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Seattle Times news librarian Gene Balk crunches the numbers

January 15, 2013 at 11:00 PM

With worse fan support than Spokane, can Seattle get its NBA mojo back?

Sonics fans cheer as Seattle destroys Phoenix at Key Arena in the 1997 NBA playoffs. (Credit: Rod Mar / The Seattle Times)

Basketball fans have been on the edge of their seats for days. Seattle seems so close to getting back a team — is the acquisition of the Sacramento Kings already a done deal?  Or are the rumors premature, and have hopes been raised, only to be quashed again?

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.

In surveys conducted during 2011 and 2012, only 4.1 percent of people in the Seattle-Tacoma metro area expressed a “very high” level of interest in the NBA.  Out of the 78 major markets surveyed, that ranks us 75th.

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As the chart above illustrates, our enthusiasm for pro basketball in Seattle is actually lower now than in many cities that never had a team at all — like Spokane, for example.   The percentage of hardcore NBA fans in the Seattle-Tacoma metro is 62 percent below the national average.  It couldn’t get much worse.

It wasn’t always this way.

Before the Sonics left for Oklahoma City in 2008 — back before anybody in Seattle knew and loathed the name Clay Bennett — we had a fairly healthy amount of interest in the game.  In survey data from 2000 to 2007, an average of 7.5 percent of adults in the Seattle/Tacoma metro area said they had a “very high” level of interest in the NBA.  Naturally, that number spiked when the team did well.  During the 2004-2005 season, when the Sonics made the playoffs, 8.9 percent of people in this area were gripped with basketball fever.

So from the peak in 2005 to the recent low in 2012, there was a remarkable 53 percent decline.  In just a handful of years, Seattle’s fan base was cut in half.

It’s important to realize that even back in 2005, our market only ranked 27th for the percent of the population with the highest level of interest in the NBA.  We were still 10 percent below the national average that year.  From 2000 until the time the Sonics left, Seattle was simply not in the same league as, for example, San Antonio, where fully a third of the population express the highest level of interest in the game.

But this week may be a game changer for Seattle.  Winning back an NBA team will reboot fan interest, to be sure.  But clearly there are challenges to maintaining passion for the game in this market.

What will fan support be like in Seattle when the Sonics return?  Take the poll, and feel free to sound off in the comments.

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Follow me on twitter @genebalk

 

Comments | More in Market Research | Topics: basketball, sports

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