Still second rate

Things are looking up for Portland as a major sports town, according to the current spin.

Oregon Sports Authority CEO and chief cheerleader for the Portland sports scene, Drew Mahalic could hardly contain his enthusiasm over how well P-town presented itself during last week’s figure skating championships. "It’s so overwhelmingly beyond what we had anticipated for this event," he told The Oregonian.

Wednesday, as the moderator of a panel discussion on the value of sports to Portland, Mahalic cited the Figure Skating Championship as proof that "Portland has become a premier destination for major sporting events."

Last I checked, Portland had been rejected by Major League Baseball, was struggling to support the Beavers, the Timbers and Champ Car and attending Blazer games at a post-Rose Garden low.

And not to take away from our "overwhelming" success with last week’s ice dancers, but the reported attendance was nearly 10,000 less than the week-long attendance figures from when the championship was held in Los Angeles in 2002. Clearly, Portland is not Los Angeles, and Ice Storm 2005 did make getting to the Rose Garden more difficult. But should we really be tooting our horns for a 10,000-fan drop-off? Especially considering the Rose Garden looked empty for the men’s final – not the novices,’ mind you, the men’s final.

The sad part of the whole ordeal isn’t the attendance, though. It’s the fact that the best evidence Portland can cite as proof it is a major sports destination is a figure skating event.

Without opening up the divisive argument of sport or not a sport, even the most ardent of figure skating fans should be willing to admit that skating is not a "major" sport. Economically, figure skating is closer to a weeklong Britney Spears concert than it is to the Blazers.

A better indicator of Portland’s status as a "premier destination" for major sporting events is the NBA’s annual refusal to even consider Portland as a possibility for the All-Star Game. In a ceremony as predictable as Ben and J. Lo’s marriage, every year the NBA leaves Portland out in the cold when they announce candidates to host future All-Star games, citing a lack of downtown hotel rooms to accommodate traveling fans and media.

The reality is that NBA head honchos, like their Major League Baseball compadres, don’t see P-town as a sports city.

"People in Major League Baseball weren’t considering Portland the last three years," said Portland Beavers Acting General Manager Jack Cain, a member on the PBA panel. "They were using Portland as a pawn to get more out of Washington, D.C."

Behind closed doors, there is little doubt MLB officials question Portland’s economic viability for sports.

"The fan base is only a small portion of the revenue base the big portion is the sponsorship dollars," said Cain, a longtime observer of Portland sports. "I don’t personally see that many companies in the Portland area that are going to spend $4 or $5 million a year on sponsorships," noting Intel and Nike as the only ones he could think of off the top of his head.

There is even less doubt that our "overwhelmingly" successful skating tournament is making them change their minds.

Mahalic’s Oregon Sports Authority has done a great job of promoting Portland as a sports destination over the years but they need to stop trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the public and the business community.

Portland is not yet a premier destination for major sports. Whether that is a good thing or not depends on your perspective, but before the city throws any more money down the drain on proposals that make us out to be something we are not, we need to decide which route we want to go.

Contrary to Mahalic’s claim that a second major sports franchise is "inevitable," Portland’s business community and fans need to do more than sit back and await its arrival.

If fans want more sports they need to support the good teams we do have. It’s never a good sign when two team presidents openly wish for smaller arenas, as Cain and Trail Blazers President Steve Patterson did on Wednesday’s panel.

If businesses want more sports they need to step up their fair-weather support of the Blazers, and to a lesser extent other teams.

On the other hand, should we decide we’re happy as things stand we can still take solace that as Northwesterners we have more recreational and sporting opportunities at our doorstep than 99 percent of the world.

Maybe that’s good enough.