BY Art Thiel 08:00AM 02/28/2014

Thiel: For Seattle, the NHL wants to be first

A “trade mission” of Seattle business people saw a hockey game and heard from Canucks officials how welcome Seattle would be as Vancouver’s rival in the NHL.

The Canucks claim more than 400 consecutive sellouts at the 18,9180-seat Rogers Arena, but the enthusiasm was a little thin Wednesday night. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

VANCOUVER, B.C.  — As far as the game Wednesday at Rogers Arena between Vancouver Canucks and St. Louis Blues, which combined had 16 players returning over 12 time zones from the Winter Olympics hockey tournament, they should have stayed on the sandy shores of the Russian Riviera.

Canucks 1, Blues 0, and zero face-splitting fights. Ice dancing had more cross-checks.

But the dull game between two travel-whipped teams was a secondary consideration for a group of 34 business people, politicians and reporters who were invited by the Seattle Sports Commission for a 24-hour “trade mission” to try to understand whether the National Hockey League might be a better fit for Seattle than the NBA.

Don’t get carried away. Chris Hansen’s SoDo arena project is a long way from happening, and no one on the bus trip or in Vancouver offered any particular inside knowledge about the likelihood of NHL expansion or relocation or Seattle ownership.

But one observation Wednesday night was useful. A former Vancouver sports executive who has kept tabs on the scene was on the arena concourse when he spotted a Seattle reporter he knew.

Asked why the NHL, with more teams operating in the red annually than the NBA, illogically would be even quicker to expand, the source said it was a simple matter of opportunity.

“The NHL,” he said,  “wants to be first to Seattle.”

It made perfect sense. The NHL is the lesser league and has no modern track record in Seattle, so it has incentive to get here sooner to establish business/political/customer relationships in a busy sports market. If the NHL comes in behind the NBA, it will forever be the little brother who gets the hand-me-downs among sponsorships, scheduling and media attention.

The NHL is even willing to absorb the hit of two, maybe three, years in an ill-fitting KeyArena that has only 11,000 seats for pro hockey.

The sport has a history with temporary housing.

When the Hartford Whalers moved to North Carolina for 1997-98, they played for two years in a smaller arena in Greensboro, while a new arena was built in Raleigh. The first two seasons (1991-93) of the expansion San Jose Sharks were played in San Francisco’s venerable Cow Palace before moving to the ‘burbs. The Ottawa Senators played 3½ seasons (1992-96) in the small, old Civic Centre before getting fancier digs outside the national capital.

So the shortcomings of the moment in Seattle pale in comparison to the long-term opportunity to throw down first with the Hansen arena project. For two good reasons: Seahawks and Sounders.

The engagement between the football and futbol teams and their regional fan bases has astonished many sports observers nationally and internationally. Addressing the Seattle group at a reception at B.C. Place, the downtown stadium that hosts Sunday the Heritage Classic, another in the NHL’s hugely successful outdoor-stadium series, Victor de Bonis, the Canucks chief operating officer the past seven years, admitted he couldn’t get over it.

“Fantastic,” he said. “Unbelievable . . .”

12th Man signs were visible in many spots around Vancouver, he said, and many Canadian fans are regulars at the Clink. The opportunity to tap into Seattle’s extraordinary sports passions was clear to de Bonis, who saw the potential arrival of a Seattle team as no threat because the Canucks have more than 400 consecutive sellouts in the 18,910-seat arena. The Canucks franchise, owned from 1994-2004 by Bellevue cellular-phone billionaire John McCaw, has been eager for geographic rival.

As for the NHL, it sees a growing Seattle market that came relatively close to getting the Coyotes last summer before the Phoenix-area team struck a last-minute lease deal, containing considerable public money, to stay put.

League finances are heavily driven by the gate, because the NHL has yet to get a blockbuster TV deal from an American network that compares with the NBA, MLB and NFL. Phoenix is one of several Sun Belt teams struggling with its attendance. Atlanta lost its team to Winnipeg, and insider gossip has the Florida Panthers relocating to Quebec City, which is building an arena.

Keeping a relocating team in the East is logical because, after its recent realignment, the NHL has 14 teams in the Western Conference and 16 in the Eastern Conference. While NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, a protege of former NBA Commissioner David Stern, has said nothing of substance about a commitment to expansion, he has tossed flirtatious compliments in Seattle’s direction, an old commish trick intended to drive up market interest among wannabe cities and their desperate media outlets.

The Seattle Times reported that a letter of intent to cities regarding possible expansion may be forthcoming within weeks, with a likely target of the 2015-16 season. Portland and Las Vegas are considered the best bets to join Seattle.

The driver in Seattle is the memorandum of understanding between the city and Hansen, along with his biggest partner, Steve Ballmer. The document requires securing an NBA team before commencement of the MOU’s obligations, which include $200 million from the city’s capacity to borrow.

But if the NBA is in no mood to relocate or expand — made clear in recent comments by Stern’s successor, Adam Silver — the MOU could be rewritten to put an NHL team in first place. But council members and new mayor Ed Murray would need to see some evidence of public/private support for the NHL to make the switch.

Hence, a reason for the trade mission.

The sports commission extended invites to many local electeds, but only two King County Council members showed up, Reagan Dunn and Pete von Reichbauer. Much can be read into the no-show by city politicians, but for now there is really nothing demanding action from the city.

Arena advocates and opponents eagerly await the release of the final environmental impact statement, required by state law, on Hansen’s chosen site of SoDo. The opponents, primarily the Port of Seattle, the longshore union, the Mariners and the maritime/industrial businesses directly impacted, have heavily criticized the draft EIS and have signaled their likely intent to sue if the final report isn’t considerably different.

The draft report considered two alternate sites, both at Seattle Center, locations where Hansen has steadfastly maintained he will not consider.

The upshot is that upon release of the EIS, expect negotiation and litigation. Hansen’s argument would be strengthened considerably with an NHL letter in his hand, giving renewed political momentum to rewrite the MOU while the lawyers hash it out.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks’ Super Bowl win and the Sounders’ gate success have changed the view of the nature of the Seattle marketplace. To quote entrepreneur/raconteur/quakemaker Marshawn Lynch:

It’s all ’bout that action, boss.


YourThoughts

  • billy bob

    Weren’t the Mariners part of this trip as well?

    • art thiel

      The Mariners had a front office guy on the trip. Port commissioner John Creighton came along as well. The sports commission isn’t taking sides on the arena location fight; it’s trying to look ahead about what can be done to secure a team. And since the NHL hasn’t been in Seattle in modern times, this was an introduction to the sport/business.

  • Jamo57

    I’ve had a feeling that the NHL would be first for quite a while, particularly after the SCTO deal didn’t fly. This is the 4th and best shot for the NHL (who has wanted to be here since the ’70 expansion) to put a franchise in the Seattle area and being first before the NBA might end up helping the franchise thrive. The NBA just wants to flirt but the NHL appears to actually want to go to the prom with us.

    One question. I’ve heard the group went up on a Seahawks bus. Does that give a glimpse into Paul Allen positioning for a franchise in PDX to come in with Seattle?

  • soundersfan84

    Btw Seattle isn’t providing the entire 200m. King county is providing some of that amount as well.

    • Playhouse

      KingCo would provide 80m of that IF both NBA and NHL teams are secured. For the NBA-only option, they were only putting in $5M towards a roughly $120-$145M commitment from the city and county. With an NHL-first approach, it’s hard to say what the county might contribute.

      • soundersfan84

        No matter what fund plan is that will end up building it, Seattle isn’t providing the entire public financing of the project.

        • Playhouse

          We don’t know that for a fact, yet. The assumption, though, with Dunn and von Reichbauer being on this trip is that the county would likely be interested and involved in negotiations regarding moving over to the hockey model.

      • art thiel

        Thanks.

    • art thiel

      I’m aware. Very small part barely worth mentioning.

  • Starved Hockey Fan

    Why is Greensboro’s proximity to Charlotte relevant when the Hurricanes permanent home was always intendend to be in Raleigh?

    • art thiel

      Fixed.

  • 1coolguy

    I’m not an NHL fan but the more the merrier!
    I would like to see the NHL THRIVE in Seattle if for no other reason than to give Stern and Silver the finger!
    I just can’t believe there aren’t NBA owners of financially losing teams that don’t want to relocate to Seattle. I understand the NBA, esp after the Sonics move, doesn’t want to relocate a team but there HAS to be ONE team that can pull it off.

