BY Art Thiel 06:00PM 04/11/2018

Thiel: Why Tod Leiweke came back to Seattle

In his previous Seattle tenure from 2003-10, Tod Leiweke helped make the Seahawks and Sounders champions. Now he’s back, helping his brother with a little project.

Prospective Seattle NHL team owners Jerry Bruckheimer, left, and David Bonderman, hired former Seahawks/Sounders CEO Tod Leiweke to run the hockey show in Seattle. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

In ways subtle and profound, Seattle pro sports just became better Wednesday.

The development won’t make Ichiro younger or NFL penalty leader Germain Ifedi more mature. It will make the prospective NHL team more successful and will make Seattle more attractive to the NBA.

The best possible person to upgrade Seattle’s sports future, Tod Leiweke, is back.

The CEO who re-invented the concept of the 12s, helped the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl and hired Pete Carroll and John Schneider, has returned to Seattle. The CEO who helped make the Sounders the most successful expansion franchise in modern American sports history will be CEO of the prospective NHL expansion franchise expected to be awarded to Seattle this year and open in a renovated KeyArena in 2020.

Most of all, Tod Leiweke is a guy, according to his good friend, Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer, “who people run through walls for.”

It’s hard to say what may prove the more valuable contribution from Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke for the NHL’s long-term future in Seattle: The $660 million in private funds secured to make over a 55-year-old public building in the face of massive skepticism, or the hire of his brother.

Both events are remarkable advances after the weary civic trudge since the 2008 hijacking of the NBA Sonics by prairie pirates.

But money is always available for proven risk-takers. As one member of the OVG crew  that is taking on the development risks said at the Seattle Center press conference announcing Leiweke’s hire, “Tod left the second-best job in America.”

That would be the NFL’s chief operating officer, the No. 2 post behind Commissioner Roger Goodell. The assumption around the NFL was that Leiweke would be a popular, worthy successor to Goodell in the most powerful U.S. sports job, particularly since Goodell is ham-fisted where Leiweke is skilled.

As Hanauer put it, “He’s one of those rare individuals who’s smart and competitive, with all the business skills to go with it, wrapped around one of most genuine, caring, empathetic people you’ll ever meet.”

A lot of people in the NFL are thinking an opportunity has been lost.

Rather than wait for the retirement of Goodell, who just signed a contract extension, Leiweke fled the sports epicenter for the fringes, a left-coast job in the No. 4 sport in America for an expansion team that won’t play for almost three years in a building that is not yet guaranteed to be (re)built.

“I found the NFL an amazing, fascinating place to work,” Leiweke said Wednesday at the presser, where he was joined by the prospective club’s primary owners, filmmaker Jerry Bruckheimer and investment banker David Bonderman. “I was starting to get quite comfortable in my role there. I wasn’t looking.

“But the stars aligned.”

What were those stars? Here’s four, in no particular order, all of which were necessary:

Hockey: The Leiweke brothers grew up in St. Louis with mad love for the NHL Blues. When Tod was CEO of of the Seahawks/Sounders from 2003-10, he played as often as his schedule allowed in a senior men’s league.

“I’ve probably been to  500 hockey games in my life,” he said. “I love it. I played it when I was here. I’d do it again. I’ve asked my wife to get me into a better training program. I’m bringing back 10 more pounds than I left with.”

He left the Seahawks in 2010 to be CEO/part-owner of the NHL Lightning in Tampa Bay, something less than a sacred ground for hockey. They made the Stanley Cup finals in 2014-15, after which the NFL swooped him away.

Seattle: “I love this town,” he said. “It’s an incredible thrill to come home.

“I think this could become a great market in NHL. I think what’s unique in hockey about this (potential franchise) is the ownership group and the extraordinary building my brother is helping create. I think it is the perfect set-up for recruiting the best, whether it be general manager, coach, trainer and, ultimately, players. This is going to be a very, very special place to play hockey.

“One of the great things about Seattle is community, and the community of teams is so fantastic. They all find a way to get along. They don’t feel like they compete. They feel like they work together.”

Brother Tim: The boys’ mother died when Tod was nine, a step-mother died later. The family was not well-off and neither went to college. Now the boys are near the pinnacle of the U.S. sports industry.

“We always remained friends,” Tod said. “We worked in the same business, and now we work together.

“He did what others couldn’t do (in creating a Seattle arena). We wouldn’t be here without you.”

Tod looked at Tim, sitting to his right against a wall, and for a couple of moments, there was a quiver of chins and a threat of salt water. If it wasn’t sincere, it was certainly good theater.

Expansion: Lance Lopes, an OVG senior executive who worked under Tod Leiweke as Seahawks general counsel, said starting fresh is ideal for Leiweke.

“With expansion, you don’t have to clean up somebody else’s stuff,” he said. “It took us five years with the Seahawks.”

“It’s kind of fun to start from scratch, so you can build a culture the way you want,” Leiweke said. “I’m not here to kinda make it work. I’m here to make it work.”

Leiweke took over a Seahawks franchise in the doldrums and helped make it work for three Super Bowl appearances. He was put in charge of a soccer expansion franchise that has never missed a post-season and won an MLS Cup. And his Lightning had the NHL’s third-highest regular season points total (113) as playoffs begin Thursday.

The feats required the hard labors of many beyond himself. That’s a Leiweke specialty.

“He has the ability to recognize, and surround himself, with good people, to give them enough direction to help them do their best,” Hanauer said. “You see it in his delivery — his honesty, humility and the ability to drive people to success based on their personalities.”

At the press conference, Leiweke spent most of his remarks citing many in the room — an impressive gathering of Seattle sports figures, current and retired — for their deeds previous and contemporary. It came off not as an Oscar winner’s gush, but as a sincere and personal expression of gratitude upon the start of another push for the pinnacle.

He lit the lamp at the presser. Next: The Stanley Cup.

 


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YourThoughts

  • Phil Caldwell

    Art, you really think the NBA will EVER approve a team at Key Arena? I’m skeptical. It seems like more of the same, and it seems like Seattle never learns.

    • Tman

      Key arena had nothing to do with the sonics leaving. Untaxed oil profits paved the way to OKC

      • art thiel

        Pirate wealth in OKC certainly facilitated the move, but the Sonics left because Howard Schultz and partners didn’t want to risk more of their capital to do what Tim L’s wealthies are doing to KeyArena.

    • art thiel

      The building will be transformed with nearly unlimited private money. The NBA won’t return for seven years at the earliest, so by 2025, the building should have worked out its kinks, and the Monorail will have enough cars to get you there.

  • StephenBody

    There seems to be this effort, probably not really organized, to do this “kumbaya” BS about all the great people involved in this project and how much they love Seattle and what a cool building it’s gonna be and, Hooray!, we’re getting a TEAM again…and I’m sure a lot of the touchy-feely crap is genuine. But there is a hand-in-hand presumption (so they claim) that the fact of the arena being there will lead to a basketball team, which is NOT guaranteed. All this rah-rah diversion is meant to neatly obscure the FACT that this arena is located in an area which CANNOT be made accessible to outside visitors. What the new arena WILL wind up being (if it is to survive) is a clubhouse for the uber-wealthy who live within a walk or a cab ride of the arena. It is NOT accessible to anyone from ANY other area in the country or region, unless those people are willing to endure a three or four HOUR ordeal to get to the Seattle Center and back home. This isn’t an arena for hockey fans in Western Washington. This is a treehouse for the privileged and those to whom all this fairy dust is being aimed may well never see a game there of ANY type, EVER. This was purely an exercise of the City Council pitching a hissy fit and trying to prove they’re smart. They’re NOT. They’re idiots who created an epic mess and aren’t bright enough to see it.

    • Effzee

      Did you read the article? Far be it from me to tell someone else to back away from the ledge…. I’m one of the more skeptical ones here, but even I think the Leiweke’s are genuine enough and very very good at the sports game in particular. I know Tod raised his family here for a long time, and Bonderman is a Husky. I agree that the city council screwed this up three ways from Tuesday, and they are not the brightest bulbs on the tree. However, the Sonics made the location work for years, and I don’t see people staying away from the Arena when concerts come to town. If there’s one thing we know, its Seattle supports a winning team. Hell, I was shocked they got deposits for 10,000 seats in 12 minutes! People will find a way to get there. Its going to work just fine.

      • art thiel

        The Leiwekes know the sports/entertainment industry as no one else. Tod especially understands the people and problems here.

        And it’s entirely possible to find 17,000 wealthy people in the region to fill the house each night for sports/concerts, as long as they do as the pioneers did — bring enough bannock and hardtack so they won’t starve in their wagons waiting for spring thaw.

      • StephenBody

        “It’s going to work just fine”? The Sonics made the location work “just fine” back when Seattle was about 75% as populous as it is now and traffic wasn’t anywhere NEAR what it is today. And I don’t care about the character, motives, experience, good intentions, or how dynamic the arena plan is, IT’S IN A TERRIBLE LOCATION. There is no remedy for that problem. Maybe YOU are okay with having a hockey team here and never seeing it but I am NOT, especially when it’s being sold as this big, community-building, all-inclusive, point of regional pride thing that is, in reality, impossible to be that as a day-to-day, game-to-game reality. I ponied up my $1000 for two seat licenses and I may well buy the season tickets, because I love hockey but what it’s GOING TO become, for me, is a daily grind of selling tickets for games I can’t attend, and I just do NOT have the time or, frankly, the patience to fight my way in and out of a location of maximum urban density and nightmare traffic more than MAYBE twice a season. Jesus, so you want to be optimistic, fine. But QUIT offering ludicrous palliatives like “It’s going to work just fine.” It’s NOT, it CAN’T, and it will become exactly what I said: a private clubhouse for uber-affluent Seattleites, NOT a arena for all of Western Washington.

