Fanatomy | Part 4: Storm's passionate fans keep a team and sport alive
Storm fans are more than fans. They are the ultimate stewards of a locally owned WNBA franchise and women's professional basketball. And they take that responsibility very seriously.
Seattle Times sports columnist
Fanatomy series | A look at Seattle sports' fan-baseFanatomy: As a sports town, we're underrated
Fanatomy: Interactive graphic
Video | Seattle sports fans
Part 1: The Seahawks' rabid fans
Bar owner betting everything on 12th Man's thirst for victory
Tattoos illustrate fan's monstrous obsession with Seahawks
Part 2: History and devotion rule Husky Stadium
Behind Huskies basketball, the young and the fortunate
Part 3: Magic of 1995 season transformed Mariners and their loyal fans
'Refuse to lose' season spawned generation of young Mariners fans
Part 4: Storm's passionate fans keep a team and sport alive
Sonics fans soldier on, without a team
Part 5: Record-setting first season puts Sounders FC fans on world's soccer map
Jerry Brewer | Loyalty links Seattle sports fans no matter who they're rooting for
Bob Dylan, a singer rebellious enough to protest even his own popularity, once hurled some defiant words at the concept of fame.
"What good are fans?" he wondered. "You can't eat applause for breakfast. You can't sleep with it."
For certain, Dylan couldn't root for the Storm with that attitude. What good are fans? Those devoted to Seattle's WNBA team embody the virtue.
Storm fans are the ultimate stewards. They're more than just people who scream loudly during games and support the team with their interest and money. They're more invested, feeling like it's their responsibility to help the Storm and the league grow. They're a small fan base, not the coolest or trendiest in town, but that only makes them more determined.
Their mission is often simple: survival. Professional women's basketball can last in the United States. Of this, they are certain. And they will do everything they can to prove it.
"The way Storm fans see themselves, it's not quite like evangelists of the WNBA, but we do feel like we got in on the ground floor of something special," said Scott Engelhardt, who along with his wife, Angie, has owned season tickets for all 10 Storm seasons. "This league has gone the longest of any American women's pro basketball league, and it has the best chance for long-lasting success. There's a civic pride. We were here first, and we're working to make it a success. People really take it personally that it's our responsibility to make it successful."
In fact, fans own the Storm. Nearly two years ago, four Storm-loving local businesswomen spent $10 million to purchase the team from owner Clay Bennett and ensure the team wouldn't be swept into the Sonics' relocation to Oklahoma City. The ladies — Lisa Brummel, Ginny Gilder, Anne Levinson and Dawn Trudeau — sit together courtside and cheer passionately, win or lose. Because they saved the team, the owners have become almost as popular as the players.
Small fan contributions are just as appreciated, however. Once, star point guard Sue Bird inquired about new restaurants during an autograph session, and at the next game, a fan gave management a detailed list of new places for Bird to eat. A year ago, when star forward Lauren Jackson was a free agent, the Storm sent her a bound book with letters from fans, ownership and Sonics great Gary Payton to convince her to return. Jackson gets emotional when describing what those heartfelt pleas meant to her.
Storm CEO Karen Bryant flipped through copies of those notes earlier this year and shook her head, still amazed.
"They're so committed to what it means to be a fan," said Bryant, who was also touched in April 2008 after fans sent hundreds of cards and well-wishes when her daughter, Lindsay, was born. "During some of our most challenging times, they've been a bright spot. The level of love and enthusiasm is really inspiring to me personally."
According to Scarborough Research, an overwhelming majority of Storm fans are females between ages 25 and 54. About half of them are married. Unlike the large, sprawling fan bases of the Mariners and Seahawks, 74.8 percent of the Storm fans surveyed reside in King County.
The game-day atmosphere at KeyArena remains the most spirited in the WNBA. Still, the team has experienced some challenges. Overall Storm attendance dropped about 5 percent last summer. The team drew 7,874 fans per game in 2009 during its first year without being subsidized by an NBA owner. But the numbers aren't too alarming considering the poor economy and the ownership transition. The Storm didn't have a complete group-sales staff to push special ticket packages.
Most encouraging, the Storm retained about 84 percent (or 2,600) of its season-ticket holders in 2009, which ranked in the top three of the league. They're in solid shape, but they're looking for better. Across the WNBA, there are cautionary tales: This offseason, the Sacramento Monarchs folded and the Detroit Shock moved to Tulsa. Last year, the four-time champion Houston Comets ceased operations.
Even though they staved off relocation in 2008, the Storm and its fans are always concerned about keeping the team sustainable.
Doug Parker and his wife, Rita Bout, have been season-ticket holders for six years. In 2008, after Parker underwent major surgery, they thought about not renewing and saving money. But after the new owners bought the team, they wanted to support them.
Parker, a construction worker, used to endure ribbing from his co-workers for being a Storm fan. He responded by offering them tickets to watch the game for themselves. Many of his construction buddies have grown fond of the game.
"It's really funny," Parker said. "Guys would look at me funny at work when I talked about the WNBA. They would say, 'Oh, it's not as fun as men's basketball. And it's just a bunch of lesbians and gays at the games.' But we've taken them to games, and they've gotten hooked."
Many Storm fans also buy tickets for their friends, hoping to share their passion.
"It's always been our belief that if you go to a game, you will be back," Angie Engelhardt said.
Nine years ago, the Engelhardts started the Web site www.stormfans.org. It has become a haven for the most passionate Storm fans. During the Storm's summer regular season, they devote five or six hours per day to keep the site up-to-date.
"At first, we just wanted people to know how awesome it was to go to a Storm game," Angie Englehardt said. "We just wanted to spread the word."
The word has spread, but the fan base will need to grow for long-term stability. The Storm and its fans can't fight misconceptions about women's basketball or the ignorance of those fixated on the audience's sexual orientation. Instead, they embrace the diversity of their fan base. Lesbian couples, husbands and wives, families, dads with daughters — they're all at KeyArena, united in their responsibility to keep a good thing going.
"Because of their level of emotional investment, they want to be appreciated," Bryant said of Storm fans. "They want to be recognized. Because of their sense of ownership, they're not just fans. They don't want to see themselves as just fans. They don't want us to see them as just fans. They're more than just fans. They're part of who we are."
What good are fans? Sometimes, they're plenty good. You can't eat applause for breakfast, but the support can help a developing franchise rise each morning.
Times news researcher Gene Balk also contributed to this report.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer
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