Chicago businessman, and minor league hockey owner, kindles arena hopes. But do sports fans here want to hijack teams from two cities to make it work?
Before this sports market begins scavenging the NHL for teams to poach for a new arena rumored to be pursued by a Chicago businessman, some questions need to be asked.
None of the questions, however, will include where to build it. Since Sonics owner Clay Bennett went through the options about an Eastside arena in 2006 and feigned sticker shock, commercial real estate has fallen faster than Chone Figgins batting average. Affordable space could be found in the middle of Bellevue Square.
According to sources familiar with the current conversations, however, the most likely spot remains as it has for years: The 75 acres east of I-405 near Bel-Red Road, the old Safeway distribution center.
KeyArena? So over. So second-tier. Somewhere else in Seattle? Too far from the money on the Eastside, even after a new 520 bridge.
The main question: Who would want to own an NHL franchise here?
Maybe an outsider.
When the Cubs were put up for sale by the Tribune Co., Don Levin was an early pursuer, but was outbid by the Ricketts family. His passion, however, is hockey. Since 1994-95, he has owned the minor league Chicago Wolves, who have won four titles in the old International Hockey League and current American Hockey League.
Levin this week was identified by KIRO-TV as having had conversations with people here in business and government about creating an arena and finding an NHL tenant.
Levins minor-league team Friday was named winner of the AHLs sponsorship sales award for the second consecutive year, setting club records for corporate revenue and partnerships, up 15 percent from a year ago in a bad economy in a busy sports town. Apparently he knows how to light the lamp in the minors.
He has a great passion for the game, former Chicago Sun-Times sportswriter Len Ziehm wrote in an email, and it wouldnt surprise me if he got something done there.
Not that there arent plenty of local wealthies capable of indulging a sports passion. Seattles John McCaw, of the McCaw wireless empire, owned all or part of the Canucks from 1997 to 2006. We all know about Steve Ballmer, as well as John Stanton, a minority owner of the Mariners and a big shareholder in the Sonics who voted against the sale to Bennett.
Nor is there an absence of hockey fans, from longtimers who remember the glory years of the 1960s Seattle Totems to newbies energized by the neighbor Canucks run to the Stanley Cup Finals (as well as the opportunity to loot downtown stores).
But are there enough owners and fans, even without competition from the NBA in the same season, to financially sustain an expensive enterprise that still isnt popular enough to get a substantive U.S. national TV contract?
The lifeblood of any big-time sport these days is a big TV contract. As seen recently, the Pac-12 Conference athletic departments fixed a lot of their financial worries through the whopper $3 billion deal with ESPN and Fox, which included creation of the conferences own network.
The NHL trumpeted in April a new deal with NBC/Universal valued at $2 billion. But the money is spread over 10 years, making the average value of the 10-year deal $200 million a year. Under the old deal, the NHL was getting $80 million. Improvement, yes, but still only about $4 million per team.
Comparatively for its networks rights, the NFL gets about $3 billion a year, the NBA just shy of $1 billion, and MLB gets about $450 million, with local revenues for the 162-game schedule a larger factor.
As with the NBA, the bottom tier of franchises are unstable. Just last month, the NHL Board of Governors approved the move of the Thrashers franchise from a market of five million in Atlanta to Winnipeg, a city of less than 700,000, primarily for a big reason the NBA let the Sonics go to Oklahoma City despite the small market size, theres no competition for the pro sports dollar.
In a time of economic travail, do not underestimate the lure of the one-horse town.
Its true that hockey was never embraced in Atlanta. Fans there never did figure out which division of Southeastern Conference college football the team belonged. And the NHL already there failed before (remember the Flames, from 1972-80?).
In Arizona, the city of Glendale just approved a subsidy of $25 million for the Coyotes, which were bought out of bankruptcy court by the NHL, to cover any season-ending losses for the 2011-12 campaign. Imagine how that would go over in Seattle or Bellevue.
Both franchises were horribly managed. But the fact remains that the NHL is still a niche sport in many parts of the country, and is now stuck for 10 years in a TV contract of limited value. About the only way a Bellevue arena project would be viable is to get a second tenant, an NBA team.
You may have heard that, because 22 of the NBAs 30 teams lost money last year, the league is in a lockout until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. By all indications, fans can cross off Kobe Bryant for a season, unless he plays in Rome, Istanbul or Kabul.
And the NHL has an expiring CBA after next season. This was the league that canceled the 2004-05 season to get a new CBA that both sides are increasingly unhappy with, particularly after the opening this summer of free agency dropped jaws across North America as hockey fans watched good money go to so many mediocre players.
Does a Bellevue arena project, completely financed privately, start this year, knowing that one or both potential prime tenants may need two years to resolve work stoppages?
Wow. That is some serious risk-taking. But thats what rich guys do.
For the fans, there is a question they must answer: How would you feel if your town did to another city what Oklahoma City did to Seattle? Not once, but twice. Perhaps simultaneously.
Surely, one of the teams will have to be named Pirates.