl that, if hung at one end of the arena, say for a college basketball game or a sporting event, you can actually see outside above the upper level. Obviously if we need to go to black I have curtains that can come over that glass. I also have a very complete curtaining system for the upper level that breaks out into quads you can curtain off any way you want to – the two ends, the two sides. There are four different sections of curtains in the upper, which works pretty well.

Is the local community or media passionate about an anchor pro sports team?

There is still a really strong desire for Kansas City to have an anchor tenant for Sprint Center whether it be an NBA team or an NHL team. We get asked that question a lot. Four years ago, everyone would say, “We have to have a team.” I think it’s important to the profile of Kansas City. On the other hand, Sprint Center has enjoyed some great shows over four years. People have been very supportive. I do hear them talk about an NBA team or an NHL team but most importantly we need some local ownership in Kansas City and, as I always say, it will be the right team at the right time.

There have been some recent possibilities.

You hate for any city or fan to lose their team. I recall when the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix, watching some video of that last game they played in Winnipeg was just heart wrenching to see everybody say goodbye. On the other hand, I think Kansas City and this region have been so incredibly supportive of Sprint Center and the downtown revitalization.

Any thoughts on AEG’s transition to its own ticketing system?

I would say over the past 12 years there’s been a lot of changes in the entertainment industry, a lot of rolling up of promotion companies and ticketing companies, so there’s only one or two or three of them out there. Change always comes with some challenges but I think it will work fine. It’s going to be about communicating there is someone new out there and getting people to change their habits.

Any favorite event or series of events?

Gosh, these four years have just been amazing. October through December of 2007 was pretty amazing – Elton John, Rascal Flatts, Van Halen and those nine incredible shows of Garth Brooks. Since you brought up ticketing, when we put the Garth Brooks shows on sale, we did it here at the box office and through outlets with the old wristband method.

That was one of my favorite moments – to see everyone here early in the morning out in front of the box office with one common goal.

And everyone talking about how they had seen Garth, or had never seen him. It just reminded me why we all go to these events. And we kept adding shows. David Anderson, our assistant GM at the time, was out front and he’d say, “Garth has decided to add another show!” Garth was phoning into the box office, so with each new announcement you could hear this collective cheer go all the way through downtown Kansas City.

So what do you see the next year looking like?

It’s anybody’s guess. There have been a lot of books written about the whole philosophy of live entertainment. I think the one thing that is true over the course of history is live music in whatever form or fashion has been with us since man figured out how to beat on a drum and turn it into some sort of ceremony.

I think it’s always going to be with us, and I don’t think there really is anything better than that live experience. I think there’s a relationship that builds between that athlete or artist and that fan, and that memory you have that lasts forever. I think it’s always going to be there. But I think we have some challenges trying to make sure everybody can participate and not just an elite few.