BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 03/28/2017

Does Tim Leiweke know best for Seattle sports?

From Sonics 1994 loss to Nuggets, to the first firing of Sigi Schmid, to hiring of Pete Carroll to denying Chris Hansen, Tim Leiweke has been all around Seattle sports. Now he seeks to be arena king.

Tim Leiweke is well known among NBA and NHL honchoes. /

First of two parts

Before the merits and demerits of KeyArena’s potential makeover for the NBA and NHL are evaluated starting April 12, it may be useful for Seattle to get acquainted with one of the prime players in the latest turn in the drama. Because Tim Leiweke already knows a lot about Seattle and its sports.

As founder/CEO of a relatively new company, Oak View Group, that is one of two outfits — the other is Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), his former longtime employer  — Leiweke is betting large coin he can re-make what was the NBA’s smallest, oldest arena into a world top-10 concert/sports venue.

He also believes he can do so at minimal cost to the public, on Seattle Center’s public land, and make it a better deal for the city than a competing proposal from Chris Hansen for an arena in Sodo.

Urged on by his brother, Tod, the former Seahawks CEO who hired coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider and is now chief operating officer of the NFL, Tim Leiweke calls the potential Seattle project “the flag property” of his young OVG enterprise.

“We entered the fray with an enthusiasm and a love of this marketplace, and it’s not a new-found love,” he said in a 90-minute interview during a visit earlier this month. “I have a history here, and more important, my brother has a history and tradition here.

“You hear his inspiration in me. I give him full credit. My wife and daughter lived here when I married. This is my second home. I don’t claim all the answers, but I know if we build it, they will come.

“If you make a bet on sports facilities today, there is no place greater than this one. I plan to build an arena and get a winter-sports team all in one shot.”

Leiweke is not lacking in confidence, sales skill or sports-business experience. His path has intersected with Seattle’s sports history on numerous occasions.

1994: He was president of the NBA Denver Nuggets when they pulled off one of the greatest upsets in sports history. After barely making the post-season field as the eighth seed, the Nuggets, led by shot-blocking center Dikembe Mutombo, upset the No. 1 seed, the 63-win Sonics, three games to two.
“I’ve never seen an organization so stunned,” Leiweke said. “There wasn’t any way we were going to beat those guys.”
The Sonics president at the time? Wally Walker, now a partner with Hansen in the Sodo arena project.

2004: Leiweke was president of the MLS Los Angeles Galaxy, owned by AEG, in 1999 when he hired Sigi Schmid from UCLA to coach the Galaxy. Leiweke was also the guy who fired Schmid, despite three appearances in the MLS Cup and one title, in mid-season 2004. Schmid moved on to coach the Columbus Crew, winning another title.
After three seasons, when the expansion Sounders were looking for a first head coach, Schmid took a meeting with the Seahawks/Sounders president.
“Hi,” said Tod. “I’m the good Leiweke brother.”
It worked. Schmid was hired, and took the Sounders to seven playoffs in their first seven seasons.

2010: Tod Leiweke had another big coaching decision to make. He wanted to sign away Pete Carroll from USC to replace Jim Mora as Seahawks coach, but needed a private place in Los Angeles where the parties could meet without public notice or interruption. Tim Leiweke offered dinner in the solitude of the back yard of his home, where the deal that transformed the NFL franchise was struck.

2013: Tim Leiweke was a member of the NBA Board of Governors representing the Toronto Raptors, which was owned by his Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment company. When the contentious relocation of the Kings from Sacramento to Seattle — where Hansen and then-partner Steve Ballmer sought to move the club after offering its owners a  then-outrageous $625 million — came up for a vote of owners, Leiweke was one of 22 to vote no.

“That,” he said, “was not going to happen.”

Leiweke has been around the block in North American pro sports, much of it through a personal and business relationship with Philip Anschutz, a reclusive Colorado billionaire and owner of the AEG empire who came to great wealth from deals in oil and gas, real estate, railroads, telecommunications, and sports and entertainment.

On the day of his hire in Seattle, Pete Carroll greets Tod Leiweke. / NBC Sports

The two split up in 2013 over disagreements about the direction of AEG, which had been for sale until Anschutz pulled it off the market. The company also lost out with a plan to build an NFL stadium in downtown Los Angeles that already had, thanks to Leiweke’s salesmanship, an insurance company as naming rights sponsor: Farmer’s Field.

Now Anschutz and Leiweke are pitted against each other in Seattle, where Mayor Ed Murray in January put out requests for proposals from developers to provide a privately funded alternative at Seattle Center to the Hansen project.

