Rose Garden blues

“The Rose Garden is our house.” These words are not eternal. From my memory, they were first shouted before Blazers games in the 2008-09 season, but they embodied the die-hard nature of Portland basketball fans. This season the Rose Garden was renamed the Moda Center, and now instead of a local signature identifying our sports arena, we have a local insurance company.

This trend of corporate branding for arenas has been happening for years now. Gone are the days of the Fabulous Forum, Boston Garden and Memorial Coliseum. Now we have the Staples Center, TD Garden (formerly the Fleet Center) and Moda Center. Attaching a big company’s name to your building provides a substantial revenue stream for your team, but what are the non-financial costs?

The Rose Garden was one of the last buildings in American pro sports to not have a business’s name associated with it. Only two NBA arenas are left with their original names. Madison Square Garden (which in itself is a brand name) and The Palace of Auburn Hills in Detroit.

On a side note, I find it baffling the Pistons have not renamed their arena. The Malice at the Palace is one of the most horrifying and scandalous events in NBA history. It seems to me that of all the arenas in American pro sports, that one needs a rebrand.

The Pelicans recently changed their home court’s name from the New Orleans Arena to the Smoothie King Center. I guess we lucked out on that point; we could’ve had the TacoTime Garden.

In baseball, Fenway Park stands firm as the league’s only locally flavored stadium, named after the neighborhood where it’s located. Yankee and Cowboy Stadiums also stand out, but they are some of the most decorated clubs in their respective sports’ histories.

But the Portland Trail Blazers are far from being one of the NBA’s elite franchises. This small market, one-team town has dedicated fans and a championship 40 years ago, but in today’s non-stop sports world, you need to stand out somehow. The Rose Garden made Portland unique. In a city obsessed with green initiatives and locally sourced produce, we could also hang our hats on the fact that we didn’t need a corporate sponsor for our team.

That’s another fact that seems to be lost in this conversation: Paul Allen doesn’t need the money. He’s estimated to be the 53rd richest person in the world, worth around $15 billion. The deal with Moda Health is for 10 years and around $40 million. Allen will write checks to the tune of $61 million this season for player payroll. Not included in that figure is the coaching staff and other personnel, so ultimately $40 million over 10 years feels like a tiny drop in Allen’s Scrooge McDuckian money vault.

Public reaction has been almost completely negative. It’s not that people don’t like health insurance—Moda Health is based in Portland and provides great services to the community—but associating our favorite team with something completely unrelated feels wrong. It feels like we sold out without having a say in the matter.

There have been some nice improvements to the arena this year. Well known Portland food spots have replaced the traditional stadium vendors on the concourse, some seats were refinished, the new panoramic bar on the 300 level was added, and in general the overall décor has been improved. These are all happy changes, but could’ve been made at any time in the last decade.

All frustration and complaining aside, the Blazers are stuck with the Moda Center for the foreseeable future. The deal could possibly be undone, but Mr. Allen doesn’t strike me as the kind of businessman who gives money back. It is quite likely that in three years we’ll all be used to the name Moda Center, and the early backlash will be forgotten. What I am most afraid of is some corporate merger or bad luck changing the situation at Moda Health, causing a new name to be jammed down Blazermania’s throat.

The Portland Trail Blazers played in the Memorial Coliseum for 25 glorious seasons. The building saw a championship, three finals, the first president to attend an NBA game, and the world’s first view of the Dream Team. They played 18 seasons in the Rose Garden, highlighted by off-court incidents and several promising but unfulfilled teams.

Maybe it is time for change. The first season under the name Moda Center has been one of the most exciting in recent memory, not to mention successful. I’m willing to give it a chance, but shouting “the Moda Center is our house” just doesn’t have the same ring.