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Chalupas and Fries: The Portland Trail Blazers and Corporate Sponsorships

One reader asks whether huge corporate sponsorships lessen the authenticity of the Blazers experience. We discuss that, plus the surprising tangential realization that may strike more to the heart of the matter.

Hannes Magerstaedt

Today's "Mailbag" question comes in an unusual format. It's from this Fanpost by RedHotN'Rollin' (who has an impressively old-school name but may have an apostrophe out of place). For those who don't know, Fanposts can be found on the right sidebar of the main page. They're the place where you get to be blogger for a day, writing a post that fellow readers can react to and play with.

RedHot's submission covered several facets of corporate sponsorship, but the thrust that interested me most can be summarized:

If the Blazers are operating with integrity and authenticity, why are so many of their sponsorship partners huge, multi-national, and in some ways cookie-cutter corporations? Shouldn't they be more local?

Whatever one thinks of big-chain-outlet companies, they tend to have a couple things in common:

1. They offer a product good, attractive, and convenient enough to touch an enormous variety of people from different backgrounds and locales.

2. As a result they have plenty of money to spend on advertising.

I'm not that interested in discussing the desirability of food truck cuisine versus McDonald's. Mostly I'm a food truck guy, but every once in a while I crave a Big Mac and fries. I understand the potential pitfalls of fast food but we live in a country where we have power to make those decisions for ourselves. I'm good with that.

But if you're weighing the appropriateness of a business purchasing one of the Trail Blazers' big-ticket sponsorships, there's no comparison between local businesses and the huge corporations. Those front-line partnerships require big money followed up by large-scale services...the kind only a big name can provide.

The Blazers are a business. Basketball is their leverage to get rears in seats and eyes on ads. There's no way they can undersell that leverage. It's not like they can open another factory or expand into a new field to increase revenue opportunities. If a sponsorship will command a six-figure sum, they can't reduce that to $5000 just to fit the budget of a local concern. The best they can do is offer levels of exposure that allow local companies to get their name in front of people as well. This regime has done a better job of that than we've seen in years past. But if they're not smart about their ad partnerships (meaning wringing most every dollar they can out of the process) any good intentions will prove meaningless. They'll be fired, replaced by a new group of execs who can actually make money.

Consider also: 21,000 potential customers descending on local area McDonald's to redeem a free food item coupon translates into more business for them. They'll make up the cost in other orders, now and in the future. That same 21,000 customers descending on a local food truck to redeem a free food coupon equals bankruptcy. Even if the local guy's food is vastly superior, they can't offer that level of benefit to the Moda Center crowd.

In my view, there's nothing wrong with McDonald's or Buffalo Wild Wings appearing prominently in arena advertisements. As long as we see local corporations represented on an appropriate level as well, it's all good.

However...there's a bigger point to RedHot's argument, likely unintentional but shining through nevertheless. In fact I'd never thought of it in these particular terms until I considered this Fanpost.

I was too young to have a balanced view of the original BlazerMania era following the World Championship. NBA Basketball has always been a product. That was as true in 1977 as it is today. I will not argue otherwise even though I, personally, did not understand it as such as a child.

Through child-like eyes I experienced the community that built up around that event. I felt the wave of emotion and intensity which pervaded Portland and the state at large at the time, Since then I've participated in the cherished re-telling of that history...sharing the mythology of heroes, story-lines, and stages.

Even a casual review of that history reveals that culturally speaking, the Trail Blazers championship--and by extension the growth of the organization--was considered a grassroots, bottom-up movement. Portland was the little city that showed the nation something: how to root for your team, that the underdog wins sometimes, that team basketball is both beautiful and effective, that titles don't just belong to big names and known stars. Stubborn provincialism has been a part of Blazers lore since the beginning.

The direction of movement surrounding the Blazers is exactly inverted now. You get the sense that the organization is trying to bring national, big-time, celebrity basketball to Portland. It's about the product, the hype, seeing something bigger than life instead of having basketball be a part of your life. It's top-down. Something is being shown to Portland instead of Portland showing something to the world.

This is why you hear executives describe the city publicly as "this market" instead of "this town". I suspect this is also why so many of the organization's moves--from arena atmosphere to advertising to in-house branding and coverage--haven't quite taken the hold they should have. No matter how many lights, microphones, billboards, and scoreboards they've devoted to the task, the Blazers have never been able to hush the little voice saying, "This is nice enough, but it's ringing hollow just a bit, like something isn't quite connected." The way the league and its product have been defined and sold to this "market" hasn't aligned with the traditional roots of professional basketball culture here.

Maybe huge corporate sponsorships aren't objectionable in the least as such. Rather they tickle a small, but chronic, dissatisfaction. For most folks the "Cha-lu-pa" chant (which I disliked, by the way) was a far more valuable and integral part of the sponsorship experience than any particular food product being offered. Once upon a time it seemed like that mattered, or we all pretended like it did and became powerful through our pretending. But pretending doesn't work as much anymore. A "Mick-ey D's" chant coming from a Blazers-controlled scoreboard just isn't the same.

What started four decades ago with fans at the center of the process--co-creating, if you will--has slowly evolved into a relationship where the league and its elite-level product are the highest ideal while fans are reduced to consumers to be marketed to. The actual name on the ad and the size of the company behind it are immaterial. Our place in the process determines its authenticity and integrity.

You can always send Mailbag questions to We'll get to as many as we can! If we don't manage to get to yours, or if you just have something to say, I think this post shows the value and power of the Fanpost section. Don't be shy about leaving your thoughts there as well!

--Dave / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge