October 30th, 2013 | by MIKE ACKER News | Posted In: From the Elbow

From The Elbow: The Fan Pledge

As the Blazers tip off a new season, we revisit the proclamation the franchise made to its fans 10 years ago.

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In 2003, a basketball fan from Bend was quoted in Sports Illustrated equating rooting for the Blazers to “selling one’s soul for a cheap thrill.” It had only been two years since Portland came within one epic fourth-quarter collapse from a trip to the NBA Finals and a possible second championship. Instead of heralding a new era of success for the franchise, that on-the-court implosion presaged the collapse that would happen to the team off the hardwood.

Arrests for marijuana possession piled up. Ruben Patterson, who showed up in Portland as a free agent acquisition with a wrap sheet that included a felony sexual assault charge, got into a fistfight with Zach Randolph at practice. Qyntel Woods, a Blazer first-round draft pick, was arrested on suspicion of dog fighting, pleading guilty to misdemeanor animal abuse. And that’s just the beginning. A new era in Portland had dawned: the Age of the Jail Blazers. With the off-court issues becoming a serious on-court distraction, the Blazers started losing, and the city began to revolt. 

At the start of the 2003-04 season, team brass sensed the city might make good on its threat to give up on the Blazers. In response, team president Steve Patterson released a 25-point pledge to fans, detailing a number of specific promises to keep Portland from turning on the only major professional sports team in town.

Ten years later, with yet another Blazer season about to begin, we wondered which of those promises have been kept, and which have been quietly slept under the parquet floor.

PROMISES KEPT

To evaluate character along with basketball talent when selecting players.

Character was the whole point of the pledge coming out of the Jail Blazer era. By 2003, the city had grown weary of the misbehavior exhibited by the likes of Ruben Patterson, Rasheed Wallace, Zach Randolph and even native son Damon Stoudamire, who was famously busted in spring 2003 carrying an ounce and a half of weed through an airport in Phoenix. In the aforementioned Sports Illustrated article, Bonzi Wells more or less admitted the team didn’t care about its fans, elevating the discord between the Blazers and its fans to a national level. 

To the credit of the Blazers brass, this most elemental part of the otherwise generically worded pledge has been interwoven into the fabric of the franchise. Shortly after issuing the pledge, the team began cleaning house, trading Wells and Wallace and flipping Randolph for Channing Frye, the ultimate anti-Jail Blazer. In the decade since, the Blazers have been good at limiting negative press—minus those unfortunate Greg Oden selfies, and that weird thing involving Damian Lillard in Old Town last year. Even Sebastian Telfair had the decency to get in trouble after being traded for consummate character guy Brandon Roy.

To help our players represent our team and community with pride by creating a player program and development position.

Many of the concrete statements in the pledge that have faded from existence, but one of the things that stuck is the player program and development position. The job was initially held by  Jerome Kersey, named by The Oregonian as the 8th most important Blazer in history. Though he only held the position for one season, since 2009 it has been presided over by former player Hersey Hawkins, whose job is to build strong relationships with the players as well as their families, agents and business associates, and apparently hang around the locker rooms as a monument for the ideal post-basketball life. 

To build a competitive team on the court, which fans can be proud of off the court.

Some may argue the success of this point, but the Blazers never promised a specific win total, nor did they define what it means for fans to be “proud” of their team, and three straight playoff appearances count as being competitive. Sure, the Blazers had the second-worst record in franchise history two seasons after issuing the pledge, and the Raymond Felton era was pretty ugly, but for the most part, you can’t say the team hasn’t given its all on the court, particularly considering its injury history.

To embrace our rich heritage and reconnect with former players and coaches who hold a place in your hearts and represent the pride of this franchise.

To be honest, the one thing the Blazers have never had trouble doing is embracing its “rich heritage.” The team has retired 11 jerseys in total going back to 1979. In fact, the Blazers have retired so many jerseys—disproportionate to its single championship banner—some think the bar for rafter treatment needs to be raised just a touch. That being said, it’s impossible to accuse the Blazers of not maintaining a connection to its lineage. Recent heritage-huggings include a celebration for Arvydas Sabonis, the foundation of the Alumni Ambassador Corps in 2007, a season-long tribute to the team’s history during its 40th season, and a lot of other, smaller things, like the opening montage to game broadcasts.

