Cris Carter, one of the most sure-handed receivers in NFL history, was holding court at the Super Bowl media center Wednesday when he bobbled a softball question.
What’s the first thing you think of when you think of Seattle?
“I think of the Seahawks and I think of Nike,” said Carter, now an ESPN commentator.
“The Nike in Oregon?” the reporter said.
“Yes, that’s what I think about,” Carter said.
Minutes later Mike Ditka, another Hall of Famer turned ESPN personality, tried to explain why Seattle was a good sports town. “They’ve always had a competitive basketball team, a pretty good baseball team.”
The SuperSonics left town six years ago. The Mariners have had 11 winning seasons in 37 years, one in the past decade. The Sonics' 1979 NBA title and the also long-gone Seattle Metropolitans’ 1917 Stanley Cup are the only championships in the Puget Sound region’s combined 127 seasons of major men’s professional sports.
The trophy-deprived region may be on the fringe of the national sports media’s radar, but it might also be on the brink of changing that Sunday afternoon when the Seahawks play Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The Seahawks could claim their first NFL title, and as the youngest Super Bowl team in more than two decades, they’re poised to contend for several years.
Add in the 2015 U.S. Open coming to University Place’s Chambers Bay and excitement surrounding the Mariners and Sounders thanks to high profile player acquisitions, and perception of the region is primed for reshaping.
“This is a game-changing Super Bowl,” said Pierce County executive Pat McCarthy. “Winning a Super Bowl and hosting the U.S. Open is a great opportunity to capitalize on the eyes of the world looking at us.”
McCarthy said that might already be happening. When Fox Sports showed aerial video of Chambers Bay during its broadcast of the Seahawks’ Jan. 19 NFL Championship Game against San Francisco, it didn’t go unnoticed.
For the next week traffic on the Chambers Bay website increased 9-fold with hits from every state and 19 countries, said county spokesman Hunter George.
“Some poo poo this and say it’s just a football game or just golf,” McCarthy said. “But there is a lot of good that can come from this.”
Ralph Morton, director of the Seattle Sports Commission, has a small delegation in New York this week researching the idea of Seattle hosting a Super Bowl.
“You have to think big,” Morton said. “This is a city than can accomplish anything it wants. A World Cup, a Super Bowl, the Olympics. All huge events. It’s just a mater of which dreams do we follow.”
While the commission isn’t actively planning to enter a Super Bowl bid, Morton said, they want “to be ready when the time is right.” The excitement generated by the Seahawks winning a Super Bowl plus ongoing changes to Seattle’s infrastructure could make the right time sooner than later, he said, if everything “aligns just right.”
These massive sports spectacles can bolster a region’s economy. The New York-New Jersey Super Bowl host committee expects the economic impact of Sunday’s Super Bowl to be about $600 million. McCarthy says the U.S. Open could generate $135 million for the Puget Sound Area.
But the economic impact could be even greater, McCarthy said. She believes success by local sports teams and hosting major events keeps the region in the national spotlight and can inspire people to visit.
She hopes a successful 2015 U.S. Open will lead to the U.S. Golf Association bringing the event back to Pierce County every 7–10 years.
Changing the national sports media’s perception of the Northwest will take some time, however, says ESPN commentator Tedy Bruschi.
“The last thing I think of when I think of Seattle is sports, if I’m being honest,” said Bruschi, a former all-pro linebacker for the New England Patriots. “Seattle? Sports? Hmmm, no, I just don’t. But will this (a Super Bowl victory) help them start that. Absolutely.”
McCarthy, who wore her husband’s retro No. 80 Steve Largent jersey to work the Friday before the NFC Championship Game, says when she watches games on TV she sometimes thinks the Seahawks don’t get the attention they deserve.
“I was totally annoyed listening to the way they were marginalized through this entire season,” McCarthy said. “It’s like they were the little team that could. … I think the team has a chip on its shoulder because of that, too. And I think they are turning that around.”
But Carter, for one, doesn’t believe even a win today will have a significant impact on the way the Puget Sound region is perceived nationally.
“I don’t think there is anything they can do,” Carter said. “It’s the disconnect with the Great Northwest and all the other media markets.”
The Seattle-Tacoma area is the nation’s 13th largest television market according to The Nielsen Company, but, geographically, it’s the farthest removed from other major sports cities. This has inspired some, like Fox Sports commentator Jimmy Johnson, a former NFL coach, to refer to it as “South Alaska.”
It’s a sentiment that doesn’t sit well with Morton.
“Sometimes there’s this perception that we’re just outside of Fairbanks,” Morton said. “But the reality is, I’m looking outside, it’s 50 degrees and maybe you get lows in the 30s sometimes, but it’s usually a good experience. And it’s pretty easy to get here.”
Still, the perception persists.
“If they (the Seahawks) win two out of three Super Bowls will it change?” Carter asked. “I don’t think it will change that much. It will be known as a great era. If you look at the Ravens, the Ravens won two Super Bowls and it only changed a little bit about Baltimore.”
Bruschi agrees. “The other (sports organizations) need to step up too,” Bruschi said. “You got to make people recognize. If Seattle wins this one and they win another one they’ll be calling Seattle a dynasty.”
Not quite as easy as it sounds, the three-time Super Bowl champ said.
“They have to get over the most crucial step first,” Bruschi said as he fiddled with the massive Super Bowl ring on his right hand. “And that’s winning your first.”