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On The Scene: Home-court advantage

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On the Scene
Thursday, March 18, 2010

It’s been 40 years since the Portland Trail Blazers made their official NBA debut after being purchased for $3.7 million. Decades later, the franchise has powered through several rough patches — from poor seasons to trouble with the law — with its reputation as a beloved Portland brand intact. Now facing the recession, not to mention a wave of injuries, the Trail Blazers are pushing forward and arguably stronger than ever.

Currently in his fifth season at the helm, coach Nate McMillan was among the speakers at a breakfast forum held by the Portland Business Alliance yesterday, along with chief marketing officer Sarah Mensah and senior VP of business affairs J.E. Isaac. In front of a packed room at Portland’s Governor Hotel, the three franchise representatives talked about what’s keeping the Blazers ahead of the sports-business game, and what to expect from a little project called JumpTown.

McMillan spent a good amount of time praising the work ethic of his team, and the Blazers have indeed been playing with a fighting spirit. With Brandon Roy and Greg Oden among the many star players who experienced injuries this year, it’s remarkable that the team has managed to hold up its standing throughout the season. But what’s keeping the brand thriving while other Portland business sectors are still waiting for that rumored recovery?

Mensah says it helped that the brand already experienced its own upheaval when the Blazers’ leadership underwent a wholesale change a few years ago. The learning and adjustments that followed were instrumental in strengthening the brand to help it avoid not only its own implosion, but also the economic crisis that would eventually hit the rest of the business community. “That’s been a long-term process,” Mensah says. “The success we’ve seen in the last couple of years is really a demonstration of the work, but the workload started quite a while before this [recession].”

True to its name, the Blazers have made several pioneering business moves to keep the brand moving over the years, keeping a careful eye on factors like secondary markets, technological advancements and social media. “These are all having a tremendous impact, not just on the Trail Blazers, but on sports businesses across the nation,” Mensah says. “We fancy ourselves as trailblazers and we take that charge very seriously. We have a responsibility to be on the cutting edge.”

Among their groundbreaking achievements: The Blazers were one of the first teams to create its own social network and allow fans to interact online. And with the NBA now allowing teams to stream games online, the Blazers were the first team to jump on that opportunity to reach a broader audience, which was welcomed by fans without TV access. “Our movement to streaming was viewed very positively by those folks,” Mensah says. “There are all kinds of technological advances that are really going to take part in shaping the business moving into the future.”

But the brand’s business progression isn’t limited to the team itself. The Blazers’ JumpTown plan is among the more high-profile proposals being considered for redeveloping the Memorial Coliseum and the surround area. Complete with restaurants, clubs, a covered plaza and an interactive Nike museum (along the lines of the Experience Music Project in Seattle), JumpTown is a mixed-use development built on the idea of giving Portland an economic boost, much like the Rose Garden does now, Isaac says. Built 15 years ago, the Blazers’ home arena has generated $61 million for Portland in addition to the 6% ticket tax the city receives from both the Rose Garden and the Memorial Coliseum — with no city money invested for the arena’s development. “It’s been a win-win, and we think we can do it again,” Isaac says.

Kevin Manahan is the online editor for Oregon Business.

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