Murray has not embraced the Sodo arena because of the Port of Seattle’s opposition to the location on its doorstep, and because Murray, up for re-election in November, would gain political credibility if he could revitalize the Center at relatively little public cost.

Also, he has expressed public skepticism about Hansen’s ability to deliver a team.

One of Leiweke’s key selling points to Murray is the relationships that have come from his long-term experience as an executive and arena planner with several NBA and NHL franchises.

“I don’t do anything without the approval, direction, input or blessing of commissioners Adam Silver (NBA) and Gary Bettman (NHL),” he said. “You should never get ahead of a commissioner. Nothing is going to happen in Seattle regarding a winter sports franchise without the permission of commissioners Silver or Bettman.”

At least four times in the interview, Leiweke made similar references about his deference to leadership he knows well. He was positively laudatory about Silver’s predecessor, David Stern, who has been an ally of Leiweke’s in his tenures with the Timberwolves, Nuggets and Raptors franchises.

“I was tutored and raised by David Stern,” he said. “He is like a father. He was a mentor to me. He put me in Denver to save that franchise.”

Told that mention of Stern’s name in Seattle is likely to get beers, and especially Starbucks coffee, spilled in his direction, Leiweke smiled.

Tim Leiweke and NBA Commissioner David Stern. /

“During Stern’s time as commissioner, he will tell you that (Seattle losing its franchise) was one of the things he regrets the most,” he said. “David and I have talked about this very situation we’re in today. David is the biggest fan for making this work.

“He was intimately involved in Sacramento (politicking to deny the Hansen relocation request). David believes there’s a way to get things done. Gotta play by the rules. When you don’t, (commissioners) don’t like it.”

Without saying so, Leiweke was making apparent reference to Hansen’s mistake of giving money to the anti-arena campaign in Sacramento, for which he paid a fine to the California elections commission and apologized.

It’s the kind of mistake that politicians find hard to overlook. Leiweke is eager to parlay that into skepticism about Hansen, a Seattle native and San Francisco hedge fund manager with no previous experience in sports management — and who no longer has as a partner Steve Ballmer, whose $20 billion net worth can get commissioners to overlook many an ownership group’s sins.

Leiweke’s knowledge of the sports/entertainment landscape is largely why he is offering a business plan fundamentally different than Hansen’s plan. Leiweke wants to create a music-first venue that can later accommodate NBA/NHL. Hansen, of course, is sports first.

Leiweke’s partners in Oak View include music-industry titan Irving Azoff and Madison Square Garden’s James Dolan, another big music-industry player who also owns the NBA Knicks and the NHL Rangers. Oak View has created an alliance among 26 arenas around the country in which the company helps coordinate concert tours and increase arena revenues from naming rights and sponsorships, while helping solve issues regarding tickets, technology and building security against terrorism.

Putting concerts first in his proposed Seattle arena unhooks the project from league timetables, or lack thereof. And since he believes a Center arena can be done in three to four years from June 30, there is no immediate urgency.

Hansen, who spent $125 million to own all his project’s land in Sodo, contends that circumstances with pro sports franchises can change quickly and unpredictably, such as Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s ugly racial remarks that forced his expulsion from the NBA and eventual sale of the club to Ballmer. Hansen’s project can be shovel ready if and when the City Council re-votes to vacate Occidental Avenue.

“Here’s what I know,” Leiweke said. “There’s no team moving in the NBA. There’s no expansion team coming — which is not just the will of Adam Silver, but the owners. We believe a team will come eventually. If we build (a Center arena) to a standard acceptable to both leagues, we are absolutely convinced we’ll get a team.

“I happen to think it will be NHL first. That’s just math — 31 (teams instead of 32 with Las Vegas beginning in the fall) doesn’t work. Seattle is so great an opportunity that my company, my investors, are willing to take this risk. If it doesn’t happen, will we go broke? No. We have a lot of money behind us; that’s the good news. This is what we do for a living.”

Leiweke says he has no back-channel assurances from either commissioner about getting a team, nor does he fear building an arena without an anchor sports tenant — “I’ve built (while at AEG) more spec arenas than anyone in the world,” he said.

He concedes the proposed Seattle project is the first of its kind for his new company, and  he hasn’t arrived at final cost figure yet. But he also knows that the tumultuous saga among the NBA, KeyArena and Seattle politics going back before the 1995 remodel has left a scar with owners and commissioners, too, resulting in apprehension about dealing with Seattle again.

