Mike Duncan is subtle yet swift in putting ideas into action.
He is an unassuming and unfailingly polite sort, who, according to those who know him well, doesn’t portray the image of a hustler and seller, though he is hustling and selling.
Duncan especially likes the vibe on a college campus, the youthful energy and athletic environment. And he’s at home at the University of Oregon, in his fifth year as the Ducks’ senior associate athletic director in charge of events and operations.
The former Kings arena event coordinator and executive, Duncan was in his element during last week’s NCAA Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field. He darted from one station to another, chatting and networking with staffers, dignitaries, fans and athletes. Duncan earlier helped Oregon secure this meet through 2021, squeezing out Sacramento’s bids in the process. Events of this magnitude are a financial boon for the second largest city in the state behind Portland. Eugene, with a population of 160,000, drew some $6.5 million to its economy for track week. The hotels, shops, bars and eateries were full, and so was Hayward Field.
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“There’s something neat about this,” Duncan said, eyeing the grounds. “It’s different than Sacramento here, a different market. It’s small here, but 60,000 people go to the football games. The facilities are amazing. And track here is a different animal. Everything revolves around the university.”
Duncan recalled his first collegiate work experience. After graduating from Jesuit High School in 1976 and zipping through Oregon with a degree in journalism and public relations, Duncan became the sports information director at Sacramento State. In the early 1980s, he wanted to boost the regional football rivalry between Sac State and UC Davis with a catchy name. Cal and Stanford had the “Big Game” and Oregon and Oregon State the “Civil War.” Duncan coined the “Causeway Classic” in reference to the 3.2-mile elevated highway that connects Davis to Sacramento.
“And it stuck,” he said.
Greg Van Dusen, also paramount behind the scenes in the early days of the Kings, urged then-general manager Joe Axelson in 1985 to hire Duncan, stressing that a local visionary and voice was necessary.
“Axelson thought Duncan was boring and couldn’t do any kind of PR work,” Van Dusen recalled. “Of course, Dunc went on to do a great job because he unfailingly establishes trust and works hard. I hired him to be my No. 2 for the arena later, and Axelson was upset. Gee, Joe. Thought he wasn’t any good.”
As the Kings’ first director of community relations and promotions from 1985 to 1988, Duncan helped break in two new arenas to a region starving for a taste of the big time beyond the NBA. Duncan appealed to all interests in his 22 tireless years in arena operations: concerts, monster truck rallies, boxing and ice shows. Music especially worked. Duncan brought in the likes of Neil Diamond, the Rolling Stones, U2, Garth Brooks and Tom Petty. He was paramount in luring early rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament until the NCAA thumbed its nose at the outdated building, deeming it inadequate.
Duncan understands what arenas can do in small-market cities. He knows entertainment sells. His reputation is such that the Kings recently reached out to gauge his interest in running the new arena. He listened. He was intrigued. He initially accepted the offer before a change of heart. He concluded that Eugene was too grand to leave, thoughts echoed by his wife, Ivy, and their son, Paul, a freshman at Oregon. Paul offers an encouraging smile or raised eyebrow when he and his father discuss what’s relevant, entertainment wise, as Mike Duncan looks to book campus events. They’re in this together.
“He’ll let me know what’s popular,” Duncan said with a laugh. “Eugene is an awesome community, special, a great school. I like the challenges here.”
Duncan recalled a challenge that nearly brought him to his knees.
For the Kings’ first game in Sacramento, against the Clippers in 1985, in a 10,333-seat arena that rocked like a college fieldhouse, Duncan sought to cap the evening with a bang. So he ordered a laser show.
“We had the show after the game, and we lost, so everyone was already down,” Duncan said. “Should’ve done it before the game. Joe Axelson wasn’t thrilled. I thought I was done in this business after one game. I thought he’d fire me. I could’ve had two guys from the airport with those direction lights, and they would’ve done a better job than what we had.”
Duncan followed the Kings’ arena plight and near moves from afar. He contrasted the excitement of Sacramento landing the Kings 30 years ago to nearly losing them.
“A lot of people don’t remember or realize what a big deal it was to get the Kings to Sacramento in the first place and the impact it had on the community,” Duncan said. “Sacramento used to be like the other towns in the valley – Modesto, Stockton, Fresno. The Kings helped Sacramento, and Sacramento is now mentioned with Los Angeles, Phoenix and other big cities.
“A new arena will transform downtown. It’s needed, and I think it’s great for Sacramento.”
With that, Duncan hustled off. More people to see, more events to ponder and plot.