BY Art Thiel 01:53PM 12/16/2016

Competing arena plans seem to puzzle Murray

Rival ideas for a privately funded arena in Sodo or Seattle Center are stirring debate, including dubious remarks from Mayor Ed Murray, and a pained response from Chris Hansen.

Oak View Group of Los Angeles seeks to work up a plan to remodel KeyArena to suit NBA and NHL teams. /

For a city and sports marketplace that has flailed about for most of a decade trying to build an arena, Seattle suddenly is on the verge of two offers to build one virtually for free. Mayor Ed Murray, who likely wouldn’t know a hockey puck if struck by one, has to be bewildered: Where, he might ask, is such funding for housing the homeless?

But as he surely must know, that is not how America works. In America, them that has, do. And as long as it doesn’t cost city much of anything to do, mayors, county executives and governors love physical monuments to their tenures.

Did I mention Murray is up for re-election in November?

Also up for expiration at the same time is Chris Hansen’s five-year memorandum of understanding to build an arena in Sodo. The project was all but thwarted in May by a city council that didn’t want to vacate a street for his project, citing a complaint from a neighbor, the Port of Seattle.

Those two events are the drivers for the flurry of arena news.

But because Murray, a longtime supporter of the port, is not eager to revisit Hansen’s plan, even after Hansen took off the table his request for up to $200 million in public borrowing, he was desperate for an alternative that would not make him look like a chump for turning down a free showpiece sports hall.

Murray also wanted to pump life into the dowager queen of Seattle, KeyArena, and maybe make Seattle Center a bigger deal.

His desperation was known to Tod Leiweke, former Seahawks CEO who hired Pete Carroll and John Schneider, and is now the chief operating officer of the NFL. Tod’s brother, Tim, has been a big deal for a long time operating sports franchises and building venues. He runs a Los Angeles company, Oak View Group, whose motto is: “We are here to be a positive disruption to business as usual in the sports and live entertainment industry.”

Tod told Tim some months ago to call Murray.

Disrupt, he has.

Oak View Group’s initial belief that the Key might be re-done privately inspired the city’s plan to issue in January a request for proposals (RFP) to developers who would tell Murray and the city if it were possible. And do it really fast.

Tim Leiweke was in Seattle this week to talk up his response to the pending RFP. Since it was the first time he’s spoken at length publicly to media outlets, here’s a quick summary:

  • They want to build, own and operate the facility on their dime
  • They want to lease the property from the city
  • They can’t own a team, but if Hansen acquires an NBA/NHL team, the team(s) would be welcome at the Seattle arena

On an ESPN 710 interview Wednesday, here is how Leiweke put it:

“This is not a competition and we’ve made it very clear. Our purpose here is not to own the team. Our purpose here is to help bring a team here. One of my partners is Madison Square Garden. They already own an NBA team and they already own an NHL team, so we are prohibited from owning a team.

“We want to be the catalyst so this might be the best day Chris ever had because we might be able to solve the facility issue without him spending $700 million or $800 million (to build the arena).”

Given OVG’s history of work in arenas, Leiweke has more credibility than any previous proponent of the Key option. But until the RFP requirements are defined, particularly regarding the most difficult task — estimating traffic and parking impacts on the surrounding residential neighborhood already being massively redeveloped since the 2008 departure of the Sonics — the likelihood of OVG responding in a few months’ time with an accurate assessment seems small. Especially in view of the knowledge that the state-required environmental impact statement for the Hansen project took 18 months.

But Thursday during an interview on KUOW-FM radio, Murray threw a wrench in the proceedings by seeming to indicate he still misunderstands what Hansen seeks to do.

Here’s Murray’s words via a KUOW tweet:

“What we’ve heard from Chris Hansen, he’d really like that arena. But he himself is not going to bring us a team. So we have several questions we need to sort out here. One is that the city has a resource that the taxpayer is going to pay for, one way or another, and that’s KeyArena.

“And again, is someone actually going to bring us a team. If that doesn’t work, Sodo is going to be an option. But again, someone is going to have identify who is going to pay to bring us a team. I think, for me, to get anything though the Council . . . I think the idea that it might happen is not going to get through council.”

What that suggests, awkwardly, is that Murray still doesn’t understand/believe that Hansen needs the street vacation first before he can pursue a tenant for the Sodo location, even though Hansen has committed in the MOU to buying a team via expansion or relocation. In a revised proposal that Hansen said he would submit shortly to the council, he re-states explicitly that no work will be done on the vacated street unless and until a team is acquired.

Murray’s description suggests “someone” needs to bring Seattle a team. But that can’t be OVG, for reasons stated by Leiweke. And Hansen is unlikely to want to wait the time it will take the Seattle process to seek from the several hundred constituencies that use Seattle Center their approvals for whatever remodel OVG presents. Not only that, the project must make money for the private developers, unless they plan to make this a project of civic philanthropy, which never came up in Leiweke’s media interviews.

Almost inevitably, the surrounding residents of lower Queen Anne will litigate whatever the city/OVG concludes about impacts, as will the opponents of the Sodo project should the city council do a vote on the revised proposal and approve it.

Friday morning, Hansen’s group felt sufficiently stung by Murray’s remarks to issue a statement on its arena-news website reiterating the commitment made to bring NHL and NBA teams.

While not responding directly to Murray’s shot that Hansen “himself is not going to bring us a team,” the statement recited the efforts over five years, including a reminder that a $30 million nonrefundable deposit was made in 2013 to the then-owners of the Sacramento Kings in the eventually failed attempt to buy and relocate the franchise to Seattle.

“The record clearly demonstrates our steadfast determination to bring basketball and hockey back to Seattle,” said the statement, signed by Hansen and his partners, including the newest member, Seahawks QB Russell Wilson.

From his words, Murray sounds as if he’s already tilting the field in favor of OVG, even before the RFP is made public, because he seems to dismiss Hansen’s chances even before he has seen the revised Sodo proposal.

If you thought the chore already engaged by Hansen was 40 miles of bad road on a bicycle with no end in sight, imagine trying to build an arena, not on private industrial land, but public parkland surrounded by a residential community.



  • Tom G.

    I get there are some unique variables that are at play here (i.e. City owns KeyArena and Seattle Center, maritime interests can be a special interest driver come election time, Murray is up for election next year, etc.), but I just think it was extremely disingenuous by the Mayor to go on record and say what he said about Chris Hansen’s project.

    It just makes it look like he (and the Council) want a political exit ramp that somehow makes him come across as a “collaborative dealmaker” instead of finding a superior solution that actually benefits the fans, NBA, NHL and City by extension. In fact, a process like this almost makes it feel like the Mayor is just governing based on the special interests and demographics that’ll get him reelected instead of passing policy that tries to help 100% of his constituents. Which is a bit depressing if that’s the case.

    I also think too it needs to be pointed out that even IF you could solve every problem that KeyArena has right now to get it built in a more modern way (footprint, roofline, seating capacity for NHL, cramped concourses, bad loading docks, red tape, sustainability over 30-40 years, traffic, parking, etc.), the NBA and NHL owners would basically be SECONDARY TENANTS in a building that they won’t own and didn’t design in addition to not owning any of the land around the arena. So good luck convincing them FINANCIALLY to play ball with that.

    If anything, Tukwila is still likely a better alternative to SODO than Key because if that ever became more fully funded and legitimate, the person in charge of that project (Bartoszek) would at least give you an NHL team the same way Hansen would at least give you an NBA team in SODO if that ever got built. I’m not sure you can say that about Key with Oak View/AEG and the City in charge. Especially with the Oak View guys talking openly on 710 about Key potentially being a “standalone” building for concerts and music.


    • art thiel

      OAG has done this with other arenas: Build to make it work as a top flight concert/event hall and then let the leagues come running. Leiweke said as much. He’s been in both leagues and knows the leagues love to play cities against one another because some pols and many fans are foolish enough to think that sports are a need instead of a want.

      • Tom G.

        But again, even if we’re going off the premise that OVG actually CAN remodel Key correctly, what are the chances that you find an NBA and/or NHL owner that says “I’ll play in an arena where I have no ownership (in the arena and the land around it) and be a secondary tenant”?

