Weather It All: The Strange Life Of A WNBA Fanbase In A City Without A NBA Team

In 2008, a group of Seattle businesswomen bought the Seattle Storm from Clay Bennett and kept it in Seattle. What's happened since is remarkable in ways big and small.

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Sep 30 2016, 1:00pm

Photo by Two Gypsy Hearts via Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

It wasn't long after Clay Bennett bought the WNBA's Seattle Storm and the NBA's Seattle Supersonics in 2006 that he announced both would be moving to Oklahoma City for the '08-09 season. As it turned out, Bennett only got one—in January of 2008 Force 10 Hoops, a group of four Seattle-area businesswomen, came together to purchase the Storm and keep them in Seattle.

"To this day if I see one of the owners somewhere I go up and thank them, because it meant so much," says Barbara Merk, 54, a Storm season ticket holder since the franchise began in 2000.

Six months later, another group of Seattle basketball fans went through a very different set of emotions.

"I felt dead inside," says Jeffrey Brown, 32, about hearing the announcement that the Seattle SuperSonics were officially going to become the Oklahoma City Thunder in July 2008. "Growing up we went to hundreds of Sonics games. Basketball was our family's thing. It was heartbreaking when they left."

Read More: How The WNBA Compares To Other Sports Leagues At 20

But Brown, like some others, had a saving grace, because he still had a team: he was also a Storm fan. "My Dad and I got season tickets to the Storm, in addition to the Sonics, right around when they first started, when I was 15," he says. "That was early enough that they were part of my childhood, too. Oklahoma could have just taken that team, too. It's huge that they stayed."

Eight years later, the Storm have won two championships—more than any other professional team in the city—in 2004 and 2010. Throughout their existence, the Storm's average attendance has hovered between 6,000 and 9,000, which is roughly in line with the league's average. For its twenty years of existence, WNBA attendance has been one of those data points constantly pointed to by naysayers about the viability of women's professional sports: they can't draw like men's sports can. As a WNBA team in a city without a NBA counterpart, the Storm are, among other things, proof positive of how different women's and men's professional sports still are.

The crowd at a Storm game doesn't look like one you'd find at an NBA arena or even a Seattle Mariners game, but they do draw a pretty consistent base. Seattle's unique circumstances bring a hybrid group together—abandoned NBA fans, WNBA loyalists, and people seeking communion and community. The question, for critics and fans alike, is: in a basketball-mad city that still yearns for an NBA team, why aren't there more of them?

In 17 seasons of Storm basketball, Merk has missed just one home game, but the Sonics were never really on her radar. She moved to Seattle in 1999, just when Seattle was hoping to be awarded a WNBA franchise. "To be honest, at the time, I wasn't a basketball fan, but I heard about the rally they were having to get enough season ticket holders to get a franchise and I just thought I should go, because I felt like I should support women's professional sports," she says. "I went. I wrote a check, and I've been there ever since."

Merk sits in the same seat today as she did in her first game, midway up the lower level, on the aisle, with a cowbell in hand. "I'm loud," she warns anyone she might not recognize before each game begins; she carries earplugs in her pocket for anyone around her who wants them.

Other Storm fans started off as Sonics fans, but became converts to the women's game. Carolyn Bechtel, 67, attended Sonics games before Seattle had an NFL or an MLB team to root for. She bought season tickets to the Storm in 2004, the year of their first championship—the first national title for a Seattle professional sports team since the Sonics' win in 1979.

"I was so angry when the Sonics left town, I actually sued Clay Bennett," Bechtel says. "We had a class action lawsuit. But I've realized I prefer watching the women's game to the men's now. I won't even watch the NBA anymore."

If you've ever attended a WNBA game, you'll notice a difference in the makeup of the crowd. Namely: there are a lot more women. This doesn't mean there are no men in the crowd—they're there, it's just that they don't vastly outnumber the women quite like they do in every other sporting audience. That different audience creates a different kind of atmosphere, one the WNBA has embraced from the beginning. This year the Storm had official games celebrating Pride Weekend, Kids Day, and Inspiring Women Night.

Nicola Davidson lives in Los Angeles now, but she credits the Storm's welcoming community not just for teaching her to love basketball, but also for changing her life. While living in Seattle, she attended her first Storm game in 2011. Within a season she was a season ticket holder. "I'm gay and I didn't come out until 2012, until after going to Storm games," Davidson says. "For me, to be in KeyArena was a safe place. Whoever you were, you were welcomed into that space. Without the Storm, I wouldn't have met my wife. Without the Storm, I may not be out. They helped me fall in love with the game, but the impact they have on personal lives as well, I think they may not even know how deep that goes."

But for all the warm, community-oriented vibes at Storm games, the scene in Seattle is fractious. In May, the Seattle City Council voted 5-4 against vacating a street on which a local investor had proposed building a new arena in an effort to attract a new NBA franchise.

Council members suggested alternative options may be more cost-effective, one of which is a renovation of KeyArena, the Sonics' former home and the Storm's current venue. All five votes against the motion came from female Council members. Vitriol on the Internet and on sports radio against the women was immediate and feverish. An area lawyer sent an email to the council members which read in part: "As women, I understand that you spend a lot of your time trying to please others (mostly on your knees) but I can only hope that you each find ways to quickly and painfully end yourselves."

Storm point guard Sue Bird, seen here in Rio accomplishing more than the gross dudes writing emails to Seattle City Council members. Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

For longtime Storm fans, the rhetoric was nothing new. The world of sports is a male-dominated one, and anything that centers women can result in sexist backlash; Storm fans are used to it by now, even without the Sonics around as a counterpoint.

