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Thursday, August 11, 2011
Sweepless in Seattle

By Whitney Holtzman

Seattle is surrounded by beautiful scenery, which is a good thing, because for Seattle sports fans there's nothing pretty about what's been happening inside the perimeters of the city.

Let's take a brief inventory of the Seattle sports teams. The SuperSonics up and left in 2008 and became the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Seahawks haven't been awful. They've dabbled in the playoffs, making six appearances since the turn of the millennium, but they still have never won a Super Bowl. The Mariners just wrapped up a 17-game losing streak that spanned July 6 to July 26. Gulp. And as for Seattle's NHL team, well, it doesn't have one, which may be best for all parties involved.

So what does it feel like to watch your favorite team lose 17 games straight?

"It was physically hard to watch," said 24-year-old Kory Eggenberger, a lifelong Seattle sports fan who lives in Tacoma. "You had to flip the channel before you threw something at the TV."

Sounds like the local TV retailers probably benefitted from the slump.

"When they beat the Yankees 9-2, I felt like I was on top of the world, even though we were in last place," Joey Burns, 24, of Bellingham, Wash., said of the victory that finally ended the Mariners' losing streak.

Andrew Croft
Andrew Croft coaches soccer so kids will learn to love sports through playing -- since they won't through watching Seattle's bumbling pro teams.

But you know things are bad when losing 17 games in a row isn't the worst sports calamity your city has suffered.

That glorious spot in history is reserved for the Sonics' exiting Seattle. For Oklahoma?!

"Losing the Sonics was worse than losing your first love," said 24-year-old Seattle resident Andrew Croft, who used to work on the Sonics' promotion staff. "You know that can probably be replaced. You can't replace a basketball team."

"When you've been following a team for so long -- as long as I can remember -- a little piece of your heart gets taken away. You have an empty hole there," said Sean McIlraith, 27, who grew up south of Seattle in the small town of Orting.

When the Sonics left, it seems they took Seattle's passion for the NBA with them.

"I'm probably speaking for a lot of Sonics fans," McIlraith added. "We just don't care anymore about the NBA."

Many believe Starbucks CEO and former Sonics owner Howard Schultz is responsible for the team's relocation, since the billionaire sold the franchise when his demands for the public to fund a new arena were not met. Fans have even shown their allegiance by ditching the popular coffee retailer.

"Most everyone I know doesn't buy anything from Starbucks," Burns said. "April was boycott Starbucks month for Sonics fans. People walk around the city wearing T-shirts that say 'robbed' with the Sonics logo."

Giving up Starbucks in a climate where it rains an average of 364 days a year isn't an easy concession.

So what's causing all this losing?

"The most frustrating thing for me with the Mariners is that the players are good before they get here and All-Stars when they leave," Eggenberger said. "With me, the whole curse thing is a false idea spawned by bandwagoners. Your team is going to win and it's going to lose. Every team goes through a drought. It's just that every Seattle team is going through it at the same time. You can just chalk it up to dumb luck."

Croft blames bad ownership.

"I don't really believe in curses," he said. "The reason we have bad luck is because we've had stupid owners who don't run the teams properly."

OK, maybe it's the dreary weather?

"It's almost like there's this cloud over the city that's preventing us from going that extra distance," McIlraith said.

"I think it's a slower-paced lifestyle up here," Burns added. "You can't be outside working out because you always have to worry about the rain."

So the question arises: Through all this misery, why stick around and remain loyal?

"I was born on an NFL playoff Sunday when the Seahawks were playing, and the entire time my mom was giving birth, my dad was watching the game," Croft said. "I was literally born a Seahawks fan. Sports bring an excitement to a city, especially when they're doing well. It gives people an escape from the real world."

"The teams have always been there for me," Eggenberger said. "It's a security thing. When the fall rolls around, you know the Seahawks will be out there playing. If the teams here find success, it will be worth the 10 years of bad luck."

But what needs to be done to bring joy and hope back to the Seattle area?

"It's going to take an unlikely team finding success in a year the team is not supposed to do well, a team that overcomes a lot of things, works as a team to become a unit -- do whatever it takes to win a title," McIlraith said.

As a blessing in disguise, the demise of the big sports teams has given rise to the popularity of soccer in the Seattle area. The Seattle Sounders FC of Major League Soccer have developed quite a following, averaging more than 35,000 fans per game, over 10,000 more than the next-highest MLS team.

Hey, at least that's something to cheer about.

But for the more major teams, Croft thinks something needs to be done about that crappy ownership.

"We need a hero, from an ownership standpoint," he said. "We've had a lot of great athletes but they've been traded away because of bad ownership mistakes.

In the meantime, Croft has decided to take matters into his own hands. He's devoted his life to coaching soccer for kids between the ages of 18 months and 18 years. He figures if the local teams continue losing and aren't giving kids a reason to cheer for them, he's going to find another way to get kids to love sports: through playing them.

"The reason I love coaching is that I'm trying to save the world one kid at a time," he said. "I'm trying to mold the next generation into people who love sports and can form a sense of community -- the things I got from going to Sonics and Mariners games growing up. I saw how a team can bring a city or a community together and make them into a family.

"Maybe I'll be that hero in the end."