Sonics Fans Battle Heartily to Stave Off NBA Relocation

Billionaire owner demands a new sports arena. City cannot immediately finance.

Billionaire owner moves team to another location. Fans never had a say.

The script for franchise relocations in professional sports is an all-too-familiar one, but the latest act involving the Seattle Supersonics and owner Clay Bennett is threatening to change the dynamics of the players on stage.

This time, Sonics basketball fans are determined to play a leading role.

"The fans cannot be ignored," said lifelong Sonics fan Michol Sala, 30. "It's easy for guys like Bennett to downplay it and say, 'let's just ignore the fans and walk away.' But that's where the fans are saying, 'no, you're not gonna just walk away, or if you do walk away, you're not gonna do it quietly.' We may lose the Sonics but we're going to make a helluva lot of noise doing it."

That noise came to a formal crescendo on Monday, when about 3,000 Sonics fans rallied outside the courthouse on the first day of Bennett's lease trial with the city to protest the Sonics' pending move to Oklahoma City.

Bolstered by the success of the rally, which featured fan advocates such as former Sonics greats Gary Payton and Xavier McDaniel, many supporters in Seattle believe that resistance to the move is so great that they may be able keep the Sonics in Seattle.

"We believe we can get this done; it's not out of the question," said Steve Pyeatt, co-founder of the "Save Our Sonics" organization that staged the courthouse rally. "[Monday's] rally was amazing, but it was only one thing.

"What our group has done over the last year is made it very clear with over 10,000 members that the people want the team to stay here," he said. "And when our group decided they wanted to go out and set an example in the arena and show that Seattle does and will support the team, we packed the house. We feel like we turned this thing around. … Our goal is to keep Sonics basketball here for the next 40 years."

NBA Relocations: Difficult to Move

As much as Pyeatt and fellow Sonics fans might hope to influence the proceedings and keep the Sonics, the history of relocations in professional sports is not on their side.

The two most recent relocations of NBA franchises succeeded without much of a hitch, with the Vancouver Grizzlies moving to Memphis in 2001 and the Charlotte Hornets relocating to New Orleans in 2002.

But those relocations triggered much less resistance from fans than in Seattle.

In the case of the Grizzlies, the combination of off-putting ownership and an abysmal on-court product allowed the Grizzlies to walk quietly out of Canada.

"There was never any real concerted effort by fans to rally behind any kind of cause, or any swell of public demonstration like is happening in Seattle," said Vancouver Sun reporter and former Grizzlies beat writer Gary Kingston. "There wasn't a strong history, the organization was horrible from the beginning, and I just don't think there was enough of a solid, committed fanbase to get some real resistance going — it was just sort of a quiet resignation that that was it."

Charlotte Post writer Herb White, who covered the Hornets' relocation to New Orleans, said the obvious need for a new arena hampered any resistance that would have come from Hornets fans.

"The Hornets were a playoff-caliber team, but the situation basically came down to an arena that the owner could build a franchise off of," White said. "When the owner tried to force the city's hand by threatening to move the team if the city didn't approve a new arena, the city just said, 'OK, move. We're not going to put money into it.' It was a business decision on all accounts."

Futile Resistance?

The kind of resistance by the Sonics' fans can be found in other relocations throughout sports history, but the end result is generally the same.

In perhaps the most infamous of all relocations in professional sports, the Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984 despite enormous outrage and protest from Baltimore, which resisted stadium improvements.

Baltimore Sun editor Jon Morgan, who wrote the critically acclaimed book "Glory for Sale: Fans, Dollars, and the New NFL," was a sports reporter for the Sun at the time and remembers just how much the city fought against the Colts' departure, which occurred secretly, overnight because, as Morgan said, "They were literally afraid the state police were going to stop them and seize the team."

"The movement of the Colts was preceded by a long period of public courtship, so it was very public that the team was leaving Baltimore." Morgan said. "Predictably, that created a great deal of panic between fans, citizens and politicians, and there was a lot of gnashing of teeth on all accounts to try to keep the team [in Baltimore] and keep the team happy," Morgan said. "There was a sense of hurt and outrage, that the people in Baltimore believe that this was one of the greatest roots of the NFL. They felt a certain entitlement had been violated by the league."

Fans who have enjoyed the Sonics for the 41 years of the franchise in Seattle share a similar sentiment. But against the high-powered combination of owner Bennett and the NBA, the odds of the Sonics staying in Seattle, even amid the fiery resistance from fans and bare-knuckled litigation by the city, appear to be slim to none.

A Playbook Page from the NFL

Jim Giles, publisher of Dawgbones.com, the official fan-club site of the NFL's Cleveland Browns, believes the best recourse for Sonics fans might be to take a page out of the Cleveland Browns' playbook and secure everything but the team itself, as Cleveland fans did in 1996 when the original Browns relocated to Baltimore and became the Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore had no such luck with the Colts, losing everything to Indianapolis.

"The city of Cleveland sued the NFL to try to bring an injunction to keep the team from moving, like Seattle is doing, but due to the anti-trust laws there was nothing that could be done," Giles said. "But what the fans did do is say, 'We want the Browns back. If the team goes, we're not going to let any of this history get away. We want this city to keep our name, colors, history, everything.' And they filed petitions and got it done. So when there was a chance to get an expansion team [in 1999], it was the Cleveland Browns that came back.

"The measures taken by those fans are the biggest reason the Browns are here and have a passionate following today," Giles said.

Whether the Sonics remain in Seattle is yet to be determined. Whether an NBA franchise would return to Seattle in later years is an even greater unknown.

History shows that fans have little say in the matter, but for now at least, Sonics fans are doing what they do best: making noise and keeping the faith.

"The fans are going to make a lot of noise and I do think they're going to make a difference," devoted fan Sala said.

"But," he added, "they don't have the solutions to build a new arena. They can't be the ones to fix the problem."

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