BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 03/24/2015

Thiel: KeyArena fun, but it gets older and smaller

The NCAA men’s basketball tourney drew 44,262 for three sessions, and a good time was had by eight teams and their fans. But whether March Madness returns is an open question.

KeyArena threw a nice hoops party, but it’s hard to know if it will again. / Sportspress Northwest file

Since we have awards for everything, there must be a trophy for recycling buildings, and it has to be awarded to Seattle, the epicenter of the renewable. Fifty-three years after its inauguration as a temporary structure –  the Washington State Pavilion for the 1962 World’s Fair — KeyArena the past weekend showed it was still capable of putting on hootenannies. Or hoopenannies.

For the first time in 11 years, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament came to Seattle. It drew a combined 44,262 for two sessions Friday and one Sunday, which were virtual sellouts. Eight teams and their fans filled up hotel rooms and restaurants in the slow part of the tourist calendar and had a good time, especially the folks from Spokane and the Gonzaga diaspora.

“We could have sold more tickets,” said Ralph Morton, director of the Seattle Sports Commission, which partnered with the University of Washington, the host institution, to stage the event. “There was pent-up demand for March Madness.”

He said tickets for the initial public sale in October were gone quickly, long before the identities of the participants were known. Once Selection Sunday sent eight teams to Seattle, each school had a minimum of 200 tickets it had to buy, plus an option to buy more. Judging by the noise and colors, Zags fans soaked up the extras.

The building, always revered for its basketball sightlines, had some small, desperately needed upgrades, such as replacing an embarrassingly bad wi-fi system with something that worked nearly all the time. The UW staff helping stage the event were aces.

KeyArena general manager Edie Burke was pleased with the outcome, although she owned up to a staffing “hiccup” Friday that left some fans “frustrated, rightly so,” over tasks undone that were fixed by Sunday.

As to whether a return of the NCAA tourney will happen, no one knows. The NCAA never discloses why it passes over some sites and gravitates to others. But a return won’t happen until at least 2019, because the bid cycle for the next three years is already over.

As much polish as was applied, there remains some functional inadequacies that can’t be resolved with small investments. Concourses are comparatively narrow; leg room in seats is still cramped; rest rooms and concessions for sellouts still have long lines.

The Key remains primarily a concert venue, but the single-bay loading dock means that the biggest shows (and biggest moneymakers) must go elsewhere. Outside, the wretched street parking in Lower Queen Anne will only get worse as population density increases.

Meanwhile, in Portland, the Moda Center, opened as the Rose Garden in 1995, same year as the remodeled Key, has more than 19,000 seats for basketball and an ample supply of leg room, rest rooms and concessions. If that is Seattle’s competitor for Northwest regional sports venues, there’s little contest, at least in terms of arena specs.

This year’s event prompted a small discovery: Basketball capacity was 15,000, not the 17,000 and change in the NBA days that ended in 2008.

“It’s about a thousand less than the NBA level,” Burke said. Then the NCAA configuration took out the first four rows of courtside seats, as well as an upper section, to accommodate media from eight cities, plus room for two band spaces on the floor. Throw in improvements mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and what was the NBA’s smallest arena at the time of the Oklahoma City banditry has shrunk further.

The NCAA gives each hosting organization a three-inch-thick volume of requirements for staging the events, as well as hotel and transportation logistics. A review of Seattle’s performance won’t be done for awhile.

Meantime, the commission, along with UW and potentially Seattle University, will keep pitching for March Madness as well as lesser-profile NCAA championships.

“We definitely intend to bid for future events,” Burke said. As Morton put it, “Once you do one, you get in line for another.”

But the competition to host these clean, low-impact, tourist-rich events grows annually. And the Key keeps aging and shrinking.

We all know that a new arena has been proposed for Sodo, but whether it survives the remaining hurdles is not knowable. Even though alternate arena sites by different developers are rumored for Bellevue and Tukwila, they face similar chores that Chris Hansen has endured since he began buying Sodo property in — gasp! — 2011.

Meanwhile, the Key now has time to make a little trophy case in the lobby to celebrate its championship recycling. It’s how we roll lately in Seattle.

Great food, great drink, high humor and actual facts! Please join Art Thiel and Mike Gastineau for a happy-hour Sports Salon on hoops at World Trade Center Seattle on the Seattle waterfront across from Pier 66. 5-7 p.m. Tuesday. Bring your questions, rumors, joy and anguish to discuss Gonzaga, the NCAA tournament, Huskies’ and Redhawks’ futures, as well as the latest on the arena project and the possibilities for NBA/NHL. http://sportspressnw.com/2200115/2015/join-us-for-drinks-food-chat-about-seattle-hoops


YourThoughts

  • jafabian

    I’m confident Key Arena management can attract more NCAA basketball events. It’s been awhile since they’ve had to host anything at this level and understandably some kinks had to be worked out. Now that they know what needs to be done they’ll make adjustments. I’ve been disappointed that over the years neither the Key or the Tacoma Dome have hosted any men’s NCAA tourney games since the Kingdome left us. I’d love to see a pre-season classic make it’s home here.

