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  • 22 Oct 2014

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McGowan rockets to top of his game

On Sports


Chris McGowan, Trail Blazers president and chief executive officer.Chris McGowan isn’t a Portland guy yet, but he’s a Portland type of guy.

At least that’s the read I get after an hour of lunch and conversation with the Trail Blazers’ new boy-wonder president and chief executive officer.

I use “boy wonder” with no lack of respect. In August, the fresh-faced McGowan turns 40, an age when some men these days seem to be just moving out of their parents’ house and getting on with a career.

McGowan was hired on Oct. 29 to replace Larry Miller after spending the previous year as chief operating officer with Anschutz Entertainment Group, which oversees the Los Angeles Kings, MLS Galaxy and several other sports properties. Talk about the McGowan Touch — the Kings won the Stanley Cup and the Galaxy the Major League Soccer Cup last year.

“Two championship rings in one year,” he says with a smile. “That just doesn’t happen.”

McGowan has been on a fast track since shortly after his days as a starting midfielder for the Delaware Blue Hens in the 1990s, when he realized he wasn’t going to be a pro soccer player but envisioned a career in sports business.

The son of a career Army man who served two tours of duty in Vietnam and moved with his family about the country and the world (“You learn to be pretty adaptive,” he says), McGowan had the good fortune while living in Denver shortly after graduation to meet Tim Leiweke at a Nuggets game.

Leiweke, then president of the Kings and now president and CEO of AEG, had a few openings and hired McGowan, 22, as an account executive in ticket sales.

“I think he liked my ambition, that I had been an athlete, and that I drove from Denver to L.A. to interview for a job that paid $20,000,” McGowan says. “I got to learn from him over the course of 17 years. He was a great person to learn the sports business from.”

After two years in Kings ticket sales, McGowan was promoted to a position with the L.A. Arena Company, which was building Staples Center. For three years, he sold luxury suites and club seating for Staples, which opened in 1999 and houses the Lakers, Clippers and Kings.

McGowan entered into a management position at that point, focusing on venues and events for sports teams before assuming the COO position for AEG in late 2011.

Living in trendy Palos Verdes with wife Susan and their two young sons, McGowan was in a nice spot both geographically and professionally. He had just assumed a powerful job in the industry. Then last fall, the Blazers came calling. McGowan flew to Portland for an interview. He had never visited the city. A few weeks later, he was a resident.

“Being president/CEO of a major corporation was the goal I set out to accomplish quite a while ago,” McGowan says. “The NBA is an unbelievable league. Running and managing an arena is something I wanted to add to my resume. Paul (Allen) owning multiple sports teams played a role. There’s a lot of power in that and makes the role a little more sizable.

“I loved L.A., loved where we lived. But as my kids get older, my wife and I were looking for a more manageable city to allow us to do some of the things we like to do. I thought I’d like Portland. Luckily, it’s playing out that way. I could check off a lot of boxes with this one.”

McGowan knew a few people who had worked for Allen with either the Blazers or Seattle Seahawks, but chose not to have much conversation with them during his interview process.

“I wasn’t overly concerned about getting opinions from people who had been with the organization in the past,” he says. “It can be good to get institutional knowledge, but it can also be dangerous. It can bias how you choose to operate.

“I’ve strategically chosen to not do a lot of that and prefer to develop my relationships on my own. I’m a relationship-builder. I wanted to be mindful of the history here, but I’m not allowing the history to drive where I’m taking things.”

McGowan arrived just as the Blazers’ 2012-13 season began.

“I was worried about starting in midstream, but it’s been good in a way that I started late,” he says. “I haven’t had an opportunity to implement my business planning process. It’s more been about getting in, understanding how it works, observing, then formulating how I want to go with the organization. In hindsight, the timing couldn’t have been better.”

It didn’t take long, though, for McGowan to shake things up. Two months into his regime, the Blazers had laid off 11 of their 167 full-time employees, including several long-time high-ranking executives. If it made him seem to be a hatchet man for Vulcan Sports & Entertainment, it’s not something he takes lightly.

“I’ve tried to put (the layoffs) out of my mind,” McGowan says. “It’s one of those things that’s not pleasant to do. I’m focused on running the Trail Blazers in an efficient manner. It is a business, and I want to make sure if we have people working, they’re in a good role and they’re needed.

“I identified some areas where we’re not operating that way. I want to correct it so we can invest in areas we need to. When you’re a CEO and president, you have to be conscious of the reality. There’s no company out there that’s not having to do more things with less. I observed there were some areas that had some bloat. I wanted to get it done with to put the organization at ease.”

McGowan says he believes the Blazers are “pretty much past” layoffs, “but every year you have to be willing to do what’s right for the business.”

He has made four hires, including a vice president of premier seating to work primarily with suite sales.

“We’ll add some more, for sure,” he says. “Part of this is paving the way to add resources in areas we need. I’m going to bring in the best and the brightest people to produce in those areas.

“That’s the exciting thing with what’s going on with us right now. There’s a new influx of thinking that is taking people who have been here a long time and have only known the Trail Blazers, and they’re getting excited by it. The organization needs some new thinking, some new perspective, people who have experienced things beyond the Trail Blazers.”

McGowan has learned quickly what the Blazers mean to many Portlanders.

“What we have here is not normal in the pro sports industry,” he says. “The fan support is through the roof. The media interest, too. When I talk to people in Portland about the Trail Blazers, we have a place in everyone’s heart. There is value to coming to the game. It’s the big show in town, which is different from the other teams I’ve been associated with.

