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Rebuilding the “In-Game Experience”

The roster isn't the only thing that needs rebuilding. How might the Trail Blazers use this as an opportunity to improve the in-game atmosphere?

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

It's a new day. It's a new era.

It's also August, the beginning of the doldrums of the off-season. The draft, free agency, and summer league are all pretty much over. It's another month and change until players will start returning to the Rose City in preparation for training camp. With so little basketball news, it's an opportunity to discuss broader topics that don't get much attention during the regular season.

Speaking of opportunities, every rebuild provides a mix of opportunities and challenges up and down an organization. Obviously, the basketball operations side of the Trail Blazers has a new challenge and opportunity to construct a new roster. We've spent most of the past few months analyzing and discussing these topics. But the business side of the organization also faces a number of dilemmas - namely how to get people to attend games during what promises to be an extended process.

Now, Rip City has always supported the team when they've played hard. By all accounts this will be one of the strengths of the new team. Most of the new acquisitions make up for their lack of shooting with hustle and grit. So I have no doubt attendance will remain strong. However, the experience of watching a game will be drastically different and the business side of the Trail Blazers would be foolish not to realize that.

Gone are the days where the "basketball product" sells itself. Gone are the days where fans expect to win every night. There will be some games that are tough to watch next year. That's just what happens when you start a rebuild. But with each challenge comes a new opportunity and the rebuild gives them a chance to experiment with the "in-game experience".

This is one of Chris McGowan's stated goals. Beyond the website, naming rights, and arena improvements, McGowan has highlighted the "in-game experience" as one of the areas he would like to improve. Erik Gundersen, from The Columbian, wrote an article last year about McGowan's plans:

When the Portland Trail Blazers hired President Chris McGowan in October of 2012, he noticed that more than a few things were missing. The Blazers had great fans that were loud, passionate and kept the Blazers near the top of the NBA in attendance. However, the arena didn't feel like Portland...McGowan still feels as though there can be improvements to the in-game experience. He and his marketing team are studying other teams such as Oklahoma City and Golden State.

The arena itself may feel a bit more like Portland these days, with more local food options and the remodeled areas, but the in-game experience is still basically NBA vanilla. There's loud music during timeouts. Blaze, the Trail Cat, jumps around. There's a different performer during halftime and the Blazer Dancers come out and do their thing. All of this is fine but none of it feels like Portland, and my perception is that most fans tolerate it rather than gravitate to the "entertainment".

McGowan may be studying Golden State and Oklahoma City, but I would point him in another direction -- college teams.

I know, I know, I know. They stole that from soccer. But who cares? That clip is incredible. There's something extra powerful when those chants happen in an enclosed area so close to a smaller court. It feels more organic and less corporate than what happens in the NBA (organic? less corporate? Portland alert!). It's like the fans are the experience rather than consuming it. I mean, you can see the players jumping up and down with the crowd getting pumped up for the game.

Why don't these things happen at professional basketball games? I think for two main reasons. First, there's no space for them. Every time out, stopped ball, or free throw is already filled to the gills with something. Second, there's no organization, like a fan club or a student body, to organize and build a tradition.

Many people would cite a third reason, pointing to the lack of a fan club culture in the NBA. In fact, one of my buddies got to meet McGowan at an event and I asked him to propose the fan club idea. McGowan's response was that the team was considering it, that he had tried it with the LA Kings to some extent, and that it's difficult to build that culture. There may be some truth to that generally but I don't think it applies to this town.

Now is the time and Portland is the place.

Now is the time because there's a transition to a new era of Blazers basketball. Now is the time because there will be less of a spotlight, fewer nationally televised games, and more room to make mistakes. Now is the time because many of the games will be a struggle and fans will be looking for new ways to enjoy the experience.

Portland is the place because that soccer comparison is a powerful one. Many Blazers fans are also Timbers fans. Unlike other cities, that culture is already present to a large extent.

I would go a step further and argue the mixture of the fan club and the basketball environment offers more opportunities for creative fan expression. Soccer doesn't have cheerleaders or mascots. Couldn't a committed and organized group of fans accent dance routines with chanting, jumping, or movement? Wouldn't Blaze open up a whole new world of possibilities if he had a group of chant leaders to plan his gags with? How could a fan club coordinate with the DJ and what funny things could they chant during the kiss cam?

If the Blazers committed a section in the arena, officially adopted and supported a fan club, and encouraged them to collaborate with the rest of the in-game staff, I would be shocked if they couldn't come up with some incredible new traditions. And, almost by definition, it would feel like Portland because it would have been developed by the people of Portland.

To help the process along, I have a few ideas myself. Obviously, the team should steal the "I Believe" chant. Along a similar vein, many of the Timbers' chants that use the phrase "Rose City" could easily be repurposed using Rip City instead. I don't care that they started in soccer. They're awesome. More people should do awesome things.

Utah State, in addition to that wonderfully ruckus "I Believe" chant, does this at the end of every win.

So those are some ideas for the beginning, the end, and during timeouts or extended stoppages. Speaking of extended stoppages, I would love for the crowd to sing the jeopardy song during those awful video reviews that take three and a half minutes during the most exciting part of the fourth quarter.

But what about the rest of the game?

Basketball is different than soccer in that cheer interrupting plays happen more frequently. In soccer, you can start a one minute chant and be pretty confident no one will score in that minute. It's tougher to start a one minute chant in basketball because a dunk or a made basket can happen almost any time.

Again, this creates opportunities as well as challenges. Basketball chants are shorter but can also be related to the game action itself. In high school, we had a specific chant for each player whenever they hit a three pointer. How cool would it be to do three claps and then yell "swish" in unison after every Damian Lillard three? And when C.J. McCollum rises up behind the arc, fans could raise their right hand holding up three fingers. If he made it, the left hand shoots up making an "L" shape as the crowd chants "threeeeeeee jaaaaaay, threeeeeeee jaaaaaay".

Free throws are also a great time for chants. My high school used to do spirit fingers during the player's routine and then say "hoo-ah" if they made it. For the Blazers, I'm thinking "Pinwheels Up". Every free throw, fans make a pinwheel with their hands and put it above their heads. Then, if the guy makes the first, chant a deep, guttural "uhh". If he makes the second, let out a big, long "Rip Citaaaaaaaaay" and get super jazzed as the game gets under way. And if he misses both, then yell "Ya Gotta Make Your Free Throws" as the player gets back on defense in shame. If that's not enough motivation to practice your free throws than I don't know what is. And some of the new guys really need to practice their free throws (lookin' at you Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee).

So what do you got Blazer's Edge?

I figure if we can come up with enough incredible ideas then the Trail Blazers will be forced to at least consider it. And then none of us would have to listen to "Crazy Train" at 200 decibels ever again. That alone would make this rebuild a success.