ASU alum Michael Focareto started organization to honor veterans’ sacrifice
By Scott Bordow |
February 01, 2024
Editor’s note: Arizona State University alumni are making a difference in every corner and community of the world, positively changing the lives of those they encounter. ASU News traveled around the U.S. in 2023 to profile five of those alums. Here is the first in our series.
As Mike Kanitsch settles into his seat in section 311 of Chase Field, he leans his white cane against his right thigh. Sunglasses cover his eyes.
Seven strokes have robbed Kanitsch of most of his sight, but he can still make out the score on the giant Jumbotron above center field and enjoy the experience of being at a July game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and St. Louis Cardinals.
“I can still read the batting order,” Kanitsch says with a smile. “But as far as the pitcher letting go of the ball, it’s gone until the pitcher gets it back. I can hear the ball being hit, but I can’t see it.”
Kanitsch usually comes to a game with a friend who becomes his eyes for the night, but he’s alone on this evening.
That doesn’t diminish his enjoyment, though. Just as it didn’t diminish the pleasure of being at a Cher concert, an opera, several auto races and even a roller derby game.
Kanitsch, who was an infantryman in the Army, estimates he’s been to “several hundred” events thanks to the organizational name on the black cap he’s wearing: Vet Tix.
“I’ve been on Social Security for 21 years, so there’s no way I would have been able to afford these tickets,” he says. “This has been beyond a blessing.”
Army veteran and Arizona Diamondbacks fan Mike Kanitsch watches the Diamondbacks play the St. Louis Cardinals at Chase Field in downtown Phoenix on Monday, July 24, 2023. He received tickets to the game thanks to Vet Tix, an ASU-alum founded organization that provides veterans with tickets to events of all types. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News
If Vet Tix had a color scheme it would be maroon and gold. Founder and Chief Executive Officer Michael Focareto III is an Arizona State University alum, as is Chief Strategy Officer Steven Weintraub and Chief Operating Founder Edward Rausch.
Their mission since 2008: Honor the sacrifice veterans have made — and the families of troops killed in action — by offering free tickets to sporting events, concerts, Broadway plays, Disney on Ice… basically anything that will create a positive and enjoyable experience for veterans and their families.
Over that time, Vet Tix — which has 2.6 million members and is accessible in all 50 states via its online platform — has awarded more than 20 million tickets. In 2023, the Tempe-based nonprofit handed out more than 5 million tickets to everything from taco truck festivals to the Super Bowl. On average, Vet Tix receives between 15,000 and 25,000 tickets per day.
Vet Tix also gives tickets to first responders and their families through its 1st Tix website.
Focareto had no idea a charitable organization would be his life’s calling when he and a friend attended the 2008 Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and New York Giants at what was then called University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
Sometimes, though, circumstance creates inspiration.
Focareto had friends in the color guard, and as the pre-game ceremonies ended, he realized they wouldn’t have seats once the game began. He then looked around his section and saw several seats that were empty.
“It was just mind-boggling to me,” he said. “I was like, ‘Someone should do this and get tickets donated for vets.’”
Focareto, who received a Bachelor of Science in computers and information systems from ASU in 1998 and a Master of Science in information management in 2009, understood what those tickets would mean to veterans.
He was a veteran himself, serving as a Naval nuclear engineer aboard the USS Virginia during the Gulf War. He comes from a family of veterans: both his grandfathers saw action during World War II; his grandmother helped make tanks at Cleveland Tank; and his father is a disabled veteran who served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam war. He also has several uncles and cousins who have served or are still serving in the military.
The opportunity, he thought to himself, was obvious.
Around the same time, Focareto was going through a divorce. He met another woman, and she told him about a self-expression and leadership course she was taking through Landmark Forum, which offers personal development courses.
“One of the things that we had to do was create a project that will benefit your community,” Focareto said. “I decided I wanted to take some veterans to a baseball game. Long story short, I was working through that project when me and my buddy went to the Super Bowl and I said, ‘You know what? This project I’m about to do, we can take this to the next level. Let’s figure out how to do this nationally.’ And it turned into this.”
Focareto’s first visit was to the Diamondbacks. Would they be interested in donating some tickets?
Debbie Castaldo, the Diamondbacks’ senior vice president of corporate and community impact, was skeptical. But Focareto quickly won her over.
“They had a genuine interest in just helping make sure that veterans had opportunities,” Castaldo said. “They were like, ‘We’ll just take any tickets that are left over, whatever you don’t use.’”