        I’m honestly a little paranoid that no one will answer that question correctly and the City will overlook this piece of it.

        • art thiel

          Lots of NBA/NHL teams don’t own their own arenas, and the franchises work. Leiweke wouldn’t have touched this idea otherwise. Hansen wanted to control arena and district, because if he can have related businesses generating revs 365, ticket prices for events won’t be as high.

          • Tom G.

            Can this market afford the AEG/OVG format then (less arena ownership for NBA/NHL owners => higher ticket prices for fans) for the Sonics and NHL considering you already have the Mariners, Seahawks, Huskies (NCAA football, NCAA hoops) and Sounders here?

          • art thiel

            A fair question, and hard to know. The tech employment explosion with high salaries says it can. And in five years, when 50 percent of the sports consumer audience is watching games via VR, the in-house game experience will be largely the province of the wealthy.

          • Tom G.

            (deeply sighs)

  • Illuminati Doomsday

    I’m not sure that a city that elects the likes of Murray, Sawant and Licata deserves an NBA franchise. If you want to see the failure of the education system, then Seattle voters are the poster childs. One Socialist/Marxist after another that doesn’t understand it was marxism that failed time and time again–not democracy or capitalism. I feel sorry for the relatively small group of sports fans in Seattle that have clueless bureacrats with an anti-sports mentality. Seattle needs to quit being a destination resort for homeless people.

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    • art thiel

      “Deserving” is not an idea in play here. Wanting is the word, and four council members wanted it, five didn’t. The mayor thinks he may have a better idea, and it costs him nothing to find out. This week, the issue is the apparent back of the hand he gave Hansen.

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  • 1coolguy

    It’s my understanding the tenant leasing terminal 46, which is a significant facility, has as one out it’s “out” clauses if they can show there has been a negative impact to the facility, they can cancel the lease. It is not news the shipping industry is on its lips these days and the Port is very concerned they would not be able to find another tenant, either at all or at the same value. The present one took a lot of arm twisting as it is. So the thinking is the tenant shows the street vacation is a detriment to the terminal’s access and their lease out is then exercised.

    • Tom G.

      You already have baseball, football and soccer in that neighborhood as is. So any notion that somehow the presence of more sports teams in SODO would kill the Port and destroy the City’s economy is ludicrous.

      And the fact that the Mayor and City Council keep buying into this garbage is annoying as hell.

      • art thiel

        The port’s influence on politics is far greater than the loudest collection of sports fans.

        • Tom G.

          And that’s unfortunately the crux of the problem here.

    • art thiel

      That’s interesting about the out clause, but even if true, I doubt it can be exercised until after they see how the Lander St. overpass, the tunnel and the end of the viaduct impact traffic. Until then, it’s all speculation.

  • Dante Ramone

    Build them both, sugar daddy Seattle barons! I believe there are only 10 cities who have NHL and NBA tenants: Brooklyn, Denver, Manhattan, L.A. Philly, D.C, Boston, Dallas, and YYZ. Please let the hockey team play in a normal building, not some retrofit BS

  • Dante Ramone

    Let’s build them both, sugar daddy Seattle barons! 10 of the 14 “cities” who have NHL and NBA tenants: Brooklyn, Denver, Manhattan, L.A. Philly, D.C, Boston, Dallas, and YYZ share arenas. Please let the hockey team play in a normal building, not some retrofit BS barn. Where’s the Kingdome when we need it….ha-ha?

  • I don’t think there is a majority of council for KeyArena, too.
    Debora Juarez voted against the street vacation and didn’t support Seattle Center.
    She is chair of Seattle Center committee, but she’s not on the hook to make that work.

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  • Husky73

    KeyArena is DOA for another retrofit. Done. Finis. Not gonna happen. Here’s another thing not gonna happen in Seattle– the return of the NBA. Steve Ballmer knew it. The best option— build an arena on the Eastside for the NHL. Hockey in a posh setting would flourish for the Bellevue-ites. They could spend their money there instead of Wolverine football.