Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Discussion: The Demise of Basketball in the Pacific Northwest

Editor's Note: Lately The Diss has been pondering the simultaneous demise of professional basketball in the Pacific Northwest and rise of soccer. We invited two friends of the blog and PNW natives, Michael Barrett and Justin van Dyk, to discuss the phenomenon.

Jacob Greenberg: What's going on here? Is it the fans? The sports themselves? Why has basketball failed, and why has soccer succeeded? Help bring clarity to basketball's death here in the Pac NW by shining some light on the birth of professional soccer.

Franklin Mieuli: Not to derail the debate before it even begins, but something to add is that somewhat the opposite has occurred in the Southwest.

Vancouver moved to Memphis, giving the Southwest Southeast a ton of teams: Orlando Magic, Miami Heat, NO Hornets, Charlotte Bobcats, Memphis Grizzlies, though NO is in some financial straits. At the same time, the only two teams to ever be contracted in the MLS were both in Florida. Despite rapid growth, there seems to be no push to return soccer to the Southwest, leaving the Houston Dynamo and DC United as the closest teams to the Southwest Southeast.

So maybe this is just about the PNW, but maybe about the Southwest. Is this a culture thing? Changing demographics? Is there a thread between this all, or was Vancouver a bad location and the Supersonics had a bad owner/arena? Did the MLS supplant basketball, or can they coexist together?

Jacob Greenberg: For me, and as a historically minded person, we need to look at the eras where basketball failed in the region, and where soccer started to flourish. Basketball's death up here could, I think, be sort of seen between the years 2000-2008. During that era the Grizzlies failed to sell out any games, got sold to out of towner Michael Heisley and then moved to Memphis. From 2001-2005, the Blazers were uncompetitive, and in the headlines for bringing guns and weed onto airplanes. The Sonics were slightly more competitive, but starting to make the boneheaded financial decisions, both on the court and off, that left the team vulnerable for a move after the 2007-2008 season.

And call me crazy, but soccer's dominance in the region seems to start around 2008, when the Sonics moved.

Coincidence? I wager not.

Mikey B: I'd say it's definitely cultural. Aside from select pockets and certain suburban areas, the Pacific Northwest is pretty thoroughly whitewashed (no snow pun intended). But that doesn't explain why there aren't more soccer teams around other predominantly white areas, or why the pacnw has led this trend. At least in Portland, there is a hip, well-fostered love of all things weird, and while you would think big-market professional sports like basketball wouldn't fit the bill, the rabid fanbase seems to be given a pass (even hipsters pack out the bars for PBR and pool during the games, and know who Arvydys Sabonis is). The emergence of the Timbers has been a bit more of a surprise, with sellouts every home game. The Timbers Army has been around for awhile, and rivals many European fanbases with its chants, songs, and energy. Easier to sell out barely 18,000 seat stadium in the first year regardless of performance than it is to pack out Key Arena for a mediocre Shawn Kemp-led team that will lose to the Bulls perennially (in fact my own personal fandom was more tied to lack of success in those playoff games than it was to the eventual backstabbing; plus I had long since become enraptured with the beauty of Stockton and Malone's game. No homo). Vancouver also has a hockey team, a very successful one, and while Western Canadians aren't AS obsessed with the sport as their eastern counterparts (read: rednecks), they will watch it with more religiosity than any soccer team (and riot accordingly). I could see another franchise succeeding in Seattle eventually, when the time is right, but they also are a three sport town with baseball and football teams. Though Portland is smaller, they really only have the Timbers and the Blazers (no, Triple-A baseball doesn't count). It's hard to divide that much revenue with other professional sports, especially with a population seemingly more concerned with getting outdoors and away from town as often as possible.

Jacob Greenberg: So does cultural = regional culture, or fan culture? Or, even city culture? While soccer and basketball are able to coexist in Portland, the same cannot be said for Seattle or Vancouver. I'll let Justin talk about Seattle's fanbase, but it's massive. I know that the Mariners are struggling to keep up, and I have to imagine the Sonics, were they still here, would have the same struggle. It doesn't seem like the Sounders could have succeeded to the same degree had the Sonics still been in town.

And only in Portland's young, hip, white population would they think that the #1 (soccer) and #2 (basketball) most popular sports are "weird." Ask a black or Hispanic kid from Oakland or New York how "weird" those things are.

Mikey B: But that's just it, in the backasswards world of Portland, the real irony is that the two most mainstream sports in the world need some quirky cachet before they will be accepted as cool enough. At least speaking for the people I know from there, and their friends, there are still plenty of corporate season ticketholders, and all the big employers in the area have season boxes at both, though I'm sure more at Blazers games than Timbers.

