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Sports Authority Field at Mile High is often filled with fans who provide unfaltering support for their home team, who come out in droves and weather malicious snowstorms, biting wind and blinding sun to be a part of something special. With the silhouette of the Rocky Mountains to the west and the skyline of the Mile High City to the east, this plot of land is Colorado through and through.
But this weekend, it won't be the Denver Broncos that fans will be rooting for at Mile High, but a different Colorado-born endeavor: the SnowBall Music Festival. Hometown favorite Pretty Lights will headline the festival; the party will also include the bombastic sounds of Knife Party and the commanding flow of Busta Rhymes. In addition, this year marks the first time SnowBall will be held east of the foothills, after three years of bouncing around mountain towns with mixed results.
The festival's founder and CEO, 33-year-old Chad Donnelly, spent his developmental years schussing down the groomed runs of Vail, teeing off onto the lush fairways that dot the semi-arid Front Range, and cultivating his skills as a team player in various lacrosse programs in the state.
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The youngest of five siblings, Donnelly felt the need to prove himself early on. He left Colorado in 1999 to attend Chapman University in Orange, California, where he thrived in the school's golf and lacrosse programs while pursuing a degree. In 2001 he ventured to Prague to study economics.
Donnelly graduated from Chapman in 2004 and accepted a coaching position with his alma mater while also working with Nike Team Sports as an account executive.
"I looked at [coaching] as my first business," Donnelly says. "I was managing budgets, planning travel, and I had 25 guys looking to me for guidance and direction."
Still coaching, Donnelly left Nike to work for CBS, again as an account executive. Although the money was better, he quickly found that the demands on his time weren't worth it. "I learned that the amount of money I was making was in no way reflective of my happiness," he says. He quit three months into the job, just two days before Christmas in 2005.
He decided — not for the last time — to use his entrepreneurial spirit for something he loved, and started USA Starz Lacrosse.
"I wanted to fuse lacrosse and business," he says, "so I convinced twelve players to come over to Europe and play in some international tournaments. Really, I wanted an excuse to travel."
Donnelly was three years into his tenure with the Chapman lacrosse program, coaching a team that would go on to play in two national championships, when the university opted not to renew his contract. In 2008, he moved back to live with his mother in Colorado.
He found opportunity once again in his home state. His older brother, Jeff, had started a software company called EmagineIF. Although Chad was still involved with USA Starz Lacrosse, he jumped at the opportunity to work at EmagineIF. "My brother started this software company and brought me on board, and I was valeting cars at Shanahan's Steakhouse to uphold my financial obligation."
EmagineIF's success ultimately resonated with a group from New Zealand, who helped move the company there. Chad remains on the board of directors to this day.
But his future didn't lie in software. During a weekend ski trip to Vail, facing lackluster nightlife opportunities, Donnelly had an idea: "I was waiting to go to Coachella, and I thought, 'Why can't we have something like this in Colorado?"
It was a nice thought, but he had no experience in festival management — or entertainment production of any kind, really. Putting on a large-scale music event is difficult, especially in a state like Colorado, where major companies such as SFX Entertainment, AEG Live, and LiveNation control huge portions of the market. In late 2011, Donnelly called the only person he knew with ties to the industry: a junior agent at talent company Creative Artists Agency named Latane Hughes, whom he had known for many years. "He loved the idea and really [helped] with the talent," says Donnelly.
For his part, Donnelly went to his list of contacts and was able to find a substantial amount of people — most of whom had no experience with any kind of music-related project — who were interested in investing in the first SnowBall Music Festival.
The festival was held in Avon, in the Vail Valley, and artists that first year included then-rising star Pretty Lights, the Flaming Lips, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Bassnectar, among others. Somehow, Donnelly had managed to assemble a music festival. But the mountains, beautiful as they may be, present challenges, and the night before SnowBall's first day, Vail Pass was closed due to inclement weather.
Donnelly was sitting in his rental property in Avon when he got a call from his brother. "All of these people are going to your festival," he said. "The roads are packed!"
Whether that's actually where all those people were headed probably doesn't matter. Plows finally cleared the road, and the fans came to SnowBall. "It was wild for me," Donnelly says. "To see all these people pouring in the gates, laughing, smiling. We were the farthest thing from perfect, but it was a dream come true."