What it Takes to Manage a 19,000 Seat Sports Arena

sports facility management

No matter what realm of the sports industry you choose to pursue, expecting a normal work existence is an exercise in futility.

“One of the biggest things I look for right out of the gate is that a candidate knows what they’re getting into,” says Adam Cook, General Manager of the Moda Center, Home of the Portland Trailblazers. “We work in a very demanding industry that doesn’t often leave a lot of time for other things, and can have a very non-standard schedule.

“I’ve interviewed a lot of people who like the glitz and glamour of sports and entertainment, but really aren’t prepared to make that type of commitment.”

At the Moda Center, formerly the Rose Garden, Cook manages everything from event operations to guest and client services, which means he has a diverse staff under his purview. When hiring, the Bowdoin College economics major has to balance experience, education and enthusiasm.

“In most situations, especially entry level, attitude and passion are going to win out over experience. For a higher level position, experience starts to factor in to it, but I recently hired a Director with less experience than another candidate because I felt he would be a better cultural fit to the organization.

“Experience is more important that education. This is an industry you have to live in to really understand. Education is great, but experience wins every time.”

For more on what it takes to run a 19,000 seat arena, negotiating tactics, and leadership goals, here’s more with Adam Cook.

You’re relatively new in your role with the Rose Quarter, having previously run Northlands in Edmonton where the Oilers play - other than going through Hockey withdrawal, what are the major differences in your new role versus your last?

Cook: From a purely operational side, my role has stayed remarkably similar. I was brought in to both organizations as a bit of a change agent to help catalyze the next evolution for the venues and the way we interact with our tenants, clients, and guests.

Because of this, a lot of the differences I am experiencing are based less on the transition from an NHL to NBA facility, and more around the specific markets for each building.

The demographics around both Edmonton and Portland are incredibly different. This has caused me to adapt very quickly in both my sales strategy for booking events and my recruitment strategy for obtaining the top talent. This goes even further and impacts the specific guest experience projects and training that we undertake.

What would you identify as the primary goals of your role - what are the big rocks you try to accomplish?

Cook: I have two relatively simple goals that shape everything else I do on a day to day basis.

First, deliver world-class events in an amazing setting with outstanding service to our guests. If my team is able to keep this as their driving focus, then we know that the rest is going to fall into place pretty easily. Each of us knows, that we have the jobs we do solely based on our ability to sell tickets as an organization and deliver amazing experiences.

Second, knock down any roadblocks and provide support for my team in all their endeavors to deliver on the first goal. There’s the old leadership adage about 'hire good people and get out of their way.' This is something I’ve strived to live up to throughout my career, but with the caveat of '…get out of their way until they’re about to run into a wall. Then, get there first.'

The easier I can make it for my team to perform in their roles, the more success we’ll find as an organization.

Negotiation is such a big part of business, but also just in life -- everyone negotiates more than they think. In your role, I imagine you negotiate with government and local officials, vendors, organizations etc   - how does someone become a good negotiator? What are the principles? moda center portland oregon

Cook: Negotiation is definitely a huge part of my role. Almost everything I do on a daily basis involves some form of negotiation. Something as simple as changing a procedure around guest entry carries the need for skillful negotiation when you understand that it affects multiple departments both inside and outside the organization.

There are multiple classes available to help teach negotiation, but realistically, it’s one of those things that you have to experience and practice to really perfect it. That being said, there are some underlying principles that hold true.

The first is the idea of a win-win.

In an industry as dependent on relationships as ours, a successful negotiation ends with both sides feeling like they achieved their goals. If that’s not possible, it may not be the best partnership for the organization.

The second is the somewhat misleading idea that it’s not personal, it’s just business.

While it’s true that a good negotiation needs to be approached with the understanding that I’m there representing the business, it’s also important to acknowledge that I don’t know what other baggage, personal or professional, my negotiating partner is bringing to the discussion.  Any outcome of the negotiation is going to reflect on both of our job performances and that has a personal effect, no matter how much you try to separate the two.

The Pacific Northwest is well known for its (wonderful) craft beers, at the Rose Quarter you recently teamed up with local craft brewer Pyramid to make a limited edition "Reigning 3's" beer. How important is it to know your region, the audience, the community - and incorporate that knowledge into the facility's plan to become part of the fabric of the region?

Cook: It is immensely important for us to have a firm grasp on our region, community, and guest demographics, preferences, and culture in order to deliver the best possible experience.

moda center limited edition reigning 3's beer
Understanding your region goes a long way toward building the right partnerships in the local community. Much like the Moda Center partnering with local craft brewer Pyramid on a limited edition beer.
The craft beer phenomenon is just one that we have embraced at the Rose Quarter. During the past three years, we’ve executed over $20million in renovations at the Moda Center targeted around bringing the facility more in line with the Portland culture. We’ve brought in several of the top small local restaurants to service many of our concession stands so our guests can get the same great food here that they get around town. We’ve replaced 12 of our large luxury suites with 24 four-person studio suites in order to provide a premium experience at a lower price point. We’ve also installed the new Kid City on our upper concourse so our youngest fans have someplace to engage with the team and Trail Blazer culture.

On top of all of this, we’re using up the minute analysis of thousands of potential data points from ticket buyer demographics to app usage and travel paths inside the building. We can use all of this information to create custom experiences for our guests, with the ultimate goal of driving more traffic to all of our events.

You were an economics major in college - looking back now, did you feel like that big picture business acumen prepared you well for your current career path, or would you have done something differently?

Cook: I don’t think the economics major gave me a huge head start on my current path, but it definitely hasn’t hurt me to be able to more easily understand bigger picture business theories.

I think the bigger benefit during my college experience was the ability to engage with the Campus Activities Board on campus. That started me down the path for entertainment event planning, and my experiences there helped shape many of the things I do now.

In that respect, I wouldn’t change a thing. We’re an industry that you really have to live to understand. Having a good education is important, but having a broad set of experiences and relationships is more important.

In sports, we often feel bad for the coach that takes over for a legend. Phil Bengston after Vince Lombardi. Tim Floyd after Phil Jackson. Your predecessor at the Rose Garden, Chris Oxley was a bit of a legend in the field, running the Rose Garden for 15 years. He hasn't retired, in fact he's still with the Blazers in a new role...does it make it hard to carve out your own identity, or is it a benefit to have another experienced voice to lean on?

Cook: Chris is truly a stalwart of the Rose Quarter. He rose through the ranks from Event Manager up to the GM role before transitioning into his current position in business development and governmental affairs.  He did a phenomenal job running these buildings and left some incredibly big shoes to fill.

That being said, he has been fantastic about providing me the space and autonomy to lead my team with my vision and style. I’ve been even more fortunate that the team has openly embraced this as well. There’s no real push to play the two of us off each other. Given how new I am to the organization, it’s also been a great benefit to have Chris available as needed to answer questions or provide insight into historical decisions. It’s been a great relationship.
By Brian Clapp | June 09, 2017
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