    • Jamo57

      I was relaying my experiences to a friend yesterday and he attended last year’s NCAA Women’s Volleyball Final 4. He said he had similar experiences. Apparently that event was a virtual sell out as well.

      • Art Thiel

        It was a near-sellout, and it is also embarrassing.

  • Jamo57

    I won’t rehash my comment from a different thread, but I must pass along one little experience that took the morning session from the ridiculous to the cosmic, karmic level of bizarre.

    During the break in between games in the first session on Friday, everyone piled out to the concession stands (the few that were open) to stand in complete gridlock, packed together way too tight to feel any kind of excitement for the event or nostalgia for the “grand ol’ lady of Lower Queen Anne”. We made the best of it by chatting with people from out of town, apologizing and trying to explain that “we’re working on getting a new arena”.

    In the midst of this different kind of “March Madness”, from the front of the concession line that didn’t seem to be moving at all, walks Chuck Armstrong with a hot dog. Chuck FRIGGIN’ Armstrong. He really didn’t make eye contact with anyone and I let him pass with his prized possession, a hot dog that the stand appeared to soon run out of.
    I turned to my son and said, “I’m going to beat myself up for the rest of the day for not saying something clever like ‘Gosh Chuck, I think we need a new arena don’t ya think?’ or ‘I rue the day I got into this concession line!’”

    My son, being much wiser than I pointed out, it might have felt good saying that but it wouldn’t have changed anything.

    True story.

    • Art Thiel

      Thanks, Jamo, for the story. I heard something similar from others while there. Don’t know why the city didn’t staff up for a sellout. I’m told bathrooms were a mess as well.

      I’m sure the NCAA will hear and read bout this.

      • Jamo57

        After putting that experience to paper, so to speak, it occurred to me is sort of summed up the plight of the average fan. Major sports aren’t about the ticket buying public, but the corporate sponsorships and big media deals. Guys like Chuck, and by extension Howard Lincoln, get to go to the front of the line and get their metaphorical hot dog while the rest of us stand in line and get what’s left. If anything.

        Sometimes the cosmos just slaps in you the back of the head and says ‘Don’t you see?’ LOL.

        • RadioGuy

          ” Major sports aren’t about the ticket buying public…”

          They haven’t been for some time, Jamo, but as long as the public keeps buying those tickets, nothing will change.

          It’s like all those Gallup polls showing Congress with an approval rating in the teens, yet 90% of incumbent who ran for re-election last year won big at the only poll that really matters. Why do anything different when people keep coming back time and again no matter what you’ve already done?

          • Jamo57

            Indeed. I haven’t attended an Ms game since they came out against the arena for that reason. Precisely why running into Chuck was so bizarre.

        • Art Thiel

          Well, you may recognize that as identical to life its ownself, as Dan Jenkins once put it.

  • coug73

    The Key Arena was great for the Jet City Rollergirls match I attended. Fun,fun,fun, until Daddy took the T-bird away.

    • Art Thiel

      Well, that’s it then. Let’s trick it up for roller derby.

      • RadioGuy

        Only if they build a banked oval and bring Joanie Weston and Carlie O’Connell back from the Great Beyond. Roller Derby in its modern flat-track incarnation is slower than a Mike Hargrove at-bat and about as interesting to watch.

        • Art Thiel

          I’ll take your word.

  • Seth Davis

    Do something with that decrepit pile of sht already. Either rebuild/renovate it, or build a new arena somewhere. Can’t even get great concerts because of one loading dock? Pfft. Enough with this “historic roof line” bs, so you can’t change it. There’s really nothing historic about it any seattle sports fan wants to remember other than that one trophy, and a couple of good years in the mid 90′s. Probably been more tears shed inside that building, than rain that’s hit that “historic” roof line. This is no yankee stadium of history. Then again, no sport has ever been great in seattle, except for seahawks recently. Mariners have always been a garbage farm team for big markets. Yawn. Please build something that will bring in the nba/nhl and better concerts before they head on the portland, aka seattle jr. Or is Seattle Portland jr when it comes to arenas?

    • RadioGuy

      I agree. The last thing Seattle needs is an arena that actually turns a profit, which the Coliseum (the naming rights deal ended five years ago) has done every year since 2010. God forbid THAT insanity should continue.

      • Seth Davis

        For who? Who makes this profit? Not me. Either way we pay, so might as well pay for something that brings in the big concerts, nba/nhl.

        • RadioGuy

          The City of Seattle, otherwise known as “the taxpayers,” makes the profit. Just as the taxpayers were having to cover that annual seven-figure debt when the Sonics were still around.
          Hey, I live 100 miles away so you can build a Taj Mahal with 20K seats as long as I don’t have to pay for it…it’s not my ego trip.

          • Jamo57

            Not sure what the wisdom is in having a “profitable” empty building.

          • RadioGuy

            How empty can it be if it’s making money? Right now they’re using it 100-plus dates per year…not a lot but not a shuttered warehouse either.

