PORTLAND – The Maine Red Claws sold out all 24 home games last year at the Portland Expo. They led the NBA Development League in merchandise sales and ticket revenue. They were among the top teams in sponsorship revenue.

On the court, the Red Claws were nearly as successful, missing the playoffs because of a last-season skid.

The question facing the Red Claws in their second season is simple. How can they do better?

“It’s going to be tough,” said Bill Ryan Jr., owner and chairman of the team. “You get that honeymoon period your first year. All our staff worked very hard in the offseason to make sure we were out in the community and doing everything we could to keep the interest level up. Certainly, it’s a challenge.

“I don’t know if we can top it. Topping it, to me, would mean making the playoffs and I know the fans would appreciate that. But if we can get 90 percent of what we had last year in terms of crowd and enthusiasm, I think we’d be doing quite well.”

Some things will be different this year. The team will be noticeably younger than last year’s mostly veteran crew that went 27-23 but faded down the stretch, losing its last six games.

Beyond that, the Red Claws made some changes to enhance the fan experience at the Portland Expo, according to Jon Jennings, the president and general manager who last season was named the D-League’s executive of the year.

“We thought about last year for maybe five minutes last spring,” said Jennings. “We had a good year but immediately wanted to focus on how we could improve. Austin (Ainge, the head coach) and I talked tremendous amounts of time about what type of team we wanted.

“From a business standpoint, we talked about ways to improve the Expo, ways to improve the fan experience and ways to improve customer service. We did a survey of our fans, got a lot of good data and then began to focus on ways to improve.”

Both Ryan and Jennings noted it was tough to do much to the Expo.

“We’re kind of hemmed in here a little bit but we’re happy” said Ryan. “It’s a great facility and everyone who comes in here loves to play in this place.”

So they looked for ways to tweak things. For instance, the stands at the Portland Expo will be reconfigured, allowing much more room around the main concession area. High-top tables will be set up, allowing fans to stand and socialize while enjoying their food and drink.

And, said Jennings, “We’ll have credit card processing at courtside, which is something we didn’t have before.”

Those are little things, but things Jennings and Ryan feel will make the game more enjoyable for fans.

In terms of business and fan interest, the Red Claws haven’t lost any momentum. Jennings said the team added about 20 corporate sponsors this season.

Ticket sales continue to be strong. According to Jana Spaulding, the director of public and community relations, the Red Claws have sold about 1,400 season tickets, about the same as last year. Single-game tickets sell briskly.

“But,” she said, “there seems to be a perception that we have no tickets. That’s not true. We have plenty of good seats remaining for the whole season. You’ve just got to plan ahead a little.”

She said there were about 200 tickets remaining for Friday’s 7 p.m. season opener against the Austin Toros, with a little more than that available for Saturday’s game.

One thing the Red Claws will never change is their commitment to the community. Last season the team made 135 community appearances. Over the summer they made 137, mostly appearances by Crusher, their popular mascot whose red lobster outfit was bleached by the sun and had to be replaced, dance team members or Ainge, who put on a series of clinics.

“The farthest north we went was Houlton,” said Spaulding. “The farthest south, Kittery.”

Jennings drove to Dover-Foxcroft to set up a giant inflatable Crusher and hand out Hoopie Pies, the Red Claws’ version of the whoopie pie.

“One of the mandates of our ownership is to use this team as a force for good,” said Jennings. “Let’s raise money for nonprofits, let’s get our players out meeting children, let’s do whatever we can to make a difference.”

The Red Claws helped refurbish outdoor basketball courts in Windham over the summer.

“This stuff is huge, both from a business perspective and a personal perspective,” said Ryan. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm with kids. You can see they’re just fascinated by professional athletes and you hope you can use that as a positive.

“I think a lot of people remember the first time they met a professional athlete.”

Jennings does. Growing up outside of Cincinnati, he went to an autograph signing by Reds pitcher Clay Carroll.

“I still remember what I wore that day,” said Jennings. “The impact these guys can have on the life of a child can be immeasurable.”

Ryan, sitting in the Expo bleachers, pointed to a green and white basketball ready to be signed by the players.

“These guys on our team can make a difference,” he said. “It’s as simple as those autographed basketballs. We donate so much stuff to so many auctions around Maine that raises so much money for hundreds of charitable organizations. We like it.”

 

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]