Nothing ever comes easy in the Seattle sports market. Going back 100 years, every victory has come in the face of overwhelming odds, often offset by its own share of heartbreak. Great teams have risen to the top only to come one game, one goal, one yard short. Following Seattle’s franchises has always been more a labor of love, a paradoxical battle between the hope that things will get better and the fact that they rarely do.
In 1995, the Seattle Supersonics were in the middle of one of their best competitive runs and the Seattle Mariners went to the playoffs for the first time in their then-20-some year history. When Edgar Martinez laced a double into the corner to score Jr. and beat the Yankees, he gave a region a reason to believe in the best parts of sports. Dave Niehaus’ voice cracked and a sellout crowd went wild for a team with, up to that point, no culture of winning.
That game was very nearly the very last one the Mariners played in the city of Seattle. Voters earlier that year had said no to subsidies on a new sport-specific baseball stadium. The success of the team, and the reaction the city had to its first playoff baseball experience, convinced King County Council to put together an emergency funding package and save the Mariners from a one-way trip to Tampa.
Only a few years later, the Seahawks were fighting their own relocation threat. The team whose home fans got so raucous that the NFL instituted a short-lived noise rule was moved to Los Angeles before the NFL blocked the relocation. Funding for a new stadium on the bones of the Kingdome was approved, by the skin of its teeth. There again were the fans, who blocked moving trucks and got the vote out to save professional football in Seattle.
The attitude changed again in 2008. Beyond the obvious, the Mariners hadn’t made the playoffs for seven years (2008 was a 100-loss season) and Mike Holmgren’s Seahawks finished his tenure on a low note with a 4-12 season. An attitude of cynicism was primed to set in. This was the environment when I, a fresh-out-of-high-school Seattle enthusiast, decided to plunk down a paycheck or two on season tickets for the expansion Seattle Sounders.
It might not seem like it from a distance, but the Sounders story isn’t dissimilar to that of the Sonics. Seattle’s professional soccer legacy started in 1974 when the Sounders were added to the North American Soccer League. When MLS drafted Seattle back in, the fledgling club gave fans a chance to vote on the team name; the options were Seattle United, Seattle Republic, and Seattle FC. After fan pressure, a write-in option was added, and the final poll had an over 50% vote for Sounders got the nod. The vote was the beginning of a tradition of fan involvement. Embracing fan culture is why the Sounders are in the top 25 for world soccer attendance and a clear poster child for how American soccer can be.
It’s this exact sort of fan revolution that I hope for and expect when the Sonics do eventually return to their home. The creation of Sonicsgate and Save our Sonics (Arena Solution) revealed the character of a fanbase which had learned not to give up despite overwhelming odds. No one who was present for the ’79 parade or in 2008 at the courthouse rally will ever forget it; neither will those who came out for Chris Hansen’s 2012 NBA Finals rally. With the inclusion of the Sonic Rings and public plaza in his arena design, it’s clear that Hansen values it too. It’s those seas of green and gold with spontaneous chants and outbursts, an energy as infectious as any in sports.
Let’s make Tuesday another day like that.
Being a sports fan in this region has never been about the wins. With only one repeat champion and five league trophies in a century of competition (not to mention the most futile franchise in baseball). What defines sports in Seattle are what it should definite everywhere: bringing people together for a common goal, uniting, and having some gosh-darned fun.