With all the talk that a new arena is going to be built in the SoDo district, as well as, the troubles in..."/> With all the talk that a new arena is going to be built in the SoDo district, as well as, the troubles in..."/>

What Impact Would The Return of the NBA Have On Husky Basketball?


With all the talk that a new arena is going to be built in the SoDo district, as well as, the troubles in Sacramento and elsewhere in the NBA, there is a real optimism beginning to brew that the Seattle Sonics may finally be back. Unlike the climate during the extortion era under Howard Schultz and then Clay Bennett, the local elected officials appear to be rallying around this opportunity. Maybe it is because Chris Hansen is so willing to do much of this with private financing. Maybe it is because the mayor, city council, and county executive all are hearing a desire to support it from their constituents. Or, maybe the fine folks in Seattle just miss having NBA basketball in the city.

Seattle is certainly a hot bed of basketball. There is a deep and talented pool of youth players, as well as, a strong support network of coaches and boosters to help these kids reach their potential. I once read that the Seattle-Tacoma area produces more NBA players per capita than any other major city in the country except Chicago. This is a city that loves its basketball, especially shown by their long and continued support of the Seattle Supersonics.

But, one question worthy of asking here is what impact would having the NBA return to the city have on the growth and continued support of local college basketball teams like the Washington Huskies and Seattle University Redhawks. Some would argue, especially in tough economic times, that there are only so many entertainment dollars available and the return to the NBA with its 41 home dates and expensive ticket prices would hurt attendance at Husky and Redhawks games (especially on competing nights).

In fact, there were some who have argued that it was in fact the loss of the Sonics in 2008 that made it an easier decision for Seattle University to commit to returning to Division I basketball after 25 years because of the hunger for basketball in this city and a suddenly empty arena needing a tenant.

When addressing this question, one could look at average attendance figures for the Sonics and Huskies prior to the Sonics being stolen and moved to Oklahoma City and then how Husky attendance at Hec Ed has been since. But, these comparisons will lead you to complicated conclusions to make for a number of reasons. I’ll address a few of them below.

First of all, I looked back at the last 20 years of attendance figures for the Sonics from 1987-88 until 2007-08 when they left for Oklahoma.  During that time span, the Sonics never averaged fewer than 12,008 fans per game, despite playing more than twice the number of home games as the Huskies and tickets being more expensive. The Key Arena renovation was completed in 2005, raising the capacity from 14,000 to 17,000 seats. For most of the glory years following the renovation and during the 60-win seasons of Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf, Nate McMillian, Sam Perkins, Hersey Hawkins, and the rest the team sold out every game and tickets were sometimes near impossible to get. I know, because I remember trying to get them while a student at UW.

Figures for Hec Ed are a lot harder to acquire. The University of Washington apparently has not compiled them into an easy to acquire table, so you have to literally try to find out each year individually. Given that, here is what we know; Hec Edmunson Pavillion can only hold 10,000 people. So, obviously they would never be able to average the same number as the Sonics. But, even given that, they have never been able to fill the arena to capacity every single game. Sure, it is near capacity and a much more raucous place than it was in the early 90’s when I was a student there, but I do not see much evidence, even in their best years, that the Huskies could have averaged the 13,300+ fans that even the Clay Bennett-owned lame duck Sonics averaged in their final season.

2000-0115,630 6,800

* Hec Ed was expanded from 7,900 to 10,000 capacity during renovations

” Key Arena was expanded from 14,000 to 17,000 capacity during renovations

Obviously the expansion and renovation of Hec Ed and the hiring of Lorenzo Romar has improved attendance. Fans want to support winning teams and the team has been that in the last 9 years. When you look back at attendance figures under previous coaches like Bob Bender and Lynn Nance, that much is obvious. In 1991, during the dreaded Lynn Nance era, the highest attendance for ANY Husky game was the Apple Cup game against the Cougs which had 5,542 fans. During that season, they only averaged 2,700 fans. It was in 1992, as a freshman at UW, that I was able to attend games as a student for free because the arena was so empty. Some games barely drawing more than 1,000 fans. But, this was also an era when the Sonics were not doing that great attendance-wise as well.

But, the big question is whether the loss of the Sonics benefited the Huskies. I’d say the answer to that is essentially marginally to not-at-all. While the rise of the Husky program happened to coincide temporally with the collapse of the Sonics, the statistics do not show any causal change. The Sonic’s attendance figures declined in their final years in town because of poor performances on the floor, an aging arena, and frustration with the Howard Schultz and Bennett ownerships.  The Huskies’ attendance figures rose to near capacity shortly after the arrival of Lorenzo Romar and have held more-or-less steady since.

Perhaps TV ratings have improved since the Sonics left. But, that may also have more to do with increased coverage by local sports cable channels than because of the Sonics. So, then the logical question is, if the loss of the Sonics had no real impact on attendance or support for the Huskies, why not?

I asked this question of Percy Allen of the Seattle Times back in February. I think it is the best description of what is going on.

Jeff Taylor: How do you feel about the atmosphere of NBA games and college games as you have traveled around the country? What do you think about some of the criticism that people have of the NBA that there are so many games that many of the players sort of just take the game off.

Percy Allen: Well, there certainly are times when players take games off. It’s a long season and the coaches and players need to look out for the bigger picture, which is the NBA playoffs. That being said, I totally “get” why some people don’t really love the NBA. If I were paying $85 to go to an NBA game and one or more of the stars were not playing, or not playing with their best effort, I would be upset. Also, I understand the attitude in Seattle about not caring about the NBA. I am from Cleveland and I know what it is like to have a team ripped away from you.

Jeff Taylor: But, how would you describe the differences in the fan base. Is one more passionate than the other?

Percy Allen: Well, I would say the fan base is more diverse in the NBA. People can really jump on the bandwagon when the team is doing well, no matter their background. The college crowds are a bit more provincial, more exclusive. People really only get into the team when they have some connection to the school; whether it is the school they went to or someone in the family went there. Often, a significant portion of the population is sort of thinking “what’s all the fuss about” when a team is winning, because they don’t have a direct connection to that university.

So, ultimately I think we Husky fans need not be concerned about the rearrival of the NBA to Seattle.  The fan bases are not mutally exclusive. We Husky fans can root for the Sonics. But, not all Sonic fans will root for the Huskies. Those fans of Washington State, or Seattle U, or Gonzaga, or Oregon, or whatever will attend Sonics games and not care in the least about the Huskies. But, Husky fans will continue to come out to Hec Ed to support the purple and gold if the team is winning games, no matter what is going on over in SoDo.

So, with that in mind, my attitude is, the more basketball in Seattle, the better!