By Aaron Lommers Herald Writer
SEATTLE — The relationship between a sports franchise and its fans is always one of give and take.
The Seattle Storm try to give their fans the best possible experience for every KeyArena home game and the fans have rewarded the team with the one of the best home-court advantages in the WNBA. A survey of the league’s general managers has voted the Storm tops in that category the past two seasons.
A recent ranking by Stadium Journey, a website and magazine that reviews pro and college stadiums in the United States and Canada, has awarded the Storm yet another honor, naming KeyArena the best venue to watch a WNBA game.
“It’s a source of pride for our organization,” Storm president and CEO Karen Bryant said of the rankings. “And it’s a source of pride, I think, for our fans too.”
The rankings were based on seven different categories: food and beverage, atmosphere, neighborhood, fans, access, return on investment and a miscellaneous extras category, and scored from zero to five. The Storm scored a 4.4 overall, and scored at least a four in every category.
“Anything four stars or higher is must-see stadium territory,” Stadium Journey founder Paul Swaney said.
Creating an enjoyable fan experience is something Bryant said the franchise have attempted to do since day one.
“I think from the beginning of the franchise, in 2000, we’ve really tried to focus our game-entertainment experience on the fans themselves,” she said. “Seattle has great basketball fans. The Storm fans are some of the best in the league in terms of their loyalty and their passion and enthusiasm.”
Stadium Journey began as a website in 2009. Swaney’s idea spawned from wanting to go to the stadiums of the four major sports, the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, himself and write reviews, but the trip never came to fruition because of the financial strain it would cause. Instead, Swaney hired a group of freelance writers that helped him review the 122 stadiums in the four major sports.
The staff of writers consisted of what Swaney called “super fans” who go to a lot of different sporting events to aspiring journalists. It didn’t take them long to get through them, finishing by June of 2010.
Stadium Journey didn’t stop there, they moved to college sports, the MLS, minor league hockey and baseball, the WNBA and even NASCAR. To date, the magazine and website have reviewed over 1,500 different arenas in the various sports and visited 32 different countries.
Swaney said the idea to create his company started with the birth of his son in 2007, as he began thinking about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. As Swaney told it, he worked in a job he didn’t hate or really even dislike, but he knew he didn’t love it.
“I felt like I should be doing something that I wake up every morning and it’s something that I love to do,” he said. “So I spent a lot of time thinking, ‘if I were to win the lottery and I didn’t have to work, what would I do? And I think this is what I would do if I won the lottery. I felt sort of obligated at that point to pursue this as my vocation.”
KeyArena’s review came during the 2012 WNBA season and was conducted by Dave Cottenie, one of Swaney’s contributing writers. Cottenie teaches in Ontario, Canada, but reviews for Stadium Journey on the side. He has conducted nearly 90 reviews for Swaney since joining two years ago.
Cottenie and his family were planning a trip to the Pacific Northwest and he offered to do a few reviews. Swaney put the Storm on Cottenie’s list.
“We did the Storm for my daughter,” Cottenie said. “I like to give her the opportunity to see women in action.”
Cottenie had heard of the stigma that KeyArena wasn’t a suitable basketball venue, something that was talked about in great detail before the Seattle Supersonics relocated to Oklahoma City prior to the 2008-09 season.
“I came in with little to no expectations and was kind of blown away by the whole experience,” Cottenie said. “The arena itself, I thought it was fine. I’m not really seeing the revenue side I guess, but I don’t understand why all these arenas seem to need replacing. The arena was fine. It didn’t blow me away, but I wasn’t uncomfortable. I thought there was really kind of a cozy feel to it.”
The assertion that KeyArena isn’t a good basketball venue is something Bryant doesn’t agree with either.
“I think first and foremost, KeyArena is a great basketball venue,” she said. “For all the talk and chatter that KeyArena is not a suitable home for the NBA, it is one of the great basketball venues in terms of sightlines. The fans are sitting right on top of the court. Just the building itself creates a great atmosphere to create noise and kind of live theatre, if you will.”
Cottenie agreed, commending the arena on its sightlines in his article.
What really made an impact on Cottenie was the atmosphere created by the fans and how interactive the whole experience was. He referenced something that has become a tradition at Storm games as having the most impact on him — The Train.
During a timeout in the action, the Storm’s mascot, Doppler, takes his spot in the middle of the court, only to be joined by seemingly every child in the arena. The loudspeaker begins to play “C’mon Ride It” by the Quad City DJ’s and a giant conga line ensues. After a minute or two, a siren signals that it is time for the kids (and Doppler) to clear the court and go back to their seats.
“I think the thing that stuck out to me was that I got to see things that I never thought I would see in our days of heightened and uber security,” Cottenie said, referring to The Train. “Nothing that I’ve ever been to would it be kosher to just run out on the floor, especially while a game is going on. That really spoke volumes to me that these guys were pushing the whole fan experience.”
Bryant said The Train is one of the staples of the team that has grown over time. The team and Seattle Center staff on hand take all the necessary steps to make sure the experience is safe for everyone involved.
“Obviously we want to manage our risk and make sure it is a safe environment for all the kids who participate,” Bryant said. “Over the years we have done a really good job of educating the fans how it works and then working with the Seattle Center admissions staff to make sure we have people in all the right places. The kids now are somewhat trained to go down certain isles. We just make sure to have plenty of staff and keep an eye out for them.”
The Train is one of the many ways the team has found to interact with the fans. During timeouts and quarter breaks, various videos and games keep the fans involved and energetic. The Storm staff decides what to do at what time based on the momentum of the game.
“The things we do in a tight game in the fourth quarter are different than the things we would do in a lopsided game,” Bryant said. “I think there is a real art in understanding the right time, right moment and the right song to play, the right promotion to keep the fans on their feet to make some noise.”
All of it adds up to the best home-court advantage in the league.
“We have won almost 83 percent of our home games under (head coach) Brian (Agler),” Bryant said. That’s a real home-court advantage. That’s not just a marketing slogan and we are really proud of that.”
Aaron Lommers covers the Seattle Storm for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.