Good coaches unite others around a singular goal. They strategize, coach, mentor, motivate, and lead. They impart wisdom, correct mistakes, hold others accountable, and make tough decisions. They develop strategies and train new leaders. And they study the skills of each individual player in a never-ending quest to improve overall performance. What Head Coach Chauncey Billups does for the Portland Trail Blazers on the court, Michelle Soares replicates in the IT department.
Like Billups, Soares has a game plan—one that features 1s and 0s instead of Xs and Os. The New Jersey transplant amassed a quarter-century of tech experience and developed a reputation for delivering complex mission critical projects. But she admits she hadn’t watched a lot of basketball or spent much time in the city of Portland before joining the Pacific Northwest’s beloved NBA franchise in 2020.
Soares may not have built her career in sports tech, but she did fill her playbook with something critical to success: the fundamentals of the game.
Blazermania: Facts & Figures
NBA Championships: 1 (1977)
Nickname: Rip City
Head Coach: Chauncey Billups
Leading Scorer: Clyde Drexler (18,040 points)
Arena: Moda Center
70 concession areas
650 TV monitors
4 15’ x 22 ½’ Mitsubishi HD scoreboard screens
So what convinced a seasoned veteran to leave her known world behind and travel all the way across the country for something entirely unknown? “Adventure,” Soares explains. “I love to learn new things and I love challenges.”
After twenty years of parenting, Soares and her husband became empty nesters, and as technical consultants, they had a built-in opportunity to relocate. Oregon’s Guardian Peaks and oceanic climate beckoned and eventually became home.
At first, Soares didn’t know exactly what to expect. But Portland’s tech community was inviting, and when she updated her LinkedIn profile, a recruiter made contact. She walked into a blind interview with the Trail Blazer’s CFO, unaware that she was up for one of the most coveted jobs in sports.
The discovery didn’t faze Soares, who thinks of the franchise as just another of the countless consulting clients she steered through product upgrades, systems rollouts, and other successful projects.
As the team entered its 2020-2021 regular season, the Blazers were led by Damian Lillard, who had cemented his place among franchise greats and set fans’ expectations at all-time highs. While the team was performing well on the court, things were somewhat different in the IT department. The group was talented but tactical and “heads down.” Team members spent their days supporting events and closing out help desk tickets without much opportunity to drive strategy.
They were playing defense; Soares wanted her team to play offense. “IT can partner with the business to really transform operations and add value, but only if there’s clear vision and a strong plan,” explains the vice president of technology. A series of new plays would help Soares meet that goal.
PLAY #1: A Focus on Documents and Systems
IT installs and maintains the technical networks and systems, telecom and audio-video that support office employees, business operations, game functions, live events, and all other activities related to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Moda Center arena, the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and the nearby practice facility. While many elements ran smoothly, a small group of legacy employees were keeping the lights on in a quiet, reliable manner, but went unrecognized.
Soares formalized policies, implemented procedures, deployed a new help desk, IT asset management, and contract management system to centralize IT requests and organize equipment, maintenance schedules, vendor information, and corporate and sponsorship contracts. She then performed an audit to identify gaps and uncover needs before embarking on an IT cost optimization project to reduce IT asset redundancy and risk of security breaches with antiquated equipment/software and repurpose IT funds toward more progressive initiatives.
Soares plans to put telephony in the cloud for the Trail Blazers’ contact-center with a contact-center-as-a-service and omnichannel initiative. The move will reduce call times to improve the customer experience and push data to contact center agents that they can use to upsell or cross-sell and increase revenue streams.
PLAY # 2: Improving the Fan Experience
In today’s hypercompetitive world of sports and entertainment, the fan experience is the number one most important factor executives consider, and Soares does all she can to improve how Moda Center guests experience game day action.
Her team is responsible for supporting courtside technology and sending live stats to the League, while also supporting all network connectivity, security (cyber and campus), audio-video, and telecom needs in both venues, whether at the concession point of sale, ingress and egress, or the concourses.
“The way fans want to interact with live events is changing, and we’re keeping pace by testing what’s out there and being smart about what we choose to implement,” Soares says, adding that tech is powering contactless check-in, cashless payments, mobile ordering, vaccine verification, and other important features that mitigate COVID-19.
