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How the NFL Can Learn From the Portland Trail Blazers

Thursday, September 25, 2014



Ray Rice is at the center of the NFL's domestic violence mishandling. Photo Credit: theglobalpanorama via Compfight cc

So there is this seemingly rock-solid sports brand built over decades of loyalty by devoted fans.

And then this untouchable brand gets poleaxed by report after report of players hurting innocent people and disgracing themselves, all the while as management enables the antisocial actions by doing nothing until it’s far too late. 

The National Football League in 2014? Sure. 

But the description above also fit the Portland Trail Blazers about a decade ago, when they became notorious nationwide and reviled locally as the “Jail Blazers.” 

What once had been an exemplary National Basketball Association franchise that played in front of a sold-out home crowd became a collection of miscreants playing in front of a half-full arena. 

And yet as the Trail Blazers prepare to begin training camp next week for the 2014-15 season, those Jail Blazer memories of Ruben Patterson having to register as a sex offender, Qyntel Woods’ guilty plea to misdemeanor animal abuse or multiple players getting busted for drug possession (the latter a quaint notion perhaps as Oregon readies to vote this November on legalizing marijuana) have long since faded.

So what can the NFL learn from the Trail Blazers’ transformation these past few years back into a well-regarded franchise with beloved players?

1. You don’t help your case by wishing the problem away.

Former Trail Blazers general manager Bob Whitsitt’s dismissive comments about the importance of team chemistry during the Jail Blazers era and his regular acquisition of players regardless of past legal run-ins ended up alienating fans. And it wasn’t even as though getting a collection of bad actors helped on the court.

Yes, the NFL shows little sign of dropoff at this point in TV ratings or attendance after it botched the Ray Rice case in specific or showed remarkable tone-deafness to violence against women in general.

But cracks in the shield of some fans lining up to return their Rice jerseys show fans’ patience is not limitless.

2. Fan support is not guaranteed.

Even a forgiving market such as Portland said “enough is enough” eventually to the Trail Blazers. Average attendance fell 26 percent from the 1999-2000 season to 15,053 in the 2005-06 season. Essentially, the case could be made that Trail Blazers fans were willing to have jerks on the team in 1999-2000 if they at least won. But a losing team with unsympathetic players proved too much for the market to stand.

3. The bar is not that high to a sports brand’s recovery if you remember the two bullet points above.  

So what really happened with the Trail Blazers’ rebound in fans’ opinion?

They got rid of a bunch of problem middling players and drafted a handful of great players like Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard who have never gotten in trouble off the court. Add in a lovable and quirky goof like Robin Lopez as well as an obvious hard worker like Matthews and the problem is solved.

Let’s face it, fans’ expectations of players is low—don’t get arrested and at least appear to be engaged with fans at the public appearances that players’ contracts require them to attend. Happily, all the current Trail Blazers appear to meet that standard.

The comparison between the Trail Blazers and the NFL is, of course, imperfect.

In the first instance, the issue was only one franchise with only a dozen players in one city. In the second, the issue is an entire league with more than 1,600 players in 32 cities.

But while the NFL is never going to place a franchise here, it would be well served to at least place a call here for advice.

A native Oregonian, Hank Stern had a 24-year career in journalism, working for more than a decade as a reporter with The Associated Press in Oregon, New Jersey and Washington, DC. He worked seven years for The Oregonian as a reporter in east Multnomah County, Washington County and Portland’s City Hall. In 2005, he became Willamette Week’s managing news editor and worked there until 2011.

Home Page Photo Credit: Joel Bedford via Compfight cc


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