In the summer of 2006, if you'll recall, Clay Bennett’s and his group of investors purchased the Sonics from Howard Schultz and his group of investors, essentially beginning the process of bringing a team to the state north of Texas.
As you may or may not be aware, a large chunk of season tickets are sold in the spring and early summer, which made 2006-07 the last season for Sonic ticket reps to make some decent headway without a threat of relocation dangling over their cubicles. By the Summer '07, very few folks had any expectation the team was going to stick around beyond the end of the season, and attendance plummeted quicker than Shawn Kemp’s career post-Cleveland.
All of which is a long-winded way of explaining why that season is really the best way to look backwards at Sonic attendance. The 2007-08 season was a debacle – both on the court and off. Nobody wanted to see a miserable team that was leaving town, the ownership spent more on tumbleweed insurance than on marketing and the awful attendance reflected that.
In 06-07, though, the possibility remained that the team would stick around, making it the best measuring stick by which to gauge Seattle’s attendance. So, I thought I would take a glance at how Seattle Circa 2006-07 stacks up against this year’s version of the NBA. Below is a listing of the per-game averages for all 30 NBA teams through four contests, and the '06-'07 Sonics.
New York, 19,640
San Antonio, 17,960
Golden State, 17,827
Seattle 2006-07, 16,148
New Orleans, 15,156
New Jersey, 14,919
As it stands right now, nine teams are drawing worse than the Sonics did in 2006-07. And not “after Marc Gasol Lookalike Night it'll even out” kind of different, either. The difference between Seattle and the Sixers – 4,611 a night – is almost exactly the same as the difference between Seattle and the Bulls, the top-drawing team in the league. Put another way, the Sonics are as close to the Blazers in attendance (#2 overall) as they are to the Grizzlies (#29 overall).
Naturally, skeptics, Oklahomans, and David Stern's acolytes would say that we are in the midst of completely different economic times, that you can't compare the climate in 2006-07 with the one in 2009-10 and just call it even-Stephen Jackson.
To which I would respond: Fine. But, if the NBA and everyone else in the country is going to sit there and accuse Seattle of poorly supporting their team – all together now, "Hey, Seattle, if you loved the Sonics so much, why didn't you just go to the games more often, huh?" – then what the hell are you going to say to the nine teams ranked below Seattle on that chart?
If the support in Seattle was poor, what exactly would you call it in Memphis? Or Indiana? Or Milwaukee? Or Philadelphia? Sure, the economy stinks, but do you really think the Grizzlies would be averaging 18,000 a night if unemployment was at 4%. Do you think the Pacers be selling out if only the derivatives market hadn’t obliterated the banking system?
Perhaps, just perhaps, the problem wasn’t with Seattle, but rather with the NBA. It’s all fine and dandy when you’ve got a brand-new stadium, or if you’ve got terrific economic times, or if your team just played in the NBA Finals, but a healthy city supports the team even when it stinks, or when the unemployment rate is higher than your starting center’s rebounds per game.
Unfortunately, the league has set itself up in such a fashion that a team cannot be successful unless it sells 90% of its seats for all 41 games, regardless of on-court success or economic indicators. It’s a ridiculous scenario doomed for failure.
To exacerbate the situation, take a look again at those nine teams: fully seven of them have heard rumblings about either relocation or a sale - only the Clippers (the most moribund team in NBA history) and the Sixers (who for some reason only seem to draw better after Christmas) are seemingly safe. To be fair, it's a bit of a chicken and egg scenario, but do you think it helps ticket sales when David Stern whines about the situation in Sacramento, or when the Simons talk about moving out of Indiana? Call me crazy, but I'd guess that it doesn't.
Three years ago, Seattle was held up in front of the fans of the other 29 teams as an example of how not to support an NBA team. I just wonder if that same standard will now be used for the nine other clubs.