For Ethan Casson ’96, college is not just a phase in life that is completed and forgotten. A determined student-athlete who was relentless in pursuing his professional goals of working in the sports industry, he knows that his time at Colby-Sawyer set the stage for the rest of his life. Now the chief revenue officer at the San Francisco 49ers, he relies on his liberal arts based education to inform his business decisions. He’s reached the point where he’s reminded daily of his power to enhance someone else’s experience. He’s also reminded that all the things he gets to do day in and day out started at Colby-Sawyer. It’s time, he says, to give back and pay it forward.
Born in Connecticut, Casson grew up in tiny West Chesterfield, N.H. He and his brothers excelled at basketball, but he was realistic enough to know that while he might end up working in professional sports, it wouldn’t be as an athlete. His criteria for his college was that it must offer a sport management major and the opportunity to play ball.
Colby-Sawyer fit the bill, and Casson was Coach Bill Foti’s first recruit for the inaugural men’s basketball team. The two underdogs relished the chance to build something together, and they did: Casson held the assist record for 16 years, was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame last year, and will be inducted into Colby-Sawyer’s Athletic Hall of Fame in October. This year, when the men’s team ruled the conference but championship rings weren’t in the budget, he made sure the players got them.
Success Didn’t Come Easy
“I come from a loving family with parents who never missed a practice or game, but they struggled financially. When my dad lost his job at the beginning of my Colby-Sawyer career, the college rallied around us,” says Casson. “They understood what was happening and how important it was for me and my twin brother, Jeremy, to stay here.”
After graduation, Casson stuck with his decision to enter the sports world on the business side. He lived on credit cards and in extended families’ spare rooms in order to take relevant internships, still intent on making a name for himself and earning a full-time job. It took two years, but ESPN hired him.
It was a good job, but it wasn’t with a professional sports team, something he was determined to secure. Casson cold called every NBA team in his spare time and finally talked his way into an entry-level position with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He stayed 11 years, piling up promotions while a new goal was born in him: to be president or CEO of a professional sports team.
In 2010, an executive recruiter called with the daunting task of building a stadium in California, the first in 50 years, for a team that had struggled on the field for nearly a decade. It was another chance to create something special. That team was the San Francisco 49ers, and today they play in Levi’s Stadium, a $1.2 billion venue that Casson was instrumental in building, inclusive of a $220 million naming rights deal with Levi Strauss.
“We sold partnerships that revolutionized the way a new stadium development project works,” says Casson, “and we did it with two of the most iconic Bay Area brands.”
Casson still has goals and there’s no knowing what will come next, but he does know where it all began.
“More than 20 years ago, it began with a question: Do I have what it takes to work in professional sports? It manifested itself in the classroom, the library, during summer internships, and amongst my friends and teammates. So more than ever, I have nostalgia for Colby-Sawyer,” says Casson. “I take a great deal of pride in where I went to school, and if I can contribute to the education of students who have a dream and put their plans in place — if I can participate indirectly, directly, financially, with a call, with an internship, whatever it might be, I want to be involved in that. None of us should forget or take for granted where our journeys began.”
Note: In August 2016, Casson began a new role as CEO of the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves.