BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 08/03/2017

Thiel: Hansen deserves shot at NBA expansion

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver last week opened the door a bit on expansion. It is in the city’s best interest to give the Sodo project a fresh look, free of old assumptions.

Chris Hansen’s project in Sodo needs two elements: A street vacation and a rich partner, neither of which will cost the city. / 360 Architects

Tim Leiweke has based a fair part of his pitch to remodel KeyArena on the notion that his many years spent in the drawing rooms of the NBA and NHL overlords have accorded him privileged wisdom when it comes understanding the mysteries of these titans of commerce and sports.

The CEO of Oak View Group has assured outgoing Mayor Ed Murray, his staff, city council and the Seattle public that a top-shelf concert venue is the Key’s immediate future, supplemented first by an NHL team, and then . . . maybe sometime . . . whenever . . . an NBA franchise.

The fact that the return of the Sonics has fallen to third priority in the Key scheme is of no small annoyance to pro basketball followers. But it does correspond to the official propaganda issued by the NBA since 2013, when Chris Hansen’s attempted relocation of the Kings from Sacramento to Seattle was thwarted by devious David Stern.

The then-NBA commissioner didn’t want the league to go back to Seattle (and the state) where its elected meanies failed to genuflect and grovel in his direction, as has been customary in other municipalities when he arrived in his sedan chair borne by minions. Nor did Stern want a second black eye from another relocation fight so soon after his 2008 failure in Seattle. Then there was the unseemly matter of committing the perfidy in his final year as commish.

After he won the fight, Stern retired, the NBA solved its remaining arena issues and also gained windfall profits from new broadcast, cable and streaming deals, reducing any desire to expand to two more teams that would slice thinner the luscious pie. So expansion was out of the question too.

Until last week.

In a video interview with Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, who is getting a head start on a post-hoops broadcast career,  Adam Silver, Stern’s successor, finally said the obvious — yes, the NBA will expand, and Seattle is short-listed.

“I don’t want to put a precise timeline on it, but it’s inevitable at some point we’ll start looking at growth of franchises,” said Silver in the interview posted on The Players’ Tribune. “That’s always been the case in this league. I think it’s just a question of when the right time is to seriously start thinking about expansion.

“Seattle will, no doubt, be on a short list of cities we’ll look at.”

That’s the first time in his tenure Silver has said anything but “no” to expansion. He even conjured up a false argument about maintaining the status quo so he could knock down the contention in order to make himself look smarter about expansion.

“Think about the state we’re in the league right now,” he said. “Amazing to me, coming off these Finals, we have some fans saying, ‘There’s only one good team in the league.’ And I’m thinking, if people really believe that, even though we have 450 of the best players in the world and 450 players can only form one really good team, it probably doesn’t make sense to expand in terms of dilution of talent.

“I don’t really believe that, and I think these things correct themselves.”

Silver again stated the obvious: The three-year success of the Golden State Warriors is an outlier, subject to expiration upon the spraining of an ankle by Steph Curry. So there is now neither a financial nor a qualitative reason not to expand in the next few years.

Leiweke likely will say that Silver’s remarks conform to what he’s been saying: The NBA will expand, and the remodeled Key, with $564 million in renovations from his company’s funds, will be ready when it does.

But what that contention fails to describe is Silver’s motivation. His job is drive up the price of scarce objects, expansion franchises, that are provided only by the NBA’s monopoly operations. As part of the strategy, Silver tells an audience what he thinks it most wants to hear, not to fit a Leiweke strategy.

For all the obvious reasons, the Portland marketplace would love to see the return of Seattle. Frankly, so would everyone else in the NBA. As we all know, what’s holding Seattle back is the lack of a suitable arena.

The rival for Leiweke’s project at Seattle Center is Hansen’s project in Sodo, which has always been NBA-first. It is a superior location, several years ahead of the infant Key project and would be a greater contributor to city revenues, according to this study by the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy.

But the Sodo arena needs two key elements: The vacation of a city street and the commitment of a whale partner for Hansen, who is on record as saying he likely can’t afford to build the arena and be the majority owner of a NBA team (thanks largely to his former Sodo partner, Steve Ballmer, whose $2 billion purchase of the Clippers changed the American pro sports financial world).

