Brenda Tinnen takes the podium during the topping-off ceremony for Sprint Center (now known as T-Mobile Center) in April 2007, alongside then-Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes. It was a homecoming for Tinnen, who ran one of the most active concert venues in the country for 15 years.
Coming Full Circle In KC And A Passing Of The Torch
Having already been an integral part of the highest-profile arena opening of its time, the formation of two major sports franchises and the beginning of the Las Vegas residency era, Brenda Tinnen was somehow, in a way, just getting started.
“When I was considering moving back to Kansas City, many people told me it was career suicide,” says Tinnen, who was raised in the Midwestern community. Her deep roots in the venues industry goes back to the mid-1960s as a kid on the job with her mother who worked in ticketing under Kansas City Athletics owner Charlie Finley.
For Tinnen, a member of the 2021 VenuesNow Hall of Honor, it wasn’t just moving back home. She was being recruited by city leaders at the time, as well as then-AEG CEO Tim Leiweke, to run the bold new arena project that would become Sprint Center. The 18,972-seat arena opened in 2007 with no sports anchor tenant and in a market many considered to be part of flyover country.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh,’ but I believed in (Mayor) Kay Barnes; I believed in city manager Wayne Cauthen. They came out and toured Staples Center, and I could just feel their energy and positivity,” Tinnen said. Add to the fact that, as an only child, she would be able to spend more time with her mostly retired mother, and, “I thought, you know, this is a good time to get back to Kansas City.”
Tinnen knew what successful arena development looked like, having seen Los Angeles’ downtown transformed with Staples Center, whose 1999 opening served as the linchpin for revitalization and the formation of LA Live, among the first entertainment districts tied to a sports venue. She was senior vice president when the arena opened.
Meanwhile, Kansas City had about $6 billion of redevelopment committed to rebuild its downtown area, with the Kansas City Power & Light District, H&R Block headquarters moving downtown and other projects.
“Even though people were telling me, ‘Bad move, bad move,’ I really felt like I could make a difference and I wanted to commit and wanted to do something great for the city,” Tinnen said.
Tinnen took a grass-roots approach to extensive outreach with the community. Many leaders were concerned with traffic and parking and doubted that the venue would be successful without a major league sports tenant. She believed in the project to sell the locals and the industry.
With opening night already a home run in the making with the star power of Elton John and the clout of AEG behind the arena, Tinnen managed to land her longtime dream opening-night artist for the venue’s true coming-out party.
“Every time I would talk to somebody about it, they’d say, ‘Oh, he’s not on tour.’ I’m not asking for a tour, I’m asking for him to come do a show,” she says. “I was pretty relentless.”
One week later, Garth Brooks came to Sprint Center. In typical fashion, the country superstar took the task head-on, agreeing to do four shows at the arena.
One performance was broadcast live at screens tied to the Regal theater chain which at the time was owned by Phil Anschutz, owner of AEG and Staples Center.
“No pressure on us,” Tinnen says, laughing. “(Garth) actually called me and said, ‘Would you mind if I come to the ribbon-cutting?’ (I said), ‘Gosh, please!’”
Tinnen credits those two landmark events for getting the community on board and the passionate arena support team she assembled.
A positive culture runs deep, with Tinnen first leaving Kansas City as a mother of three to join the Minnesota Timberwolves NBA expansion team in 1988. They played their inaugural season at the Metrodome before moving to Target Center, which opened two years later. It came during a time when fans were eager to see NBA stars like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and would fill the house every night to see a perpetually losing Timberwolves squad.
“Brenda is just a great human being. That’s where you start with BT, and that’s what we all call her,” says sports executive Shawn Hunter, who now runs the Chicago Dogs minor league baseball team and Impact Field stadium.
Hunter got his start with Tinnen as an intern at the Timberwolves, a team that included now-heavy hitters in the business such as Leiweke, Len Komoroski, John Thomas and Molly Tomczak.
“She’s one of my favorite people on Earth,” Hunter said. “The fact she is awesome at everything she does is icing on the cake. She wants success for everyone around her, whether it’s a coworker, a tenant or a guest. She creates an environment where everyone works. I learned that with her in my internship and it’s stuck with me for 30 years.”
After his stint with the T-Wolves, Hunter became president of the NHL Phoenix Coyotes in 1996, which relocated from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Arizona. Tinnen was the first person he called to help him launch the franchise as the Coyotes’ senior vice president of marketing and sales.
“She has a great internal compass that really focuses on the guest,” Hunter said. “Everything works backward from the guest experience. As we were building the Coyotes brand, it was about making the fans No. 1 and putting them first.”
“Every venue or place she’s ever worked at, she’s treated it like her mother’s house,” he said. “It’s pristine. That’s where I learned to pick up trash, walking around the concourse. To this day, at my winter festival in Chicago, people are wondering who is that guy picking up trash. Well, it’s the owner and I learned that from BT.”
