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Blazers target marketing at Sonics fans

PORTLAND -- Sarah Mensah couldn't help but notice one handmade sign that appeared recently among the sea of placards and posters that fans display at Portland Trail Blazers' home games.

"Converted Sonics fans down from Seattle," it said.

Its message was clear to Mensah, Portland's senior vice president and chief marketing officer. While the Blazers are "for Oregon and about Oregonians," as she says, there is a potential fan base three hours up the road that the team would be foolish to overlook.

The once vibrant SuperSonics-Blazers rivalry that divided basketball loyalties in the Pacific Northwest disappeared when the Sonics moved before the 2008 season and became the Oklahoma City Thunder. The professional basketball vacuum left in Seattle has created a business opportunity the Portland franchise can't ignore.

"When the Portland Trail Blazers have relevance beyond Portland and Oregon it's something the entire community can share in from a pride factor," Mensah said.

Problem is, nearly two years after the Sonics' messy departure, Seattle fans are still bitter toward the NBA.

That has Trail Blazers management considering how to navigate a minefield laced with betrayal and distrust to reach into a metro area of more than 3 million people with a rich basketball history, possible business partnerships never before tapped by a Portland franchise and connections to players on the Blazers, as well as their coach.

"You just keep your ear to the track. It's still pretty fresh in people's minds and some residual disappointment and anger about what happened," said Tod Leiweke, who sits on the Blazers' board of directors while serving as CEO of the Seattle Seahawks. "If it was a clean slate, you'd come up and barnstorm."

The lingering hurt is why all overtures into the Seattle market are measured and subtle. Portland also realizes that not long ago, their own fan base teetered on revolt when the team was nicknamed the "Jail Blazers" for their off-court transgressions.

"It was one of the healthiest and brand-strong franchises in professional sports and it had nearly disintegrated," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "There is plenty for case study on how it all occurred. They've made enormous strides in the last few years. The fact there is local ownership as it relates to the Seattle market for a franchise in Portland, it stands to reason if done correctly you could get people (in Seattle) to care."

The Blazers' management believes the biggest part of making that connection is exposure.

The Blazers received NBA permission to take over broadcast rights that the Sonics previously held, stretching to the Canadian border and east into Montana and Idaho.

Portland games that are not on national television are shown in the Seattle market either on Comcast Sports Northwest or on a secondary channel in a deal with Seattle's NBC affiliate. By next year the Blazers are optimistic they will have a radio affiliate in Seattle.

For now, that's as overt as the Blazers plan on being with Seattle.

"I think the biggest thing is when you go, Seattle has to be willing to accept and (be) ready for it," Blazers head coach Nate McMillan said. "And now, I personally don't think you make that move."

That's why the Blazers scrapped plans for an exhibition game in Seattle before the start of this season. When word leaked, the backlash was harsh.

More than most, McMillan understands that sting left behind in Seattle and the unique dynamic the Blazers face. He is still considered "Mr. Sonic" after 12 years as a player and another five as head coach with Seattle before jumping south to Portland after the 2005 season.

McMillan has learned about the connection between the team that was once his most bitter rival and its city and state.

"It's different here than it was in Seattle, where the fan base here is all about the Blazers. And I knew that when I was in Seattle. We would play Portland and they would have just as many fans as we do at games. It was almost like a cult," McMillan said. "Rip City, that is the identity of who this team is."

McMillan, All-Star guard Brandon Roy and budding young swingman Martell Webster add another layer to the Seattle-Portland dynamic. Roy was an All-American at Washington and Webster was a high school star at Seattle Prep before going straight to the NBA.

Webster is already seeing the Blazers make inroads in his hometown. He hears from friends wanting to make the three-hour drive for games -- if tickets are available. Portland is nearing 100 straight sellouts.

"I think we're an icon in the Northwest, a big-time icon," Webster said. "People enjoy the way we play, people enjoy the way we carry ourselves off the court. What more can you ask for?"

Barring a deep run in the playoffs that could captivate the entire region, this will be a slow process. The Blazers' groundwork is in its infancy. Some in Seattle still hope the NBA will return if a new arena is ever built, but it's doubtful in the current political climate.

Until then, the Blazers will try to fill the void.

"When you say Seattle it doesn't seem right that it doesn't have a franchise, an NBA basketball team. ... It's been there all this time and now there's no NBA. That's crazy," Webster said. "We just want to bring this back there and put a smile on their face. But scars take time to heal."