For the first time in as long as anyone can remember, Portland's largest newspaper did not provide original, on-scene coverage when the city's professional basketball team took the court this week.
The Oregonian opted not to send a writer to report on Portland Trail Blazers road games in Memphis against the Grizzlies on Saturday and in San Antonio against the Spurs on Monday. That decision left the Blazers without any coverage from a local-area newspaper and with a Portland media contingent that included one area writer not employed by the Blazers or Blazers Broadcasting. [This website does not travel to road games.] To fill the void, The Oregonian relied on local stringer coverage to provide recaps for the two games, an increasingly common practice around the NBA in recent years. Just not with this newspaper and not with this team.
Long-time Oregonian Blazers writer Jason Quick said that it was the first time during his tenure -- which dates back to 2000 -- that the paper had made the decision not to provide in-person coverage for a Blazers game. A stringer was used to cover a road game once previously, he said, but only because he was too ill to write.
Former Oregonian sportswriter Dwight Jaynes, now at Comcast SportsNet Northwest, said that he can't remember the paper missing a Blazers game in thirty years.
"You would have to go back to before 1983," he said. "Quite honestly, it's possible that it's never happened."
Susan Gage, Managing Editor of The Oregonian, said that she didn't know for sure exactly when the last time the paper hadn't been at a game, but she knew it had been a long time. The decision not to travel was made during an ongoing series of conversations between herself, Sports Editor Seth Prince and the paper's Blazers writers.
"It was a group decision," she said. "It wasn't anything from on high and it wasn't the writers saying it wasn't worth [their] time to go."
The team's recent struggles, the games' lack of meaningful stakes, and the financial benefits of skipping the trip were the primary factors behind the decision. Portland has been eliminated from the playoffs for the first time in four seasons and is currently on a 6-game losing streak. All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge was shut down earlier in April as he prepares to undergo hip surgery during the offseason, all while the organization's medical and training staffs continue to draw questions. The Blazers are 8-14 since the Mar. 15 trade deadline, which saw head coach Nate McMillan fired and starters Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace traded. The organization is operating with both an Acting GM (Chad Buchanan) an interim coach (Kaleb Canales), as speculation has continued that owner Paul Allen might sell the team (rumors that he has adamantly denied).
"At this point in the season, we can better spend our resources," Gage said. "Certainly if they were playing well or in the playoffs, it's not a decision we would have made... It was partly a budget decision as we gear up and save that money for future endeavors on the Blazers down the road."
The Oregonian will send two writers to the Blazers' regular season finale in Utah against the Jazz on Thursday.
During Monday night's television broadcast, Blazers Broadcasting play-by-play commentator Mike Rice called out the paper's absence from the game, noting that its writers would usually sit behind him on press row but were not in attendance. The broadcast later singled out CSNNW's Chris Haynes for some television time, apparently as a token of appreciation for making the trip.
Blazers COO Sarah Mensah, a Portland native, said that she couldn't remember a time when the paper didn't cover the team in person.
"That seems fairly unprecedented," she said. "I imagine it would have to have something to do with budget because the story continues. In some respects it's been very interesting and relevant to watch the team play at this point. It's been very fascinating to see some of the younger players out there, showing what they can do."
Mensah stopped short of saying that she was frustrated or disappointed by the paper's absence.
"I wouldn't say that, but I'm surprised," she said, when informed of Gage's reasoning. "I definitely understand that they've got budgetary issues and they've got all kinds of decisions they need to make. I wouldn't second-guess them."
Meanwhile, a source with knowledge of the Blazers television ratings told Blazersedge this week that Saturday's game against the Grizzlies drew a 2 rating, a figure believed to be the lowest of any game during the team's current television contract. Mensah did not dispute the number.
"No question, for a lot of reasons, including the opponent and time of game, that game was definitely not among the highest," she said.
The forward-looking question is whether the Blazers' season-end swoon is a temporary collision of circumstances -- rebuilding trades, losing, injuries, front office uncertainty -- or something that might linger. The answer won't be known until a new roster takes the court during training camp, at the earliest, but both Mensah and Gage are hoping for better days ahead.
Mensah said that the team's television ratings overall were up for the 2011-12 season compared to the 2010-11 season due to the post-lockout excitement and the Blazers' strong start. Portland's season ticket renewal rate -- which remains "in the top third" league-wide -- were "very, very close, a couple of percentage points behind" last year's rate.
"The only thing I know to attribute that to is that we have tremendously loyal and faithful fans," she said.
The Blazers announced every home game as a sellout in 2011-12, although Blazers president Larry Miller admitted during the season that the team's 4-plus season-long streak might not survive. As the losses mounted, so did the empty seats. Ticket sales didn't always translate into bodies at the Rose Garden, Mensah acknowledged.
"We didn't see a dip in terms of income and performance," she said. "What we did see was a drop in attendance which we attribute to the product on the floor -- in terms of it not reflecting Trail Blazers basketball -- but also the grueling nature of the schedule, we had so many back-to-back games, all of those factors played in to some or our attendance numbers dropping. People bought tickets, they just didn't have the wherewithal to come to all the games."
Mensah sounded more than willing to forgive the fans who didn't show up.
"[This year] didn't live up to anyone's expectations," she said. "That's disappointing. That means we have a lot of work to do ahead of us."
Year over year, the team is "a little bit ahead" in new tickets sales, something that Mensah expects to increase as excitement mounts around the 2012 NBA Draft and the July free agency period. The Blazers have been eager to tout the team's salary cap space and flexibility heading into the summer and the team's business side is already planning an "intensified sales campaign" that will run all summer long and involve appearances across the city.
The Oregonian also anticipates a "really busy summer" for its Blazers coverage, Gage said, thanks to the team's ongoing GM search and the 2012 NBA Draft. The paper currently has no plans to alter its coverage of the team and the decision not to travel with the Blazers, for now, stands as a one-time thing.
"[Covering the Blazers] always has been and remains a high priority," she said. "We feel like we provide the best coverage because we have people who are with the team all the time. Certainly that won't change... We haven't scaled back our coverage, per se, and I would argue that the Canales story we had Sunday has more impact than two [game recaps] that we might have missed on that road trip. It's just kind of where we are, gearing up for the future just like the Blazers are, in a way."
Speaking of the GM search, Buchanan has now held the "Acting" title for 337 days. His predecessor, Rich Cho, only lasted 308 days on the job before being fired in May 2011. Certainly, the business of selling tickets and jerseys would be made easier with the never-ending GM search storyline in the rearview mirror.
"We're disciplining ourselves and I'm disciplining myself to keep eyes on the prize," Mensah said. "We want to find the absolute right GM. As satisfying as it would be to end the story, as you talked about, it needs to be the right GM... We're very focused on getting it right as opposed to getting it fast."
One year ago this week, Blazers guard Brandon Roy led a miraculous comeback during a playoff game against the Dallas Mavericks, a performance that drew national headlines and had fans cheering in the Rose Quarter for hours after the game. This year, it's Hasheem Thabeet and Luke Babbitt performing in a relative media black hole to dwindling audiences.
Next year at this time, Mensah hopes, the Blazers and their fans will have an organization-wide comeback to celebrate.
"I think the story goes like this: coming out of the lockout there was a lot of excitement about the Trail Blazers. It wasn't to be. And yet the team made some very difficult, painful and, in some cases, dramatic changes and sacrifices to put the team in a position to be able to capitalize in the Draft and free agency. They went out and found an amazing leader in a new GM, who ended up hiring a coach. They put together a brilliant off-court plan. The team came back and demonstrated Trail Blazers basketball for this community. Fans came back and showed their support and love for the team."
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter