A glance back at Seattle’s expansion history within major men’s professional sports leagues has been about as forgettable as, well, much of the city’s sports legacy in general until quite recently.
Let’s face it: The SuperSonics winning the 1979 NBA title remained the city’s lone major men’s pro sports championship until the Seahawks captured Super Bowl XLVIII in February 2014. Sure, you can count the Seattle Metropolitans winning the 1917 Stanley Cup as the Pacific Coast Hockey Association representative over the Montreal Canadiens, the best the NHL-precursor National Hockey Association could offer up.
But that’s not a whole lot to work with the past century-plus. And thus, unsurprisingly, our expansion squads have been a mostly dismal affair with the Kraken now poised to be the latest to take a crack at things.
And coach Dave Hakstol’s group won’t exactly have the toughest act to follow.
The Sonics in 1967-68 finished 23-59 (.280), but coach Al Bianchi’s crew at least managed to squeak past the even worse expansion San Diego Rockets for fifth place in the six-team Western Division. Bob Rule and Al Tucker made the NBA’s all-rookie team that season, and Walt Hazzard, a 1964 Tokyo Olympics gold medalist in basketball for Team USA played for the West in the league’s All-Star Game.
Playing games at the newly opened Coliseum – now renovated and called Climate Pledge Arena – the Sonics didn’t have a winning record until their fifth season in 1971-72 when they went 47-35 under player-coach Lenny Wilkens. They finally made the playoffs their eighth season under Bill Russell in 1974-75, then the NBA Finals in 1977-78 under Wilkens in his second coaching go-round before winning it all the ensuing campaign.
Seattle’s expansion baseball legacy was even tougher as the Pilots lasted just their debut 1969 season under manager Joe Schultz, going 64-98 (.395) before relocating to Milwaukee. The best thing to come out of that season, where home games were played at Sick’s Stadium, was the classic tell-all “Ball Four” book written by relief pitcher Jim Bouton that broke all of baseball’s “code” rules by spilling private insights.
Unfortunately for the Mariners, there are no books glamorizing their identical 64-98 expansion season under Darrell Johnson in 1977. Their expansion-pairing partner Toronto Blue Jays would make the ALCS in 1985, the playoffs five times and capture two World Series before the Mariners tasted their first postseason in 1995 – in their 19th big-league campaign.
It took the Mariners 15 seasons to post a winning record, and the franchise remains the only current one not to reach the World Series. The Mariners nearly relocated – to St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1992 – before an ownership group led by Nintendo patriarch Hiroshi Yamauchi stepped in to keep them in Seattle.
The Seahawks, as with the city’s other “Big 4” league squads, started off equally woeful, going 2-12 under coach Jack Patera in 1976. But led by quarterback Jim Zorn and Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent, they would post a 9-7 winning record by their third season and reach the playoffs in 1983 – making it to the AFC title game under coach Chuck Knox before losing to the eventual Super Bowl-winning Los Angeles Raiders.
They made the playoffs four times under Knox but failed to go as deep. By the mid-1990s, the Seahawks, like the Mariners, were threatening to leave town unless a new stadium was built. In fact, the Seahawks moved their offices to Anaheim, California, until billionaire Paul Allen agreed to buy them in 1996 and got a new, public-funded stadium built that is now Lumen Field.
Unlike the Seahawks and the Mariners with what’s now T-Mobile Park, the Sonics never did get a replacement for KeyArena built with public money. And they did actually leave town, to Oklahoma City in 2008.
It’s now expected that the $1 billion overhaul of KeyArena to Climate Pledge Arena – effectively a bigger, entirely new venue under the same roof – for the Kraken will soon bring an NBA squad back. But regardless of when that happens, the NHL team will almost certainly have a more promising start than the city’s prior major pro expansion squads.
A big reason is the $650 million price tag for the franchise paid by Kraken majority owner David Bonderman and partners. Sonics owner Sam Schulman paid $1.6 million (equal to $13.5 million today) for his expansion franchise; Dewey Soriano and William Daley put up $5.35 million for the Pilots in 1969 ($42 million today); (Lester Smith and Danny Kaye paid $6.5 million in 1977 ($29.34 million today) for the Mariners; and Lloyd Nordstrom paid $16 million in 1976 ($76.93 million today) for the Seahawks’ entry fee.
So at a Kraken expansion fee price approaching 10 times the biggest of those amounts, the ownership group expects not to struggle for years. Same with the Vegas Golden Knights and their $500 million expansion fee paid in 2017.
Instead of limiting expansion teams to picking bottom-roster castoffs as other new Seattle teams previously had been, the NHL restricted the number of good players existing squads could protect. Vegas, using the same expansion-draft rules as the Kraken, also made a number of deals ahead of the 2017 expansion draft that bolstered its stable of players and future draft picks and helped it reach the Stanley Cup Final in its debut season.
That probably won’t happen this time, namely because other general managers didn’t get roped into side deals by Kraken GM Ron Francis to keep him from drafting certain players. The Kraken failed to swing a pre-draft trade, and that could limit the team’s ability to be as consistently high-end good as Vegas has been its first four seasons.
But the Kraken should be able to contend for a Pacific Division playoff spot this season. If so, its first-year trajectory could look a lot more like that of the Sounders, who went 12-7-11 and finished fourth overall among Major League Soccer’s 15 teams before bowing out the opening round of the 2009 playoffs.
As for the WNBA’s Storm, it had an awful 2000 expansion season – going 6-26 (.188). But it also had a winning season by Year 3 and the first of its four championships by the fifth season.
It wouldn’t be the worst outcome if the Kraken finishes this expansion season in between what the Sounders and Storm accomplished in their debuts. And if the Kraken can win multiple titles in fairly short order as both those franchises have, the hockey team undoubtedly would grab that deal.
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