Ice Hockey Talk Heats Up in Seattle

Photo Credit: S.S.K..CC-BY-NC-SA.

Photo Credit: S.S.K..
CC-BY-NC-SA.

Seattle mayor Ed Murray admitted in an interview last week he didn’t think part of his job would encompass going to Super Bowls and meeting with the Commissioners of the NBA and the NHL. But Seattle’s a very sports-minded city these days: the Seahawks are coming off their second consecutive Super Bowl trip and the Mariners are the trendy pick to win the American League West (probably because the rest of the divison sucks, but that’s a story for another time). With a lull between baseball and football season, it’s not surprising that the annual speculation about the Seattle area getting a new arena for basketball and hockey has grabbed recent headlines.

Recently the Seattle Times broke the story that two groups are looking into bringing the National Hockey League to the Seattle area, one in Tukwila and another in Bellevue. Plus, Seattle itself is still in the picture. Murray responded to the Bellevue and Tukwila news by announcing that the Environmental Impact Study concerning a new arena in the International District will be completed, after several delays, by May 7. And for the first time, Murray stated that the city would consider acquiring a hockey team for the new arena before basketball.

Investor Chris Hansen paid for the study which came out of a proposal that was approved by the Seattle City Council and the King County Council. Sports fans in the area are quite familiar with Hansen’s plans to fund an arena in the south downtown area (SoDo) with the stated goal of bringing the Seattle Sonics back to the city. Hansen’s efforts have met their share of obstacles and Murray says he’s now willing to go the Council to modify the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which currently allows for public financing to begin only after an NBA team agrees to come to Seattle. The MOU, which Hansen negotiated with the city, runs out in 2017, right in the middle of Seattle’s next mayoral election.

For the city, it’s a scenario that many can relate to – it’s the guy who pursues a girl for three years and she just keeps blowing him off. Eventually the guy starts noticing the girl who wants to be with him. The NBA doesn’t seem to want to deal with Seattle, or Hansen, but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and his Deputy Commissioner Bill Dailey have been eyeing the Emerald City for awhile. There was talk of the Phoenix Coyotes relocating to Seattle back in 2013 and playing at Key Arena until the SoDo arena was completed.

“We have to look West for expansion,” Dailey told SportsNet, the Canadian sports channel last week. “There are 14 teams in the West, 16 teams in the East.” Bettman also like the idea of having a team closer to Vancouver. The Canucks are 982 miles north of San Jose, 509 miles west of Edmonton and 660 miles west of Calgary. Playing back-to-back nights in Seattle and Vancouver would be most convenient for visiting teams.

Bill Foley, Chairman of Fidelity National Financial, is very interested in getting an NHL expansion team for Las Vegas which has a new arena (with a net worth of 600 million, Foley was ranked seventh out of 13 on Forbes’ list of up-and-coming billionaires). Dailey sounded uncertain about whether Las Vegas would be a successful NHL city – there are no other major league teams in the land of night clubs and casinos – but Foley has been sanctioned by the league to try and get a commitment for $7,000 season tickets.

“It’s easier (for the league) to get your arms around a city like Seattle,” Dailey told SportsNet. “But we wouldn’t consider a city without a state-of-the-art arena. There’s been chatter about an arena in the Seattle area lately, which is positive.”

Murray, who tends to be cautious, told the Seattle Channel, “we don’t know what the economics would be for an NHL team in Seattle. It would take very careful examination to see if it would work in Seattle.”

Of course part of the MOU agreement stated that Hansen would put a lot of his own money into the arena once he acquired a basketball team. The NBA says the league has no plans to expand, certainly not before 2017. Hansen reached an agreement to buy the Sacramento Kings in Jan. 2013 to move them to Seattle but five months later, NBA owners voted down the deal.

In Aug. 2013, the California Fair Political Practice Commission fined Hansen $50,000 for not reporting a $100,000 donation to a group looking to put the new Sacramento basketball arena to a vote. Hansen was revealed to be the principal financial backer for the group, Citizens for a Voice in Government.

Hansen, also has problems on the homefront. Neighbors of the new arena site have raised objections – notably the Port of Seattle (both the Commission and the Longshoremen’s Union) and the Seattle Mariners. Both organizations pointed to massive traffic problems a new arena would cause and Port Commissioners sent a letter to then-Mayor Mike McGinn in 2013 stating, “(a new arena) threatens middle class jobs linked to increased traffic thru busy areas critical to the port doing business.” Hansen also lost one of his primary investors when former Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer purchased the NBA Los Angeles Clippers for a record $2 billion dollars. Ballmer and the Nordstrom family were Hansen’s partners in the aborted Kings’ purchase.

The players involved in bringing hockey to the area are: Victor Coleman, a real estate mogul who wants to put hockey into the proposed Seattle arena. In Aug. 2014, Coleman invested in a “non-binding agreement” to help advance the Seattle arena project which had been dormant since the Kings’ sale didn’t go through.

Ray Bartoszek, who attempted to purchase the Coyotes, is eyeing vacant land in Tukwila. The land, owned by David Sabey, a former minority owner of the Sonics, could eventually include offices, hotels, and a movie theater. Bartoszek’s currently putting together an investment group.

Jac Sperling, who worked with former Seahawks’ CEO Tod Leiweke in bringing an NHL expansion team to Minnesota back in 1998, is looking at purchasing two city-owned parcels of land in Bellevue. The Seattle Times reported that a major stumbling block for Sperling could be that Bellevue Mayor Claudia Balducci has close political ties to King County Executive Dow Constantine, a strong Hansen supporter. Both the Tukwila and Bellevue arenas would be largely privately financed.

Coleman, Hansen and Murray are probably correct in thinking that an NHL team is more likely to be successful located downtown than out in the suburbs. That’s been a problem in a few other NHL cities, including Phoenix. But Hansen’s MOU agreement could be a roadblock to the NHL’s arrival. It’s likely that Murray will attempt to amend the MOU before 2016. With a restructured City Council (elected mostly by districts and not citywide starting in November), expectations are the new Council will be more concerned with neighborhoods than downtown business interests.

Ticket prices could also be a problem. Generally, NHL tickets are more expensive because the league doesn’t have big TV contracts like the NFL. Couple that with the historical fact that most NHL expansion teams have been godawful in their first few years in the league. And Seattle fans not only like a winner, they appreciate teams with personality like the Seahawks and the Mariners in the 90’s. A Stanley Cup champion coached by Lou Piniella with Marshawn Lynch busting down the left wing would guarantee success, but that’s not going to happen.

However, there’s plenty of reason for optimism as well. Seattle is the 12th largest media market in the country AND growing. Also, word is there’s money in the area. Here’s what USA Today said about our fair city:

(Seattle’s) a veritable gold mine for the NHL. Seattle has the 12th largest Gross Metropolitan Product in the United States and is home to Microsoft, Amazon, Weyerhauser and other economic giants. The city has more than its share of corporate sponsorship opportunities.

People who pay attention to such things say Seattle is changing, for better or worse. Sportswise, the fact that the Seahawks and the Mariners both considered leaving town is just a dim memory today. Another bit of history one always hears around talk of the NHL coming to Seattle — the first US team to win a Stanley Cup? The Seattle Metropolitans back in 1917. A new Seattle team starting up 100 years later certainly has symmetry. And who knows? Maybe they’ll win the Cup someday as well.