That relationship blossomed to the point the Diamondbacks now donate 25,000 tickets a year to Vet Tix.
“In a very short time they turned into really one of the most efficient and reliable places that we could turn to for donated tickets,” Castaldo said. “We like them a lot and believe in what they do and how they’ve grown.”
Vet Tix now has partnerships with every Major League Baseball team with the exception of the Los Angeles Dodgers — “we’re talking to them,” Focareto said — 90% of NHL and NBA teams, college athletic conferences, concert promoter Live Nation, Ticketmaster and more.
Weintraub, who serves as the frontman for Vet Tix because Focareto prefers to work behind the scenes — “it was his brainchild, but he’s not that leader that wants to be out front and in every picture,” Weintraub said — promotes Vet Tix by traveling across the country and speaking at military events like Fleet Week. Vet Tix also has an ad that runs monthly in the Veterans Affairs newsletter.
Steven Weintraub (left), the Chief Strategy Officer with Vet Tix, chats with Army veteran Dennis Burrows during a Diamondbacks-Cardinals game in July 2023. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News
Here’s how it works: Veterans create an account with Vet Tix and then can see a list of events where tickets are available — one month in 2022, for example, there were 2,352 open events.
They receive tickets through a lottery system, based on virtual coins they can earn by helping other people sign up, using social media to thank the donor or by holding up a sign at an event thanking the donor.
They then use those coins to request up to four tickets to an event (larger families can request more). If they are selected, they are charged a delivery fee — used to fund Vet Tix — of no more than $14.97 per transaction. If the ticket price is below $14.97, the delivery fee will be less than the ticket price.
Focareto said the donor “testimonials,” as he calls them, are a big reason Vet Tix expanded from an organization that gave away 2,100 tickets its first year to 5 million tickets in 2023.
“It took a long time to get this going,” he said. “We had to prove ourselves.
“Teams would ask us, ‘Why should we donate to you?’ And we found out that the biggest thing donors care about is they want people to show who donated the tickets. We’re at an 85 to 90% show rate, and donors love that.”
Focareto and Weintraub have been astounded by the stories they hear from veterans. One Vietnam War vet was at a hockey game with his son, and his son died from a heart attack the next day.
“We provided their last experience together,” Focareto said.
One veteran with two tickets to a NASCAR race asked his friend, a fellow veteran who was going through a divorce and child custody issues, if he wanted to go. Weintraub said that in the testimonial he gave to Vet Tix, the veteran with the tickets said his friend told him on the way home that, “If you didn’t invite me to go to this race today, I was going to kill myself.”
“So, the guy dropped his friend off at a treatment facility on the way home, and later he got a call from his friend thanking him for the day and that he had a new trajectory on his life,” Weintraub said.
At last July’s game between the Diamondbacks and Cardinals, more than 400 veterans sat in three side-by-side sections on the 300 level. That closeness, Weintraub said, has provided a benefit Vet Tix never considered 15 years ago.
“When they’re sitting among their tribe, they realize that ‘Hey, this person sounds like me and talks like me,’” Weintraub said. “It gives them a better sense of security. Because a lot of time, these vets don’t like being in crowds. They’re having challenges with reintegration, depression and isolation. We’ll hear from them that it really helped them getting out in crowds and the noise.
“What I glean from going through these testimonials is not only the thank you, but that we’ve literally changed these people’s lives.”
Brett Snyder sits back in his chair in section 311, his 12-year-old daughter Gracyn and her friend beside him. Snyder, who served in the Missouri National Guard and is presently with the Arizona National Guard, estimated he’s been to approximately 50 events the last six years thanks to Vet Tix.
“I’ve got a family of five and we do football, baseball, concerts, Broadway plays… I can’t even think of what else we’ve done but it’s a lot,” Snyder said. “A lot of time I’ll leave my wife at home and take the kids, so it gives her a break from the monotony.”
A few rows down, Kim Smith holds up a homemade sign thanking the Diamondbacks for the tickets. The game against the Cardinals is only the second time she and her husband, Doug, both Air Force veterans, have used Vet Tix to secure tickets.
“I’m very grateful for this service,” Kim Smith says. “It’s just so gratifying that they are taking the time and the energy and all their resources to honor men and women who have served our country for years.”
That’s precisely what Focareto envisioned on that Super Bowl Sunday.
“It’s amazing, just knowing the difference that we make,” Focareto said. “It’s turned into something I can’t even put into words.”