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Originally published December 26, 2009 at 9:00 PM | Page modified December 28, 2009 at 10:43 PM

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Fanatomy: As a sports town, we're underrated

Portraits of Seattle's fan bases reveal big differences — yet they all persist in bad times and really go nuts for a winner.

Seattle Times staff columnist

ABOUT THIS SERIES

SEAHAWKS

Part 1: The most rabid of Seattle's sports fans (today)

HUSKIES FOOTBALL

Part 2: Seattle's purple-and-gold family tradition (Monday)

MARINERS

Part 3: A new generation of fans grows with its team (Tuesday in Sports)

STORM

Part 4: Fans are stewards of women's pro basketball (Wednesday in Sports)

SOUNDERS

Part 5: The trendsetters who established a new standard (Thursday in Sports)

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The tired stereotypes cloak Seattle sports fans like a boring ol' poncho.

Too polite. Dispassionate. Fair weather. Unknowledgeable. Bandwagon jumpers. Provincial. Blah.

Get acquainted with the fan base, however, and those labels become ill-fitting. Seattle may never be the most rabid sports city, but the loyalists here aren't so insignificant.

Instead of leaning on preconceived notions, we tried to define Seattle sports fans. We've studied demographic information for five prominent fan bases — the Seahawks, Huskies, Sounders FC, Storm and Mariners — to find out what makes them different. We've interviewed faithful followers and the teams that serve them, used history as a guide and injected a little common sense into the evaluation.

Over the next five days, we'll blow up some of the stereotypes and try to paint a true picture of Seattle sports fans.

Ultimately, you'll discover that while Seattle is still a maturing sports town, it doesn't lack passion. But the fans, especially those who love pro sports, need more success to build a tradition for that passion to increase.

"I don't think it's fair when people talk about the lack of passion," said Mike Gastineau, who's been a KJR-AM sports-radio host for 18 years. "Like most places, you've got to win. I've never seen a more passionate, energized fan base than in 1995 with the Mariners, 1996 with the Sonics and 2005 with the Seahawks. Give the fans here something good, and I will stick them up there with anybody for passion, noise and knowledge."

Despite its mediocre sports reputation, Seattle can brag about plenty. Seahawks fans have turned Qwest Field into a stadium that is largely regarded as the loudest in the NFL. The Storm has the best home-court advantage in the WNBA. The new team in town, Sounders FC, just completed a remarkable first season, sold out every home game and set a standard for Major League Soccer.

In addition, although attendance figures for the Mariners and the University of Washington football team have dropped in recent seasons, the fan support is still solid after you factor in those teams' prolonged postseason droughts.

Nevertheless, Seattle can't ditch past perceptions.

Philadelphia will always be the city whose unruly fans booed Santa Claus. Los Angeles will always be the city whose fans come late, leave early and care only in passing.

And Seattle will always be the city whose fans just aren't that into sports.

"I know there are a lot of frustrated sports fans in Seattle," said Russ Dille, a local sports historian. "We've lost two sports franchises, the Pilots and the Sonics. In the 1960s, we got passed over by the National Hockey League. On one hand, we have many die-hards who love sports more than anything. On the other hand, we have some very bitter sports fans who are frustrated and turned off by the whole scene, especially pro sports."

Dille, 60, disputes the notion that the fans have always been too nice. He remembers the 1975 NBA playoffs, the Sonics' first postseason appearance. In the second round, they played the eventual champion Golden State Warriors, led by scoring machine Rick Barry. The Seattle Coliseum crowd became so infuriated with Barry that some fans chased him after a game. Throughout the 1970s, the crowd doused Barry with beer whenever he visited.

The passion is there. Still, Seattle is a national afterthought.

The city is considered too isolated to make regular headlines on the East Coast. As Seattle changes, the rest of the country glances this way and continues to make jokes about flannel, grunge music and coffee. Every time Seattle is on national television, it's as if there's a requirement for a segment on fish throwing at Pike Place Market.

Four years ago, Jimmy Johnson, a football coach turned Fox television analyst, mockingly referred to Seattle as "Southern Alaska."

In its 2009 "Best Sports Cities" rankings, The Sporting News rated Seattle No. 52, behind the likes of Storrs, Conn.; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Sonics-thieving Oklahoma City.

The low ranking had more to do with Seattle's embarrassments in 2008, a year in which almost every major team had a losing record and the NBA skipped town. But fan fervor was measured as well, mostly through attendance, and it contributed to the No. 52 designation.

Bob Hille of The Sporting News said the rankings are done by math, not perception. A mountain of information is fed into a spreadsheet, and once the magazine hits the sort key, the truth appears. It did surprise him to see Seattle so low.

"I think you've got to look at Seattle in the 2009 rankings and say, 'Wow, they've got a lot more going for them than that,' " Hille said.

Asked if he thought Seattle had a definable identity as a sports town, Hille, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., said: "I would say no — and not in a mean-spirited way. When you live on the West Coast, in the Pacific time zone, you kind of feel like you're the great ignored mass. Sometimes it's true. The chances of me seeing something on the West Coast at a normal time here are zero. So I'm not going to have a great perception of the fans."

As a pro-sports city, Seattle is still young. It became a major-league town only 42 years ago, when the Sonics joined the NBA as an expansion team. Then came the Pilots, who left for Milwaukee after one bizarre season. The Seahawks and Mariners are still in their early 30s.

"When you have a league and a team a long time, that team goes through generations," said Bruce King, a retired longtime KOMO-TV sports anchor. "We haven't had that here. The only fan base that has that kind of length is Husky fans, and you can tell how passionate and embedded they are as a fan base. For everyone else, it just hasn't been long enough."

Seattle fans are a reflection of the city. Just like Pittsburgh is a blue-collar town with blue-collar fans, Seattle's true sporting reputation figures to be in step with its identity as a quirky, creative, liberal, educated and understated city.

"We're not like East Coast fans," said Bryan Murphy, a die-hard Seahawks fan who dresses up as "HawkFiend" for the games. "But in a lot of ways, we're better than East Coast fans. We're more intelligent, basically."

Jim Bouton, the former Pilots pitcher, may have said it best in his illuminating baseball book "Ball Four," which highlighted that lone season in Seattle: "I'm sad that Seattle didn't keep its franchise. A city that seems to care more for its art museums than its ballpark can't be all bad."

Seattle loves sports, within reason.

Gastineau, the sports-radio host, remembers the 1994 NBA playoffs, when the Sonics were upset by the Denver Nuggets. Dikembe Mutombo, the Nuggets' young star, fell to the floor, gripping the basketball in his hands, celebrating like a happy child. For the Sonics, who had a league-best 63-19 record in the regular season, it was a shocking first-round collapse.

As Gastineau exited with the crowd that day, he heard the Frank Sinatra song "That's Life" playing at Seattle Center. It contained a line that highlighted the Sonics' plight: "You're riding high in April, shot down in May."

The bewildered fans did a very strange — very Seattle — thing. They laughed.

"They were angry, but they still found the humor," Gastineau recalled. "They're not going to jump off Aurora Bridge over a basketball team. They lost a game. Yeah, that is life."

That story won't help erase those old stereotypes. It's a black-and-white sports world, but most fan bases have plenty of shades of gray, and, of course, no city knows gray quite like Seattle.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer

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