The Seattle Storm's Sue Bird (left) tries to drive past the Los Angeles Sparks' Ticha Penicheiro on Sunday. Bird, a co-captain, says the team has a solid fan base, even if they're not picking up fans of the old SuperSonics NBA team, which moved to Oklahoma City under new ownership.
The Seattle Storm's Sue Bird (left) tries to drive past the Los Angeles Sparks' Ticha Penicheiro on Sunday. Bird, a co-captain, says the team has a solid fan base, even if they're not picking up fans of the old SuperSonics NBA team, which moved to Oklahoma City under new ownership. Elaine Thompson/AP
The WNBA started its 14th season over the weekend, and one of the league's strongest teams is based in Seattle — a town left behind by the NBA.
For most of the past decade, the WNBA Storm and the NBA SuperSonics were under the same ownership: sibling basketball teams in a basketball-crazy city. In 2006, a group of Oklahoma businessmen bought the two teams, and proceeded to lobby local government to help pay for a new basketball arena. When that effort failed, they announced their intention to move the teams to Oklahoma City.
But it wasn't a complete disaster for Seattle basketball fans. Right before the teams' departure, four Storm season-ticket holders stepped in, offering to buy the WNBA team and keep it in Seattle.
Former Microsoft executive Dawn Trudeau says it wasn't too hard to convince the Oklahoma owners to give up the women's team.
"It was an unknown, I think, in Oklahoma City for them," Trudeau says. "And because there was such a strong fan base here, I think they really understood that this was really the rightful place for the Storm."
'I Think It's Better Basketball'
The Storm still plays in Key Arena, the basketball coliseum under the Space Needle that the Sonics' owners found lacking. There are still traces of the Sonics' past, such as the green-and-yellow trim on the players' entrance. But the crowd — nearly 10,000 strong on opening night — is unlike the spectators in the NBA.
There are far more kids, especially girls, and a phalanx of well-dressed women sitting courtside. Instead of spandex-clad cheerleaders, the Storm has a dance troupe made up of grinning grade-schoolers.
Karen Bryant is the team CEO; she's been with the Storm for years, before and after the Sonics left town. She says it was sad to see the men's team go, but she doesn't miss sharing the same owners.
"For us, I think it's about being in control of our own destiny," Bryant says. "When you're in control of your future, for better or worse, there's no position we'd rather be in."
The Storm would like to attract some of the Sonics' old fans, but it's not easy.
Patty Squires, a radio reporter who's been covering women's pro basketball since the 1990s, says the WNBA team faces a lot of prejudice.
"A lot of people don't see the WNBA as real basketball," Squires says. "Personally, I think it's better basketball, rather than hotdog basketball."
And the handful of Sonics fans who show up here are careful to show proper respect. For Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Sparks, Kelly Remboldt and David Soberg were given excellent seats, right behind the press table, courtside.
The Storm's ticket office is trying to convince these die-hard Sonics fans to become die-hard Storm fans. Soberg says he enjoys the physicality of the game.
"I didn't realize how rough the WNBA was — I mean, it's pretty rough," Soberg says.
Still, Remboldt says, it's just not the same: "Nothing will fill the void until we get NBA back in Seattle."
Solid Fan Support
But if Sonics fans aren't willing to commit, the Storm isn't going to beg. In the locker room after the game, co-captain Sue Bird says the team already has solid fan support.
"If you ask players from opposing teams, they do not like coming here to play. It's loud, it's rowdy, even when we're not sold out the way we were tonight," Bird says.
She seems to accept that there's not a lot of crossover between the two leagues, and it doesn't seem to bother her.
The two leagues just have different styles, she says. And moments later, the women celebrate their win over the Los Angeles Sparks with a giant box of cupcakes, delivered to their locker room.