            I won’t argue that the Coliseum is not something to stick with over the long term as Seattle’s primary indoor sports and concert facility…there’s only so much that can be done with it. Even Robert Nellams, who runs the place, has that POV. But as long as it’s actually making more money than it costs to operate, it’s not a problem. How many other City-operated facilities AREN’T a drain on taxpayers to keep open?

          • Kirkland

            Honest question: Is the profit from the fact that Bennett essentially retired the Key’s debt when he moved the Sonics, and that event there now means the Key can pocket much more of the gross income than the team, which had to concede much of their game day revenue to debt service?

          • Art Thiel

            As I wrote above, Bennett retired the remaining construction debt from 1995 with his 2008 payment. The small annual profit typically goes into maintenance and small capital improvements. No major investment will take place while a new arena is green-lighted or is dead.

            Hansen and the potential NHL owners both understand that if an arena is green-lighted, they likely will need a temp home, and would invest something in the Key.

          • Seth Davis

            Thanks to “can’t remember his name” when they revamped the key, he purposely made it not NHL friendly, or else we’d probably at least have an NHL team by now. The NBA needs to pull it’s head out of it’s rear before it becomes a reality.

          • Art Thiel

            But Ackerley would have built to accommodate NHL if at that time, early 90s, an owner surfaced who wanted to buy a team for Seattle. No one stepped up.

          • Seth Davis

            I was told he purposely did it to keep the NHL from coming for some reason.

          • jafabian

            So that way the Sonics would not have to compete with an NHL team for dates and fans.

          • Jamo57

            Art, I have read a couple of stories that Ackerley was part of an ownership group that included Chris Larson that was going to make a proposal to the NHL for an expansion franchise when the league expanded in the early 90s. In fact, Seattle was considered a “favorite” as the league has wanted to put a team here since 1970 when Vancouver was awarded a franchise. As the story goes, Ackerley asked to speak with the expansion committee by himself without the rest of ownership group at a pivotal meeting and announced to the committee he was pulling out. As he was the highest profile member of the group, it effectively torpedoed the Seattle bid and it collapsed. From the story I read, the other members of the potential ownership group felt it was his intention all along to sabotage the bid. Have you ever come across the same information?

          • Art Thiel

            Radio is right, the building, thanks to Clay Bennett’s $45 million buyout of the lease’s last years, has no debt and enough dates to turn an annual surplus.

            And Seth, if a new building gets built, you’ll be be paying with every ticket.

          • Jamo57

            I have no problem paying with every ticket. As a user and enjoyer of a new venue, I expect to pay my fair share.

    • Art Thiel

      Seth, you should try something better than gravel for breakfast. :)

      To your point, Hansen and the city wouldn’t be attempting the Sodo project if they didn’t think the community was overdue for a top-end arena. And I don’t think the building’s sports history, great or dubious, is much of a factor in its fate.

      But the bid for the 2015 NCAA was made and accepted in 2012, when Hansen’s deal was in its infancy. The building still works for some things, and should only go away after a better idea is up and running.

  • notaboomer

    you should have stayed for the louisville-northern iowa game, art. it was pretty good.

    • Art Thiel

      I did stay. But I have to write. It’s my job.

      • notaboomer

        and we love you for that!

  • giannisee

    I’ve always liked the aesthetic of ye olde Coliseum. From its “hyperbolic paraboloid” shape to its “..aluminum-paneled roof supported by steel compression trusses and nearly six miles of steel tension cables.” (stolen from The Official Guide Book to the Seattle World’s Fair). If I had the scratch, I would raze the Key and build a new Seattle Center Coliseum, similiar in design but bigger and updated with all the 21st century amenities. Then I’d bring the Sonics back. Then the Totems. Then I’d relax.

    • jafabian

      Even if the city paid for the NBA to play in the Key it makes better sense financially if they own their own facility. You just know, however, if they went thru a rough patch like how the Lakers are right now they’d be at the mayor’s office saying they need help.

      • Art Thiel

        The ground under Key will never be part of a privately funded solution unless the city agrees to deed over to private enterprise a big chunk of Center grounds for an entertainment district.

        It’s been done before: Space Needle.

        • jafabian

          Surprised that hasn’t been proposed then. Obviously, the Space Needle is a part of Seattle’s identity and the city felt that was important enough to do so. IMO, same with the Sonics.

          • Art Thiel

            But city uses the arena for more than 100 dates a year. It’s a public facility. The Space Needle is privately owned and operated.

        • RadioGuy

          I’m guessing Dale Chihuly (the Thomas Kincaid of Glass) is making some coin from that museum/gift shop at the Center, too.

          • Art Thiel

            Lots of private businesses rent space from the Center and make money. But Hansen wants control to build as he sees fit.

    • Art Thiel

      Good plan. Go get the scratch. And don’t forget to fund a 10-story parking garage in lower QA to solve the biggest problem.

      • giannisee

        Once I get the scratch I’ll see how much it would cost to rent Big Bertha and get a ten story underground parking garage built in no time…that is, if BB doesn’t break…

        • Art Thiel

          You’re on. Bertha should be available to rent.