Portland’s Trail Blazers Take On Higher Road To Glory

For almost three decades, the people of Portland, Ore., fervently embraced their only professional sports franchise, the NBA’s Trail Blazers. From 1976-95, every home game was sold out.

Toward the end of the ’90s, however, things changed. The team—owned by investor Paul Allen and boasting one of the league’s highest payrolls—continued to win games until last season. But from 1999-2004, many of its players earned “troublemaker” reputations, as on-court incidents, arguments, scuffles and ejections were as frequent as free throws. Off the court, the team picked up the nickname “Jail Blazers” after players notched arrests for everything from marijuana possession and gambling to domestic violence and assault.

Average attendance at the team’s venue, the Rose Garden, fell 20 percent last season to less than 16,000. “Over the course of a few years, what started to happen is our brand transitioned,” said Marta Monetti, the Trail Blazers’ vp of marketing and communications. “We reached a low point.”

Monetti researched proposals from five regional brand consultancies, tapping Portland-based Nerve to oversee a resurrection of the team’s image. In March, Nerve founder and CEO Michele O’Hara enlisted 72 and Sunny, an El Segundo, Calif., independent agency with Pacific Northwest ties, to create a series of documentary-style TV spots in which players interacted with local celebrities, like director Gus van Sant and Everclear’s Art Alexakis.

The effort coincided with more substantive moves, specifically a turnover of nearly half of the team’s roster under president Steve Patterson and general manager John Nash. New players deemed to possess “a better balance of character and talent,” as Monetti put it, were introduced. And 72 and Sunny partners Glenn Cole (creative director and copywriter) and John Boiler (cd and art director) prepared a second series of reality-based commercials to launch with the 2005 season.

The shop created two 60-second spots and 15 30-second ones, as well as four 90-second videos that will play in the Rose Garden. The work, which broke last week, shows players and management socializing with community members. In one spot, players and fans dance, swim and snack at a Portland house party. In another, two young boys are guided through an Xbox basketball game by coach Maurice Cheeks. Still another features a table of elderly ladies wearing feathered hats, painting ceramic mugs and chatting with Patterson, who wears a red hat and a housecoat.

“Tons of inside, silly stuff,” said Cole. Media, handled in-house, includes heavy runs on local cable and network affiliates around key games throughout the season.

In addition, Nerve and 72 and Sunny developed a hardbound brand book, an internal project designed to inspire team employees and management to be “open, different, confident, connected.” And 72 and Sunny is also at work on a more “Trail”-centric corporate-identity redesign, including a fresh logo, letterhead and graphics for the 2006 season.

During the past few years, the team’s name had morphed to just “Blazers” in everyday usage and more official manifestations, like on uniforms and souvenirs. “Trail blazers are pioneers, Lewis and Clark, the Oregon Trail,” said Cole. “It’s significant that they put the trail back and become Portland’s Trail Blazers again.”