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Back in the game

Loyal Trail Blazer fans add big smiles to their post-lockout game faces
by: JAIME VALDEZ Sally Williams, 80, of Hermiston, who has been a die-hard Trail Blazers fan for 40 years, high-fives the starters during pre-game introductions Monday at the Rose Garden.

It must be true that absence makes the heart grow fonder. At least it didn't diminish the love affair between the Trail Blazers and their fans.

NBA basketball is back following a work stoppage that set the start of the season back seven weeks. The passion was in full bloom at the Rose Garden as Portland opened its abbreviated 2011-12 season with victories on Monday and Tuesday.

The Blazers expect their 162nd straight sellout crowd of more than 20,000 in tonight's matchup with Denver.

'Our fans have been incredibly supportive, incredibly loyal,' says Sarah Mensah, Blazers' senior vice president/chief marketing officer. 'They have reacted (to the lockout) in an unbelievable way - the way we knew Blazer fans would.'

Following the signing of a new collective-bargaining agreement in late November, NBA teams rushed through a truncated training camp and preseason in order to start a 66-game, 120-day regular season on Christmas Day.

Five games were played on Christmas Day - all nationally televised and all well-received, with some of the highest regular-season TV audiences in history.

The Chicago Bulls vs. the L.A. Lakers TV game drew a record 11 million viewers and a 6.5 overnight rating on ABC, the third-highest ever for a regular-season game. Miami vs. Dallas on ABC drew a 5.6 rating, and the New York-Boston game on TNT earned a 4.0, the most-viewed Christmas Day game and fourth-most-watched game in cable history.

'You could kind of tell the fans were back on board,' says former Portland general manager Rich Cho, now working in the same capacity in Charlotte. 'Hopefully (the lockout) won't affect interest much at all. I think people understand it's part of the business.'

Some do, but some don't.

'Everybody I talked to today is still turned off by the whole thing,' says Casey Ellis, manager at On Deck Sports Bar and Grill in the Pearl District, about a mile from the Rose Garden. 'I don't think some of them will be going to games. They'll still watch (the Blazers) on TV. Everybody loves sports. But as far as financial support at the games, I have a feeling this will affect the whole NBA.'

Doug Collins agrees to a point, but doesn't see it happening in Portland.

'This is an NBA city,' says Collins, Philadelphia's coach and a member of the 76ers who lost to the Blazers in the 1977 NBA finals. 'These people live and die with the Blazers. I've seen it for 40 years.

'This city is so excited to have basketball back. I woke up at 4 (Monday) morning and turned on the TV and they were already reporting live from outside the Rose Garden. I don't think it will have any negative impact at all here.'

Excited about games

Judging from the public reaction as he has gone about town in recent weeks, Blazer forward LaMarcus Aldridge has a sense that Collins is right.

'The fans in Portland have missed basketball,' Aldridge says. 'Our fans are pretty loyal. They've been waiting for us. Everybody is happy we're back. We're going to be fine.'

Nationally, Collins says, it may be a different story. In large markets where there is plenty of competition for the entertainment dollar - Philadelphia, for instance - the NBA team might get hurt by the lockout.

'It could affect us in Philadelphia tremendously,' Collins says. 'In some of the (larger) markets, there will be some wait-and-see.'

Ellis is hopeful that fans who don't want to pay to watch the Blazers in person will find a sports bar just the right venue to view the games on TV.

'It could impact our business quite a bit,' he says. 'A lot of customers come in before games, then head to the Rose Garden. We anticipate now a lot of people are going to stay through the games.'

Even if that's not the case, 'I'm glad the NBA is back,' Ellis says. 'Their games usually happen on nights where business is slow, unlike the NFL.'

Kell's Irish Pub in downtown Portland runs a Blazer shuttle bus for customers to and from the Rose Garden. General Manager Brad Yoast says the NBA games mean 'pretty significant business for us.'

'It'll definitely help us to have the Blazers back, especially since Saturday Market closes down after Christmas,' Yoast says. 'A lot of people live and die with the team.'

Unlike Ellis, Yoast hasn't sensed negative vibes from Blazer fans over the lockout. 'I haven't heard a lot of bitterness,' Yoast says. 'A lot of people are talking (about the retirement of) Brandon Roy, but there is excitement that the games are back more than anything.'

New faces at games

Hundreds of contract employees are back on the job on Blazer nights. Bars and restaurants enjoy more business. That has been accented by the lockout.

'It's something we always want to avoid,' Mensah says. 'But in Portland, you learn how valuable from an economic as well as entertainment standpoint the Trail Blazers are to this community.'

Mensah says season ticket sales have held steady from a year ago despite some 'minimal' price increases.

'A huge percentage of our season ticket-holders renewed, similar to the previous year,' she says.

For individual game tickets, the Blazers continue to run variable pricing - more expensive for the big-ticket opponents - and promotions such as Group-On and Family Pack deals.

The Blazers normally play 41 home games over a 5 1/2-month regular season. This season, they will play host to 33 games over four months, so the games will be less spread out. Could that negatively impact attendance?

'It's possible it could, especially in a week where there are three (home) games,' Mensah says.

But the Blazers, Mensah adds, have made it easier for season ticket-holders to unload unwanted tickets through an electronic process called 'Ticket Access.'

'We would anticipate some people may not come to as many games,' Mensah says, 'and it might mean we'll see new faces at games.'

In the four weeks between the labor agreement was reached and Christmas Day, the Blazers ran a 'We're Back' campaign in the area. There were special events for season ticket-holders and sponsors, as well as interaction with school 'Head Start' programs in which players delivered Christmas gifts to kids.

'We wanted to get out into the community and thank people for their patience,' Mensah says.

The biggest reward, of course, was the return of an NBA season. In Portland, perhaps more than most cities, fans seem to believe it was worth the wait.