Jacob Greenberg: So to me, that seems like city-by-city culture, rather than the Pacific Northwest as a region. Seattle fans don't seem to need a quirky cachet to love their teams. It does seem, however, that winning matters. and from 2000-2008, Pacific Northwest basketball was very, very bad. The grizzlies never won anything, ever, until they moved to Memphis. Seattle had two playoff teams between 2000-2008, and only one made it past the second round. Portland's resurgence came only after it was clear that any Jailblazer influence was purged from the team. So, Portland's love for the Blazers was never unconditional.

Frank Mieuli: Have we really gotten this far without bringing race firmly to the center of this?

Portland and Seattle are two of the five whitest cities in the U.S, and Vancouver is Canadian (read: white). The Southeast of the US is decidedly the least white area of the country. I have looked hard for data on the race of fans and can't really find it, so what I am about to say might be total bullshit, but who cares. My guess is that the fan base for the MLS is mostly young and white (this article discusses how the MLS is moving from recruiting families to young people...Latinos and blacks aren't mentioned once), while the fan base for the NBA is more diverse, especially drawing in more black fans. When you have less of those black fans to draw in it is going to sink your business, while soccer is going to thrive in areas with large pockets of young, white fans.

Jacob Greenberg: So...the Grizzlies and Sonics left because...there weren't enough black people in the stands? Have you been to Portland? Or, seen a Blazers game? The entire crowd is white, and considering that Portland remains the Whitest city in America, and has one of the most draconian draconian TV and internet streaming deals in the league, one can infer that most of those watching at home are white as well. Yet, the Blazers, throughout their history, have flourished...

...except for during the Jailblazers years, when, to the average white NBA fan, the players were matching all sorts of scary black stereotypes.

So maybe race plays a role. I think Sherman Alexie would agree with you.

Justin van Dyk: Jacob you made a point about successful franchises, winning franchises. I think Seattle was dying for that as we rounded the horn on the last decade coming into this one. The Mariners had hit their high water mark in 2001, never to be in contention for anything since. The Seahawks were robbed of a Super Bowl in 2005. And the Sonics...well I think we've beaten that horse to death with discussions of their remaining years in Seattle.

MLS offered a reboot of a tradition of soccer here in Seattle. With the Sounders making the jump from USL to MLS and being offered their first game up on a silver platter (ESPN Thursday night prime time), the franchise had a chance out of the gate to make a mark. They did by destroying the reigning league champions at home and running riot their first season. Sounders fans--granted a small, loyal, and highly participatory sports fan--were given the option to vote on the name of the newly promoted franchise. Instead of grabbing for some new name and a chance to re-invent, they stuck with Sounders, tradition, and a legacy that had been born in the PNW decades prior. I think what makes soccer so successful in the PNW are two things, 1) Loyal fans that pack stadiums, form clubs, and most importantly travel...filling, sometimes, vast portions of rival stadiums (Sounders have been known to travel as far as DC and Boston to pack a crucial road match) and 2) the geographical proximity of historical rivals.

For a nascent professional sporting effort in each of these three cities in the I-5 corridor I really think being able to take large portions of your own fan base with you on the road during matches away helps to invigorate a fan base, keep them loyal, and keep them buying tickets. Wins and successful player acquisitions also help, but you can't get that bank roll by getting loans anymore (Thanks a bunch Wa-Mu).

Could MLS have thrived as much as it did in the PNW without two NBA franchises leaving? I will put forward that yes it could. Each of these teams have a strong history in the area, loyal fans, and smart front offices that have been scouring the globe lately to bring in top notch talent. They put on a convincing performance of what the MLS can be now, and in the future.

Mike you mentioned stadium size and selling out tickets (granted only 19K) as a way to pick apart, or at least put into a broader context the "success" of MLS teams. I think given larger venues, like Seattle, the sky is the limit for these clubs right now. But will they truly find their land of milk and honey in purpose built pitches? Or do utility stadiums, like Century Link, show the way to the future...and potentially why these franchises are so successful.

Frank Mieuli: So Justin, are you saying that the success of soccer and demise of basketball are pretty much unrelated? Soccer succeeded for its reasons, basketball failed for its reasons, and there isn't something larger at work?

Justin van Dyk: In Seattle yes. I don't know much about the Grizzlies exodus saga but in Seattle political machinations and an apathetic voter base came into contact creating a situation where the team left. Decisions on and off the court have doubt doubt affected the success of one franchise and led to a situation where another left. But in Seattle I think that political issues and maneuvering were the primary culprit.

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