Last summer, in on the eve of the 2023 MLB All-Star Game in Seattle, city staff swept away homeless encampments that would have been near the glitzy national spectacle. Protesters blasted Mayor Bruce Harrell’s administration for suddenly evicting people in the midst of a housing crisis; experts noted that the administration’s sudden attention to SoDo’s neglected streets came as tens of thousands were poised to visit the region.
City officials described the timing as fortuitous — a continuation of their policy to remove the encampment. But glossing over issues in the name of sports tourism is as much a Seattle City Hall tradition as an outgoing mayor leaving a letter on the desk for his successor. The 2023 cleanup was reminiscent of 1995, when Mayor Norm Rice oversaw the arrest of protesters who had set up camp near the Kingdome before the NCAA Final Four.
Sean Scott writes about this incident in Heartbreak City: Seattle Sports and the Unfulfilled Promise of Urban Progress (University of Washington Press), a story that interweaves the region’s athletic triumphs and setbacks with its tumultuous political trajectory and eternal quest for a big-city pat on the head. “We’re a city that’s hungry for recognition,” says Scott.
He traces this inferiority complex to the Northern Pacific Railroad’s decision to locate a terminal in Tacoma instead of Seattle in the late nineteenth century. At this time, baseball emerged in the area and began to reflect the growing character of the metro area. As Scott demonstrates through accounts of everything from the 1917 hockey champion Seattle Metropolitans to the Storm of the Sue Byrd era, sporting events allow a city to show its true identity—which may not be as progressive as many would like.
Certainly not for the author, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, who is running for Seattle City Council in 2019. writes in the acknowledgments of the book.)
The local filmmaker and wide-ranging historian – his latest book, Millennials and the moments that made us, focused on pop culture—moved from New York to Seattle in the early 1990s with his father. He quickly fell in love with UW, Sonics and Seahawks fans. But in 1995, the same year as that Final Four protest, his view of the sport changed.
At the time, a talk radio show criticized Sonics guard Kendall Gill for missing games due to depression. Scott’s father was angered by the comment and called to express his frustration. He later emphasized to his 10-year-old son that athletes are still human. They were workers, not just sources of entertainment as the media often portrayed them to be. Sports were politically coded, Scott learned. “I…never quite looked at sports and how they’re viewed the same way after that conversation.”
That realization didn’t put him off the games. Instead, they became more fascinating to him, “secondary political education.”
Growing up, Scott would explore beyond deep reads of the Sonics departure jerseys, the media’s sometimes icy treatment of Ichiro Suzuki and criticism of the outspoken Seahawks. But the sports story that came before his own consciousness—the first seven “innings” of the book—was largely unknown to him before he took on the project. He enjoyed learning about Coast Salish games of shinny (a hockey-like sport played with curved sticks), Helen Madison’s pool triumphs at the 1932 Olympics, and the Seahawks’ 1987 strike. which brought together athletes and other organized workers.
Unlike the place that hosted these athletes and games, Scott’s book does not shy away from the issues surrounding them. Settlers stole land on the Coast Salish. Madison faced sexism and had to sell hot dogs in Green Lake Park to make ends meet after winning three gold medals. Racist referees cost Elgin Baylor and Seattle University the 1957–58 men’s basketball title.
City attitudes can change. At the same time, corporate progressives who “simulated left and went right” were the same forces that led to the Sonics’ departure in 2008.
Sports tourism isn’t going anywhere. On New Year’s Day, the NHL Winter Classic will be played at T-Mobile Park. Next year, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament will return to Seattle at the Climate Pledge Arena. And in 2026, Lumen Field will host part of the men’s FIFA World Cup.
Scott just hopes the city learns from its past by investing more in the community first this time.
“With this thirst for recognition, I think we’ve done some pretty terrible things as far as trying to cover up what the reality of life is here,” he says. “But I think we’ve also been, conversely, at our best as a city when we realize that taking care of the residents who are already here pays much more dividends.”