“Never, not once, did I think I would be a team president,” Hankins said during an interview from his Northeast Portland office across from Moda Center. “There had never really been someone with my background that had gotten into this type of role. It never felt possible. You add my lack of self-esteem on top, and there you go.”
The laid-back, self-effacing Iowa State graduate grew up on AOL and traces his career arc with references to Myspace and TikTok. Hankins favors Vans over wingtips, backpacking over golf and Slack chats over conference calls, and his formative years were spent dealing with fan angst while managing social media for the NHL’s Minnesota Wild and Los Angeles Kings before he joined the Blazers in 2013.
“People would always reply that I was going to be fired or that this was going to be my last tweet,” Hankins said. “They would say, ‘Who gave the keys to the intern?’ I’ve been fired by fans hundreds of times, easily.”
Hankins landed his first sports job in 2002, as a public relations intern for the Kane County Cougars, a Class A minor league baseball team outside Chicago. Mark Zuckerberg still hadn’t invented Facebook, so Hankins’s tasks included flipping burgers, dropping off pocket schedules at gas stations and rolling out the tarp during rain delays.
When he started with the Wild as a creative coordinator in 2005, he worked on tangible products such as media guides and game programs. Twitter’s launch the next year seemed to Hankins like an opportunity for the franchise to communicate directly with its fans, but most teams, including the Wild, were cautious on the new platform and used it mostly to distribute news releases.
With its hands tied on the Wild’s main account, Hankins’s team launched a secondary account devoted to a fan favorite, right wing Cal Clutterbuck, and his distinctive mustache. The mustache burner account attracted only 1,600 followers, but it enabled Hankins to experiment with his dry sense of humor and a less formal style.
A 2010 move to the Los Angeles Kings allowed Hankins to push the envelope. His new bosses wanted to create an online presence that would stand out in the crowded Southern California sports scene. Hankins’s team cultivated an over-the-top snarky style, casting the Kings as cocky underdogs and prodding their opponents, such as when they celebrated a 2012 playoff victory over the favored Vancouver Canucks by tweeting, “To everyone in Canada outside of B.C., you’re welcome.”
To everyone in Canada outside of BC, you’re welcome.
— LA Kings (@LAKings) April 12, 2012
The message, which stoked Canadian hockey rivalries, drew coverage on ESPN and received enough attention that players and coaches from both teams were asked about it during news conferences. The Kings eventually issued an apology, and Hankins worried the blowback might cost him his job, even though his sharper approach had helped boost the team’s follower counts and fan engagement.
“The greatest hits are usually the greatest misses,” he said. “That tweet really blew up. I felt both panic and excitement. I remember getting positive notes from our executive staff, but the next morning it was turning negative online with people saying, ‘How dare they post this?’ I remember driving into work thinking that this might be my last day. This was everything we wanted to do, but it was a moment of truth. Finally, my boss called and said, ‘It seems like Canada just doesn’t have a sense of humor.’ All my anxiety dropped.”
That boss, Chris McGowan, brought Hankins to the Blazers as vice president of marketing in 2013. Having never worked in the NBA, Hankins got up to speed by studying the franchise’s history and surveying fans. He wasted little time stirring it up on Twitter. “Is it too late to join the Eastern Conference? Asking for a friend,” the Blazers’ account wondered, nodding to the Western Conference’s long history of superior talent.
Is it too late to join the Eastern Conference? Asking for a friend.
— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) December 4, 2013
While informality and trash talking are now widespread among team accounts, Hankins’s approach was novel at the time. He wanted an online presence that would lean into the city’s quirky reputation, galvanize its die-hards and expand the organization’s reach and sponsorship opportunities.
As Hankins received internal promotions, he spent less time tweeting and more time strategizing. The Blazers started to view themselves as a global company rather than just a small-market team. Portland now ranks in the NBA’s top 10 in digital revenue, according to Hankins, and its Weibo account boasts 4 million followers in China, topping all of its domestic social media accounts.
“One of Adam Silver’s edicts is to transform our league from analog to digital,” Hankins said. “It’s always about tickets and sponsorships, but it’s also about the massive international audience and the 99 percent of fans who never come to a game.”
Meanwhile, Lillard underwent surgery to address an abdominal injury in January, and home attendance continued to fall short of Portland’s strong pre-pandemic levels. Before this month’s trade deadline, the Blazers shipped out several key veterans, including CJ McCollum, Norman Powell and Robert Covington, to cut costs and free up future salary cap flexibility. Under first-year coach Chauncey Billups, Portland (25-35) remains in the mix for the West’s play-in tournament but could finish with its worst record in a decade.
Allen, who inherited the Blazers upon the 2018 death of her billionaire brother, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, tapped Hankins as McGowan’s successor and installed Joe Cronin as Olshey’s interim replacement. Hankins quickly realized he needed to improve relations with the Blazers’ basketball operations department, which works out of a suburban practice facility about 15 miles south of the team’s business headquarters. Remarkably, Hankins and Cronin had never met during their nine years as co-workers until they had breakfast following Cronin’s promotion.
“We stayed in our own lanes,” Cronin said. “We were great workers and did what was asked of us. It does speak to the lack of cohesion between business and basketball. It just wasn’t an environment where there was much crossover. We’re team-first, competitive people who are quiet and want to see others get the credit.”
The two executives bring a shared “humility,” Billups said, noting that internal communication has improved in recent months as both Cronin and Hankins have restructured their respective staffs. The 46-year-old Cronin joined the Blazers as an intern 16 years ago, a neat parallel to Hankins’s rise.
“In pro sports, talent trumps all,” Cronin said. “If you start out in marketing and you’re talented enough, you can go a lot of different directions. … We want to keep pushing further. First-round exits aren’t good enough. Damian desperately wants to win, and he wants to have a team where you walk out onto the floor and have that swagger knowing that we’re a legit contender.”
Getting there will take work on and off the court. Cronin has begun overhauling a roster he felt had “stagnated,” while Hankins has sought to repair workplace morale that was damaged by the pandemic and the Olshey investigation. They have both felt the weight of their increased responsibilities, leaning on vice chair Bert Kolde, a longtime Allen adviser, for guidance.
Yet Hankins, who hopes to be “the first of many” social media strategists to run sports organizations, also believes the collaborative nature of his past work will pay dividends.
“Everything that could have changed in the last six months has changed,” he said. “People are looking for direction and vision, and it’s a priority for us to have fresh perspectives. Good ideas can come from anywhere. If you have a bunch of people in a room and they all have the same background, you’re not going to get a lot of debate. When the room looks different, you get a much more interesting and better answer for the company.”
Looking back, there was another major benefit to all those years spent on Twitter: Hankins developed thick skin.
“When I got this job, someone tweeted that I should fire myself because of our [local] television deal,” he said. “Of course. Why would it stop happening now?”