    • art thiel

      The new CBA has the goal of making all teams break-even or better. Whether they get there is unknowable, but no sincere owner would put themselves willingly through the torment of moving.

      • 1coolguy

        It only takes one ROBERT IRSAY or ART MODELL!
        One can only hope, right?
        After all, still can’t get the bad taste of Schultz out of my mouth nor his useless paddock boy Walker…………….

  • 1coolguy

    Art – Did McCaw get a gigantic price for the sale? 400 straight sellouts @ 19,000 must translate into one of the BEST live gates in all of sports.

    • art thiel

      Sale from McCaw to Francesco Aquilini closed in 2005 for $207M, according to Forbes, which estimates a current value of $740M for Canucks.

      • 1coolguy

        Good to see someone other than me selling too soon!

  • jeff

    Carolina had arena built in Raleigh not Charlotte. .no your facts,

    • art thiel

      Fixed. Thanks.

    • Doug

      know*

  • David Nakayama

    I agree w/ your point about NHL playing in temporary digs, but I wouldn’t call San Jose “the ‘burbs”. San Jose has a population of 980k+ (higher population than SF).

    • art thiel

      We’re talking 20 years ago. Bellevue likes to think of itself as something other than a burb too.

  • RadioGuy

    “The opportunity to tap into Seattle’s extraordinary sports passions was clear to de Bonis, who saw the potential arrival of a Seattle team as no threat because the Canucks have more than 400 consecutive sellouts in the 18,910-seat arena.”

    Not so sure that passion extends to hockey, where Seattle was so gaga over the sport that the Thunderbirds moved out of KeyArena because A) it’s a horrible hockey venue and B) there weren’t enough people attending games to keep a Major Junior team in town (a team that still doesn’t pack ShoWare Center unless Portland visits). An NHL team would obviously draw better than a WHL team, but will there be enough fans willing to plunk down $50-100 to watch the Mets (Totems?) host Carolina or Columbus to even fill the Key, let alone a new venue, on a Wednesday or Thursday? Not every game is going to be against a Canadian or Original Six team.

    Hockey is a culturally-embedded religion in Canada but mostly a niche sport here. Also, an NHL team in Seattle would have to compete with the Seahawks, Mariners, Sounders and Huskies for the sports entertainment dollar while the Canucks? Outside the Whitecaps, the NHL has Vancouver all to itself.

    Seattle would be a good fit for the NHL (at least demographically), but major league hockey would have a tough sell ahead of them to get the kind of gate they need in a league that doesn’t have the NBA’s humongous TV deals to bring in mega-revenues. Anyone owning a team in Seattle would have to deep enough pockets to willingly lose millions of dollars annually until the new arena is built.

    • Doug

      They better name the team the Totems. “Metropolitans” is an awful name. I don’t care if they won a cup 100 years ago.

      • art thiel

        I think I’ll let this cart sit by itself, well before the horse.

        • Doug

          True. I’m in Atlanta anyway. We lost our team.

          • art thiel

            Dusty little Atlanta had no shot against the mighty ‘Peg.

          • Kirkland

            How Bettman fought tooth and nail to keep Phoenix in place but didn’t lift a finger to keep Atlanta from moving, I’ll never know.

    • art thiel

      Good analysis, Radio, although drawing from the minor-league experience in Seattle isn’t very relevant. Major league teams have succeeded where minor teams did not.

      The ticket prices are relevant. My ticket behind the goal 19 rows up was $132.50, which was frankly shocking. I realize Seattle’s demographic growth in well-paid IT workers changes some of the argument, but middle-class wage earners are going to have a hard time going more than once or twice a year.

      • Jamo57

        Art, prices in all the Canadian cities are significantly higher. I would expect Seattle ticket prices to be in the upper 1/2 or upper 1/3 of the US average. (Not a currency exchange factor just a reflection of where the sport ranks in each country).

        • art thiel

          Fair point, but the house scale will also depend on the private costs in the arena deal. To retire annual debt, Hansen may need to get from the gate more revs than most of the U.S. teams.

    • Kirkland

      The Sounders were extremely happy to draw 3,000 as a minor-league team. In MLS, they’re drawing 40,000 in a league where many STADIUMS only seat 18,000. I think there’s a pent-up demand for high-level hockey here, especially amongst people for whom the WHL doesn’t cut it.

