About an hour before the WNBA Seattle Storm is to tip against the Chicago Sky, Lori Elfering cuddles with a female love interest a few rows up from the KeyArena floor, watching Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird, and company shuffle through their pregame warm-ups.
Elfering has been a season-ticket holder for professional women's basketball in Seattle since the debut of the now defunct Seattle Reign. Were it not for the Storm, says Elfering, she would never set foot in KeyArena—not for a concert, not for a circus, and damn sure not for the Sonics. "The boys suck," says Elfering. "The girls, when they knock each other down, they pick each other up."
Half an hour later, as the Key's lower bowl begins to fill in, Jo Watts files her nails at a table near one of the arena's beer kiosks. Watts moved to Seattle from Reno five years ago and has split season tickets with a trio of gal pals ever since being introduced to the Storm by one of them three years ago. Unlike Elfering, Watts doesn't loathe the men's game—but she favors the women's.
"I think I've been to one [Sonics] game in five years," says Watts. "It's not that they're not fun to watch, it's just too expensive. The working guy can't afford it. [The Storm] care about their fans, and the level of competition has improved drastically."
The two also differ in their opinion of whether the Sonics' quest for a dramatically improved KeyArena, funded in part by taxpayers, would necessarily be a good thing. Elfering's cool with it; Watts not so much.
"But I think this is a fairly nice facility," says Watts. "If they revamp it, doesn't that mean ticket prices would go up?"
Perhaps, but what both women can agree on is this, from Watts: "I haven't heard the Storm mentioned at all."
Longtime season-ticket holder Dale Chambers, who sits courtside for every game clutching an orange-and-white women's basketball, puts it more bluntly: "They should be included in the whole thing. Why doesn't Howard Schultz say something about them?"
Good question. The Storm, remember, is also owned by Starbucks CEO Schultz and more than 50 partners. The women draw upward of 8,000 fans per home game, of which they play 17 a year, not counting preseason and playoffs. In 2004, they were WNBA champions—selling more than 17,000 tickets to each of the home games in the league finals and notching Seattle's first world championship in any professional sport in 25 years. The Storm captured the hearts of a "world city" that's prone to pooh-poohing pro athletics as the undereducated brute of a dynamic, heady arts-and-entertainment matrix.
Then there's the rich-guy thing. Schultz is a rich guy. So are his players. People don't want to give rich guys money, especially when those rich guys arrogantly demand it at political gunpoint in a city suffering from some serious stadium fatigue. In clumsily making their case for a new and improved Key, Schultz and his public-relations advisers have come off like cowboys without a plan.
Hence, the Storm has been pushed to the fringe in the debate for a new arena, something that Karen Bryant, the club's diplomatic chief operating officer, claims is somewhat understandable, if not a smidge narrow-minded. "Because the Sonics are the NBA franchise, it stands to reason that they're going to be the focal point," says Bryant. "But it affects us as much as the Sonics."
If Sonics brass want to resuscitate their flagging arena bid, they'd be wise to take this notion to heart and put the charming franchise front and center, however belatedly. The reality is that Storm crowds, while boasting a significant female fan base, more closely resemble the true face of Seattle than Sonics gatherings, which tend toward rich pretty folks who can hardly put their BlackBerries down long enough to clap for an alley-oop.
By and large, Storm games attract far more kids, families, ethnic minorities, and blue-collar types per capita than the Supes. And in sharp contrast to the tanned midriffs of the Sonics dance team, the Storm's hype squad features a roly-poly black dude with a giant 'fro and a couple middle-aged women who look like they'd be more at home in a Hacky Sack circle at Folklife than shakin' that ass to Ciara. Eccentric? Sure, but charming.
As for the players, they actually box out and execute backdoor passes with aplomb. No wonder John Wooden is on record as saying he'd rather watch the women these days.
"They're more enjoyable" than the Sonics, says Chuck DeMoss, who's owned season tickets for both teams since the Storm's inception. "They're giving their all—all the time. Too many times, you go to Sonic games, and they just walk it through. They're afraid of getting hurt and losing their $10 million, whereas the ladies have to work their tails off for 50 grand."
By all means, bemoan the Sonics and their strong-arm tactics. But when considering the plight of KeyArena, don't forget its impact on Seattle's fairer hardwood champs, the ones whose rabid, diverse cadre of fans outshouts the lot down the hill at Safeco just about any night.