Thursday, June 26, 2008

Sonics: Rallying to save a franchise

Photo: Sonics fans rally outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Seattle on June 16. (Andrew Bucholtz photo)

The most fascinating aspect of my June 16 trip to Seattle to watch the opening day of the city's lawsuit against Clay Bennett and the Sonics' ownership (the Professional Basketball Club, or PBC) turned out to be outside the courtroom. The legal arguments and back-and-forth testimony were quite interesting, but they couldn't compare with what happened when court closed for the day.

Over 2,000 Sonics fans gathered on the courthouse steps around 4:00, and many of them didn't budge for an hour, even though more were filing in all the time. They came in a variety of Sonics jerseys, creating a sea of green and gold that washed over the yard, around the fountain and right up the courthouse steps. They came in full voice, as well, chanting "Save Our Sonics" at the top of their lungs. They came to provide the proof that the city still cares about NBA basketball, contrary to what Bennett and the PBC were trying to show inside the courthouse. They came with signs as well, many of them brilliantly innovative and creative (a full listing to come later).

Some of the fans undoubtedly showed up for the star power of the day, former Sonic players Gary Payton and Xavier McDaniel, who made their promised appearance and gave great speeches. More of them, though, were there on the idea that it might somehow help. Walking out with a franchise in the dead of night is one thing, but it's more difficult to leave when you're involved in a messy court trial and arguing that the city's fans have deserted you, only to see them show up en masse to prove you wrong.

Sadly, though, the NBA isn't about the fans any more. If it was, you'd think they'd be taking these latest Donaghy allegations very seriously, as that cuts to the heart of the game, instead of issuing perfunctory denials. You'd think they'd be loathe to abandon one of the largest markets in the league, which had faithfully supported its team for 41 good and (more often) bad years, to relocate to Oklahoma City. You'd think the commissioner wouldn't describe his ideal Finals matchup as "Lakers v. Lakers". Hell, you'd think they might even give an expansion team more than six seasons to grow its fanbase before shipping it off.

None of those ideas really matter any more, though, as the game, like every other professional sport, is now big business. One of the key points of the Sonics trial so far is how KeyArena went from a venue that David Stern praised glowingly, saying "It's intimate, the sightlines are great, the decorations are terrific," to a building that he described as "not an adequate arena going forward" in less than 13 years. It's not due to the attendance or the accommodations for regular fans: as came out in Virginia Anderson's testimony and cross-examination, the bigger issue is that it wasn't the only premium venue in town after Safeco Field and Qwest Field opened, meaning that many companies decided to transfer their investments in suites and club seating to those locations. Stern doesn't hate KeyArena because it only seats 17,000: he hates it because it doesn't have as many opportunities to pull in massive corporate revenue, and he also hates it because he saw the city buy the Mariners and the Seahawks expensive new arenas while his league didn't get one.

In any case, the rally was an incredible sight to see. The fans and the city really do still care about their team. We'll find out soon if they still have a team to care about...

- Eric Neel's excellent ESPN piece on the rally [Page 2]
- More of my musings on the trial and its broader implications [Queen's Journal]
- Dan Raley's coverage of the rally [The Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
- Jim Caple has a good piece on the trial as a whole and how ridiculous it is [Page 2]

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