Purdue HTM alum serves up hospitality at star-studded Staples Center

Sam Porter stands in the Staples Center

Purdue HTM alumnus Sam Porter stands in his workplace, the Staples Center.Photo provided

Written by: Tim Brouk, tbrouk@purdue.edu

When model turned Twitter royalty Chrissy Teigen vents on social media about no french fry availability courtside at a Lakers game, Sam Porter springs into action.

As vice president of hospitality at Staples Center, Porter must make sure guests are comfortable and provided with quality food, drink, merchandise and any other request — whether it’s from someone with 13 million Twitter followers or 30.

A 2009 alumnus from the Purdue University White Lodging-J.W. Marriott, Jr. School of Hospitality and Tourism Management (HTM), Porter’s office is about 50 feet from the court that hosts Lebron James jump shots, Anthony Davis slam dunks and Paul George 3-pointers. Staples Center is also home to Los Angeles Kings and Los Angeles Sparks games as well as huge concerts like the upcoming events with Kacey Musgraves, Bad Bunny and Justin Bieber. Porter works all of them representing Levy, his employer since graduation.

Levy operates more than 200 sports and entertainment venues in the United States and Canada. Two of these are the Staples Center, recently renamed Crypto.com Arena, and its neighbor across Chick Hearn Court, the Microsoft Theater, which is home to award shows like the Grammys, Emmys and ESPYS. It was at a recent ESPYS that Porter was able to follow up with Teigen on her fries’ experience.

“I told her about it a few months later, and she remembered, and she was very complimentary,” said Porter, noting that fries are now available to courtside ticketholders.

After first connecting with Levy while still an HTM student at a career fair on Purdue’s West Lafayette campus, Porter climbed the Levy ladder quickly. He worked a season at Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire Football Club when it played at SeatGeek Stadium before moving to the Oklahoma City Arena, now known as the Paycom Center, for a couple seasons where James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant began their NBA success. Porter then took his talents to LA in 2011.

While he’s worked large sports venues for 12 years now, Staples Center offers more glitz and glamour than your average arena. The huge market, bright media spotlight and those sports-loving celebrities give added liveliness to the job.

“There is a uniqueness to this venue more than most where even the biggest celebrities can be almost like a normal person,” Porter said. “It’s very interesting to see how people come and have their hat down. Maybe Leonardo DiCaprio is in the building, and he’s looking for a quick bite and comes down, sneaks into a restaurant and sneaks out without anyone really even noticing. They’re among us. You see people as you walk around the building, and you see them just being a normal fan, whether it’s grabbing something at the concession stand or going into a restaurant.”

Sushi or hot dogs?

While Boilermakers have enjoyed Levy eats at Ross-Ade Stadium and Mackey Arena since 2010, menus differ from market to market. Porter said Staples’ main items, such as hot dogs, hamburgers and popcorn, have increased in sales during the pandemic, despite LA’s reputation for “health-conscious” eating.

“People coming back after not being in venues like this for more than a year, it has brought people more appreciation for the simple things, whether that’s a fountain soda, a cold beer on draft, a well-cooked hot dog, some fresh popcorn. Some of those basics have spiked here recently,” Porter reported. “But then we have some local celebrity chef partners here. I really do believe we have one of if not the best fried chicken sandwiches in town with chef Ludo (Lefebvre) at LudoBird. That’s been a fan favorite.”

Whether it’s a classic hot dog or a tray of sushi, Porter has seen guests’ expectations rise throughout his Staples Center tenure.

“People expect more nowadays,” he said. “They’re spending hard-earned money to come to a game. Tickets generally are not a cheap thing to come into. The expectation of what the experience is going to be like has been elevated over the past decade. It’s how to meet those expectations, exceed those expectations, come up with new things.”

Surviving the pandemic

COVID-19 ravaged the hospitality industry, but Porter was still able to work during the lockdowns, which were many in the Los Angeles area. In 2020, crowds stayed home, but Staples still hosted events virtually. The talent and crews associated with these events had to be fed and taken care of with safeguarded practices.

“The fanless (events) were still taking place so Staples Center was a host venue for NBA, NHL, Boxing events, and the Emmy Awards and other types of events made for TV during the lockdowns,” Porter said.

The Lakers’ 2019-2020 NBA championship kept Porter busy on the merchandise e-commerce side. Since fans were not allowed at the games, the orders flowed in for commemorative T-shirts, hats and banners. Porter’s staff went from serving guests to fulfilling orders for 2020 NBA championship jerseys from all over the world.

From his days running the John Purdue Room as part of HTM 49200 (Advanced Foodservice Management) to soaking up and later implementing knowledge from hospitality, food and beverage-specific finance and accounting classes, Porter said he has used much of what he learned at Purdue to succeed before and during the pandemic.

As fans returned for Lakers, Kings and Clippers games in late 2020, albeit in limited capacity, Porter and his staff had to think of safe yet efficient ways of feeding the fans. New operations, packaging and presentation had to be considered.

“Everything went from open to everything covered. Everything was contained. There was no more bulk, large-format anything. It’s all in more compact packaging,” said Porter of Staples Center food menu items. “There was a time when we were actually packaging everything into bags, sealing the bag, because people were only allowed to eat and drink in designated areas throughout the concourse. We still had to make good quality food and do it quickly.”

A year later, precautions are still enforced but fans are back at capacity to watch the Lakers, Clippers and Kings. And when Porter takes a break from work to sit courtside in an empty arena, he is proud of a career that blends his passions for hospitality and sports.

“This was a different way to enter the sports business without going the approach of having to sell tickets and try to make my way up through an organization to a front office,” said Porter, who grew up working at his father’s restaurants around Highland, Indiana. “This was a way to keep sports in my life and also my background, which was hospitality. … It’s a good mix of both.”