On December 6, the Mariners had just signed former All-Star Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million deal. The same day, the University of Washington announced it had replaced former Huskies football head coach Steve Sarkisian with Boise State program builder Chris Petersen.
It was a big day for Seattle. This was the day I decided to ask Oregonian columnist and Portland Sports 750 The Game radio host John Canzano who had the upper hand in the Seattle-Portland sports rivalry. “Portland needs Seattle, and Seattle needs Portland,” Canzano said. “It’s an absolutely symbiotic relationship.”
There’s a whole lot of history between these towns’ teams. Seattle-based sports historian David Eskenazi, who writes for the website Sports Press Northwest, traces the Portland-Seattle sports grudge back more than 120 years to 1890, when the two cities were part of baseball’s new, four-team Pacific Northwest League. In the past 90 years, Seattle and Portland have won exactly one major championship—in any pro sport—apiece: an NBA title for the Trail Blazers in 1977 and one for the Sonics in 1979. “There are still Blazers fans who say the Sonics wouldn’t have won it if Bill Walton was healthy,” Eskenazi says.
Seattle can still put on its Russell Wilson jersey, point to Felix Hernandez’s Cy Young hardware, and show off the NFL and MLB toys Portland doesn’t have, but that’s not how this rivalry works. Portland can’t be jealous—in May 1964, voters in the Portland area voted down the multipurpose stadium that could have brought the Seahawks or another NFL team to town.
It isn’t as if Portland is reveling in Seattle’s loss of the Sonics to Oklahoma City. Sure, Blazers fans were giddy that they claimed a powerful Washington trio: deep-pocketed Seattle-based owner Paul Allen, Washington’s own Brandon Roy as a star, and Sonics great Nate McMillan as coach. Still, “There was a big backlash here when the Sonics went from Seattle to Oklahoma City,” Canzano says. “There are people here who really loved the Sonics being in Seattle because it created a bridge between Portland and Seattle.”
And then there’s soccer, the one major-league sport where Portland and Seattle still compete head to head. Bobby Howe got a close look at both sides of the rivalry as coach of the original Sounders, of the North American Soccer League, from 1977 through 1983 and of the Timbers’ United Soccer League incarnation from 2001 to 2005; the fire he’s seen from the current rivalry has helped fans of the original Timbers and Sounders incarnations, which averaged crowds of 20,000 to 30,000 fans even in the late ’70s. This is a place where local soccer is not only expected to be on at a sports bar, but on some of its bigger screens.
“I think it’s a quirky Northwest thing,” Eskenazi says. “We’re really going to get into this, we’re really going to do it, we really love it—kind of an odd Northern Exposure/Portlandia kind of thing where it’s not baseball or football or basketball. Kind of strange.”
That’s not a bad description of the Timbers-Sounders rivalry either: kind of strange. Canzano remembers leaning out over the Seattle fan section during his first rivalry game in Portland. “There were guys who were double-barreled flipping the bird at me, not because I’m a Timbers fan, but because I’m a Portland guy who writes about the team,” Canzano said. “I talked to the police officers who work the area in front of the section, and they look at every other night as a night off—except when Seattle’s in town.”
Maybe Portland comes off as a bit provincial—5,000 Trail Blazers fans partied in Pioneer Courthouse Square in 2007 after the team drafted overall No. 1 pick Greg Oden, who went on to be a total bust. But then maybe Seattle is a bit needy, harping on the fact that officials from Super Bowl XL admitted their calls might have cost the Seahawks a title. But each city cares about the other for more sincere reasons than you might expect from rivals. That may place their rivalry well below the Red Sox and Yankees or Michigan and Ohio State, but makes it a lot more special.
“Portland hates Seattle, but it also loves Seattle and likes that Seattle’s here, because otherwise you’d be all alone in the Northwest without anyone else to carry the flag,” Canzano says. “I know there’s a lot of pride [in Portland] today when Robinson Cano’s contract comes. You find a lot of people that are supportive of [Seattle] teams...as long as no one from Seattle is watching or listening.”