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How Would the Return of the NBA Impact the Sounders?

Last week's announcement that the NBA's New Orleans Hornets are being bought out by the league has put the NBA speculation engine on overdrive. Opinions are divided between whether the team will find a buyer to keep it in Louisiana or whether it will be shipped to a more viable city, the leading candidates of which are Chicago, Kansas City, and the recently bereft Seattle.

It's that last option that obviously interests most Sounders fans and interested MLS observers. Jason Davis, of the excellent Match Fit USA blog and equally excellent American Soccer Show podcast wrote a post today on the topic, wondering whether the return of the NBA might impact the ongoing attendance success of the Sounders. It's a particularly resonant question because there was a lot of speculation that one of the ingredients in the Sounders' phenomenal MLS expansion was the recent loss of the Sonics and the eagerness of Seattle sports fans for another team to follow.

While I won't argue that there would be zero impact, I think there are some significant factors off the top of my head that should keep a Sounders fan from being worried.

  • It's not likely to happen - A lot of dominoes would have to fall before the Hornets wound up in Seattle. First, there's a good chance the team will stay in New Orleans if they can get the Governor to blink on subsidy dollars (which seems to be what this is really all about. The Saints get money from the state and the NBA wants the Hornets to get some, too). Second, if that's not possible, the team could be contracted entirely. That's the guess of Peter Vecsey, who knows more about the NBA than nearly anyone else on the planet. Third, if it does move, there are other candidate cities that don't have the acrimonious relationship with the NBA that Seattle has developed. And the stadium issues that were the cause of the Sonics' relocation are unresolved. Key Arena is still the same size it was and the state is still in the same fiscal situation that took a heavily subsidized new stadium off of the political table.
  • The season overlap - This is the strongest argument, I think. The MLS and NBA seasons just don't overlap that much. This season the NBA schedule started on October 26th. The final MLS regular season games were played on October 24th. By the time the NBA is rolling the MLS is in postseason, and while I'm sure the soccer Don doesn't like having his playoffs running up against the NBA tipoff, in the end that's just a tiny fraction of the total MLS season (Update: I shouldn't neglect the other end of the season. There's about a 3 week overlap at the beginning of the MLS season, plus the interminable NBA playoffs. Still basically opposite seasons). And when it comes to the various resources that the league might be competing for in Seattle — including fan availability, media coverage, marketing channels, access to downtown, etc — nearly all of them are sensitive to the season schedule. In fact, you could argue that there are benefits to having more leagues. Media organizations need to staff up their sports department, new advertising channels are opened, and once the NBA is off season, those resources are available to MLS. The only resource that they compete for, season aside, is the entertainment dollar. Which leads to...
  • Demographic overlap - How many Sounders season ticket holders were Sonics season ticket holders? I bet the team has some very good research on this. But without that research we have to make guesses, and my guess is that there isn't a huge amount of overlap. While I didn't attend a lot of Sonics games, when I did go the demographics seemed to be skewed toward executives (which is understandable given the prices). Sounders games look to be attended by younger people, by families with kids, by college students, by techies, by Latinos, and (somewhat surprisingly) by Seahawks fans. I don't think these are strong NBA demographics and when you take into account the large numbers of die-hard fans in the Supporters groups who aren't going anywhere regardless of demographics, I don't see a lot of pull from an NBA franchise.
  • NBA games just don't have a lot of seats - The average attendance in the NBA is somewhere around 17,000. Say you want to be aggressively pessimistic and argue that some huge percentage of a future Sonics fanbase would come from Sounders fans - say 40%. Then shave off those who are willing to buy tickets for both leagues — so say we're down to 35% of the Sonics fans as onetime Sounders fans who've completely switched over. That's around 6,000 fans. Take away 6,000 fans from the average Sounders game and they're still over 30,000. That's the 2009 attendance that shattered the league record and made everyone dizzy with glee. A less pessimistic guess would be something like 2 or 3 thousand making a switch. That's just a bump in the road of Sounders attendance.

So all in all I don't think it's very likely, and if it did happen Sounders fans should probably be more happy than worried. An NBA team would give us something to watch during the MLS offseason.

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