It’s the middle of summer, Chris McGowan has a 40th birthday coming up in a few days, and the focus ought to be on a little rafting and hiking and wine tasting, not on season ticket sales and naming rights for the Rose Garden.
But here is McGowan, nine months into his position as the Trail Blazers’ president/chief executive officer, at work in his Rose Quarter office, pushing the business side every bit as hard as general manager Neil Olshey has worked the basketball side of the operation.
McGowan, hired just as the last NBA season began after serving a year as chief operating officer of Los Angeles’ Anschutz Entertainment Group, wasn’t part of the Blazers’ planning process prior to the 2012-13 campaign. His imprint is all over this offseason for the local NBA contingent, though.
There has been plenty of activity. On July 1, the Blazers took operation of the Rose Garden in-house, letting their contract with building manager AEG expire. There has been a paring of the business executive side of the Blazers by about a dozen employees since McGowan’s hiring, a bid to secure a naming-rights sponsor, overtures at purchase of an NHL franchise and a look at changes regarding Rose Garden club and suite seating.
“The organization has been through a lot of transition,” McGowan says. “We’re coming together as a management team — the people who have been here for a while and the new people I’ve hired. We’re building a collaborative business plan that will produce great results for us this coming season. It’s been fun to be a part of that process.
“Our final business plan will pretty much be done next week, once the (2013-14 NBA) schedule is released. We have good aspirations and goals for next season, and we’re making progress and improving every day. It’s been a very good offseason so far.”
McGowan has trimmed the business staff, but says he has put more emphasis on areas of “need.”
“We’ve hired back in some of the key areas of the business such as ticket and sponsorship sales and places where we need to produce better results,” he says. “I’m committed to resourcing areas at the level they need to be resourced, but I’m also a big fan of efficiency and making sure we’re operating at optimal levels. The lion’s share of the work we do is in (ticket and sponsorship) areas. I want to make sure they are resourced properly.”
McGowan says he kept “most of the employees” with AEG and its operational staff. The split from AEG “was about having the ability to have more influence on how we’re going to run the building. We need to market in a collaborative and collective manner as opposed to separate staffs.”
Part of that will be actively seeking more concerts and sporting events aside from the Blazers and Winterhawks.
“I view us as an entertainment company,” he says. “Our biggest priority is making sure the Trail Blazers are successful, but we also run the most active arena in the Northwest. I’ve talked to enough people in this market to know they love live entertainment. It’s a great arena for concerts. The feedback we get from musicians, entertainers and agents is the sound in the arena is great. This is one of the best entertainment venues in the country. We’ll have more concerts, and other sporting events, too.”
After years of turning their backs to the NHL, the Blazers got involved with negotiations for a potential move of the Phoenix Coyotes franchise to Portland this summer. Word is owner Paul Allen was prepared to offer $200 million for the Coyotes, who just weeks ago worked out a 15-year deal to remain in Glendale, Ariz.
A pair of potential investors, Ray Bartoszek and Anthony Lanza, of Westchester, N.Y., were by one account prepared to offer $225 million to locate the Coyotes in Seattle. The lack of an NHL-quality arena there, though, might have persuaded the league to pick Portland first had the Coyotes relocated. It’s a given that both Portland and Seattle are on the NHL’s short list.
“It’s safe to say we’re very intrigued by the Pacific Northwest, generally,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told the Ottawa Sun last week. “Going forward, I would expect that, to the extent expansion comes into the picture or relocation is needed, I’m sure Seattle and Portland are going to get serious consideration.”
McGowan says the Blazers “never made an offer” for the Coyotes, but that an extensive market analysis convinced Allen the NHL in Portland would be a positive move.
“I never got the sense that Paul wasn’t interested in the NHL,” McGowan says. “Paul has always been interested in things that are good for Portland and the arena. It’s our job to bring opportunities to Paul. The NHL is just one of those. Our analysis led us to believe that potentially a team could work here. We were in the mix when it related to Portland as a potential option, but it didn’t work out, so it becomes moot.”
McGowan’s staff conducted the organization’s first study of desires of Trail Blazer ticket-holders in several years, and 3,700 responded to a 60-question survey.
“We learned tons of valuable information about everything that goes on with the arena,” he says. “We got some good scores, and (advice on) some things we need to work on. We’re addressing those issues.”
Noise level at Blazer games, for instance.
