Bill Payne figures the honeymoon is long over.
That once electric bond between Seattle and its professional football team has short-circuited in Payne’s estimation. Payne, a Kirkland resident and a season-ticket holder since the Seattle Seahawks’ inception in 1976, began drawing that conclusion a few years ago when, on several occasions, he found that he couldn’t even give away his tickets.
It’s become a rather common scenario for Payne, who twice has resorted to handing his pair of 100-level, 30-yard line tickets to clerks at a neighborhood grocery store in hopes they’d pass them on to customers.
“I’ve even tried trading them for baseball tickets,” Payne said. “I couldn’t get any takers. They were lower on the food chain than the Mariners.”
Once the hottest ticket in town, the demand to pay to see the Seattle Seahawks has cooled considerably.
Once a franchise that regularly boasted season-ticket sales of more than 60,000 with a waiting list of 30,000, the Seahawks have watched attendance spiral downward in recent years.
During a year in which the NFL set a regularseason attendance record averaging 62,636 in 1994, Seattle’s average of 52,517 was the lowest in franchise history for a non-strike season. And the Seahawks’ number probably would have been considerably lower had three games not been moved to Husky Stadium, where the team averaged 63,015. The Seahawks averaged 46,218 in five games in the Kingdome last season.
This year, despite Northwest native Dennis Erickson in charge as the new coach, season-ticket sales are at an all-time low of 46,000. A smattering of 35,607 fans came to see Seattle’s exhibition opener against the St. Louis Rams on Aug. 5, the smallest crowd to watch a non-strike Seahawks’ game in the Kingdome. Only 38,006 attended the preseason game against Indianapolis last Saturday.
“I’ve just kind of lost interest,” said a season-ticket holder from Fife who requested anonymity and is selling his tickets after 15 years. “I think it’s probably just because I’m a little bit soured on pro sports all the way around.”
The happy marriage that once existed between fans and their football team is now under strain. But why?
Turbulent times around Camp Kirkland might explain some of the disinterest.
Further tarnishing the Seahawks’ image were reports that owner Ken Behring, a California resident, was exploring the Los Angeles market.
Also, some fans aren’t happy about the Seahawks asking for $150 million from King County to help spruce up the Kingdome. Fans would like the team to spruce up first.
Gary Wright, the Seahawks’ vice president of administration and communications who’s been with the team all 19 years, gives all of those reasons some merit. To a point.
“You can add all of those factors up and they are going to make a little bit of a difference,” Wright said. “But if you win, you will sell out.”
Lagging attendance and sagging merchandise sales have followed the losses.
“They’ve lost interest in the product,” Wright said. “I compare it to any kind of product. If you don’t have a good product, if you’re selling bread and all you have is stale bread all the time, you may have been successful for a long, long time but if you let your product go downhill, it’s not going to sell.”
Stale has long been associated with Seattle offenses. But with Erickson’s hire, the Seahawks have new hope that excitement will return to the Kingdome, victories will come and more tickets will be sold.
“I think people are waiting to see us play,” Seahawks ticket director James Nagaoka said. “If we can show scoring capabilities on offense, I think people will get excited again.”
Some fans, however, are growing weary.
“If they don’t have any production this year, I’m about ready to give up the tickets,” said Seattle resident Burt Sternoff, an original season-ticket holder.
Sternoff longs for the Sunday afternoons when sellout crowds in the Kingdome screamed so loud that it drove opposing teams batty. Fans were so noisy in the Kingdome that the NFL created special rules to allow opponents to combat the disadvantage. The Seahawks honored fans in 1984 by retiring jersey No. 12, a gesture of appreciation for the 12th man.
Seahawks running back Steve Smith remembers the heydays of heightened interest in the team. He’ll never forget that deafening noise in the Kingdome when he played for the Los Angeles Raiders from 1987-93.
“When you were out there on the field and trying to hear the signals, it sounded like you were on the air strip and a Boeing jet was getting ready to take off,” Smith said. “You know that loud sonic boom sound that they make. I mean, you couldn’t hear a thing.”
Interest has waned so much lately that the Seahawks two years ago began running television and radio advertisements to help sell season tickets. Another bad sign is the number of local television blackouts.
When the Seahawks couldn’t sell out before the NFL deadline for the New England game in October 1993, it prevented King-TV from airing the game in the Puget Sound area, ending a string of 117 regular-season home games in which the Seahawks were televised locally.
That dark moment marked the beginning of a new Seahawks’ trend. One more regular-season home game was blacked out in 1993. Five were blacked out in 1994.
The 1994 blackout total would have reached seven games had television stations not agreed to purchase all tickets that remained unsold in contests against the Broncos and Raiders. In 1993, KING-TV saved three games that way.
Some fans blame Behring for the demise.
Behring, the Californian, came in and bought the team in 1988 from the local Nordstrom family, owners of the popular Seattle-based department stores. He purchased a franchise that had reached the playoffs three times since 1983 and had not experienced a losing season since 1982.
In Behring’s first year as owner, the Seahawks went 9-7 and won the AFC West title before exiting the playoffs in the first round. But it was only the second winning season Behring has enjoyed with the Seahawks, whose last one was 9-7 in 1990.
“I honestly feel the Behring group has mismanaged this team and people are upset,” Sternoff said. “They took it over from the Nordstroms when there was a waiting list of 40,000 (actually 30,000) tickets. What can I say? It’s an example of what mismanagement can do to what I considered to be a fairly healthy franchise.”
David Behring, Ken’s son and president of the Seahawks since 1993, disagrees. “We’ve made some mistakes; the Nordstroms made some mistakes,” he said. “The last three years, we’ve had more injuries than I think any team ever before in the NFL. Are we at fault for that?”
Ken Behring’s largest criticisms have come from his handlings of Tom Flores, the selection of Dan McGwire in 1991 and ignoring free-agent talent in the three years of Plan B.
Flores, hired as Seattle’s president and general manager in 1989, named himself coach in 1992, replacing Chuck Knox. Flores won two Super Bowls with the Raiders, but his Seahawks coaching stint was a dismal failure as he managed just a 14-34 record in three seasons before being let go in 1994.
Flores’ 1992 team produced a 2-14 record and an offense so inept that it averaged a franchise-low 8.8 points a game. Some fans wore paper sacks over their heads.
The Seahawks’ 1991 draft under Behring goes down as the worst in franchise history as Seattle gambled and picked McGwire in the first round. The former San Diego State quarterback started only five games in three seasons in Seattle, and was let go.
Of the 12 players the Seahawks obtained in the ‘91 draft, only defensive end Michael Sinclair remains with the team. Such backfires in decision-making by Behring have only made it more difficult for Northwest fans to embrace the out-of-state owner.
“The Nordstroms knew a tremendous number of people in the Northwest,” said Behring, booed when introduced during a recent ceremony for Steve Largent in the Kingdome. “They’ve been here 100 years and we have not. That’s definitely a factor in their favor. But the bottom line is winning.”
There is still a large core of fans who hold out hope for the Seahawks. They are excited about Erickson as the coach, Rick Mirer at quarterback and Joey Galloway at receiver.
“Hope springs eternal,” said Bellevue’s John Helsper, an original season-ticket holder. “I’m looking for better things.”
And if victories come, the Seahawks are confident the fans will return. David Behring points to New England as an example. The Patriots had a season-ticket base of 17,000 in 1991. This season, Patriots season tickets are sold out at 59,000.
The difference? Hope.
The Patriots selected Washington State quarterback Drew Bledsoe in the 1993 draft. And last season, he led New England into the postseason with a 10-6 record, the team’s first winning season in six years.
The success of Bledsoe and the team, the hiring of Bill Parcells as coach in 1993 and the purchase of the team by local businessman Robert Kraft in 1994 all helped.
Winning, indeed, was the biggest factor. And that’s what David Behring hopes will cause the Kingdome turnstiles to spin again.
“We’ve acquired several key free agents,” said Behring. “We’ve had strong drafts the last few years. We’ve changed coaches. I believe the new coach, Dennis Erickson, will create a very exciting offense and defense for fans to watch. We feel all the blocks are in place. We do need to have some luck that we haven’t had the last couple years. We need the team to stay healthy. I believe if the team stays healthy, we will have a winning season.”
In more ways than one.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THE NUMBERS GAME Examining the lack of interest in the Seahawks: After 15 straight sellout seasons, the Seahawks have not sold out since 1993. Seahawks merchandise has been ranked in the league’s bottom third the past three seasons. Season-ticket sales, at 62,000 in 1992, dipped to 58,000 and 52,000 the past two years before sinking to 46,000 this season.
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