SEATTLE — Karen Bryant stood in a KeyArena lower corridor drowned out by a familiar sound.
Bryant, the president and CEO of the Storm, had to lean in to be heard over the fan noise. Since 2000, women’s basketball fans in Seattle haven’t missed this moment — opening night at KeyArena.
June 2 was no different. A ninth straight sold-out crowd of 9,686 fans filled the Storm’s designated lower-bowl seats for the regular-season home opener. The facility has a 17,072-seat capacity for basketball but the Storm uses a black curtain to cover the upper bowl, selling out the entire arena only twice, both times during the 2004 WNBA Finals.
Facing Phoenix, the building had the feel of a playoff game. And aside from a few jerseys, no one fretted about stars Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson not being with the team because of offseason surgeries.
“I’m definitely disappointed because I’ve played against them for so many years, it would be nice to finally be on the same team because they’re such amazing players and competitors,” said Storm forward Nakia Sanford, who was signed to help fill the void. “But we’re aware of the tradition that they brought to this team and I know, since I’ve played against the Storm and have been heckled by the StormCrazies, I’m aware of the tradition and what they’ve brought to the city.”
None were probably more disappointed than Bryant’s sales team.
The staff already had to juggle not having Jackson for her post-Olympics bobblehead night in 2012. Jackson, named Australia’s flag-bearer for the London Games, had national-team obligations to fulfill instead of immediately returning to Seattle as planned.
However, that was one night. In March, the staff learned it’d be without its marketable all-stars for an entire season — 17 home game nights. Jackson, a three-time MVP, underwent hamstring surgery in January. Bird, a seven-time all-star, had knee surgery in May.
The organization hasn’t played a season without the duo since 2002. Outside of jerseys and autographed balls, the Storm has diverted from heavily marketing Jackson and Bird only twice. There was a Swin Cash bobblehead doll and a lunch pail with Semeka Randall’s and Jackson’s images as marketing giveaways.
“The offseason was tough,” Bryant admitted as the opening-night crowd celebrated a 75-72 win against the Mercury. For the first time since its infancy years, Bryant’s team heavily marketed the opponent, as touted rookie Brittney Griner made her first visit to KeyArena.
“The news of not having Lauren, I think, didn’t surprise a lot of people,” Bryant said, noting Jackson’s injuries the past two seasons. “Sue really took a lot of our fans and our staff, included, a little bit by surprise and is obviously disappointing. Before we knew we weren’t going to have them, we had already staffed-up a lot. When you look at the sellout (June 2), it’s a combination of things. Obviously, there’s the Griner factor and playing on a Sunday night. We pumped the game up a lot and we have a group sales team that sold over 1,600 group tickets. That’s the difference in the sellout. Our staff worked really hard.”
The Storm’s following home game featured another heralded rookie, Tulsa point guard Skylar Diggins, whose team snapped a 10-game losing streak to Seattle with a 67-58 win. Then, without a star rookie or opponent to hype, the Storm’s likely attendance reality hit.
Just 4,579 fans attended the team’s 96-86 win against Washington on June 18. It was the fewest fans since 2004, when 4,527 witnessed a loss to New York.
Seattle’s all-time low is 3,715 fans for a loss to Portland during Bird’s rookie season.
Forced to move on this season, the Storm designed Tanisha Wright billboards to keep a visual presence around Seattle. Bird returned to the team in June to complete rehabilitation and help market the team, tweeting with fans during road games via the organization’s Twitter account and making television appearances.
But it’s questionable whether it will help the Storm (4-4) retain its average 7,489 fans from 2012. The figure ranked seventh in the WNBA.
“We’re down in season tickets, but we’re making up for it in groups,” said Bryant, whose staff increased its LGBT “Pride Night” festivities to draw more fans for Friday’s game against New York (4-4). The city’s annual Pride celebration is this weekend.
“Going into this year, before we knew we weren’t going to have Lauren and Sue, we thought group sales were going to help propel growth,” Bryant said. “Now it might just help keep us kind of even.”
The Storm averaged 8,912 fans at KeyArena its inaugural season of 2000 but hasn’t reached that level since. In 2012, the team averaged 7,489 fans, which ranked seventh in the WNBA and was the team’s lowest figure since 2003. The crowd of 4,579 at Seattle’s 96-86 win over Washington on June 18 is the lowest since 2004. The Storm is averaging 7,048 this season after three home games. The Storm’s all-time low at KeyArena is 3,715, for a loss to Portland in 2002. The Storm’s lowest-attended games: