First published in the June 30 print issue of the Pasadena Outlook.
As Rose Bowl Stadium CEO and General Manager Darryl Dunn hangs up his hat for good at the iconic Pasadena landmark this week, friends and colleagues heaped praise on the soft-spoken leader, known as an intrepid listener who’s created a league of his own during 27 years at the “Granddaddy of Them All.”
Dunn, who began at the stadium in 1995 and has served at the helm since 1999, decided recently that this year, that of the Rose Bowl’s Centennial celebration, was a good time to retire and let a new team carry the venue into the next 100 years.
“After much reflection and succession planning, I believe it’s time for others to step in and take the helm,” Dunn said. “I will always care very deeply about the Rose Bowl Stadium; it’s been just an incredible experience. My time here has felt like one long year, not 27 of them.”
Dunn has been responsible for managing all aspects of the facility, including contract negotiations with prospective events, ongoing relationships with existing tenants and all financial, marketing and operational needs for the stadium. His long-range planning for the facility has included spearheading the planning and execution of a $183 million renovation in 2011.
Pasadena Mayor Victor Gordo said it was Dunn who rallied the city and community behind the renovation after a deal with the NFL was ultimately rejected.
“Darryl Dunn’s contributions to the Rose Bowl and the city of Pasadena are tremendous,” said Gordo, who was on the Rose Bowl Stadium of Directors for 10 years before becoming mayor. “He reminded us of all we had an obligation to invest in the stadium and reinvest in it to assure its success; Darryl launched the Rose Bowl into the next 100 years by ensuring its place — not just in college football and on New Year’s Day — but also in the world of concerts and entertainment, and the world of international soccer.”
Dunn was able to convince those around him to take another look at one of the city’s largest and most valuable assets. At the time, technology was quickly changing for sports and entertainment venues worldwide, and even the television was seen as a big competitor.
“The venue world continues to evolve and change … those challenges are constant,” he noted.
One of Dunn’s greatest accomplishments may have resulted from that NFL negotiation, which, in turn, shed light on the urgency for a financial safety net: the creation of the Rose Bowl Legacy Foundation in 2010, a nonprofit fundraising arm. The mission of the foundation to preserve, protect and enhance the Rose Bowl Stadium’s future within the Arroyo Seco sets up private funding in support of improvements and its surroundings through educational and community partnerships. To date, the Rose Bowl Legacy Foundation has raised more than $50 million to support the stadium.
“If you think about it, at its core, the Rose Bowl is a college football stadium but we don’t have any alumni,” he said, reflecting on the team that helped rally the community to kick off the foundation. “One thing I have found, and it feels good, is deep down how much people care for the Rose Bowl. For a municipally owned stadium, there is nothing that resembles what the Legacy Foundation has done here; it hasn’t happened anywhere else. But the Rose Bowl is also one of a kind.
“Without a doubt,” he continued, “one of the most important things we’ve ever accomplished was establishing the foundation. When we started it, we didn’t have a lot of believers, but it certainly has proved to be an amazing success.”
Among Dunn’s biggest challenges early on was the world that changed after 9/11, when the terrorist attack left the United States reeling in grief and fear. In the aftermath, the societal challenge of teaching security and implementing safeguards reverberated in the stadium and its operations; in some ways live sports and entertainment was never the same, he added.
During his tenure, Dunn negotiated 33 agreements with anchor tenants UCLA and the Tournament of Roses, as well as long-term agreements with sports marketing companies IMG and Legends. In 2016, Dunn oversaw the approval of a multiyear music and arts festival at the Rose Bowl in partnership with worldwide promoter AEG. His term included hosting four National Championship Games in college football, the annual Rose Bowl Game, Copa America, numerous international soccer matches, including hosting the national teams of Brazil, Columbia, Mexico and the United States, as well with clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United. Concerts have included the record-breaking U2 2009 event, as well as Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, Jay Z, Kenny Chesney and many more.
“I read once that your best customer is an existing customer,” said Dunn. “We focused on our anchor tenants and really questioned, how to support them and help them be successful so they can keep coming back.”
Dunn was vital to securing some of the world’s biggest performers. After a few misfires with previous concerts (due, in part, to traffic and parking), the group that reshaped the Rose Bowl for concertgoing was U2. A resounding success, the concert set records for attendance, and helped attract countless other bands thereafter: “It became our audition. We treated that event like a Super Bowl and it really put us back in play.”
Years later, Dunn helped segue the stadium’s capacity into music festivals held at the surrounding Brookside Park, partly initiated by a budget shortfall during the renovation construction: “That really was when we began looking at the Rose Bowl as a larger campus, and all the possibilities that entailed.”
That experience helped shape the stadium’s response to the pandemic, when it lost the Tournament of Roses’ big game in January 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions. Without missing a beat, the Rose Bowl became one of the region’s largest outdoor drive-in movie theaters, while also providing comedy and drive-thru experiences.
Looking back, Dunn said, it’s hard to pinpoint one favorite moment over nearly three decades, but his first event there is at the forefront of his mind. He points to a framed photo — now a world-famous image — of Brandi Chastain at the Rose Bowl during the 1999 Women’s FIFA World Cup Final, celebrating after scoring the winning penalty.
“It was one of the biggest events we ever hosted, if not the biggest, and I think it was a catalyst for the growth of women’s sports and really, changed soccer worldwide. It was a magical, magical thing,” he said.
It’s also the event Dunn’s successor, Jens Weiden, will carry fondly with him when he sees the statue honoring Chastain and the entire 1999 team outside the stadium.
“Over the next two decades Darryl oversaw hundreds of events from Rose Bowl Games to music festivals, but that first event has always been a special memory for him,” Weiden said, noting how much he will miss working alongside Dunn. “Darryl is one of the best listeners I have ever met. Knowing that the leader of your organization prioritizes others’ opinions ahead of his own has helped create a culture of transparency and communication within our organization. We are lucky that his selfless nature has proliferated our entire organization to a point where his lessons and leadership style will forever be felt at America’s Stadium.”
Former longtime Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard also jumped to praise Dunn and the “visionary leadership” in addressing the many challenges facing the Rose Bowl, successfully engaging its principal constituencies, including City Hall, the Tournament of Roses, UCLA, the Flea Market and AEG.
“Darryl covered all the bases — programming, staffing, maintenance and modernization, creation of the Rose Bowl Legacy Foundation, and responsiveness to the Rose Bowl neighbors,” said Bogaard. “Darryl has been masterful in listening attentively to the neighbors and responding successfully to their concerns. Our community owes him a debt of gratitude for his successful and dedicated service.”
Dunn has created a culture that will be passed on for years to come, Gordo emphasized, noting, “What Darryl Dunn has delivered is that when a top-tier college athlete or world famous soccer player or renown entertainer steps onto the Rose Bowl field, their eyes just open up and take in being surrounded by that stadium, and they say ‘wow’; they’re mesmerized by it. They feel like they’ve made it in that moment.”
Dunn will retire to spend more time with his wife, Claudette, who has been his pillar of support, and his two children.
In bidding goodbye to this chapter of his life at the Rose Bowl, Dunn remembers one of his favorite sports idioms.
“Leave it all on the field,” he said.