Talking Sports, Sales, and Basketball with Portland Trailblazers CEO & President Chris McGowan

Although the 2015 MBA’s at the University of Oregon are only two months into the two-year program, we have already been fortunate enough to hear from a number of influential and interesting people from within the sports industry. From the designer behind the Jordan brand to executives with teams, leagues, and sports/athletic companies, all have been very engaging and relevant. And this past week’s speaker, Portland Trailblazers President & CEO Chris McGowan, was no different. (Here’s a link to McGowan’s full bio from the Blazers website.)

The Blazers tipped off in Milwaukee just as McGowan started talking, but he made sure to stay up to date on the score of the game (Portland ended up winning by nine – 91-82 thanks largely to strong performances from LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard).

The Journey to Portland

McGowan, after an introduction from Portland’s VP of Corporate Communications Michael Lewellen, spent a brief amount of time discussing his career in the sports industry before diving right into a Q&A. A quick recap:

McGowan started off in the industry in 1996 with the Los Angeles Kings in their ticket sales department. At the time, he had recently graduated from University of Delaware (where he also played soccer). McGowan also spoke about the growth of AEG (Anschutz Entertainment Group) from then to present day. AEG is the parent company that owns the Kings, and over the past 16 years it has has developed into one of the largest sports and entertainment companies in the world. McGowan considered himself lucky to have spent the first 16 years of his career with a single organization, a rare feat for many in the industry.

The importance of strong ownership was a theme throughout the evening, from AEG’s owner Phil Anschutz to the Trailblazers owner Paul Allen. McGowan also specifically referenced Tim Leiweke, the former CEO of AEG and now the CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, an important mentor throughout his career.

Taking The Next Step

McGowan was in a great position as COO of AEG, but he wanted to take the next step in his career in the industry. He was also looking to get into basketball, as the NBA was a league that he had long admired. McGowan spoke on the passion that Oregonians had/have for the Trailblazers. But the organization needed a fresh voice, and the first year of McGowan’s tenure has been full of changes to almost every area within the organization.

McGowan has brought in the best and brightest new talent in business analytics, sales (particularly in ticket sales, where he got his start in LA), marketing, and human resources. He has motivated his people to think differently. The organization has invested heavily in digital upgrades, an area that needed significant improvement when he took over in 2012.

The Game Day Experience

One of the main focuses of McGowan’s efforts right now is on improving the game day experience at Trailblazer games. He commented that this was something that appeared to be missing when he took over, and he wanted to change it. The Portland Timbers of the MLS have done a phenomenal job of creating an ‘experience’ surrounding their home games, and as a soccer fan McGowan talked about how much he enjoyed taking part in these festivities.

The Trailblazers have a strong tradition in the city, and they are looking to blend that “Rip City” history with the future. The “Rip City” moniker is one of the most recognizable in professional sports, and it was originally coined by the team’s first play-by-play announcer Bill Schonely.

“The Schonz” originated the phrase “Rip City” after a Jim Barnett jumpshot ripped through the net on February 18, 1971. The phrase has taken off since then becoming synonymous with the city of Portland. During the 2009-10 season, the team unveiled specialty Rip City jerseys.

The team has put together several “Rip City” themed spots.

The Importance of Selling

Selling and sales were strong themes throughout McGowan’s Q&A with the MBA students. As he said, “doors open if you learn to sell.” Selling generates revenue, and after winning, revenue generation is the most important thing in professional sports.  McGowan started in ticket sales, but quickly moved through the ranks to suites and eventually sponsorships.

The challenges nowadays revolve around getting people to attend games instead of experiencing them at home, where they can watch commentary from former and current NBA greats. The at-home viewing experience has improved tremendously over the past five to 10 years (particularly with HDTV), and the pressure is now on teams to attract people to their games by improving the in-arena experience. McGowan specifically mentioned that fans have loved the new Portland-themed food and drink offerings at the Moda Center (for example, food and drink from local restaurants and craft breweries are now available at the concessions).

Wrapping It Up

The Warsaw Sports Marketing Center grants students incredible access to successful sports executives like McGowan. Being able to pick the brain of an NBA President & CEO on the details of the sports industry and specific challenges within his job is the exact reason many of us moved here from far away.

And after a year of change and transition, McGowan is very confident with where the Blazers are heading, both on the court and in the front office.


Written by Jeff Angus

Jeff is a 2015 MBA Candidate at the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. He was born and raised in Vancouver, Canada and obtained a Bachelor of Commerce Degree from the University of Victoria (BC) in 2009.He frequently shares his thoughts on Twitter @anguscertified and is passionate about writing, storytelling, fitness, health, and everything and anything sports-related.