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Originally published Saturday, July 14, 2012 at 8:03 PM

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Seattle's NBA fans hope to have a voice in arena debate

Sonics fans, who felt like there was nothing they could do when the team left Seattle, have a chance now to be heard as politicians debate the arena proposal.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Want to see a ball game? Go watch soccer. Watching the NBA is for losers. Wow if... MORE
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Brian Robinson can recall feeling small in this Sonics fight. A memorable low moment came four years ago, when Clay Bennett's ownership group was making a mockery of its "good faith" pledge to try to keep the NBA team in Seattle, and there was little Robinson could do about it.

He had led a valiant grass-roots effort to save the Sonics. But despite all his work trying to unite fans, businessmen and politicians, he couldn't untangle himself from a paralyzing stigma.

You're just a sports fan.

Sports fans, though passionate as they come, have never been mistaken for political players. The stereotypes are long-lasting: They don't vote regularly and don't act with decorum. Don't matter. If the average sports fan were sketched as a cartoon character, he probably would be holding a beer, yelling and wearing mustard on his shirt.

With that kind of disrespectful image, it's difficult to gain traction in a complicated pursuit to build a new arena.

"Maybe we just don't have enough juice to get this done," a supportive Sonics employee told Robinson four years ago.

Now, hardened, wiser and motivated by loss, Robinson and a legion of Sonics fans hope to have a true voice in investor Chris Hansen's new arena plan. This five-month arena debate has enough plot twists, story lines and intrigue to create a television drama, but an underrated aspect of this overexposed story is where sports fans fit in the conversation.

Can they make a legitimate impact? Or will they be ignored and mislabeled as dumb jock lovers?

This is an unprecedented situation for modern-day Seattle sports fans. The debate isn't whether to build a sports palace to appease a sitting team. It's a battle to determine whether it's prudent to attract the NBA and reclaim a team snatched from the city in 2008 after a 41-year run, in addition to luring the NHL. The stakes are different — greater in many ways — and so is the intensity of the debate.

The opportunity to be heard exists. But fans have to know how to use their clout.

"Sports fans will be heard if they're willing to take action to back up their wishes," said Robinson, formerly of Save Our Sonics, now the leader of the Arena Solution organization, which has put together a stronger coalition of influential local supporters. "We've had to deal with a stigma that sports fans don't understand the process well enough to make a difference. In some ways, they were right. Now that we've figured it out, I think we can bring enough people together and be one strong voice."

Of course, a $490 million Sodo arena proposal that asks for $200 million in city and county investment won't be approved simply because sports fans can unite and make a lot of white noise. That point was emphasized last week during a Town Hall meeting in which both King County Councilmember Bob Ferguson and City Councilmember Mike O'Brien said the decision won't come down to who screams the loudest between opponents and proponents.

That's a good thing, because at that meeting, the conversation felt more like competition, complete with boos, catcalls and even claims of blackmail from each side. But in the end, victory could come down to the power of the allies on each side. Sports fans have assembled some good ones, including those representing the interests of local construction and music.

"I don't look at it as just bringing back the Sonics," said Lee Newgent, the executive secretary of the Seattle-King County Building and Construction Trades Council. Newgent estimates that an arena project would provide 2,000 jobs for construction workers and up to 3,000 additional ancillary jobs for the construction business.

"This is so much bigger than just the Sonics," Newgent said. "It's about becoming the major metropolitan city in the major media market that we are. The idea that Sodo will remain the same for the next 10 or 20 years — that's just not reality."

Dave Meinert, a music/nightlife entrepreneur who has become an influential political player, says he's for the arena, too. And he uses his influence carefully. He was against Howard Schultz's KeyArena renovation idea. But Hansen's plan is better, Meinert says. And as someone who rose from anonymity, he says sports fans can do the same if they want it badly.

"People representing music interests? Politicians used to look at us as unimportant, fringe druggies, to be honest," said Meinert, who has the ear of most city council members. "Then, we got organized. Politics is about money and votes. It's that simple. The problem with sports fans is that they don't have a voice that they've made active until now. It's time to get motivated.

"We were nobodies. We're not different than sports fans. Now, we can literally vote people out of office."

Meinert sets the odds of the city and county councils approving the arena deal at "50-50." He was impressed to see 6,000 Sonics fans show up at a rally at Occidental Park last month, but he encourages supporters to write emails to the council to back it up. After an initial surge in pro-arena emails, council members have characterized the feedback as more polarizing in recent weeks. With a vote on Hansen's proposal possibly coming in a month, the fight is now, to borrow a sports phrase, in the fourth quarter.

"These politicians have to fear what will happen if they vote against it," Meinert said. "That's the power sports fans have to demonstrate they have."

It's time to step up or step aside.

"I think we've got a real good cross section of Seattle supporting the arena," Newgent said. "A private investment like this comes around once every blue moon. That idea needs to be captured."

In this sophisticated debate, Sonics fans have some juice this time. How much? Clearly, now is not the time to sit around making predictions.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @JerryBrewer

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