Is Seattle Set to Become a Sports Mecca?

The Seattle arena deal has been a situation I have tracked very closely over the past several months. As a sports fan located in the Pacific Northwest, the potential return of the NBA and the potential arrival of the NHL to Seattle both excite me tremendously.

It has been a little while since I wrote on the issue, and figured it was time for a bit of an update.

An Update

If you want to get caught up on the logistics of the deal, as well as the history of hockey in Seattle, you can check out my five-part series from last fall (there are links at the end of that post to the previous ones).

Many arena deals have turned sour over the past few years, and that is a major reason why many in Seattle were apprehensive about building a third stadium in the SoDo (south of downtown) area. Sports welfare is a major reason why many American cities are in fiscal trouble.

“It’s like this magic alchemy where we take all this public money and it morphs into private profit,” says Dave Zirin, author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love.” “The most egregious example of this is the Seattle Sonics going from the 14th biggest [media] market in the country to Oklahoma City, a market that is No. 45. Why did that move make sense? One place offered corporate welfare and another didn’t. The NBA punished a city for not giving them hundreds of millions of dollars.”

I know most Seattle basketball fans don’t want to talk about the Thunder at all, so I’ll refrain from mentioning them throughout this piece. Rich owners putting the screws to cities to get favourable arena deals is universal across all sports – Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz successfully strong-armed the Edmonton city council into agreeing to terms on an arena deal that will see taxpayers shell out a lot of money.

Edmonton taxpayers will pay $219 million toward the 18,559-seat facility. The Oilers’ share will be $143 million. Another $125 million will come from a ticket tax that wouldn’t exceed seven per cent of the total cost of a ducat.

Another $107 million is still being sought from the province, along with $7 million from the feds.

The Seattle deal compares very favorably for the city when it is put up against other deals signed in recent years. Chris Hansen has gone above and beyond the level of financial commitment that most (all) other sports owners have done to secure a new arena for Seattle.

Hansen is making an even larger investment than he planned, but for the 44-year-old who was raised in Rainier Valley and idolized the Sonics legends of his childhood, this isn’t one of the hedge funds he manages from his office in San Francisco. This is personal. Over the past seven months, he has gone from mystery man to magic man, inspiring 6,000 fans to join him at a rally in Occidental Park in June and handling a sometimes-contentious process with great class and pragmatism.

And some more details, without getting too much into the nitty-gritty:

For its contribution to the arena, Seattle will float a bond issue for $200 million that it will recoup by taxing revenue generated inside the arena (including tickets, concessions, and merchandise) and not through a CRL [community revitalization levy]. That the Seattle deal contains a commitment by Hansen to guarantee the City of Seattle’s public loan seems to have been lost on the Katz Group as well. Equally important, Hansen has also agreed to a number of other concessions and, crucially, to be independently audited once per year to confirm his financial wealth.

The NBA 

The NBA is very close to returning to Seattle. If a team does land in the Emerald City in the next few years, they would spend some time playing home games at Key Arena (which will be improved through renovations) until the new stadium is completed, likely in 2015. The Sacramento Kings are the team that has been mentioned many times, as Hansen and his team have been in negotiations to buy the club and move them from Sacramento. A deal appeared to be done a few weeks ago, but there are currently some last-ditch efforts under way in Sacramento to keep the team there.

This has created somewhat of a catch-22 situation for Seattle basketball fans. They want nothing more than to see their beloved SuperSonics return, but by uprooting the Kings from Sacramento, they are doing the same thing that was done to them when the SuperSonics were moved to Oklahoma City (well, not the exact same thing, but basketball fans in Sacramento will be crushed).

The Kings are the only major professional sports franchise in Sacramento, and their fans are widely regarded as some of the most passionate in the country. I have many friends in the Seattle area who are a bit apathetic about the return of basketball – they are still every angry at the NBA for what happened with the SuperSonics moving away.

Former Sonics coach George Karl expressed his thoughts on the potential Sacramento move:

“There’s a part of me that’s disappointed because Sacramento, I’ve enjoyed my times. I think Sacramento is a great town,” said Denver coach and former Seattle coach George Karl. “I’m not going to lie — I’m happy that Seattle is going to have a team more than Sacramento. But I am disappointed that Sacramento can’t keep their team.”

