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Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Boisterous fans give Storm decided advantage

By Meri-Jo Borzilleri

For a measure of how much their fans mean to the Seattle Storm, one fact rises above all others.

When the team was on the brink of moving to Oklahoma City to join the departed NBA SuperSonics in 2008, Storm fans did more than howl in protest.

A group of four season-ticket holders got together and bought the franchise.

While Sonics supporters are still lamenting their team's fate, the Storm's haven't stopped celebrating their own.

The team has built one of the most passionate fan bases in the WNBA, one that is credited by players with helping them win two league titles.

"This place is magical," Storm forward Camille Little said of KeyArena.

The Storm, 15-2 at home this season and undefeated there last year (21-0, including playoffs), begin defense of their 2010 WNBA championship Thursday against Phoenix.

"Players everywhere say their fans are the greatest," said Scott Engelhardt, who with his wife, Angie, created the website "I think Storm fans believe it."

Visiting players to KeyArena sound vaguely envious when describing the Storm crowd. Iziane Castro Marques of the Atlanta Dream said the fans make it the toughest place to play in the WNBA.

"The atmosphere when you walk in here and see all these people, it's unbelievable," she said. "There's no place else. I think the closeness of KeyArena helps a lot. They fit here. They understand the game. They know when to cheer, when to lift the team up, so that helps. It's not every crowd that knows how to do that, and here they do that very well."

Storm fans are loud. Many know their women's hoops history, not just the WNBA but the American Basketball League and the Seattle Reign. They know Betty Lennox from Sheryl Swoopes.

They know the tricks of their trade, like mis-counting down the shot clock to hurry an opponent's shot. They know Swin Cash's stats, not just with the Storm, but when she plays for the U.S. national team or overseas in the offseason. They follow the college game to see who's coming.

New fans coming to a game for the first time are startled when they hear the crowd jeering a guy. It's the ref.

"We know the refs' names, first and last," Engelhardt said.

They know how to have fun, too, whether holding up a sign reading "Vegemite Power" to acknowledge the Storm's Australian players, to "friending" the Seattle Storm Crazies' Facebook page.

Storm owners Ginny Gilder and Lisa Brummel have such a good time with the crowd, they kept their season tickets.

"We have seats down on the floor which we rotate amongst ourselves, but I can probably say for Ginny and myself, it's our least happy time when we sit at center court," Brummel said. "Because we've developed a group of friends, we have our season tickets and for us that's important. We want to watch the game with them."

It's a Saturday in August against Atlanta, "Sue Bird Bobblehead Night," and the Storm are uncharacteristically stinking up the joint. No Lauren Jackson (hip injury). No offense (39 percent shooting).

Belying her bobblehead status, Bird is 4-of-11 from the field. With 6:51 left, the Storm are losing 79-57. Coach Brian Agler has conceded, putting Bird on the bench. The headache-inducing Thunderstix have all but stopped and the crowd of 9,686 is quiet.

But hardly anyone heads for the exits.

"When people try to leave, other people around them will give them crap about it," Engelhardt said. "'Why're you leaving? The game's not done.'"

The crowd has plenty of reasons to stick around, many of them uncommonly creative. There's Sue Bird Racing, where contestants step into ostrich mascot costumes and have to make layups before returning to squat on their "nest" of basketballs.

There's a trivia contest video of a famous movie, except with a Storm player inserted into the scene. This night's was "The Sandlot," with Bird uttering the familiar line: "You're killing me, Smalls."

"I can't believe he gets the players to do some of the things they do," Storm CEO Karen Bryant said of game operations whiz Matt Heuer, 29.

During a late timeout, Seattle mascot Doppler leads kids (and even some unabashed teens) on a happily bouncing conga line around the court. After the game, a lot of these same kids stick around to shoot baskets.

Bryant's philosophy is to get people into the building and they'll come back.

"The product speaks for itself," she said, adding that misperceptions about women's basketball -- that it's slow, that the average guy can play better -- are outdated.

"I think just people not giving credit to how much the game and the athletes have evolved. The reality is it's a fast-paced game with a lot of points scored, it's a physical game and it's a game played on both ends of the floor. As a sports fan, as a basketball fan, I'm not sure how you can deny that."

The team doesn't lead the league in attendance -- the Washington Mystics (10,265 per-game average) and the L.A. Sparks (10,224) are well ahead this year. But in general, the Storm (8,257) are consistently among the top-drawing teams.

Seattle is second in the league in season tickets, with about 3,000 sold. Going into 2011, coming off last year's championship, the team showed a remarkable 90 percent renewal rate. The two seasons before that, it was more than 80 percent.

New sponsorships are up 21 percent from last year, and the Storm retained 84 percent of last year's sponsors.

Bryant said she places a premium on catering to season-ticket holders, offering them good seats at a good value and exclusive benefits to special players' events.

"That's really been the foundation of our success," she said.

Each year, season-ticket holders are invited to a "Meet the Team" event at a local high school gym or Seattle Pacific University, where the team trains. Fans cluster in small groups in the stands while each player rotates among them for informal question-and-answer sessions.

Storm reserve Katie Smith, a veteran of the ABL with two WNBA championships and three U.S. Olympic gold medals, said Seattle fans occupy an unusual niche.

Seattle is one of three WNBA teams, including Connecticut and Tulsa, that doesn't have an NBA counterpart. But Storm fans aren't necessarily Sonics leftovers. Unlike Connecticut, which has a perennially powerful college team to generate momentum, Seattle doesn't have that with the University of Washington women's team, which hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 2007.

"It's not a women's basketball hotbed," Smith said. "Even without the Sonics, they have a niche that is great. You can't say that for every city. I don't know how every city would respond if they didn't have a men's team or [there] wasn't a good college. It's impressive. It's kind of a neat thing. It's something they love. They honestly love women's basketball, and obviously they support it wholeheartedly. It's nice to see."