The sad state of the Seattle sports scene

OK, I’ve lived in Seattle five years now. Moving down from Canada, I was excited to have regular access to professional sports entertainment. Sorry, watching CFL playoffs in -30C weather just doesn’t cut it for me. Little did I know, however, that I was stepping into a perfect storm of bad sports karma in the Emerald city. This was not just one lovable losing team like the Cubs or a couple of down seasons from teams that have tasted greatness (e.g., Philly, Cleveland, San francisco). No, it was simultaneously bad performances from multiple teams against a tapestry of losing weaved through the last thirty years. Every team in the city seemed to feed a losing ratchet, tightening on the collective heart of the city. Things hit rock bottom when the Sonics franchise finally flatlined and ended up in Oklahoma. Forbes recently named Seattle the most miserable sports city in the United States. Remarkably, Seattle won the title for the worst sports city for the THIRD year in a row! How difficult is it to three-peat at anything in sports these days? Look at the terrible runs that the Pirates, Rays, Royals and Tigers have been on in the past decade and none of them ever threepeated as the worst team in baseball. Even in subjective categories like MVP votes, people usually get bored of voting for the same person. Yet there sits Seattle, by itself in its losing ways. Let’s take a look at the evidence shall we?

HISTORY. In Seattle, professional sports are relatively recent developments. The NBA came to town in the form of the Sonics back in 1967. They were followed by the NFL’s Seahawks in 1976, baseball’s Mariners in 1977, the WNBA’s Storm in 2000 and the MSL’s Sounders in 2009. That’s not a lot of history to fall back on, so winning has never really been a tradition. As Table 1 indicates, Seattle teams rarely win and their fans can look forward to the playoffs as often as a Shaq free throw. Only Cleveland can can claim to be in the same zipcode as Seattle in this respect.

Team Winning games (%) Winning seasons (%) Playoff years (%)
Sonics 0.52 0.61 0.54
Seahawks 0.48 0.43 0.31
Mariners 0.47 0.33 0.12
Cavaliers 0.47 0.48 0.53
Browns 0.53 0.37 0.29
Indians 0.51 0.54 0.10

THE TRAIN CRASH. So we’ve established that the Pacific Northwest doesn’t have the best reputation for winning sports culture (the show Portlandia below hits it on the nose). And yes, we do have an adult league for pretty much every alternative sport you can think of. However, the Seattle sports scene completely imploded in 2008. The Mariner’s were a ghastly 61- 101. The University of Washington football team was the only NCAA Division I team to go winless for the season, compiling a 0-12 record for the first time in Pac-10 history. In the NFL, the Seahawks went 4-12, good for last place. And in their final season, the Sonics went out with a whimper at 20-62. On the bright side, Mount St. Helens didn’t blow and there was not giant earthquake along the Seattle fault.

When there is no collective sports culture, you get this.

Things were so bad that a local Norm’s Pub in Seattle had a running beer special in “honor” of Richie Sexson. Whatever Richie’s batting average was would set the price for a pint of beer. Many a $2.18 pints were had by all! (Note: this summer pints were $1.88; aka Chone Figgins’ average) The team was in the midst of trying to develop around two young cornerstones in the infield, Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt. Those two players were talented, but completely raw. If, as the Mariners had hoped, those two had developed together, the team would have had a strong middle infield with some complementary pop in the lineup. It was clear, however, that these two would never reach their potential. Betancourt in particular seemed to have trouble meeting the team’s expectations and was often improvising on the field both offensively and defensively. The only thing worse than their lack of discipline was the fact that the two of them fed off each other in such a negative manner. Here’s an example of the type of play Betancourt made on a regular basis in Seattle. Once, it resulted in a severe injury to outfielder Endy Chavez, who was never the same.

The Sonics were under the cloud of relocation and GM Sam Presti traded most of the roster for young players/draft picks that would position the team once they moved south. Check out this accounting of the 2007-2008 roster and where the players have ended up today. The team was a faceless collection of unproven players that the fans had no time to make a connection with. Without a new arena deal, the team moved out with little fanfare.

The University of Washington football team completely crumbled in the worst season by any team in recent memory. The team had a promising young quarterback in Jake Locker, but this stunning finish against BYU in the second game of the season foreshadowed what was to come. Locker was hurt two games later while throwing a block and from there the season spiraled out of control.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, were still fresh off a run of division championships and a trip to the Superbowl. However, the 2008-09 season started strangely with coach Mike Holmgren announcing that the season would be his last and that assistant Jim Mora would take over as head coach in a year’s time. Age caught up with players like RB Shaun Alexander and OL Walter Jones while injuries struck the team at historic rates.

Yet, there was something more than just losing going on in Seattle. In 2008, the city lost coaches Mike Holmgren, John McLaren, and Tyrone Willingham. Businesses large and small also began to leave, most notably with Washington Mutual shutting its doors during the financial meltdown. But it was the loss of the Sonics to Oklahoma City, that underscored the feeling that the good ship Seattle was sinking.

Some Seattleites gave up on professional sports and started cardboard tube dueling instead.

Is all this losing a Pacific Northwest phenomenon? Up in Vancouver, the NHL’s Canucks endured 15 consecutive losing seasons. This was a North American record until the Pittsburgh Pirates surpassed that with their current 18 season skid. A historic hockey loss that haunted Vancouver for a generation occurred during the Summit Series between Team Canada and the USSR in 1972. The fans rough treatment of their team at the height of the cold war was an embarrassing and defining moment. The hockey gods shunned Vancouver for nearly forty years until Sidney Crosby finally brought some form of championship hockey to the west coast during the 2010 Winter Olympics. BTW, try watching the best three minutes of video on the internet (see below) and you can almost hear good old Canadian pride mixing with the release of a generations worth of Vancouver angst. With their hockey house in order, Vancouver fans finally prepare for the Canucks to make a legitimate run at the Stanley Cup this spring. UPDATE: Well, the Canucks made it to the finals and lost to the Boston Bruins. After the game seven home loss, Vancouver gave us another embarrassing riot (see 1994 loss to Rangers). However, we will explore about the psychology of Vancouver fans another day.

ECHOS & REBIRTH. Back in Seattle, the Mariners have finally started rebuilding their team from within. Although the team is not expected to compete this year, they are committed to develop their own talent rather than building through free agency. Justin Smoak, Michael Pineda, Dustin Ackley and the upcoming #2 draft pick will join Felix Hernandez as a young group of players that the team hopes will lead to a more successful future. Still, there’s most likely much development (=losing) in the immediate future. The Seahawks have already begun their rebuild under the effervescent Pete Caroll. The new team had a successful first draft and has continued to turn the roster over at every opportunity. The team made the playoffs with a 7-9 record, but followed that up with a memorable win over the defending champion New Orleans Saints in the first round. The signature run by Marshawn Lynch was literally earthshaking and signaled that finally something is starting to happen in Seattle. Meanwhile, the UW football team had an up and down season that ended with a dramatic bowl win over Nebraska and sent Jake Locker off to the NFL a winner. More importantly, new coach Steve Sarkisian has brought stability and competitiveness back to the program. Although the void of the Sonics is slow to fill, the Seattle Sounders and Storm have combined to provide quality sports entertainment options. The Sonics will return some day. Seattle has retained the Sonics name and when an arena is finally arranged, it is likely that both an NBA and NHL team will be major tenants. So some day, hopefully some day soon Seattle’s pro teams will rise again.

Maybe the Mariners should recruit Jake Locker? I saw this pitch live and it was a heater down the middle.

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