ESPN takes the last thing the old Sonics had left

Last week’s news that the Kings may be coming to the Queen City — swear to god, I did not make that name up — produced some decidedly mixed feelings. I was excited the Sonics might be on their way back to Seattle, but unhappy about how the whole thing went down:

Having lived through the Sonics’ departure, I know it can be brutal, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone* and certainly not on the poor people of Sacramento (even if most of them are probably 49ers fans).

*OK, that’s not entirely true — I do wish that experience on OKC, but even then just because I’d prefer to have the real Sonics back.

The news also prompted an outpouring of media speculation, including an article in the Seattle Times that pointed out that the city it calls home is not exactly enamored with the NBA these days, With worse fan support than Spokane, can Seattle get its NBA mojo back? That article is brutal, especially since it’s so hard for anything to be worse than it is in Spokane:

With the enormous amount of local media attention focused on the drama unfolding in Sacramento, you might think that Seattle is a basketball-crazy town.  But you’d be wrong. The reality is that after the Sonics left, interest in professional basketball here went into a free fall. Despite this past week’s press frenzy, the market data show that our metro area has one of the nation’s lowest levels of interest in the NBA.

And that’s especially troubling if you buy into the narrative that the reason the team left town in the first place was an inadequate fanbase (and not, say, an inadequate ownerbase). If Seattle loves the NBA even less than it did when the team left, and Seattle loves the NBA much less than most any other city in the country, will anyone show up in Chris Hansen’s new $490 million arena?

The troubling question is compounded by the fact that NBA teams across the country are struggling with their own attendance. According to an article published by Yahoo, Why can’t NBA teams fill arenas, even after giving away free tickets?:

According to ESPN statistics, the Pistons are averaging 13,272 tickets sold per home game, and they play in the 21,000-seat Palace arena. Some of these “sold” tickets are given away free, and many more ticket holders simply don’t show up. The net result is a sea of unoccupied seats in the Palace, as fans who watch the games on TV can attest.

So to restate my earlier question: If Seattle loves the NBA even less than it did when the team left, and Seattle loves the NBA much less than most any other city in the country, and the rest of the country doesn’t really care for the NBA in the first place, will anyone show up in Chris Hansen’s new $490 million arena?

I was curious to see how these low levels of NBA attendance cited in the Yahoo article stacked up against the Sonics’ in the years before they were forced to leave because of low attendance. So I headed over to ESPN, which tracks attendance by team going back to 2001. I scrolled back to 2008, the Sonics’ last year in Seattle, and this is what I found:

ThunderSonics

That green circle is where the Sonics ranked in attendance in 2008 – 28th in the league. You’ll notice a few interesting things. One, two teams were ranked below them in attendance, and neither one* was subsequently forced to move. Two, though the statistics were accumulated in Seattle, the word ESPN uses to describe the team is “Thunder.”

*So far as I know. I’m from Seattle, so I stopped paying attention to the NBA after 2008.

Although Clay Bennett and his band of merry thieves agreed to leave the Sonics name and colors in Seattle, this is not the first time they’ve managed to co-opt the franchise’s history:

It’s one thing to steal the history and statistics that were amassed on a basketball court — after all, by the terms of the city’s settlement with the franchise, it’s Bennett&Co.’s contractual right — but I think it’s another thing entirely* to claim Seattle’s attendance record — the one statistic so often cited as the reason the Sonics were able to skip town.

*That thing would be ‘irony’.

But I also think I understand: it would be pretty awkward if someone pointed out that the Sonics’ historic attendance levels in Seattle — discounting their final season, after it became clear the team would move to OKC, and while the team traded its best players to make that transition easier to swallow — would rank it about 20th out of 30 in today’s NBA.

Whoops.

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