“What I believe is if we don’t get (a Seattle arena) built first, Silver and Bettman are always going to hesitate as to whether anything can get done in Seattle because of the history here,” he said. “Only by doing (a concert arena before sports) will we have the best chance to ultimately convince a league to bring a team here.”

Part 2 Wednesday: Leiweke won’t give away his plans before April 12, but he did offer three hints that are part of the solution to making an arena at Seattle Center work: Amazon, the Monorail and dirt. 


  • Steed

    Has AEG or Oak View ever built or rebuilt an arena that later attracted a pro sports team. Even once?

    • Tian Biao

      THAT is a seriously good question.

    • Taylor

      T-Mobile Arena in Vegas?

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  • Tian Biao

    so, as sports fans, who can we trust to bring the NBA back, Leiweke or Hansen? I’d go with Hansen, myself. maybe it’s just Leiweke’s fawning praise of David Stern, which evokes echoes
    of Clay Bennett. Somehow Leiweke sounds a lot like Stern: making bold
    statements as if they were self-evident facts, when in fact, they’re
    self-serving half-truths.

    Consider the contradictions in his statements: there is no team moving in the NBA / we’re going to get an NBA team. also, Bettman and the NHL are fine with a team in Seattle: just fork over $500 million and it’s yours. As for ‘gotta play by the rules,’ well, there is only one rule: money. NBA, NHL, NFL, doesn’t matter: they’ll follow the money. they always have. If Hansen has his arena approved and ready, and it’ll pay off for the NBA, they’ll put a team here.

    Hansen has made mistakes, but he’s never wavered from his commitment to bringing back the NBA. I’m just not sure Leiweke has the same level of commitment.

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    • art thiel

      Leiweke does have the ear of owners/Silver, but the NBA majority owner in Seattle, which may or may not be Hansen (according to him), has to like renting the arena from the city while the building is operated by a third party whose priority is music.

      Not sure anyone would buy into that.

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  • Maybe Tod should submit a proposal.

    • Howard Wells

      and this “part one” says Tim Leiweke has big coin or something like that…are his coins bigger than Chris Hansen’s “coins”? I think Leiweke’s coins are bigger because of the Mayor’s jealous retribution and his grasp of the Leiweke coins.

      • art thiel

        In partners Azoff and Dolan, Leiweke has huge coin behind him.

        • davewakeman

          Yes. But you get Dolan. And I’m not sure anyone deserves that.

    • Kirkland

      I think he’s with the NFL head office now.

      • Yes, I know, but he sounds awesome.

      • art thiel

        If Tod doesn’t aspire to succeed Goodell, he could come back to town as the hockey owner. I know he loves it here.

        • Kirkland

          Or if he’s too tired from saving Goodell from himself.

  • Jared S.

    Tim should ask his dear old father-figure David why a KeyArena rebuild works now, when it was totally unacceptable to Stern and Clay Bennett a decade ago (nevermind that that was what Schultz had initially asked for, with Stern’s backing, though he didn’t want to offer up any money to help make it happen).

    Leiweke and the sports leagues can be concerned (or pretend to be concerned) about the history of Seattle’s arena politcs, but it sure helps when you have owners and leagues that are actually trying to get these deals done, rather than trying to weasel their way out of town

    • art thiel

      The proposed makeover is much different that the 2008 proposal from Ballmer/Matt Griffin.

      Stern lost interest in staying in Seattle by 2006, so anything thereafter was merely blame-shifting onto the city/electeds.

  • As far as actually building an arena on spec vs having the authority to stick a shovel in the ground I just see far too many instances where the NBA found an authoritative plan to be acceptable to them, Sacramento, Milwaukee, etc.
    It is also worth noting that Tod’s brother Tim will not have the authority to build an arena for a few years, the council can and has change its mind on authorizing the building of an arena (see SoDo, 4 years into it). We could, because we have had this happen, have nothing happen at Seattle Center again. In the mean time, we still don’t have an actionable arena plan if SoDo is denied a street vacation we have nothing for 4 years for NBA/NHL to pay any attention to.

    • art thiel

      To your point, Murray may not be re-elected in November. Nevertheless, whoever is in the chair will always take seriously a private, serious developer offering something to the city for almost nothing.

  • Howard Wells

    The Mayor was insulted by the Hansen efforts. The Port of Seattle owns Mayor Murray. The Hansen efforts in SODO will NEVER be allowed by the Mayor. Something to do with absolute corruption! The Mayor was bought and paid by the Port and its “self recused” leader.

    • art thiel

      We’ll see what happens on June 30, when the mayor has to make a decision — if Leiweke and AEG find a way to make bids by April 12.

