by Jason Davis

By almost any measure imaginable, the Seattle Sounders are an American sports phenomenon.  In the soccer realm, they're a breakthrough franchise, garnering support and attention on levels that we hope portend a glorious MLS future.  They've crushed league attendance records through two seasons, and show no signs of slowing down.  Their city has embraced them, and from an outside perspective, they seem to get the type of local media attention that other clubs would kill to have.

Conventional wisdom on the resounding success of the Sounders in Year 1 of their MLS existence included that the club filled a benefited from the recent departure of the NBA Seattle SuperSonics.  A long time sports institution was ripped away through nefarious means, and the Sounders stepped in to fill the void; from a more concrete standpoint, some of the entertainment dollars previously spent on basketball likely found their way to soccer.  The club received more media coverage than it might have otherwise thanks both to a response to fan enthusiasm and because news outlets no longer had the NBA to cover.  Resources that might have been earmarked for the Sonics were free to be reallocated, in whatever percentage, to covering Major League Soccer.

Again, this is the impression I get from the other side of the country.  

Now there are rumors that the NBA could be headed back to Seattle.  The league is on the verge of purchasing the troubled New Orleans Hornets, a franchise that has moved once already (from Charlotte in 2003) with an eye towards finding a permanent, and financially viable, home for the club.  There are still plenty of NBA fans in Seattle, so it makes sense that the city would be on the relocation shortlist. The natural question then, is what having pro basketball back in town might mean for the Sounders.  If the club benefited from the departure of the Sonics, does that necessarily mean they would suffer from an NBA return?

It would be easy to say "No!", point to the success of the Sounders and the passion of their fans and whisk away any concern that competing with another professional sports product for time, money, and attention of fans and media.  But I'm not sure it's simple.  I have no doubts the Sounders would be "fine", at least by any standard currently applied to professional soccer in the US, but I think it would naive to expect no consequences.  If the Sounders were forced to compete with a new Sonics for local marketing dollars and room in the dwindling sports budgets of news media, would they always come out on top?  

I'll leave it to Seattleites to fill in the gaps or explain where I'm wrong.  I do have faith that soccer has made enough of a mark in the Pacific Northwest - and make no mistake the Sounders will benefit from the regional rivalries they'll have next year, even if appears they're already bumping up against the MLS-success ceiling - to weather a storm like the NBA hitting town again.  Passionate Sounders fans won't trade one team for another, and those that shift their expendable income from soccer to basketball might be easily replaced.  The overlap of seasons is minimal, a fact that might work to the Sounders advantage, so this is not meant to suggest that the Sounders are "in trouble" should the NBA chose to move the Hornets to Seattle.  

I'm simply wondering what effect it might have. Basketball is bigger than soccer, despite what we've seen in Seattle the past two years.  If the general managers of radio and TV stations are faced with a choice, soccer or basketball, it's not difficult to imagine them choosing the sport with the longer track record of proven interest.  The landscape would be more crowded, decision-makers less free to give the Sounders the type of coverage they've come to expect.  After climbing the mountain so rapidly in just a few years, it's unimaginable that the Sounders would fall all the way down to the usual MLS level.  That doesn't mean they might not find further climbing more difficult.  

Of course, nothing is done, and it's very possible the Hornets could move to Las Vegas, Kansas City, or some other city without basketball.  Until a buyer is found, it's only speculation.  As a new arena for the basketball team would have to be privately funded (the team was sold and move to Oklahoma City because public funding for a new venue was consistently voted down), it's still something of a long shot.  

Nevertheless, the Sounders organization themselves have to at least be pondering what it might mean.  There's probably no need for worry, but it behooves them to realistically consider what their position in the Seattle sports scene would be should the NBA return.

*UPDATE 12/14*

Dear friends, please read carefully before you comment.  At no point did I say that Sounders attendance would drop if the NBA returned to Seattle.  Most of the speculation involves media coverage and local corporate commitment to the team.  

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