If the street vacation were granted by the city council to Hansen, a possibility to be considered this fall, he would be in position to gain the second requirement, a big-time partner. Until the project is green-lighted, any super-wealthy investor will stay clear of the political fight. As with the rest of life, timing is everything.

For purposes of discussion only, not any insider knowledge, let’s say that partner is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Just a guess here, but Silver would happily board one of Bezos’ Blue Origin rockets to Seattle to offer an expansion franchise to Bezos and Hansen.

The point is that despite what Murray and council members have been told by Leiweke and others, the NBA’s positions on expansion, as well as Hansen’s potential ownership group, are variable, not fixed by past circumstances.

Dismissing or voting down Hansen’s opportunity for a street vacation would be a severe miscalculation, if for no other reason than there is no guarantee that Leiweke and the city will agree on a memorandum of understanding by Murray’s non-binding December deadline, ahead of the end of his term. Murray’s political and legal troubles should have no bearing on the outcome of the arena debate.

None of foregoing changes the merits or demerits of OVG’s proposal regarding the physical remodel, its finances or its community integration. Those are separate analyses. But Sodo needs to be considered on a parallel track, free of mythology.

A hearing on the Hansen bid, free of its earlier request for public bonds, is in the city’s best interests.

One of those interests includes the potential purchase price of Occidental Avenue, a $20 million-plus windfall for an alley that the city could apply to the Lander Street Bridge, a project for which the Port of Seattle has yearned for nearly two decades to mitigate its freight-mobility problems.

Another civic interest is that Sodo is in the only direction downtown Seattle can grow horizontally. City planners are unlikely to find a more cooperative development partner than Seattle native Hansen, who controls almost 13 acres of Seattle’s future.

Since Hansen began his pursuit in 2011, Seattle has changed. The mayor’s office has changed — three times. The NBA has changed. Hansen’s proposal has changed. Seattle Center’s options have changed.

All may change again.

As long as this damned project has taken, now is no time to rush ahead with old assumptions.


  • Jamo57

    Amen Art!

    And may I offer some BREAKING NEWS!!!!! from Snohomish County. The one mayoral running to replace the retiring Ray Stephanson did not make the general election. His proposal to build an arena on the Everett waterfront died along with his campaign. Breath easier King County brethren. ;-)

  • ReebHerb

    The new incoming mayor’s focus will still be on Key Arena. She will make Key Arena a Taj Mahal for the Seattle Storm. I hear The Beach Boys singing good vibrations as lower Queen Anne is transferred as the place to be with concerts, bars, toy shops, and date night with the Storm. Capitol Hill is so yesterday.

    Still believe the best choice is the Eastside away from Seattle politics. That’s where the customers are and regional traffic solutions can be managed best. A Bellevue arena can draw as many concerts as Seattle; maybe even break them.

    • SoDo Slayer
    • Kirkland

      Durkan’s strategy by all accounts was to link with the political establishment, be noncommittal on big issues, and let the rest of a crowded field beat each other up in offering a likely extremist. Weak, but pragmatic, and it worked. Since she has offered no hint on her arena priorities, she will be a question mark until she takes office.

      This is why I get frustrated with the arena process. As a suburbanite, I have no electoral say in Seattle office holders, and I don’t know where the balance is between speaking up on Seattle politics vs. shutting up on stuff outside of my ballot district. (I remember how almost all of the GMO labeling initiative spending came from non-Washington institutions, and it still bothers me.) The only ones I can vote for who can affect the arena situation are the KC Executive and Port Councilmembers; the former doesn’t have enough say, the latter has too much say, and it looks like the anti-Hansen Port guys will keep their jobs.

      • art thiel

        Your geopolitical problem was visible in 2007 when city voters voted with a 72 percent plurality for I-91, which was Stern’s last straw with Seattle. Had the vote included King County, where many NBA fans live, the vote may have been different.

        • SoDo Slayer

          NBA / NHL are for all fans in the Pacific Northwest. It goes beyond Seattle and King County boundaries. The State and Pacific Northwest can all appreciate these sports as much as they do the Seattle Center (a Regional Asset). Thanks for the clarification on I-91.

