Basketball Blazes a Technological Trail

Computer power makes Portland a pioneer in keeping spectators happy

When it comes to using high technology, basketball's Portland Trail Blazers might be the most aptly named team in professional sports.

The glass-enclosed computer room located in the Blazers' executive offices serves as an unsung star, the invisible "sixth man" in the team's modern operations.

John Walker, the Blazers' director of information technology, wears a golf shirt bearing the the address of the Web site developed by the team (www.ripcity.com) and talks about the influence of billionaire club owner Paul Allen, who founded Microsoft with high school chum Bill Gates.

One of Mr. Walker's major in-house "clients," sports communications director John Christensen, finds myriad uses for his powerful laptop computer. Last summer he orchestrated a possible first in pro sports: an online press conference to announce the signing of since-waived guard Aleksandar Djordjevic, an Internet event that was watched and listened to around the United States and Europe.

Upstairs in the Rose Garden arena, Ryan Engweiler talks about "Game Ops Commander," a software package developed to make it easy to play recorded music and sound effects during Blazer games.

The franchise has pioneered in numerous other areas, many intended to enhance the in-arena spectating experience.

One innovation, since popularized around the league, employs arena message boards to display up-to-the-second game statistics. This is welcome information for fans increasingly weaned on TV tickers and on-air statistics.

"Paul [Allen] is a tremendous catalyst" for the team's high-tech tendencies, says Walker. "He's allowed us to leap forward in terms of acquiring computers and looking at technologies" - especially ones that meld the sports and entertainment worlds together.

Several of Allen's current enterprises, including Seattle-based Starwave, of which he owns a majority interest, are engaged in developing online sports services and video games.

"Paul is very cognizant of the fans, and very appreciative of them. He's a fan himself," Mr. Christensen says. "We are charged to make things available to fans and to investigate opportunities for fan involvement."

For Christensen, that has meant taking his communications a step further and making information his staff generates and compiles available via the Internet and electronic mail to fans. (The NBA's official Blazer Web site is www.nba.com/blazers.)

"The information is being generated anyway," he says. "These are just another group of individuals [besides media members] who can glean from it."

Of necessity, servicing the fans is a top priority in the NBA's sixth-smallest market.

"We've got a great story here," says Christensen, citing an unmatched 15 straight years in the playoffs that have fueled Blazermania. "And because of the size of our market we've got to use all our resources to get that story out."

In 1995, the franchise raised the bar for itself by moving out of the old 12,888-seat Memorial Coliseum into the vastly larger 21,401-seat Rose Garden, the third largest arena in the NBA.

"Our local fan base is very high-tech," Walker says. "We are very fortunate that way."

The team sends game notes and press releases to about 1,500 e-mail subscribers across the United States and overseas, and also posts a wealth of information on the Internet.

"The hottest thing in the business today," Walker says, "is being able to customize what you want from us and getting it delivered before 6 in the morning, because you want it like your daily newspaper."

So far, any season ticket holder can request to be put on the team's e-mail distribution list at no charge. That could change. "As we go on we're looking at what the season ticket buys," Walker says.

The computer culture permeates to everyone in the Blazer organization, including players, coaches, and scouts.

There is a high degree of computer literacy among the players, some of whom connect with fans electronically. "They get hip to the technology very quickly," Walker says. "If they have a positive aspect of their life they want to stress, it gives them an environment in which to do that."

Computers have become important tools in devising game strategies and analyzing player performance as well. Neal Meyer, the Blazers' video coordinator, can quickly package all sorts of TV footage for the coaches using a single, portable machine. Being cutting edge, the Blazers are convinced, can supply the winning edge.

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