Bruce Bielenberg, another former T-Wolves intern, is now with AEG Presents in Las Vegas handling ticketing for major concert residencies. Bielenberg jokes that he followed Tinnen to progressively warmer climates, from Minneapolis, to Houston (NBA Rockets), Phoenix (Coyotes), Los Angeles (Kodak Theater) and Vegas (Colosseum at Caesars).
Through each ownership group Bielenberg said Tinnen was the one constant, and that’s largely why they worked well together.
“She was the glue in every organization I worked with,” Bielenberg said. “She connected with the frontline people, with myself, the sales people, box office staff, marketing staff, plus ownership and the general managers. She was able to glue everybody together, to feel great about where they were working.”
Along the way, Tinnen encountered some difficult transitions ripe for malaise and low morale among staff, such as the ownership change at the Houston Rockets. The team ultimately won two NBA titles during Tinnen’s two-year tenure from 1994-96.
“I was just excited to go work for an NBA team in a warm-weather city, but the culture was shocking because there was a change in the executive level and ownership,” Bielenberg said.
“They were remodeling the offices, and there were probably five or six of us there, and she could sense the frustration,” he said. “The first thing she did when I got down there is give us hard hats and sledgehammers and we started knocking out walls as we’re building a new office. We all bonded after that.”
Bielenberg said that kind of camaraderie carried over to when the teams they worked for together would have get-togethers or holiday parties, always at a somewhat under-the-radar restaurant or bar.
While uprooting her family and leaving for Minnesota in 1988, married with three children, was unheard of at the time, Tinnen said great ownership made sure she was supported at all times in an industry still dominated by men. Her mother continues to be an inspiration.
“I believe she invented Take Your Daughter To Work day, and she probably broke a lot of child labor laws on the way,” Tinnen said. “My mother was a wonderful role model to me. To see her interact with all the men that were part of the organization in the 1950s and early ‘60s, she always insisted to me, be polite and respectful and remember you’re a lady, and behave like a lady. And that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
“She’s got a great leadership style; anyone who’s worked for Brenda would run through a wall or fire for her.” – Shawn Hunter
Tinnen jokes that Donna Dowless from Ticketmaster and Claire Rothman from the Forum may have been the only other women at all at some industry conferences, “but at least we didn’t have to wait in line to use the ladies’ room.”
She is proud of her efforts at the Coyotes, where she largely hired the front office staff and went out of her way to hire and support young women and minorities.
“She’s got a great leadership style; anyone who’s worked for Brenda would run through a wall or fire for her,” Hunter said. “She’s always left the place better than she found it. You can’t say that about everyone, but Brenda’s truly left a positive mark everywhere she’s been.”
The momentum continues at T-Mobile Center, which underwent a rebrand in July 2020 after the two wireless providers merged. Fifteen years later, and seven months after Tinnen retired in May, the arena remains among the busiest concert venues in North America.
“It was a complete passing of the keys on my part,” Tinnen said, although she still sometimes wakes up in a cold sweat worrying about load-in or show night.
“I don’t want to be the helicopter that flies in and says why don’t you do this or that,” she said. “Jay Cooper is now the general manager and I’m so happy for him. I’ve known him for a very long time. We have lunch and visit, and if he needs me for anything I’m always there for him. But he’s the leader. You have to listen to one person.”
Moving forward, Tinnen wants to stay connected to the venues industry as a potential consultant.
“There is another chapter for me,” she said. “I have enjoyed not living by the calendar and the clock and getting ready for doors for the last six months. I enjoyed tinkering in my kitchen getting ready for Thanksgiving and not getting pressured to be at an event.”
“I don’t know if I’d call myself a consultant but I would like to work on projects,” Tinnen said. “If anyone has projects opening a building or working on events, I’d like to work on some of them. I can be choosy, is what I’m trying to say.”
Tinnen says tour productions get bigger and better and hopefully safer as the industry finds its way out of the pandemic, which has presented numerous challenges to arena operators.
“You do have to love it to still be doing it right now,” she said. “Even if people say they’re going to be at work or be at that shift, people don’t feel the responsibility to show up. You go into shows short-staffed and general managers have to over staff by 15% or 20% to make sure everything is covered. That gets expensive.”
However, some things never change on the issue of protecting patrons during live events.
“I would always tell everyone my five rules are ‘safety, safety, safety, safety and then have fun,’” Tinnen said. “You open the doors and suddenly you’re responsible for 15,000 to 20,000 people, and you need to make certain they arrive safely, are safe while there, and then hopefully arrive home safely and have a great memory for the rest of their lives.”
Having fun is still part of it. Tinnen enjoyed watching the 2021 MLB playoffs and World Series.
“I always cheer for the teams in Kansas City, but if they’re not in contention, my next team is the (St. Louis) Cardinals in my home state of Missouri and then the (Oakland) Athletics,” she said. “After that, if anyone I’ve ever trained or used to work for me is in one of the front offices, I will cheer for their teams.”