The NHL’s recent announcement it would accept an expansion application for a future Seattle franchise might have surprised those who hadn’t closely followed this city’s arena drama.
But those close to the situation knew the league badly needed to throw the city and Tim Leiweke’s Oak View Group a bone. Some of the public discourse surrounding a KeyArena renovation proposal had gotten out of whack, and speculation had affected perceptions of the venue and Leiweke’s plans for it.
Because the city of Kansas City, Mo., had built an arena with Leiweke a decade ago and did not attract teams, some believed KeyArena would suffer the same fate.
But this situation is different:
• Seattle is a bigger market than Kansas City and is growing faster.
• Kansas City’s Sprint Center was built with mainly public funds. Leiweke’s group is footing the $600 million renovation bill and would take a huge financial hit if teams don’t come.
• Leiweke already had the NHL ownership group of David Bonderman and Jerry Bruckheimer as equity partners, after lacking such a group in K.C.
OVG and Seattle officials let the NHL know they needed help. And the league assured both before the city-council vote ratifying a Memorandum of Understanding that help was coming.
So it wasn’t a coincidence the NHL’s announcement came just one day after Mayor Jenny Durkan had signed off on the council’s 7-1 MOU approval vote. The league’s authorization of a Seattle season-ticket drive — expected to begin in January — might as well have been a full-page newspaper advertisement announcing a team was approved.
The only reason the NHL didn’t outright hand Seattle an expansion team is in case something delays an environmental-impact statement being prepared on KeyArena. But if, as expected, that gets done by October and shovels hit the ground, the league is expected to award our city a team.
As for the NBA, Leiweke’s group last week took steps to debunk other speculation — that the NBA would not approve of KeyArena and that basketball is an afterthought to hockey and music for OVG.
To emphasize the NBA is in its plans, OVG last week hired Steve Mattson from Minneapolis to oversee all KeyArena operations. Mattson just finished handling an upgrade of Target Center in Minneapolis for — you guessed it — a primary NBA tenant. He had run Target Center since its 1990 inception as new home of the NBA Timberwolves and its executive team that included Leiweke.
Mattson told me Friday that equipping KeyArena for NBA, NHL, concerts and other events is paramount so revenue isn’t left on the table.
“In a major market, in 2020, you have to be capable of easily hosting and delivering all of those events,” Mattson said.
For now, he added, this is the best time to discuss design questions with architect Populous before anything is set in place “to make sure they’ve thought through various things.”
That means something as innocuous as the home and visiting locker rooms must be carefully planned if the goal is to lure both sports equally. Mattson said KeyArena will have different home and visiting locker rooms for the NBA and NHL teams.
Mattson said he’ll also focus specifically on NBA and NHL fan experiences, which are similar but differ slightly because an NHL surface takes up more floor space than an NBA court.
“You convert to those settings through seating variations and bringing in the pieces of the pie that surround the court that are not there for an NHL setting,” he said. “That’s an important part. The activity at the new arena will be robust, and you have to be designed for both NHL and NBA so that the production of one event to the next — and potentially two in a day — can be efficient.’’
On getting the NBA team here, there’s nothing Mattson, Leiweke or anybody can do for now.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has suggested expansion is not imminent, and there’s talk it might not happen until after the league’s collective-bargaining agreement expires in 2024.
There has been chatter about the New Orleans or Memphis teams being relocated, but that’s guesswork for now.
And it’s a big reason the city went with the KeyArena plan over a proposal for a new arena in the Sodo District that required an NBA team before construction would begin.
The council wondered why it should approve the sale of part of Occidental Ave. South to the Sodo project — even provisionally — when an arena might not get built for another decade, if at all. Silver didn’t help the Sodo group before a May 2016 council vote when he stated even a “shovel-ready” project wouldn’t hasten NBA expansion.
The Sodo group needed Silver to throw it a bone. Like what the NHL just threw to KeyArena and OVG, without formally committing to anything.
That message spoke volumes. And the council heard it loud and clear.
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