“That was one of the two or three things that were consistent,” he says. “We heard that a lot, and if we’re too loud, we’re going to address it.”
The Blazers have hired a new catering service and will make renovations and updates in the club seating and suite areas, though most of those changes won’t be in place until the 2014-15 NBA season.
“We’re working the staff to run the arena and make the arena better,” he says. “You do that by having better customer service, food and overall experience.”
McGowan also promises changes to the Rose Quarter, a ghost town on nongame nights and a disappointing entity since the Rose Garden opened in 1995.
“The Rose Quarter needs to be livened up,” he says. “I want it to come alive on game night. If we can do that first, that allows us the opportunity to think bigger about the Rose Quarter (year-round). We haven’t firmed up exactly what we’re going to do, but our fans will notice when they come to games this season that it will be a bit livelier.”
The Blazers sold between 11,000 and 12,000 season tickets for Blazer games in the 20,500-seat Rose Garden last year. McGowan says the club is on pace to better that next season.
“I’m encouraged where we’re at,” he says. “We’ll sell more tickets than we did last year. We want to be at about 12,500. I’m encouraged by where we’re at on ticket sales.”
McGowan envisions capping season ticket sales at about 16,500 in the future.
“We’re not in that situation yet, but we will get there based on what I know about this market,” he says. “I don’t anticipate we will have any problems getting to that situation as we’re building our team.
“There is a lot of excitement out there for what Neil has done already. People believe we’re heading in a good direction.”
Last season, the Blazers sold 29 of their 66 luxury suites on a full-season basis. Already, there are commitments for 38 next season. Thanks to single-game sales, suites are full on every Blazer game night, McGowan says, but the club would like to procure more full-season deals as well as sell more club seats. Renovation of the suites and more options for club seat-holders are part of the plan.
“I would tell people they’re going to see some interesting changes in how we’re going to handle suites and club seats going forward,” he says. “One of our strategic initiatives is to re-energize what is going on there. If you’re coming to a lot of games, you want change and variety. You don’t want the same thing every night. What we want to do in the club seat area is have different options. If they want to go all-inclusive (with food and drink figured in), they can do that. If they just want the seat and get a hot dog and a beer, they have that option as well.”
McGowan says the Blazers are on pace for increased sponsorship dollars, too, in part because of what he calls a “unique” partnership between the club and area businesses.
“It’s an area I’ve been pleasantly surprised with since I’ve gotten here,” he says. “The relationship with our sponsors is something I’ve never seen in my jobs in professional sports. A lot of times, those relationships are transactional. Here, we have relationships with the key people who own the companies that are sponsoring our team. Some of them have been partners for 15, 20, 22 years, and we consider them part of our organization.”
The Blazers’ ambassador program — enlisting the likes of Bill Schonely, Jerome Kersey, Dale Schlueter and Harry Glickman to make appearances on the behalf of the organization — has been a big part of that, McGowan says. The indefatigable Schonely, 84, recently was signed to a three-year extension to continue pressing flesh and spreading goodwill in the community.
A major project for McGowan in recent months has been seeking a naming rights sponsor for the Rose Garden — which, incidentally, is unlikely to carry the “Rose Garden” moniker when a deal is reached. Businesses want the most bang for their buck, and if the Rose Garden is part of the name, that’s what fans will call it.
The Blazers have had talks with 250 companies about naming rights over the past six months and are in more serious negotiations with at least one business with local ties.
“It’s an organizational priority,” McGowan says. “It’s my goal to have it done before the start of the season. For Paul and me, doing a deal isn’t the goal here. Doing the right deal is. I’m not going to do a bad deal, a deal with a brand that we don’t align with, that isn’t stable. It has to be with the right company. We don’t have to do it, but it’s too good of an opportunity to not do.”
A naming rights contract will reap millions. The New York Mets have the most lucrative deal in pro sports, a 20-year, $400-million pact for Citi Field. In the NBA, the Brooklyn Nets get $10 million a year over 20 years for Barclays Center. More comparable to the Blazers are Memphis (22 years, $90 million), San Antonio (20 years, $41 million), Philadelphia (29 years, $40 million) and Orlando (10 years, $40 million).
“They’re all over the map, from five years to indefinite,” McGowan says of the length of naming rights deals. “For us, I’d suggest it be a 10-year deal. Ten years would be great.”