  • Kirkland

    I seriously doubt the wisdom of the Key going concerts first and pro sports second. There are only so many major touring acts each year, while the NBA / NHL gets 41 home games plus playoffs. Concerts-first likely means that the team, which will use it most, will have a seating layout not conducive to sports sight lines, and that will create adaptability issues like the NHL Islanders at Barclays Center. I don’t think a league would take kindly to being second banana not to another sport, but to events.

    The only sports I can see working in a concert-first Key are smaller-scale, event-style sports like an NCAA volleyball regional, Wrestlemania/UFC, high school wrestling or hoops tournaments, and the Storm. Minor-league hockey is problematic because the rink is more than twice as long as a basketball court.

    • art thiel

      Concerts are by far more lucrative than pro sports. Leases are negligible, and I’ll guess 8-10 concerts will generate far more revs than 41 sports events.

  • notaboomer

    interesting story. aren’t billionaires a lot of fun?

    • art thiel

      I’d rather billionaires do this than run the federal government.

  • Buggy White

    How about forgetting the Key Arena idea, and instead partner with Hansen in an area already zoned for stadiums? Not to mention how Queen Anne has terrible parking and traffic now, on a normal day, so adding concert or sporting events traffic would suck!

    • art thiel

      Leiweke says in Part 2 that if the numbers don’t work by April 12, he’ll bow out and work with Hansen at Sodo. Doubt that will be the case, but it is on the table.

    • Husky73

      The answer: Build an NHL arena on the Eastside.

  • 1coolguy

    Can he answer the prevalent questions that no one, physically, can solve:
    – Location of the Key is HORRIBLE, as it truly only serves Queen Anne, Downtown and those immediate areas.
    – Local entertainment options are nil
    – Traffic: No one and nothing can ever solve the traffic problem of getting to and from the Key, period, end of story. As a Sonics season ticket holder, traffic was a nightmare then: Seattle and its traffic today are orders of magnitude WORSE.
    SODO is built for the sports industry, with the confluence of I-5, I-90 and 99, Link Light Rail, buses, parking, entertainment, etc. serving fans from Tacoma to Everett, and the Eastside.
    SODO has a Port problem which can be resolved with local leadership.
    None of what I write is news to anyone, yet needs to be kept in front of people.
    I truly do not know why a successful person like Leiweke is spending any time on this.

    • art thiel

      Leiweke sees a big-time future in Seattle as a marketplace, and figures he can solve the details you mentioned. I too remain skeptical, but I’m not an architect, engineer or national marketer. It’s his nickel, so I’m willing to listen.

  • woofer

    This story reads like it’s taken from a who’s who list of the premier rich slimeballs in American life. Let’s start with Leiweke’s former boss and now rival Philip Anschutz — ally of the Koch brothers, notorious funder of anti-gay and climate change denial causes. He’d be a great fit for Seattle.

    Then how about James Nolan? The arrogant and abrasive owner of the Knicks and Madison Square Garden who has run the Knicks into the ground and is reviled throughout the NBA? Good choice there. And our own Chris Hansen, who comes across as a nice guy but keeps shooting himself in the foot. His bungling of his Sacramento relocation initiative was world class incompetence and earned the enmity of the NBA front office honchos which, whatever else you may think of them, hold the key to the safe. Great prospects for him as well. Plus, in his wisdom he has now added the great white albatross Wally Walker to his team. Wow. Where is Ken Behring now that we really need him?

    The point here, in case anyone missed it, is that embracing a billionaire sports owner is more than just a question of money and real estate. These people become major players in our civic life. The public reaction against big money sports is about more than being gouged financially. It’s about being gouged by royal butt holes.

    • art thiel

      I won’t argue your points, but it’s almost axiomatic that when you get this rich, you will always piss off some/many people with how you use your money/power. I’ve also noticed that slimebaggery is not confined to people of great wealth, but the latter have the means to hide it better.

      And let’s not leave out the wealth surrounding big-time college sports.

      But when it comes to funding for pro sports, the choice typically comes down to municipal governments or billionaires.

      Make your choice, woofer.

      • woofer

        Well, if God is still staring at the mirror powdering Her nose then the next best thing is for Paul Allen to buy up everything and run it as some kind of public trust. Then if you extended Paul’s South Lake Union trolley line up to the Key, that would help solve the parking problem.

  • Husky73

    Great resume, but big hat and no cattle. Two points to ponder— Key Arena will not get another do over, and the NBA is not returning to Seattle in any foreseeable future. The NBA is a no shot. The NHL is a long shot.