“It’s an interesting platform to be in charge of. We need to operate like we are (the show), but in a humble way. This is a big institution in Portland, and we need to manage the business to that end.”

McGowan espouses a “performance-related” culture that nurtures season ticket-holders and sponsors.

“We’re going to spend a lot of time making our season ticket-holders know we have their best interests in mind,” he says. “I want to become a season ticket-holder-first organization, ensure they get the best access, the best service, the best pricing, the best benefits, and we tie a lot of it to tenure.

“I’m not so sure season ticket-holders feel that way right now, but we’re going toward the direction where we can check off the box on all those things. They’re the ones who pay the freight. We can’t take them for granted. They’ve supported this team through thick and thin, and we have to reward that support.”

McGowan intends to hire more sales people, to bring in more marketing experience, to perform a makeover of the Blazers’ websites and digital properties.

“I’m not happy with any of our websites,” he says.”I’m more of a fundamentals as opposed to a flash guy. Over the next six months, we’ll redesign, relaunch and hopefully make our websites more functional for fans.”

The Blazers are at about 13,000 season tickets in the 20,500-seat Rose Garden. McGowan wants that figure higher, though he won’t put a number on it.

“You pick a cap number — maybe it’s 17,000 — and leave the remaining seats for mini-plans, group sales and individual game tickets,” he says.

The Blazers’ Garden sellout streak of 195 ended earlier this season. It seemed a facade, anyway, given there were nights when rows of seats were empty and other nights when the arena was filled only because of discount pricing and papered houses.

“I was OK with” the streak’s end, McGowan says. “I don’t define our success by sellouts. I want to sell out every game, but I’ve worked with over 10 sports teams, and every team defines sellouts differently. A sellout isn’t the same here as in other markets.

“What I’m interested in is how many people are in the building. We have great turnout numbers every night. A sellout has to be done the right way — no comps, minimal discounts. We could sell out every game if we wanted to sell $7 tickets, but how am I going to look my season ticket-holders in the eye based on deeply discounted tickets when they’re paying full rate?”

Portland is fourth in the league with average home attendance at about 19,700, behind only Chicago, Dallas and Miami. The Blazers’ no-show numbers, McGowan says, are minimal. He says the goal is by next season to have no discount tickets at all.

“It didn’t bother me one bit to see the streak end,” he says. “We have more seats to sell than most teams. It’s about selling tickets more efficiently and building the value back up.”

Only about 30 of the Garden’s 57 all-events luxury suites are leased on an annual basis.

“We need to be at 40 to 45 there, so we don’t have to sell so many on a nightly basis,” McGowan says.

Sponsorship, he says, “is a strength for our organization. We do well from a numbers perspective and we have great relationships with our sponsors. That’s been the thing that’s the most eye-opening to me. It’s personal. It’s different than in L.A., where it’s more transactional.

“If we can get a naming rights deal done and maintain relationship with our current partners,” he adds, “we’re going to be sitting exactly where we need to be on the sponsorship side.”

McGowan is in the preliminary stages of selling the Rose Garden’s naming rights. He hired a company called “Premier Partnership” to facilitate the process. They have a list of about 100 businesses — some local, some national — that have a likelihood of interest.

Three or four presentations have already been scheduled.

“We’re getting pretty good feedback,” he says. “It could be a local company, which would be great, or it could be a (national) blue-chip brand.”

McGowan would like to have a contract in place before the 2013-14 NBA season. It’s not a done deal, though, that he’ll make a deal at all.

“It’s good for our organization to have this revenue stream,” he says. “All of it would get reinvested into what we do on the court. There are only three NBA teams that don’t have (a naming rights deal).

“But I’m going to be very cautious about it. I’m not going to do a deal with the wrong brand. We’re the Portland Trail Blazers. The Rose Garden has a great name. It’s not something we have to do, which is a good position to be in. There are a lot of companies that have to get deals done. We’re not one of them.”

McGowan says he speaks with fans daily about the Trail Blazers’ place in the city.

“They want us to be a fair and humble organization, with players who are good people and try really hard,” he says. “They feel that’s the type of team we have right now. That’s what Portland is all about.

“As long as we’re doing that, we’re really involved in the community, people are going to have a good perception of us as an organization. We always have to be cognizant of what can happen, as what happened to us in an earlier era (re: The Jail Blazers) where we weren’t as mindful.”

McGowan speaks almost daily with general manager Neil Olshey, who runs the basketball side of the operation, and often sits with him at games.

“But I don’t get involved in player-personnel stuff,” McGowan says. “There are organizational initiatives we partner on. We are going to remodel the practice facility this offseason, for instance. But I want to drive the business side. I have my hands full there.”

It’s way too early to predict how successful McGowan will be with his new mission. He is certainly bright and an ideas guy, and seems every bit a people person, which never hurts when you’re dealing with the public. He doesn’t carry himself as a big shot.

He seems genuinely enchanted with Portland, too, where his boys can play soccer and lacrosse and his family can ski and enjoy the outdoors. When I ask if he envisions this job as being a steppingstone to something bigger — if this is just another line on his resume — he smiles.

“I’ve been strategic about where I want to go with my career,” he says. “I had opportunities prior to this one. I’m hopeful I can stay here for as long as they’ll have me. It’s going to keep me motivated and professionally challenged for a long time. I don’t see myself ever getting bored.”

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Twitter: @kerryeggers