Storm back in finals after Seattle nearly loses team

Storm back in finals after Seattle nearly loses team
A Seattle Storm team flag flutters atop the iconic Space Needle Friday, Sept. 10, 2010, in Seattle.
SEATTLE (AP) - Those sleepless nights when all was still unknown remain vivid for Storm CEO Karen Bryant.

At the time three years ago, the Seattle Storm were still attached at the hip to the NBA SuperSonics and both franchises were potentially headed out of town with ownership based in the Midwest trying to relocate the franchise to Oklahoma City.

Would all the effort Bryant put forth, first with the Seattle Reign of the ABL and then since the beginning of the Storm, really come to an end with the franchise following its NBA brethren?

"There was no question that for a period of time the Storm staff, the Storm fans were in that same cloud of uncertainty as the Sonics," Bryant said this week as the Storm prepared to face Atlanta in the WNBA Finals. "And there were a lot of sleepless nights for me and a lot of people about the possibility of the team moving."

Bryant's fears were put to rest in January 2008 when a group of four Seattle-area businesswomen, Storm season-ticket holders, created Force 10 Hoops LLC and purchased the franchise from Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett to keep the team in Seattle.

Now less than three years after becoming an independently owned franchise, the Storm are in the WNBA Finals for the second time in team history, following one of the finest seasons in league history. Game 1 of the best-of-five series against Atlanta is Sunday in Seattle.

For those directly involved in keeping the franchise in Seattle, it's a highly satisfying accomplishment, only magnified by the appreciation that comes from fans.

"I don't think there's been a game we've been to in the three years where someone hasn't thanked us," said Dawn Trudeau, chairperson for the Storm's ownership group. "It never really occurred to me. I know that might sound like a crazy thing but it never did. That part of it has been pretty amazing."

It was Trudeau, former Seattle Deputy Mayor Anne Levinson, Ginny Gilder and Lisa Brummel who combined their efforts to morph from avid Storm fans into owners who kept the franchise firmly planted in the Pacific Northwest. None had any experience running a professional sports franchise when they stepped forward to negotiate purchasing the franchise.

There were plenty of bumps during the 2008 season when the safety net of the NBA was left behind. Undergoing such a rocky transition, the owners decided the 2009 season would be the true benchmark for how they approached on- and off-court decisions in the future.

Seattle was successful enough in 2009. The team won 20 games, but injuries hit just before the playoffs and Seattle was out in the first round for a fifth straight season. In the stands, Seattle's attendance dipped to its lowest total since the second year of the franchise.

Trudeau said the owners decided 2010 would be the year they invested in the franchise. Better television deals were negotiated. Fan friendly promotions were regular fixtures. A marketing partnership with Bing took Seattle off the front of the uniforms. Coach Brian Agler, also the director of player personnel, was given the freedom to revamp Seattle's roster.

All those moves resulted in a nearly perfect Storm. Seattle won 22 of its first 25 games and its 28 wins in the regular season matched a league record. Combined with additional exposure through marketing and television, Seattle saw a significant uptick in attendance, selling out KeyArena five times in the regular season and for both home playoff games.

"We are an organization that chose to invest this year so we could expose our team to more people and we could not have chosen a better time to do that," Trudeau said. "Now more and more people have sampled the product and we know once they get inside the arena their perspective has changed."

On Sunday, Bryant, Trudeau and the rest of the owners will take their normal spots courtside for Game 1 of the finals. Until the game starts, they will admittedly be somewhat distracted by making sure everything is running properly around the arena.

But once Game 1 begins, they'll revert to being the same fans who watched Seattle win the title six years ago.

"When the clock is ticking, I'm watching the game," Trudeau said. "We're fans."