By TIM BOOTHAP Sports Writer
PORTLAND, Ore.(AP) — Sarah Mensah couldn’t help but notice one
handmade sign that appeared recently among the sea of placards
and posters that fans display at Portland Trail Blazers’ home
“Converted Sonics fans down from Seattle,” it said.
Its message was clear to Mensah, Portland’s senior vice
president and chief marketing officer. While the Blazers are
“for Oregon and about Oregonians,” as she says, there is a
potential fan base three hours up the road that the team would
be foolish to overlook.
The once vibrant SuperSonics-Blazers rivalry that divided
basketball loyalties in the Pacific Northwest disappeared when
the Sonics moved before the 2008 season and became the Oklahoma
City Thunder. The professional basketball vacuum left in Seattle
has created a business opportunity the Portland franchise can’t
“When the Portland Trail Blazers have relevance beyond Portland
and Oregon it’s something the entire community can share in from
a pride factor,” Mensah said.
Problem is, nearly two years after the Sonics’ messy departure,
Seattle fans are still bitter toward the NBA.
That has Trail Blazers management considering how to navigate a
minefield laced with betrayal and distrust to reach into a metro
area of more than 3 million people with a rich basketball
history, possible business partnerships never before tapped by a
Portland franchise and connections to players on the Blazers, as
well as their coach.
“You just keep your ear to the track. It’s still pretty fresh in
people’s minds and some residual disappointment and anger about
what happened,” said Tod Leiweke, who sits on the Blazers’ board
of directors while serving as CEO of the Seattle Seahawks. “If
it was a clean slate, you’d come up and barnstorm.”
The lingering hurt is why all overtures into the Seattle market
are measured and subtle. Portland also realizes that not long
ago, their own fan base teetered on revolt when the team was
nicknamed the “Jail Blazers” for their off-court transgressions.
“It was one of the healthiest and brand-strong franchises in
professional sports and it had nearly disintegrated,” said Paul
Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing
Center at the University of Oregon. “There is plenty for case
study on how it all occurred. They’ve made enormous strides in
the last few years. The fact there is local ownership as it
relates to the Seattle market for a franchise in Portland, it
stands to reason if done correctly you could get people (in
Seattle) to care.”
The Blazers’ management believes the biggest part of making that
connection is exposure.
The Blazers received NBA permission to take over broadcast
rights that the Sonics previously held, stretching to the
Canadian border and east into Montana and Idaho.
Portland games that are not on national television are shown in
the Seattle market either on Comcast Sports Northwest or on a
secondary channel in a deal with Seattle’s NBC affiliate. By
next year the Blazers are optimistic they will have a radio
affiliate in Seattle.
For now, that’s as overt as the Blazers plan on being with
“I think the biggest thing is when you go, Seattle has to be
willing to accept and (be) ready for it,” Blazers head coach
Nate McMillan said. “And now, I personally don’t think you make
That’s why the Blazers scrapped plans for an exhibition game in
Seattle before the start of this season. When word leaked, the
backlash was harsh.
More than most, McMillan understands that sting left behind in
Seattle and the unique dynamic the Blazers face. He is still
considered “Mr. Sonic” after 12 years as a player and another
five as head coach with Seattle before jumping south to Portland
after the 2005 season.
McMillan has learned about the connection between the team that
was once his most bitter rival and its city and state.
“It’s different here than it was in Seattle, where the fan base
here is all about the Blazers. And I knew that when I was in
Seattle. We would play Portland and they would have just as many
fans as we do at games. It was almost like a cult,” McMillan
said. “Rip City, that is the identity of who this team is.”
McMillan, All-Star guard Brandon Roy and budding young swingman
Martell Webster add another layer to the Seattle-Portland
dynamic. Roy was an All-American at Washington and Webster was a
high school star at Seattle Prep before going straight to the
Webster is already seeing the Blazers make inroads in his
hometown. He hears from friends wanting to make the three-hour
drive for games – if tickets are available. Portland is nearing
100 straight sellouts
“I think we’re an icon in the Northwest, a big-time icon,”
Webster said. “People enjoy the way we play, people enjoy the
way we carry ourselves off the court. What more can you ask
Barring a deep run in the playoffs that could captivate the
entire region, this will be a slow process. The Blazers’
groundwork is in its infancy. Some in Seattle still hope the NBA
will return if a new arena is ever built, but it’s doubtful in
the current political climate.
Until then, the Blazers will try to fill the void.
“When you say Seattle it doesn’t seem right that it doesn’t have
a franchise, an NBA basketball team. … It’s been there all
this time and now there’s no NBA. That’s crazy,” Webster said.
“We just want to bring this back there and put a smile on their
face. But scars take time to heal.”