"Online you do see people making sexist comments, like, 'Oh, how did she make that basket, she should be making a sandwich," says Kathleen Carosi, 36, who comes to games regularly via ferry from her home on Whidbey Island, northwest of Seattle in the Puget Sound. "A lot of people would change their mind if they just came to one game."

Not all sexism is so overt, though. When the Seattle Seahawks won the 2014 Super Bowl, ESPN touted the title as the first the city had seen since The Sonics' in 1979, overlooking the two titles won by the Storm.

Merk says the lack of local coverage of the Storm and the difficulty she has finding WNBA games televised, "really grates on me." (This season the Storm's home games were televised locally, but most away games weren't available except through a pay-per-view live stream.) But she says it's almost expected now: "That whole world is so male-dominated—that's the biggest hurdle."

Storm fans who also happen to be men are sometimes put in an interesting role as accidental gender equality advocates. Steven Yee, 57, a former Sonics season ticket holder who bought season tickets to the Storm when Force 10 Hoops bought the team, believes attracting those lost Sonics fans would be a huge shift for the Storm. "If you could attract 20 percent of all the pro basketball fans in Seattle, you'd never be able to buy a ticket for the Storm," he says.

Yee thinks it's possible, but only if the team can clear that first hurdle of convincing male fans women's sports are worth watching. "I tell people all the time, the skill level [in the WNBA] is high," he says. "The game is different, sure, so you have to help them understand the differences. There's less high-flying, no dunking, but if you're a real basketball fan that actually appreciates the game and not just the win, you'll appreciate it."

For the last two seasons, when not rallying the Bring Back Our Sonics troops or working his day-job in the computer software industry, Brown has been covering the Storm for SB Nation's SonicsRising site and trying to spread his appreciation to NBA fans. His stories don't often get much traction with that base, he says.

"For me, it's not about being a crusader for women's rights," Brown says. "It's about supporting basketball, they're a fantastic team. I love them. I coach basketball, and I'll stream Storm away games for the boys I coach, I'll talk to them about Breanna Stewart." He pauses. "If you can pass down a love for not just men's basketball, but women's basketball too, essentially what my Dad did for me ... I became a huge fan."

Seventeen years on, Brown is a part of the first generation to have known a WNBA league as an adolescent and as an adult. Seventeen seasons may seem like a lot when compared to other women's professional sports teams, but we're only turning a corner now when it comes to true generational shift. The players on the court are proof. Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd, the 22-year-olds who comprise the core of the Storm's roster, were babies when the WNBA started two decades ago. Sue Bird, the point guard feeding them passes, was a teenager before a professional future seemed possible. In a very real way, they grew up as basketball players in strikingly different worlds.

Jacob Perkins, a chiropractor, moved with his young family to the Seattle area in 2008, just in time to see the Sonics leave town. Growing up in Alaska, Perkins used to travel down to Seattle to watch Sonics games. He followed the Storm, but didn't make it to any games until 2014.

When he finally did, Perkins brought all three of his basketball-playing daughters. "For me, it was a coming home at Key Arena to be able to reminisce about those memories watching basketball there and building more of those with my own girls," he says.

They were hooked from the first game. These days, Perkins' oldest daughter, Donya, 11, is always on the Storm app, he says, following stats and keeping track of game times. All three wear Storm gear to school regularly and the girls say they learn new moves when they go to games—which they do often as season ticket holders. Though they follow all kinds of basketball in their house, the fact that they can watch professional women athletes makes a difference, Perkins says. "They can see what the professional level looks like and know that they can get there if they want to work for it."

Foreground: future of women's basketball, and the Seattle Storm, in a different uniform. Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

After a rough start to the season, the Storm's team chemistry finally seemed to click after the Olympic break. Bird, at 35, put up some of her best numbers in years, while Stewart and Loyd are fast becoming a new favorite pair to watch, a duo reminiscent of the early Bird and Lauren Jackson years. After winning five of their first seven games post-Olympics, the Storm returned home on September 11 looking to clinch a playoff berth.

A crowd of 9,348 packed cozy KeyArena for the game against the L.A. Sparks, and the Storm gave them a show, running away with the game from the first whistle and finishing with an 18-point win. As usual, the arena was filled with noise throughout the game. There were men and women, young kids and teenagers in the stands celebrating the victory.

Despite a regular season record below .500, the team drew more than 7,000 fans to each home game on average this season, a positive turnaround from a downward trend the team's attendance figures had been on for the last five years. Their final home game of the season on September 18, against the Chicago Sky, brought in a season high 12,186 fans.

Teams, like fanbases, go through seasons and generations; nothing is linear and nothing is ever settled, and the Storm's fortunes have ebbed and flowed like every other team's. It wasn't long ago that no one in Seattle had heard of "Blue Friday." Now you can't walk outside on a Friday in football season without seeing sidewalks suffocated in Seahawks gear. And when it comes down to pure numbers in the world of professional sports, at 17 years old, the Storm is still young.

So for now, Storm fans can continue to complain about the relatively small crowds at games and the near silence from local media on their team. But there's also almost an element of pride in many of their voices when it comes to being a part of this relatively small, fiercely loyal group that's been there since the beginning.

"In 2010 and 2004, when we were in the playoffs and they opened the upper bowl and the whole place was packed, it was deafening in there," Merk says. "But part of me felt like, 'OK, you're a little tardy to the party,' because some of us have been here through the good times and the bad."

Merk says she knows growth is good for the future of her team and the league, though. "I feel for all the cities that had a [WNBA] team that folded ... And I understand how Sonics fans feel, because it's how I would feel if the Storm had left," she says. "I know that I'll feel like new fans are bandwagon at first, but if we grow and maintain that, I'll get over feeling like they're latecomers. Because I want it to keep going."

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