When Chris Wright joined Minnesota United as the club’s first Chief Executive Officer in the fall of 2017, the Loons were wrapping up their first season in MLS and the results on the pitch had not been pretty. Although the team would pull off an emotional come-from-behind win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in early October to earn a bit of recompense for the team’s simultaneously woeful and historic inaugural home opening 6-1 loss to Atlanta United, Minnesota’s 2017 was not a season to remember generally when it came to results.
But while fans might live and die by the boxscore, there’s a lot more to a team than what happens on the weekends. Wright brought his considerable professional experience navigating the world of partnerships and business opportunities with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx to bear on the fortunes of a Minnesota United organization just beginning to establish itself as a top division team in the Twin Cities and the state. Four years on from that point, Wright has been at the helm as MNUFC have opened Allianz Field, built relationships with key partners in the community, reimagined and relaunched the club’s investment in youth soccer and — most importantly for fans — become a force on the pitch with deep runs in tournaments and the playoffs to show for it.
As Wright himself would surely be the first to acknowledge, though, change is inevitable and actually welcome, hard as that can be sometimes. So on Tuesday, with Wright stepping down at the conclusion of the 2021 season, Minnesota United announced that Shari Ballard will be the club’s next CEO. She joins a growing cadre of high-ranking female executives in MLS that includes Ishwara Glassman Chrein (President, Chicago Fire), Danita Johnson (President of Business Operations, D.C. United) and Lucy Rushton (General Manager, D.C. United). Her career to this point has been spent in retail, rising through the ranks at Best Buy from an assistant store manager to President of Multichannel Retail.
On her first day on the job, Ballard indicated time and again that the club’s core values — resilience, dedication, inclusiveness, teamwork, winning, excellence and respect — were what drew her to the team and that she’s not interested in making what she described as a “hard right or hard left turn.” She sees MNUFC as being fundamentally on the right path, with her job being to figure out how to do what’s done well better and take advantage of new opportunities.
Since leaving Best Buy in 2018, she’s focused on her work with various boards, but found herself increasingly energized by the prospect of coming to Minnesota United as she met and spoke with people. She told Kyndra de St. Aubin, “I'm a believer that you have to have friction in your life in certain ways to keep learning and growing. That is what provides meaning, and causes you to continue to stay alive in life and be engaged in the world.
“At the core, it's all the same thing,” she continued. “It's people coming together under different kinds of umbrellas. Sometimes it's a sports team, sometimes it's a retailer, sometimes it's a church, sometimes it's a kids soccer team. We kind of group ourselves. But at the core, they're all the same. They're a group of people trying to come together to do something meaningful. And so, that is very familiar. And it's energizing.”
She spoke about how people — even people who feel they’re holding themselves accountable and working their hardest — can achieve new heights based on their peers and the people above them in an organization. She hammered home the benefits of management that asks questions instead of making demands and, perhaps unsurprisingly, admitted to loving Ted Lasso.
In one of that show’s most famous scenes, the titular character talks about being “curious, not judgmental,” a quote attributed to Walt Whitman. Ballard joins the team at a far different time than when Wright came aboard. So much has been accomplished but there remains so much more to do as Minnesota United aims to continue competing on the pitch at a high level while growing ever more as a part of the Twin Cities community. Wright’s experience in the sports business landscape was invaluable during his time with the club, and it’s possible that Ballard’s combination of consumer experience, outsider perspective and enthusiastic curiosity can be just as integral now.