Daughter of Duty
So I'm in yet another city, and have tendinitis suddenly, which could very well be career- (or lifestyle) threatening. Simultaneously slow and desperate, I think it's finally time for me to make an especially obtuse plea.
I know that I'm fairly late to the "keep the Sonics in Seattle" fray, and as such am probably missing a lot of the technical, bickery pieces. I also have an intensely selfish interest in their sticking around, one that dates back only to the day my significant other decided to get a PhD there. But unlike many Sonics fans, I have had the distinct displeasure of spending time in Oklahoma City, and as such can seen the shrieking on the wall: dispatching teams to the middle of nowhere spells defeat for the NBA.
I am fully aware that franchises are businesses, and that as such, they want to be where the money is. This model has proven quite spritely in the realm of hockey, unless I'm greatly underestimating the size of Columbus and Raleigh. Of course, to plop down only where there's no competition to be had, where the unwitting fans yearn for something to do on a Friday, is like opening a booze shop in the slums. Sure, it creates its own market and feasts upon it, but it's also compromising the product--perhaps even making it invisible underneath a cloud of self-serving devices.
Some weeks ago, I put forth my argument for why the NBA should reconcile itself to specialized demographics in America. Making teams the only show in nowhere is the rank opposite of this, the illusory resurrection of the pseudo-NFL dream. The obvious counter to this is that keeping the team in blue state cities can sometimes mean dealing with dwindling takes at the gate. But long-term, marking basketball as a second-class sport, and giving up the fight to compete with the big dudes, hurts the league as a whole. And if the NBA is going to count on its ability to reach a cluster of semi-related audiences, they need more than ever for this hard core of supporters to rally under the flag.
There's also the fact that, if a team succeeds, fans are much more likely to show some interest. Obviously, exactly what constitutes "success" in the eternally top-heavy Association is a bit of a quagmire. Still, mediocre teams in captive cities have far less of an obligation to put out product than those where the novelty has worn off, or where there are other options. The new arena debate is part and parcel with this question: sure, it draws people for a few seasons, but ultimately it's decent, enjoyable play that's the most accurate predictor of fan commitment.
I'm willing to admit that this grasp might be imperfect, and that may expansion teams could be accused of what I'm decrying here. Also, arguing anything about basketball as an urban game or whatever gets thrown off by Seattle, which doesn't exactly enhance the NBA brand the way that Chicago does. It seems pretty plain, however, that a team that's been around as long as the Sonics have are part of the NBA landscape. To shift that gives the impression of instability and mercenary lust, as opposed to any kind of faith in self. Even if you don't believe that the NBA has built into it some commodified version of race, try selling the fantasy of OKC to fans overseas, or convincing them that replacing the Space Needle with a bison won't affect the game's marketability.