      As for the T-Birds, they used to draw some crowds of 10,000 around 1990, and as late as 2003. Problem is, Everett came in the league the next year, and that took away a lot of North-end fans, something that didn’t happen when Tacoma had a rival WHL team in the 1990s. It also hasn’t helped that they haven’t reached the conference finals in nearly a decade; a lot of mediocre and less-than-mediocre hockey since then, which thankfully seems to have changed this season.

  • 1964HotToddy

    I sure don’t see much negativity aimed at Chris Hansen. I don’t know him personally of course, but to me he comes across as especially smarmy. If he lived in Seattle I’d probably feel different, but his whole act (real estate in SODO!) don’t give off the most sincere of vibes. Doesn’t Kemper Freeman have a plan for Bellevue that would be compelling for Ballmer, a guy I (and I assume others would) consider more of a “Seattle” guy?

    • 1coolguy

      Hansen tried to pull an underhanded end-around down in Sac and the NBA uncovered it.
      I don’t think Hansen will ever be the “perfect” buyer in the NBA’s eyes ever again. Best he becomes a partner after the fact.

      • MarkS

        If you’re going to do an end run do it Clay Bennett style. Cozy up to the commissioner.

    • art thiel

      He made foolish mistakes in the bid for the Kings, and didn’t understand the layers of opposition to a SoDo site. I don’t see smarmy here.

      • 1964HotToddy

        Okay, maybe smarmy doesn’t quite fit, but it seems like there’s some mythology behind his whole “local boy tries to help community” act. Sure he went to high school in Seattle, but has he really looked back except to the extent he may be able to add to his fortune by real estate speculation? I’d like the NBA back too, and to be honest I’d take the NHL over them if it was my decision, but to dismiss the seemingly real effects on the port operations and all that that implies while not coincidentally potentially cashing in on his properties makes one wonder. Did he perpetrate the shenanigans in Sacramento the help the good people of Seattle or to pad his wallet?
        It’s no one’s place to tell another man how to spend his money, but it seems like Freeman, Ballmer and a handful of other eastside guys could get an arena built in Bellevue or thereabouts, keep all the parking/concessions/etc. for themselves and be much more heroic in locals’ eyes than Hansen could ever be.
        Is it completely unrealistic to believe the NBA and or NHL could work on the eastside, leaving the port and all the economic output there alone?

  • Jared S.

    What would be the grounds for the ILWU & Co. to sue again if the final EIS gives the green light to building the arena in SODO? The last time they said that it was illegal to give tentative approval of the arena prior to the EIS. Now they would be saying that the report itself is wrong if it doesn’t give them the answer they want? I’m not a lawyer, but that seems kind of weak to me.

    • art thiel

      They will argue that more alternate sites were not considered. They also will claim that regarding traffic consequences, the draft EIS was woefully short. Their point is the EIS was twisted to affirm the SoDo site.

  • jafabian

    Color me skeptical on the NHL coming to Seattle. They’ve never held any games here, not even exhibition. As far as I can tell they’ve never tried to assemble an ownership group here and IMO are about as set as the NBA when it comes to expansion. At the very least have the Canucks play here once in a while. Bettman simply follows Sterno’s lead and uses Seattle to get what he wants from other cities.

    The Seattle market would be huge for the NHL and makes sense. I just haven’t seen enough movement on their part to make me want to jump on their bandwagon yet. Go Hawks!

    • Jamo57

      Tampa Bay and Phoenix played an exhibition in Everett 5 or 6 years ago. It sold out at NHL prices too.

      • RadioGuy

        It was in 2009 and the top ticket was $60, which is average for an NHL game. I think the last time the NHL played Tacoma was in the late Nineties.
        And, yes, jafabian, I think the NHL is using Seattle to get better arena deals in their current cities. Seattle has become what Tampa Bay was to MLB in the 1980′s and 90′s. Still, why not schedule a couple exhibition games at KeyArena next fall as a “test drive” of sorts?

