Sports don’t have to suck up city resources, drive displacement, and hollow out urban areas for parking and drunk fans.
When the Washington State Legislature approved the $4.3 billion MOVE Washington transportation package in 2022, some of the most conservative, car-dependent areas in the state applied for public funds to build bike lanes. When University of Washington’s football program went on a National Championship title run in 1991, the droves of traffic to and from Husky Stadium inspired campus activists that autumn to create one of the first publicly subsidized transit programs on a college campus in the country. And who could see the devotion that Black Seattleites offer to the departed Sonics–or the devotion that women and LGBTQ+ fans offer to the Storm and OL Reign–and not believe that athletics play a role in making marginalized city-dwellers feel more at home?
The problem is that social symbolism and piecemeal urban reforms co-exist with the ugly side of Seattle sports. The 2023 MLB All-Star game is a case-in-point.
All-Star festivities that begin July 7 bring throngs of visitors, sports media, and fans to hotels, restaurants, and transit. The timing of a city-sanctioned decimation of a homeless encampment in SODO the Friday before the party suggests that Seattle’s visible population of houseless residents is a pockmark on the image we want to project. Mayor Bruce Harrell denied that the timing was anything more than a coincidence, but fans of sweeps were happy to draw the link: “It’s like cleaning up your house when you have friends over,” said one sweep enthusiast.
For my forthcoming book, Heartbreak City: Seattle Sports and the Unmet Promise of Urban Progress, I spent the last three years researching and reflecting on the intersection between sport and politics in this city. A pattern is clear: underneath the construction cranes and state-of-the-art stadia, Seattle is still a frontier town that has historically gone to great lengths for recognition.
This civic ambition has spawned great public works: determined to forge a great city that could compete with west coast rivals such as Portland and San Francisco, Progressive Era reformers at the turn of the twentieth century convinced Seattleites to tax themselves to build extensive bike lanes and playgrounds. To play basketball in Cal Anderson Park or to bike down Lake Washington Boulevard today is to enjoy amenities established by activists who cared enough to make the city that outlived them a better one for generations down the road.
Simultaneously, the shadow story of Seattle’s infatuation with sports reveals a long legacy of displacement and disenfranchisement; of regressive forces using the games people play as a Trojan horse for failed policies.
In Seattle’s 2021 election cycle, voters both for and against UW football linebacker-turned-Mayor Bruce Harrell knew what they’d be getting: an executive who’d be extending Mayor Jenny Durkan’s gameplan of sweeps of homeless encampments–sweeps that did nothing to address the root causes of homelessness, or to prevent people from sleeping on the streets. If Harrell had his way in the 2022 round of budget negotiations, the city would have raided funds from the “JumpStart” payroll tax on big business for sports tourism: less money for affordable housing, the Seattle Green New Deal, or refugee assistance, and more money to prep for the 2026 FIFA World Cup and the 2023 MLB All-Star Game.
History never repeats, but it often rhymes: with the Harrell Administration authorizing brutal sweeps of homeless encampments ahead of the 2023 MLB All-Star Game, the sports tourism of one Seattle mayor echoed that of another.
Back in spring of 1995, Seattle was basking in the post-Cold War capitalist limelight, banking its international reputation as a business hub into much attention and adulation. Corporate headquarters for Starbucks, Microsoft, Boeing, Costco, and Nintendo called the city home. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) wanted in; it selected Seattle as the host of its “Final Four” basketball tournament.
For a week, the city by the sea was the oyster of the sports world, wowing visitors with its waterfront views and its high standard of living. A front-page story in the April 4, 1995, Seattle Times after the NCAA Championship game shows that when advocates for Seattle’s homeless population used the photo-op to protest local inaction on housing the houseless, city police helmed by Mayor Norm Rice arrested the 17 demonstrators. Cops then destroyed the shelters they built for houseless Seattleites in Pioneer Square.
As Seattleites, we should ask ourselves: what makes a great city? The rush to look good before tourists arrive, or the character to be good when the world isn’t watching? Big arenas and entertainment, or social housing and shelter for all? — Bread or circuses?
At their best, our sports can point the way to the kind of lasting institutions that cities used to build. When opponents of Seattle’s social housing measure called Initiative 135 “unfunded,” they failed to consider that the proposed public development authority would be paid for with the same mechanism (government bonds) that pay for Seattle’s sports facilities.
By betting on itself, Seattle can be the city the world thinks it is. Sweeping up for guests is a blood sport we’ve never won.
Shaun Scott is a writer and organizer. His book Heartbreak City: Seattle Sports and the Unmet Promise of Urban Progress is out this October from UW Press.