The NHL

Seattle makes sense for NHL expansion/relocation for many reasons. Seattle has a rich hockey tradition, and a natural rival is only two hours north on the I-5 in Vancouver. Many people from Seattle who I have talked to are ecstatic about the potential of a team coming to the Pacific Northwest. And city council member Mike O’Brien encountered the same thing:

“I’m surprised to learn how many people in Seattle, when I’ve talked to them over the last few months, say ‘I couldn’t care less about the NBA, it would be great to get an NHL team in here. Seattle is growing and a lot of people from the Midwest and Northeast grew up playing hockey in school and on frozen lakes.”

But the Key Arena isn’t outfitted for NHL hockey, so the NHL’s arrival would likely be in 2015 – at the earliest. That timeline may work for the NHL, as there are no teams imminently on the move at the moment. Quebec City and the Greater Toronto Area have also been mentioned as other targets for expansion/relocation.

And to fuel further speculation, former NHLPA head Paul Kelly shared the following with a city council meeting in Markham, Ontario, the other night:

I think a team comes to Seattle before Toronto gets a second club (although both locations make a ton of sense). Gary Bettman’s ultimate failure as commissioner will be his misguided efforts with expansion into the United States – Phoenix, Tampa Bay, Florida, Columbus, and Nashville have all, at times, struggled mightily to turn a profit. Nashville has only been successful thanks to incredible management and consistent on-ice success.

The league and PA fought tooth-and-nail over what amounted to a few million dollars per team during the lockout of 2012-13, and that money could easily have been made up by relocating a few struggling franchises to more successful markets. Bettman will continue to defend his expansion ideas, but at some point in the future logic and common sense will have to win out.

The Sports Climate in Seattle

Seattle sports are on the upswing right now after years of failure. The Seattle Sounders (MLS) are one of the most exciting clubs in the league, and their business successes have been the envy of the rest of the league. The Seahawks are ready to emerge as an elite NFL franchise, led by unheralded rookie Russell Wilson and a smash mouth defense. All of Seattle’s key players are just entering their primes – the future is bright at CenturyLink Field. The Mariners don’t have as bright a future – years of mismanagement have set them back quite a bit – but they do have the best pitcher in baseball (Felix Hernandez), and they also finally decided to move the fences in at Safeco Field, one of the hardest places to hit in all of baseball.

Today the M’s officially announced that they’ll be moving Safeco Field’s fences in for next season. Greg Johns has a story with a graphic highlighting the changes here. As you’d expect, the big change will occur in the left field power alley. While most of the fence in RF and the LF corner will come in by just 4 feet, the fence in left center will move in from about 12 to 17 feet. In addition, the hand-operated scoreboard that forms part of the wall in the LF corner will be moved, giving the wall a uniform height of 8′ – the scoreboard made the wall 16′.

Basketball has a rich history and tradition in the city (and surrounding areas). High school and college hoops attract a lot of coverage and attention. There are many NBA players who were born and/or grew up in the Seattle area. Many diehard SuperSonics fans may be apprehensive to welcome back a team that was “stolen” from elsewhere, but something tells me they would eventually find a way to get over their anger. And hockey in Seattle makes sense for so many reasons, especially as the NHL looks to go ahead with realignment for the 2013-14 season.

There are a lot of moving parts right now – finding an NBA team, finding a person who wants to bring an NHL team to Seattle (Hansen has no interest in owning an NHL team, but he is willing to help facilitate a move into his arena), and finding an NHL team to move to Seattle. The next few years are going to be very exciting for Seattle sports fans, regardless of what sport they like to watch. It will be interesting to see if a medium-sized city like Seattle can support two more professional sports teams. “If you build it, they will come” could be a thought applied to this situation. Hockey fans from Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia would all be able to commute to Seattle for games. The SuperSonics and Trailblazers would quickly become one of the best rivalries in basketball. And as mentioned, the Canucks lack a true geographical rival – who wants to drive 10 hours to Calgary just for a hockey game?

And Seattle residents can rest easier knowing that they aren’t going to be given the screws by Hansen and his team – the Seattle arena deal is one of the most city-friendly I have come across in my research on the subject. Hansen has partnered up with some wealthy individuals, including the people behind Nordstrom, and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, to name a few.

The SoDo area in Seattle is on the verge of becoming a ‘Sports Mecca’ – three world-class facilities within a few square city blocks? Yes please.