    • art thiel

      Every mayor since 1962 has an obligation to maintain/improve Seattle Center. No problem there. But no one at the city is taking a hard look at alternative uses for the Key besides sports/concerts. They simply look at the AECOM report’s$150M for a remodel and take that as gospel.

  • Beckett Tallmadge

    This article is too articulate and well thought out for Seattle politicians to consider. Dumb it down and include drones in it next time if you want it to gain traction.

    • Jamo57

      I wonder sometimes if Art writes the arena articles using “cut and paste” throughout. The arguments for are so clear and repeating oneself must get tedious. ;-)

    • art thiel

      I realize Seattle pols are easy, fun targets. And regarding the arena, they have brought it upon themselves. But calling them dumb sounds too much like the national rhetoric of the past eight months. How ’bout we be different?

      • Beckett Tallmadge

        I’ll agree with you that the council has brought this upon themselves…..after years of watching them muck this whole situation up, my last post is about as positive as I can get.

  • Leweike does not have a committed NBA owner, Chris Hansen is a committed NBA owner. I get that Leweike wants to compete, but his habit of saying things about the NBA that even the commissioner doesn’t know makes him look… not good. Owners decide what they decide, when they decide it, including resale of their franchises for potential relocation. The owner knows, Tim doesn’t, he won’t, and he should never get ahead of the leagues on that, but he did.

    The Rockets are for sale, not relocating but setting a new bar for franchise actual values by their sale. Some franchises that may have sold reciently left almost a billion dollars on the table because they are not locating to a better market. How long do the money losers in the NBA leave a billion dollars? Not a question Leweike or anybody else can answer, including Silver. 3 team, Silver admits, are struggling. If they can’t turn a profit then, as was mentioned annonimously in David Aldridge’s column, the franchise should relocate.

    The council should assure that if a team became available in February that Hansen could buy it, have it temporarily play at KeyArena while he builds his arena, then choose to reinvest a significant amount of those unencombered tax proceeds to making KeyArena a premium Music venue, maybe issue a RFP for that, and draw potential ongoing tax revenue from a new arena in SoDo and a remodeled KeyArena, both are possible, 1100 people move here every week while we all act like it’s isolated to just traffic.
    Ed Murray claimed the city could pay for S Lander St without Hansen, let him.

    • SoDo Slayer

      Keep it small and less demanding for Upzoned Uptown and leave the BIG professional sports teams down in SoDo where the HUB of all industrial strength transportation connectivity and flow exists. This isn’t that hard. It’s a NATURAL and unforced effort to lightly remodel KeyArena and allow the SoDo Arena to be built for the NBA / NHL. That is a future I can believe in.

    • art thiel

      I think all NBA teams are at least break-even, so relocation of any is as remote as it’s been. The league is loathe to do so, for all the reasons we saw in Seattle.

      But they are almost as equally suspicious of returning to a building that is still owned by the city in a public park, even after a $600M upgrade.

      Expansion can come at any time the owners think the price is right for two teams for a fee of at least $1B per team, especially if the Seattle ownership includes a huge national name.

      • the second owner said. “If there are teams that are repeatedly losing money every year even after revenue sharing, we must consider moving existing teams to those markets first. Then, once all teams are healthy and making a profit, we can perhaps discuss expansion — but not until then.”

        I don’t get the impression from this owner that all 30 teams are there yet. And he’s saying they will look to relocate before they expand.

        • I’ve read most little bits of information that might be, could be, may be, something for way too long, but this is unusually thorough, posted on, and anonimous source owners. That’s a bit different.
          They lay out their path to making a decision for Seattle or not, and in what order.
          The question is, how long do those two paths take?
          But I take it that they are on that path now, or why bother talking? Maybe we get a relocated team, or an expansion team, or nothing, in that order.

