SEATTLE – The arena debate brought out the extremes in Seattle sports.
On one side, avid basketball fans wearing Sonics attire cheered in support of the plan to build a sports arena in Seattle’s Sodo District. On the other, taxpayers voiced their disapproval of public money spent for a sporting venue.
While they bickered, a third group skated along almost unnoticed.
Hockey fans weren’t represented in Seattle City Council and Metropolitan King County hearings, but some in the sport say the region could be on the cusp of a hockey explosion if an NHL franchise arrives.
Until then, these fans are rooting for the area’s two junior-hockey franchises, participating in one of the largest adult hockey leagues in the country and building a grass-roots fan base with youth hockey leagues.
“It’s probably the best market in the United States that does not have a hockey team demographically,” Chicago investor Don Levin said when he publicly stated his interest in bringing an NHL team to Seattle.
Until the NHL comes, the Western Hockey League is the biggest hockey show in town. Both local junior-hockey franchises, the Seattle Thunderbirds and the Everett Silvertips, have solid attendance.
Pro hockey has a long history in Seattle that dates almost a century. The Seattle Metropolitans played in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association from 1915-24. They won the Stanley Cup in 1917, beating the Montreal Canadiens, becoming champions of the league that became the NHL. Minor-league hockey has come and gone in Seattle since the 1920s, with the Eskimos, Sea Hawks, Ironmen, Bombers, Americans and Totems, plus the Rockets and Sabercats in Tacoma.
Data from the research firm Scarborough, which surveyed people from the Seattle metropolitan area, shows that interest in the NHL is comparable to at least one other NHL city. Only 9.2 percent said they were somewhat or very interested in the NHL, about the same as Phoenix (10.4). Seattle’s interest is lower than two other areas that added the NHL in the past 25 years-Dallas-Fort Worth (13.2) and San Francisco- San Jose-Oakland (17.2), although interest would likely rise if a team locates in Seattle.
Seattle’s interest in the NHL is below that of other major-league men’s pro sports with teams here. Yet it’s already higher than interest in MLS before that pro soccer league expanded to Seattle. In 2004-05, only 7.1 percent from Seattle said they were somewhat or very interested in MLS. That number has more than doubled to 17.2 percent.