Seattle sports fans - fickle or faithful?

It was a début as flat as the great plains of Kansas. The Seahawks opened up the pre-season looking like the same old same old, losing to the Colts 28-10. This was disappointing, but granted it is pre-season. However, this wasn't what caught my eye.

What drew my attention were the more than 12,000 empty seats in this brand-new complex called Seahawks Stadium.

It is a magnificent palace, football's equivalent to the fabled Taj Mahal in southern India, according to Times columnist Steve Kelley.

So, why all the empty seats, I ask?

It was a mere fifteen years ago that the Seahawks were all the rage in the Pacific Northwest. The same passionate, psychological embrace that virtually everyone has with the Mariners these days, used to be directed toward those Seahawks. In the early and mid 1980s, the Seahawks sold out game after game. At one point, they had a season ticket waiting list of over 30,000!

Chuck Knox once remarked how crazy Seattle's fans were for football, as evidenced by when the new Kirkland team headquarters were unveiled during a particular off-season. Over 3,000 people showed up for a 15-minute tour of office space. Think about it.

Then they changed ownership and the Behrings morphed before our eyes into Scrooges. They unceremoniously ran Knox out on a rail. Atrophy and rudderless leadership became the norm. The next thing we knew, the Hawks were 2-14 and the people's interest was starting to wander elsewhere.

The Mariners better be careful of the same thing occurring to them.

They seem to be taking the fans for granted. With 45,000 fans cramming Safeco Field for every home game, with a meal for two at the ballpark costing $25, with Internet sales of Ichiro memorabilia going like crazy, with healthy radio and TV contracts, with every possible dollar squeezed out of us lemming fans .... Well, you just can't convince me that they can't add $2-5 million to the relatively modest payroll for a new hitter or pitcher. Where's the money going? This team has holes that it needs to fill! No wonder Lou Piniella was heard yelling at Howard Lincoln behind closed doors.

However, just like the game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire", when the public loses interest, the whole thing can tank quickly. When Edgar Martinez is publicly complaining, you know that the clubhouse isn't 100% happy with the front office. It stands to reason that a core of players spoke among themselves, and then Edgar took the initiative to speak out.

With more new people moving into Washington from out of state, the allegiances for the local teams, usually fostered during childhood, are not there for the transplants. The Mariners have to continue to win to keep people coming. Safeco Field, as magnificent as it is, is not at all the reason why the people are there. Just see what happens to local interest after a couple of sub-.500 seasons.

Seattle loves a winner, but there's no way they will tolerate a loser once they've had a taste of what it's like to be on the plus side of the ledger.

Thinking about all this brought me to the interesting question of the Washington Huskies.

What would happen if the unthinkable occurred? What would Husky fans do, say, if the Dawgs endured consecutive 4-7 seasons? Or four or five seasons without a bowl appearance?

Would the support of the fans still be there?

It has been pointed out numerous times that the Washington Huskies have the deepest roots of all the local big-time sports teams. They have their own set of fans, with long-established expectations and traditions. Attendance and support have always seemed to brightly outshine all of the other teams in the conference, especially when you take longevity into account.

So I went back and looked at the history of attendance at Husky Stadium. I came up with some interesting points to consider.

In the World War-influenced year of 1944, an average of only 8,488 turned out for Husky home games. Based on this, one has to wonder, if present-day Cougar fans are even aware that the war is over.

In 1950 Athletic Director Harvey Cassill oversaw Washington's new upper deck being added to the stadium. The attendance capability was raised to 59,000. Yet, with mediocrity abounding and the slush fund scandal rearing its ugly head, attendance lagged throughout the decade. The average fell to as low as 31,672 in 1956.

In the 1960 and '61 Rose Bowl seasons, Washington did not have major pro sports teams of any type to compete with them. Yet, despite all the glory of those magnificent 10-1 seasons, the attendance averages were 49,616 and 52,691, respectively.

Interesting, huh?

By the 1963 season, it seemed to be more of a hot ticket, sustaining in the mid-55,000 range, despite mostly mediocre seasons throughout the decade. The pitiful 1-9 campaign of 1969, with team moral ripped asunder by internal issues and racial strife, still played out before an average home crowd of 53,806.

Washington's Rose Bowl Champion team of 1977 played before an average crowd of only 49,202! Attendance didn't seem to reach a consistent high-water mark, until 1982. The average by then had reached 56,747. Washington was ranked #1 in the country for seven consecutive weeks, and this seemed to solidify the Huskies' place in the nation's upper echelon. The fans now had reason to expect great things every year. Don James had a nice stretch of successful seasons going. (Of note, it was also the Reagan years, with the economy recovering, and disposable income more at the ready, via lower taxes.)

During the relatively miserable 6-5 season of 1988, Washington's attendance still registered 65,624 per game. It has been over 70,000 every year since 1990. But we are a spoiled lot. After all, Husky fans have not had to endure a losing season since 1976.

But if the locusts swarmed in and football famine hit Montlake hard, how would the local masses react, in terms of attending games?

I suppose it would depend on the ratio of alumni to season ticket holders. Or maybe factor in the economy. Or of how the other local sports franchises were doing simultaneously, perhaps.

I'm not overly curious to find out the answer to this question anytime soon. However, I truly wonder, are Husky fans more staunchly loyal than that of other teams? Are we indeed set apart? Or are we the same flesh and blood as everyone else?

The next few years will show us. The USS Mariner, riddled with holes, could begin to tank. Then instead of improving the team, CEO Howard Lincoln can do his impression of Nero, and blithely play the fiddle while Rome burns. It is still a much better product than the horrible teams (remember Bill Plummer? Ouch!) that the Mariners fielded throughout their first two decades, but now that the Seattle baseball fans have had a taste of winning, the appetite not only doesn't go away.

The Seahawks might finish out of the running a few more years, garner some great draft picks, and suddenly go deep into the playoffs. All at once, the Mariners are playing meaningless August games before 20,000 spectators, while the Seahawks are again all the rage. Then things will have come full circle.

Meanwhile, will the Huskies still be cruising along, playing before crowds of 70,000, or more? Will it depend upon sustained excellence, or inherent loyalty? That will be our version of nature vs. nurture.

As always, time will tell the tale.

Let's hope we don't have to find out anytime soon though.
Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories