Sideline Commentary

Sonic Boom

Andrew Bucholtz
Andrew Bucholtz

SEATTLE—There’s a dark shadow hanging over this city that makes the omnipresent rain clouds seem all sweetness and light by comparison. The prospect of losing the city’s beloved NBA franchise has come into stark focus during the court case between the city and the owners of the Seattle SuperSonics, who want to move the team to Oklahoma City.

Still, as the battle over the team’s future location plays out inside the large, gloomy courthouse, optimism still lives among the fans. More than 2,000 fans attended a rally on the courthouse steps on the afternoon of June 16 and stood there for over an hour chanting “Save our Sonics.” Former Sonics’ stars Gary Payton and Xavier McDaniel were in attendance, whipping up support for the team, and for a moment, there seemed to be a renewed sense of hope.

That hope may or may not yet prove illusory. What is for certain, though, is that this trial matters to more people than just those on the West Coast. It asks uncomfortable questions about our connections as fans to professional sports teams. Should the Sonics be treated just like any other business as their lawyers would like, free to move to a more profitable area whenever the urge strikes? Sonics’ economist Lon Hatamiya said there’s no distinction between professional sports and Wal-Mart in his model.

Does that mean that professional sports fans are merely customers, there to fill the team’s seats and bank accounts? Is attending a game just like any other service where your connection stops as soon as you exit the arena? Or is there a deeper attachment, a deeper tie between teams and their fans?

The reality of this era is that sports are now a business and a billion-dollar one at that. Business considerations are going to factor into most decisions made by franchises, owners and leagues. The willingness of cities to pony up public funding and corporate sponsorship has much more to do with where teams are located these days than any consideration of the abstract concepts of history, tradition or loyalty.

Sports still go beyond a purely business transaction, though, and they do create deeper connections than most businesses. It’s hard to picture becoming as emotionally invested in a local Wal-Mart as a local professional sports franchise. In fact, in some ways, the new marketplace creates even more passionate fans than before.

With the spread of lucrative TV and radio deals and the constant array of information found on Internet sites, many devoted to covering specific teams in greater detail than ever possible before, it’s now easier than ever to follow a team around the clock. That time investment creates an even deeper connection and is in turn good for the franchise and the league from a business standpoint. Fans who track a team’s every move and spend hours debating their strategies are far more likely to watch or go to games, buy merchandise and promote the team through their own sites.

Franchises shouldn’t expect their fans to be “consume and forget” spectators. That will only hurt their own business model in the end. Sports are still about more than just a business transaction. Many of us don’t just go to ballparks or arenas expecting mild entertainment: we go because we deeply care about our team and their fortunes.

This is why what happens to the Sonics matters to every fan in North America. If out-of-town owners can rip out a franchise deeply ingrained in the community to relocate to another market where the purse strings are loose, it can happen to your team too. If 41 years of history and a long tradition of passionate fans doesn’t matter in this era of corporate sports, don’t expect sentimental considerations to save your team. If the Sonics’ owners win, it’s another nail in the coffin for fans across the continent who know their franchise might be next. But, if the city wins, it will show that sports franchises mean more to their community than any McDonald’s or Wal-Mart.

Either way, the reverberations of this Sonic boom will be felt for a long time.

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