I grew up with two NBA franchises in Los Angeles. One program brought me continuous joy and excitement while the other brought me nothing. The Lakers have won 7 World Championships since I was born. I have seen the Showtime era (don’t remember it, I was too fresh), the Shaq-Kobe era, and the just Kobe era. All of which were fun to watch and follow throughout the years in LA.
Championships and deep playoff runs aside, I have only been to three Lakers games my entire life. I believe myself to be a huge fan of the team but I do admit that attending a Lakers “event” at the Staples Center is not your typical sports experience. For one thing, it is absurdly expensive to see the purple and gold play. Nosebleed tickets average about $100 and for all that money you are barely able to make out the grease in Pau’s hair. That’s not to say that the games are not a blast to attend. The celebrities show up late (along with everyone else sitting in the lower bowl) and leave shortly after the game is decided (regardless of time remaining on the clock). The Staples Center regulars are what I consider the quintessential LA sports fan stereotype. There for the scene, happy to lend a hand to the team when its trendy, but more or less there to be entertained and not part of sportsnation.
When the Lakers won the title in 2009 I was in LA for the weekend and I headed downtown for the parade. There were over 150,000 Lakers fans there along the parade route. Judging by the fans in attendance, they were not the folks dropping $2,500 a game for courtside seats. These folks were “la gente”, or the people who really make up Lakersnation. Ask any of the folks along the route and they could tell you they had been to a handful of games in their LIFETIME and yet they were lifelong fans. I don’t think you could say that of any other successful franchise in the country. Dodgers and Kings fans have different connections to their teams than Lakers fans as they can interact and view games in person for a much more affordable rate than those trying to see Kobe live at Staples.
I have never thought this dichotomy of support and the ability to express it in person to be much of an issue. In fact, I have assumed (correctly) that for Jerry Buss to spend so much money on payroll year in and year out, he needs to charge ungodly amounts for tickets. It’s a formula that has been successful and I don’t propose changing it in the least. However, I was exposed to an entirely different type of fanbase when I moved to Seattle; the type of fanbase that the NBA needs if it is going to continue to maintain so many teams nationwide.
I went to school in Washington state (go Loggers!) and ended up living there for five wonderful years. While I lived there I had the chance to enjoy an entirely different type of NBA franchise. The Seattle Supersonics had just drafted Kevin Durant my first year of college and were in the midst of what seemed like a fairly simple sale to a man from Oklahoma. Through my time in college I witnessed the purchase of the Sonics, the attempts to secure a new stadium, and ultimately the move to Oklahoma. When all was said and done I had learned a lot about Seattle and how it is an underdog of a sports city with a pulse and passion rivaled in few other American cities.
Trips to see the Sonics play happened quite regularly with my buddies. We scoured the schedule as it came out each year and circled the games we wanted to attend. Tickets were incredibly affordable at Key Arena (averaging between $15 and $45). Since our school was about 30 minutes from the arena, each game began with a six-pack race. Whoever pulled the small straw drove and obviously could not compete in the race. I can clearly remember a time or two when the races led to problems if we ever hit traffic. But even the race to find a tree secluded enough to hide public urination from the line of cars waiting to park was an endearing part of the Sonics experience.
Key Arena did not host many celebrities. But it certainly was home to many knowledgeable and passionate fans. I hate to use the word working class to describe the fans at the arena but I think it invokes the appropriate imagery. Sonics fans showed up early and came prepared. Witty signs, shit-talking the appropriate deep bench players on the opposing team, and a steady flow of affordable beers kept the atmosphere hostile for those not wearing the green, gold, and white on the court. However, one of the things that I always appreciated about Key was that opposing fans were welcomed in and not berated with hate (Portland being the only exception).
The fight to keep the Sonics in Seattle (and the immediate aftermath) is a further example as to how the people of the Emerald City know how to support a team. When the carpetbagger Clay Bennett first purchased the franchise with promises of staying put, nobody thought his intentions to be sincere. Not that lots of businessmen from Oklahoma City come up to the PNW, its just that Clay was a businessman from OKC with a close relationship with the Mayor (who was in the middle of building an NBA ready stadium). Prior to the Sonics sale, Seattle had publicly supported and funded a brand new football stadium AND a brand new baseball stadium. Fans hankered for an update to Key Arena but it wasn't in the cards politically when hundreds of millions of tax-dollars had just been spent on new sports stadiums.
The fight to "save our Sonics" was well organized and far reaching. The local sports radio folks organized protests throughout the city with everyday fans coming together to speak out. Throughout the court proceedings emails came to light that showed Clay clearly bought the team with intentions of moving to OKC. So even against a tide of public opinion, the wheels were already set in motion and Clay was able to steal the Sonics for a measly settlement of $45 million to fulfill the end of the lease at Key Arena.
The most telling lesson to take from the removal of the Sonics and what fan-dom means to the people of Washington state is what happened in the aftermath of the move. With a lameduck season underway, the Sonics continued to average about 13,000 fans per game. People came out to cheer on their team and prove the pride in their franchise would not be squelched by some Oklahamonan. Once the team moved out, Seattle still maintained a passion for the NBA. Whenever Portland played OKC you were sure to see a mass of green jerseys sprinkled heavily throughout the crowd. Folks still rock Payton jerseys all over the city while watching games in their local watering holes.
Most amazingly, the passion Sonics fans had for basketball continued with the MLS expansion Sounders. Consistently leading the league in attendance since its inception, Sounders fans bring the same devotion that was once a staple of Key Arena. Similarly, the tickets for a Sounders game are affordable and bring a mix of young and old fans to downtown Seattle. The rise of the Sounders is not something that can be tied directly to the NBA leaving but it certainly must be something NBA takes note of going forward.
The negotiations during the lockout spoke volumes about the priorities of David Stern (Commissioner and GM of the Hornets). Instead of using the opportunity to increase the quality of play by contracting teams in smaller markets without a strong fanbase, the NBA kicked the can down the road and kept the status quo. I am a large proponent of fans having the opportunity to see basketball played in small market cities. I do not, however, believe that the NBA should have teams in small markets that don't support basketball. For whatever reason fans in New Orleans, Charlotte, and Memphis don't seem to be excited about their teams (well beyond the fact that they suck). And yet fans in Seattle (still a top-15 media market team) went to see a poor team set to dart off the following year in great numbers. That kind of dedication is what makes sports great and makes the NBA experience worth seeing each night.
If Stern wants to keep fighting for the underdog small market teams then he and the NBA need to bring a team back to the city of the underdog sports fan, Seattle. The folks there haven't stopped fighting, and a commitment from Stern would go a long way in bringing about a new stadium. Anything less is a disservice to the league and a slap in the face to the faithful of the Emerald City.