        • jafabian

          Seattle is for the NHL and NBA what LA is for the NFL. But if the NBA wants to eventually enter the Seattle market it needs to be before the NBA comes in and before the Mariners become successful again. If the M’s (Now, now. Work with me here everyone.) were to have a season comparable to the Seahawks this past season that will sustain them for years. If the NBA returns people will cheer and talk about the old days of DJ, Jack, Lenny, Gus, the Glove, Reign Man and Jesus Shuttlesworth. The NHL needs to get their foot in the door now before all that happens.

    • art thiel

      The NHL”s ability to succeed in Seattle, where it has no meaningful history, remains an open question. Money for the ownership and expansion fee is here, but whether there will be long-term gate revs, in the absence of a big American TV deal, to sustain, can’t be known.

    • Kirkland

      Canucks and Red Wings in the then-Seattle Center Coliseum in 1990. The Tacoma Dome had Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers in their mid-’80s dynasty, and as RG says below the Canucks played the Sharks and Kings in the ’90s.

  • Doug

    Mr. Theil, can we get anymore information on relocating the Panthers? To my knowledge they are trying to get another $80 million subsidy to keep the team afloat. I know the Quebec City fans would be heartbroken to lose out to Seattle and Portland without a team of their own, especially since they have a new arena going up!

    http://www.local10.com/news/florida-panthers-ask-for-86-million-bailout-to-help-pay-for-rent-at-bbt-center/24535470

    • art thiel

      As I mentioned, the scuttlebutt in Vancouver is that if the Panthers don’t make it, they would relocate to Quebec City. That leaves expansion to the West, where the conference has two fewer teams than the East.

      • Doug

        Who in Vancouver? The owners? The potential Seattle team? Canadians are always talking about moving a sunbelt team north of the border so I won’t put stock into it but I hope it’s true.

        • art thiel

          The Canadians were right about Atlanta. And the alignment logic is there. The East can’t add teams; the West can. That wasn’t an accident. And please don’t tell me to put Columbus in the West.

          • Doug

            I never said they weren’t. I’m a Rangers fan so I didn’t really care when the Thrashers left though I miss going to see my Rangers twice a year.

            All I’m saying is that I’ve heard the Canadians talk about teams in Hamilton or Toronto, which both are unlikely and even Saskatoon which will NEVER happen.

            I’m curious as who to is talking about the Panthers moving to QC. I think it’s a good idea!

    • Kirkland

      The Panthers owned Miami when they came in the league, especially when they went to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996, their third year. Problem was, the arena was very undersized (14,000) and in high-crime Overtown (called by locals “Cracktown” — yikes!), thus the team lost loads of money despite sellouts. They then put up a new building in Broward County, near where (they thought) most of their fans were, but that’s when the team went on a losing and mismanagement streak that would shock even the Mariners, and you can’t draw with that.

      A friend of mine says, “There are neither good markets nor bad markets; there are only winning markets and losing markets.” If the Panthers had had better ownership and management since the mid-’90s (thanks, Wayne Huizenga), they wouldn’t be in this pickle.

      • Doug

        I disagree. Look at the NJ Devils. Three Stanley Cups in recent memory and they lose $20 million a year. Winning market or losing market?

        • Kirkland

          Point well taken, they’re an infuriating case study, but I would say Newark is a hypercompetitive market. Too many Rangers fans, the hated neutral zone trap, underfunded owners, too close to Philly and the other East Coast cities. (And the fact that Lou Lamariello never bothered to market the team.) If the Devils had moved to, say, Milwaukee instead of NJ in 1982 and had the same success, they’d be the toast of the town.

          I’m just thinking back to a decade ago, when the Seahawks couldn’t sell out to save their lives and the Mariners sold out Safeco consistently. If winning doesn’t boost the gate, something’s wrong with the

  • Stu from Stumptown

    Hey Art, thanks for your great columns/insights. I’m down here in PDX, and would dearly love to see NHL here, but it doesn’t seem our owner, you may’ve heard of him, doesn’t want a team unless it’s at an incredibly slashed, discounted price (see Penguins, Pittsburgh and Coyotes, Phoenix)….sooo, unless you know something I don’t, I love the chances of Seattle and maybe Vegas joining the NHL, but I fear PDX will remain NHL-less…another piece to the puzzle: Paul Allen, I think, always has been, and probably always will be, wary of competition for his Blazers in PDX/Moda Center. Fascinating column, though.