  • Effzee

    Someone(s) in Seattle just doesn’t want to work with Hansen. I hope the pettiness does not prevail. There is no rational reason to opt for the Key Arena plan *over* the SoDo plan. Let them stand apart from one another. If someone wants to remodel the Key and try to get hockey and concerts there, then fine. The SoDo plan is completely separate, and can stand on its own merits. There is absolutely nothing reasonable that can be argued against it. SoDo needs an upgrade anyways, it is already a stadium district, there is simple highway access, etc. It would only help the city in the long term to infuse a whole new industry and infrastructure to the area.

  • Tian Biao

    I agree with Art on all counts. A fun article to read, word-wise, but the content, the whole dynamic of these arena plans, is massively annoying. I don’t see why the port and the city can’t come to an accommodation in Sodo: an overpass, improved roads, whatever. They can coexist. the arena footprint, after all, is far smaller than Century Link and Safeco. Yet five council members voted no on the street vacation, citing the port. It’s not an either-or. Using the port as an excuse seems fishy.

    As for Leiweke, where’s the skepticism? He’s a typical American glad-hander: full of hot air and lofty promises, but once he gets his deal, who knows? Trust me, he says. But would you buy a car from this guy? And don’t get me started on the Seattle Times. Where is their objectivity? their neutrality? Their coverage has been shameful.

    As for Queen Anne, let’s be serious: existing traffic, parking, ingress and egress, those are real problems. But the mayor and Leiweke seem to be pretending they don’t exist. I agree with Effzee: someone in Seattle doesn’t like Hansen. Damned project, indeed.

  • twistandturns

    Art, can you pass some of your common sense on to the council?

  • SoDo Slayer Art Thiel, the second coming of David Halberstam ? ! Fine writing and insight. Keep up the excellent reporting. Thank you !

    • art thiel

      Others might credit me at best for coloring within the lines.

  • SoDo Slayer

    It should be noted that over $7 Billion has been spent upgrading and improving transportation within and connecting to SoDo and almost exclusively it could be
    argued for the Port of Seattle’s sole benefit. These improvements have taken place
    within the last 15 years and include the State Route 99 Tunnel. SoDo has the natural ability to take in deep breaths of automobile traffic and exhale with ease. SoDo has transportation lungs of an Olympic swimmer.

    • art thiel

      And I thought I twisted analogies beyond recognition.

  • Tom G.

    You’re preaching to the choir, Art.

    I just don’t know how Hansen wins with City Council if all he does is try to win an ACADEMIC argument about which site is better in terms of transportation, parking, taxes, red tape, et. al and how it wouldn’t be a big risk to the City to grant the street vacation.

    • art thiel

      Few choir members are in city hall.

      What is your alternative to the academic argument?

      • Tom G.

        Finding the NHL partner/point man prior to the street vacation vote would be a nice start.

        Otherwise it may be time for him to start exploring the suburbs (if he’d rather eat rat posion than be a lower tenant at Key).

  • Playhouse

    Leiweke’s words perfectly echoed the NBA’s message about expansion (and relocation, for that matter) up until these latest comments from Silver. The NBA couldn’t have scripted a more NBA-friendly response than what Leiweke was telling everyone.

  • jafabian

    My prediction is Vegas and Virginia. I don’t think the NBA likes to revisit “failed” NBA cities unless it’s been a long time since they left. Silver has talked about Vegas enough to where I think it’s a given.

    • Playhouse

      I’d say Vegas was a given if the NHL and the NFL weren’t first there. Once the Raiders made the choice to move, that made the market pretty crowded. Now, they still have to get the stadium done before we can consider the Raiders a done deal, but the NBA coming in as the third option doesn’t seem like the most appealing prospect for the league. Especially in the relatively small market.

      As long as everything gets done with an arena, Seattle is too strong of a prospect for the league to pass up if they decide to expand.

  • Steed

    My Dad took me to see the SuperSonics vs the Lakers in the Coliseum when I was a kid. It was eventual hydroplane driver Tommy Burleson against a guy the Lakers had recently acquired from Milwaukee, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem and the Lakers won. I recall that Kareem thought he was fouled on every play and complained a lot.

    Seattle needs a new building and it isn’t the Key. It would be great to have the Soops back and that is only happening in Sodo. The city is growing like a weed, and it’s called the stadium district for a reason. Build the darn thing already.