Feast your ears on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Moda Center by using the audio player below.
People come to the Moda Center from all over the Northwest for all kinds of entertainment. On some nights, if the Moda Center and its neighbor, the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, both have events, more than 30,000 fans and employees could be in the complex at once. It’s like an instant medium-sized city with a population rivaling Grants Pass, Oregon.
The Portland Trail Blazers own and operate the Moda Center and serve as its main attraction at least 41 times a year.
It takes a small army to manage all of that — a small army that operates largely out of sight.
Before every Blazers home game, general manager Amanda Mann walks through the Moda Center with members of her staff. She’s looking for anything that’s not quite right, from dust bunnies in the hallway to potential security concerns.
Before she became the general manager of the Moda Center, Mann worked at the Toyota Center, where the Houston Rockets play. She said Portland basketball fans are different.
“Our fans, it doesn’t matter where you sit, they are true fans,” she said. “They show up early, they’re in their seats on time, and they are screaming from the second the buzzer buzzes to the last shot.”
Brian Wheeler has done radio play-by-play for the Blazers for 21 years. He preps at a table in a quiet corner in the lowest level of the arena. There’s a whole world down there, away from the fans and the noise. There are locker rooms and meeting rooms and production offices for the in-arena video feed.
Wheeler scores games by hand, writing notes and stats in tiny script. He said keeping track of points by quarter allows him to paint a better verbal picture for the fans.
“It’s a fast-moving game,” he said, “so sometimes you’re about to write something down on the scorecard, and then the action is still going and you have to remember: ‘I’ve got to describe the action first and remember I didn’t write that down on the scorecard, and do that the next chance I get.’”
Wheeler knew when he was very young that he wasn’t going to be good enough at any one sport to be competitive. So he started thinking about a career that would allow him to stay connected to sports.
“I think it was my mother who said, ‘Well, you like to talk a lot. Maybe you can do something with that,’” he said.
On any given night, the Moda Center could host a hockey game, a monster truck rally, a comedy show, a Carrie Underwood concert, WWE or Michelle Obama. Sometimes the turnaround between two events that require drastically different setups is very quick. A conversion team works overnight to change the building from, say, a Metallica concert to a Trail Blazers game.
This year, for the first time, the Moda Center hosted a monster truck rally without removing the hockey ice underneath the floor. They put an insulating sub-floor over the ice, covered that with a layer of plastic and plywood, and then put 12 truckloads of dirt on top. The dirt came from nearby construction sites, and at the end of the night a highly-skilled backhoe operator took the dirt off the plywood, and the arena was transitioned to a basketball court. The ice stayed frozen and ready underneath the entire time.
While the players leap into the air, team attendants focus on the ground.
“We’re not really watching the game,” said Lucas O’Connell, a team attendant for the Blazers. “The rule of thumb is to watch from the knees down.”
O’Connell wipes up pools of sweat that fall onto the court during the game. He said attendants typically use about 20 towels per half. Anytime someone falls down and after every free throw, the team attendants run out onto the court to wipe the floor.
“Never turn your back to the ball,” he said. “A lot of times, you don’t have time, because the ball will be coming back to the other side of the court faster than you anticipated. So you have to get off anyway you can.”
The people who take your tickets, operate the elevators or lead you to your seats all work for guest services, and they range in age from 18 to 80. Guest services director Aaron Shapiro encourages his employees to proactively reach out to guests and “make someone’s day.” To encourage this, Shapiro runs a raffle prize drawing at his team meeting before the start of most games, to “thank them for the hard work they’ve done this year.”
Guest services ambassador Kobie Salmeri said he enjoys being able to watch games and concerts in between helping guests. But sometimes the guests do get rowdy.
“A lot of people like to drink,” Salmeri said. “If they get too drunk, it starts to turn into a babysit, kind of.”
The Blazers have one of the highest rates of fans through the door of any team in the NBA. More than half of tickets to Blazers’ games go to season ticket holders. Guest services workers are encouraged to recognize season ticket holders’ faces by the end of the season.
The game operations team is responsible for everything that happens during the game that’s not the game itself: dance breaks, music, birthday announcements, refrigerator giveaways, kids taking free throws. And all of it is painstakingly choreographed and organized ahead of time.
Scott Campbell wanders through the crowd before the game starts, asking people if they want to participate in on-court events during breaks in the game. He said people turn him down all the time.
“Some people know that they don’t perform that well under pressure, so they’re kind of protecting themselves from that inevitability,” he said. “Other people just think that we’re selling them stuff … and they don’t give us a chance to tell them what it is we’re trying to offer.”
As soon as the game is over, while fans are still streaming out of the bleachers, a whole army of folks with brooms and trash bags comes to the floor to pick up the red and white and black streamers and begin combing the seats for trash and recyclables. All the waste is sorted — twice — into trash, recycling and compostable materials. It takes nearly seven hours for the cleanup. Then the Moda Center is ready to do the whole thing over again the next day.