To make every player, and our organization as a whole, accessible to the media as they are messengers to you, our fans. 

Like the player code of conduct, outlined in the second point of the pledge (the enforceability of which was questioned publicly after it was enacted), consistent media availability wasn’t immediately enforced. Rasheed Wallace defied it right off the bat, refusing to answer questions from the media in the 2003-04 season. meaning Sheed defied the Pledge the first chance he got, drawing the ire of local reporters but no real repercussions. 

A decade later, though, and the Blazers locker room tends to be a cordial place, and relations with the media are open. Players and management have made their opinions known about whether or not they appreciate certain questions including, most recently, Neil Olshey at this season’s Media Day. Even if things have occasionally been strained—usually issues of future employment—at least players and members of the organization how up for interviews when they say they will. Considering the not-at-all-distant past, that point can’t be taken lightly.

PROMISES BROKEN

To enable fans to easily follow the team by broadcasting all 82 regular season on the radio and a minimum of 25 games over the air and 25 non pay-per view cable games.

Long ago, the Blazers broadcast their games using a system called BlazerVision. Games moved to Fox Sports Northwest in 2001. Then in 2007, the Blazers signed a lucrative deal with Comcast. Every Blazer game this season will be on television and in high-def—the norm by today’s standards and a miracle in 2003—but only 17 games will be shown on broadcast TV, a bit short of the pledged 25 games to be broadcast “over the air.” To be fair, every game is on radio, though.

To make live home games available to all fans by starting ticket prices as low as $10.

The Blazers made headlines with the bold move of cutting their cheapest tickets to $10 in 2003, but as soon as the team started winning again, the organization introduced a variable pricing program, meaning that premium games against the Lakers and other marquee teams would cost more. Today, tickets to see the Blazers’ single home game against the Heat start at $61. Bottom line: An improved product just costs more. 

To hold two “Fan Forums” per season for fans to ask questions and share ideas with our President, General Manager, and Coach.

The team followed through on Fan Forums at least once, in March 2004, but the “two per season” end doesn’t seem to have held up. Possibly the Blazers held a second Fan Forum and didn’t advertise it?

To reward our fans by providing free membership to the Trail Blazers Fast Break Club, a fan rewards program where free prizes and experiential events are awarded.

Promotions come and go. Some catch on—like chalupas, RIP—and are mourned when they go away. Others leave no lasting impression. The Trail Blazers Fast Break Club belongs in the category of seasonal promotions that never made a mark. But because it was included in the pledge, its failure deserves some attention.

Like the Fan Forums, the Trail Blazers Fast Break Club existed for a while. There’s an announcement on Mashable dated Oct. 12, 2006, explaining the Fast Break Club will be partnered with Affinity Circles and will be launched in time for the team’s home opener that season against the Timberwolves. There is also a document dictating the the Fast Break Club’s rules and regulations. After that, there really isn’t anything. Likely, the Fast Break Club was rolled into I’m A Trail Blazer Fan, the social network launched by the team in 2007. With so many moving parts and nothing in existence like Four Square for easy tracking and optimization, the Fast Break Club just wasn’t popular enough to catch on and the team phased it out. 

To create a fan advisory board to meet with front office staff.

Of the concrete promises made in the Fan Pledge, the fan advisory board seems to have lasted the longest. The board first met in 2004, its 20 members drawn from 1,000 applicants, and was looking for members as recently as 2011, but that is the last anyone’s heard of it. What probably seemed like a good way to reach ticket buyers likely ended up being a little grinding and ridiculous in practice. There is no way a serious NBA franchise would send a fan to represent them at a draft lottery, say, as was once suggested at a board meeting. And really, dealing with the minutia of fan displeasure in an official capacity must’ve gotten tiresome quick. After all, according to Blazers Edge, the topics of the 2008 meeting included the expansion of a women’s merchandise line, creating ringtones of in-arena sounds, and how to make the Blazer Dancers more family-friendly. Yeesh.

 
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