PLAY # 3: Security
Like her counterparts on the court, Soares is battling a rival—the modern hacker. The threat of cyberattacks is very real in the NBA as seen in past reported attacks. Soares is in frequent contact with IT leads at various professional sports leagues to discuss best practices.
“We’re competitive on the court, but collaborative off the court,” she says. “We talk about the challenges we face, and we’re all invested in keeping our data safe and secure.”
After networking with other leaders and researching league guidelines, Soares led a team that created a cybersecurity road map, institutionalized a passphrase policy, and deployed a threat detection, removal and prevention software, and business continuity/disaster recovery to harden its security posture. Other new measures include multifactor authentication, cybersecurity training, passphrase policies, upgraded network switches, company-wide security training, and a new threat intelligence platform.
PLAY # 4: Improve the Draft
Why are hackers targeting sports teams? Some experts believe they’re trying to uncover and publicize information that they can use to place bets as online and legalized gambling become increasingly popular. Teams are storing and using more data than ever before, and in addition to protecting that data, Soares wants to unleash its power to improve the on-court product by bringing the very best athletic talent to Portland.
“Advanced algorithms and predictive analytics can tell us what kind of athlete to target and which eligible player would be the best fit in any round and at any point in the draft,” Soares explains. She envisions a future where complex programs replace excel spreadsheets and dry erase and magnetic boards as GMs and CEOs crunch stats, measurements, and salaries. The system she’s proposing will even consider GPA and scrub social media histories to determine culture fit.
Game days are electric in the City of Roses. Soares’s IT team is skilled and experienced and arrives four hours prior to tip-off to support the three Cs—courtside, concourse, and connectivity.
Courtside technicians make sure scoreboards, shot clocks, and referee headsets are functional. Concourse technicians solve problems related to monitors, ATMs, and point of sale systems and all things audio-video. Those assigned to connectivity make sure all Wi-Fi signals are strong. One key partner, Comcast, provides reliable internet service in all Trail Blazer facilities.
“The Portland Trail Blazers are a premier client for Comcast Business: they’ve seamlessly integrated our technology solutions to best meet their back-office business needs while creating the ultimate fan experience,” says Alan Goldsmith, regional vice president of Comcast Business in Oregon and southwest Washington. “Our business relationship with the Trail Blazers goes way beyond robust technology. We are proud to partner with the team to support our local community, through organizations like the Portland Boys and Girls Club.”
Soares has empowered her team to function well without her, and while her presence isn’t required at home games, she often finds herself heading toward the Moda Center to support her colleagues and catch part of the action.
In addition to her leadership at the Trail Blazers, Soares serves on the board of the Technology Association of Oregon and the University of Portland Executive Advisory Board for Operations and Technology Management.
“These organizations afford me the platform to advocate, mentor, and promote women in technology whether they are in the workforce, looking for a career change, or about to enter the workforce,” she explains. “I love that it connects me to other people and leaders locally, since I recently relocated. I’ve also been able to mentor young people and people looking to change careers, which has been so rewarding.”
With bringing on Chauncey Billups as its new coach, the Trail Blazers aspire to win the Western Conference and go all the way to the Finals. To get there, they’ll have to overcome a slow start, a slew of injuries, and defensive miscues.
Michelle Soares knows they can do it, and her IT team will keep working behind the scenes to power the pride of Portland.
Can the Trail Blazers strike lightning by bringing the first cryptocurrency jersey sponsorship to the NBA? The forecast looks promising after the team announced a deal with StormX in summer 2021. The crypto company logo now adorns game and practice jerseys, reminding the Rip City faithful that they can earn crypto cashback on purchases inside the team’s arena and elsewhere.
Blazers fan Calvin Hsieh created the minority-owned company in nearby Seattle and has grown StormX into a network with 2 million users and nearly 800 partners in 173 countries worldwide.
The team celebrated the deal by announcing a non-fungible token (NFT) release, a series of digital game day posters created in collaboration with seven area artists.
Christenson Electrical Inc. is proud to be a long-term electrical contractor and partner for the MODA Center, home to the Portland, Oregon, Trail Blazers. Since 1945, we have built a strong reputation by providing high quality workmanship, exceptional customer service, and prompt service call response.