One month after hosting its most important event of the year, the Rose Bowl is a much quieter stadium on an afternoon in February. There are no cheering fans in the seats and the football yard lines on the grass have begun to fade.
Rose Bowl General Manager and CEO Darryl Dunn finds serenity in this atmosphere, as it offers him time to reflect on his immense responsibility to the iconic venue.
“I think I have the role of being a bit of a guardian for it,” said Dunn, whose duties include contract negotiations for prospective events, maintaining relationships with existing tenants and strategic planning, to name a few. “The stadium, it’s not just a building. It is history. All of our jobs are just to take care of it and try to look out for its future. … Frankly, if somebody’s trying to do something that’s not in the Rose Bowl’s best interest, we get upset. We want to look out for it like you look out for your kids. You try to help set them up to be successful in the long run, and that’s what we always try to do.”
Dunn’s path prior to landing the prestigious position in 1999 began with a cross-country drive several years earlier. The Connecticut native studied journalism at St. Bonaventure University in rural New York before instead opting to help out his family’s small retail business upon graduation. But this job wasn’t for Dunn, either, and he decided it was time for a change. Then just 24 years old, Dunn contacted his older brother, who lived in Santa Monica and had an extra bedroom. A week later, Dunn packed up his car and headed west, pushing the reality that he didn’t know anybody out there besides his brother to the back of his mind.
He began sending out five resumes and making five follow-up phone calls every day until an opportunity came along in the form of a low-level sales job for Jerry Buss, the former owner of the Los Angeles Lakers and, at the time, the Los Angeles Kings. Buss wanted to keep pushing sales throughout the summer and hired help like Dunn to relieve the full-time staff during the offseason. The work was a far cry from the glamour that came to define Buss until his death in 2013.
“It was like an old boiler room where you had a bunch of — it wasn’t even a cubicle. It was almost like half a cubicle,” said Dunn. “People are just sitting next to each other.”
Despite these conditions, Dunn performed well enough to earn a permanent spot on Buss’ sales team when the summer ended, and he remained employed there for five years. Dunn then pitched his skills to the NFL’s Raiders, who were still based in Los Angeles but didn’t have an organized sales force.
“It was a very different sort of vision from a marketing/sales perspective with Jerry Buss and [former Raiders owner] Al Davis. I really didn’t work with either of them very closely — I was too low on the totem pole — but still I interacted with them enough [to sense] very significant differences,” said Dunn.
After three more years of gaining valuable experience, Dunn accepted an offer from the Los Angeles Clippers to become their director of group sales. He credits this job as one of the most transformative of his early career, not only because he learned about management but because the team was plain bad.
“You really needed to get creative and really work hard and try to sort of target-market,” said Dunn. “We had tremendous success even though the team wasn’t good. … You need to dig down really deep when your team’s only winning 10 games a year.”
In 1994, Dunn began to cultivate Rose Bowl connections while working on the organizing committee for the FIFA Men’s World Cup. The Rose Bowl was one of the venues that hosted the soccer matches, and Dunn was tasked with selling suites — mainly targeting European countries.
“I used to go in the office at like 3 or 4 in the morning so you can talk to them,” Dunn said, referring to the vast difference in time zones.
After a brief stint working for a minor-league baseball team based in Palm Springs, Dunn returned to the Los Angeles area and reached out to those Rose Bowl contacts, offering to help sell the stadium’s empty suites.
“I ended up doing two or three different things because I had to make sure we could pay our monthly rent and just put food on the table for my family,” he said. “I literally had to do multiple things — sort of just worked for myself with a few different clients, the Rose Bowl being one of them. I had some success. Things worked well and an opportunity came available about a year later in 1996. They asked if I wanted to become part of their staff, so I did.”
Once he had a foot in the door at the Rose Bowl, Dunn capitalized on the opportunity and earned promotions while handling both revenue and operations projects during the next four years. Then, in 1999, he was encouraged to apply to replace retiring Rose Bowl CEO Mitch Dorger. The rest is history.
Seventeen years later, Dunn has watched the Rose Bowl Operating Co. budget increase from $9 million per year to around $40 million. He has overseen the largest improvement project at the stadium, and has successfully negotiated 30-year contracts with UCLA football and the Tournament of Roses to remain tenants through 2042.
“It’s a pleasure working with Darryl,” said Tournament of Roses Executive Director Bill Flinn. “Darryl is a very relationship-driven individual. He cares deeply about the city of Pasadena, the venue of the Rose Bowl stadium, its history, but also its future. He’s very responsive and he’s also very collaborative in his efforts in working with those of us who utilize the stadium [and] also with neighborhood associations. He takes a personal interest in things and is a problem-solver.”
One potential problem facing the Rose Bowl in the near future is the new NFL stadium under construction in Inglewood. Set to open in 2019, the $2-billion complex will not only be home to the Los Angeles Rams, it will undoubtedly represent an attractive option — in lieu of the Rose Bowl — for organizers of large-scale events in Southern California.
It’s why the ever-forward-thinking Dunn is already looking ahead to June 2017, when the Rose Bowl plans to host an inaugural Music & Arts Festival akin to Outside Lands in San Francisco.
“The Music & Arts Festival is a great opportunity that we actually came up with when we were looking at the business plan,” said Dunn. “Again, we always sort of foresaw that an NFL stadium was going to come. We always thought the result would be that the one-off events would go away — not entirely, but a lot of them.”
Dunn believes that some of these “one-off events,” such as the recently announced Beyoncé concert scheduled for May 14, will remain simply because of what the Rose Bowl represents.
“We’re a bucket-list facility,” Dunn said, recalling a 2010 phone call from Kenny Chesney’s manager alerting him that the country singer really wanted to play the Rose Bowl.
“I met Kenny and went to his RV and hung out with him for bit,” said Dunn. “He just told me about his passion. He grew up in Tennessee and loved college football. He had two bucket-list stadiums that he wanted to play more than any others. One was Lambeau Field (in Green Bay, Wis.) and the other was the Rose Bowl.”
Five years later, Chesney saw his dream realized when he performed in the Arroyo Seco last summer with fellow country star Jason Aldean.
Behind the scenes to ensure the success of that event was Dunn, who has spearheaded the creation of the Rose Bowl Legacy Foundation and First Tee, two nonprofits dedicated to providing financial support to honor the stadium’s historic past while simultaneously ensuring its successful future.
“His ability to listen, to think about the issues on a big scale and not just around the bottom line of everything really has made him successful in this role with America’s stadium,” said Legacy Foundation Board Member Chris Rising.
“I think we’re lucky. Some people would view that position as a grandstand for bigger things because it is really high-profile. He does all these negotiations and he could have been treating it as, ‘How am I going to go work at Nike or work at IMG?’ But he doesn’t do that. He really has the interest of all of us in Pasadena foremost on his mind.”
As Dunn heads down to the field, the Santa Clarita resident and father of two college-aged sons steps out of an elevator and gazes toward the sun-drenched homes overlooking the Rose Bowl, commenting on how beautiful they look. He knows that those neighbors are just as important to the stadium as any football team or musician.
Appealing to them while also guiding the Rose Bowl successfully into the future is the fine line Dunn walks on a daily basis. He willingly accepts the journey, though, because it is one rooted in his own values.
“I always want to learn and always want to get better every day,” Dunn said. “The Rose Bowl, we try to get better and I try to get better personally, too. How you can be a better person, better husband, better father and try to enjoy yourself. Make sure you have time to stop and smell the roses once in a while, too. No pun intended.”