        • art thiel

          Sounds like you’re a candidate for a VR headset from the Jack Nicholson-seat perspective. That’s where the sports world is going, so your anticipated nightmare dies then. And you’ll make a nice profit on selling tickets to the swells who need to be seen along the ice.

          • StephenBody

            No, I have no interest in watching local sports via some electronic device and pretending to be there. I have a nice, big TV that requires no pretense. But I do object to transparent charades and groups of people who come into a market selling good vibes and snake oil and knowing that they cannot deliver in the way they claim. The Oakview Group knows damned well that the access problem is insoluble. And if they would just come right out and say, “Look, the sad fact is that we were given ONE place to put this arena and it’s lower Queen Anne. That’s going to mean that most of you will be deterred from coming to games, so this is really aimed at the uber-affluent who live within a short walk or a quick cab ride. We’re sorry as hell but our hands are tied”, I wouldn’t be writing this. Whether it’s just that Bonderman and Bruckheiner are so fantastically wealthy that they’ve lost touch with the problems that present themselves to sports fans or if they’re just cynical bastards, out to make a buck any way they can and have the cachet of sports ownership, I don’t know. THEY may not even know. But in EVERY interview in which someone has been sentient enough to ask about traffic and access to the arena, their answer has been some bland palliative like Leiweke’s on KJR: “Just trust us. We’ve put FIVE MILLION DOLLARS into a study.” (emphasis Leiweke’s) It’s their money, so I don’t understand why they feel that have to sell us all lollipops ‘n’ unicorns. They COULD just say, “Hey, you wanted private funding and here it is. Now we’ll design a plan that’s in OUR best interests and anyone who objects can just not come to the arena.” But they HAVE sold us a bill of goods and if observing that and speaking the truth about it feels like having someone pissing on the parade…TOO BAD.

          • art thiel

            I remain a skeptic about traffic/parking solutions in such a cramped space that won’t see rail transit until 2034. Rapid development has overtaken the city’s ability to alter infrastructure to accommodate.

            CM Bruce Harrell recently made a trenchant point about the city investment in fixing Mercer. He said the city put $261M into the project that advanced rush hour traffic, according to study, by a single second from the 2010 pace.

            Tim L’s notion of a $5M study to resolve some issues is a waste. Unless it devises a way to persuade rich arena users to abandon their big family vehicles to take public transportation. That, I would like to read.

    • art thiel

      Genuine touchy-feely crap? That’s a phrase I’ve never seen. Too much to unpack there.

      But “treehouse for the rich” is closer to the mark. My assumption is that Tim L will book the joint with enough high-end concerts that it will subsidize the NHL team as a loss leader. The wealthies will basically own the team(s) and building, so it won’t be a landlord/tenant relationship.

      I remain a skeptic about forcing more people for 200+ event nights into an urban village that has high potential for gridlock.

  • Alan Harrison

    I’m not quite as angry as some but my skepticism radar is high, as I suppose it should be. Yes, Seattle Center is the wrong place and the city council and mayors past and present have put it there anyway. So it’s there and that seems to be done. Consensus tells us that we should try to make it work anyway. And yes, hockey has a high ticket price in every NHL city. So, just like First and Goal, they’re going to have to be a “community effort,” where the hockey team tries to act like a local resource (using the same language as charities and other nonprofits – we’re going to hear a lot about “positive economic impact” and other such nonsense) and Seattleites will eat that up with a Totem-sized spoon — see the birth of what is now Century Link Field. The return on investment had better include a technologically superior television deal with games on social media, Amazon Prime (duh), as well as the national NBC/NBCSports feeds, because an exclusive Root Sports deal doesn’t do it for anyone. And at the end of it all, we’ll have a hockey team, which I suppose is a plus. (The NBA is irrelevant to the conversation at this point, and that’s neither good nor bad. I hope we won’t continue to chase them and, in doing so, continue to lose leverage.)

    • art thiel

      The overriding fact is that $660M in private money has been found to put in to an existing public building, with minimal public cost. Any city would be thrilled with the opportunity.

      It’s also true that urban density around Seattle Center will continue to get worse, and no one truly knows how traffic will be impacted with the opening of the 99 tunnel in October. EIS draft due for public inspection April 23.

      It’s also true that the wealth behind this ownership, including partner Live Nation, is immense, and they see SEA as a good investment. How they make some tickets affordable to people of ordinary means is going to be one of Tod L’s highest priorities.

  • Kirkland

    My admiration for Tod evens out my dislike for Tim. Tod did a great job with the Seahawks rebranding and the Sounders’ launch, and he helped turn around a Lightning franchise that had a Mickey Mouse ownership after its 2004 Cup back into a perennial contender. The team now has one of the higher capacity rates in the NHL, which in fickle Florida is saying something. He also included a needed upgrade of the arena (I went there in 2005, the stairs in the upper deck were slippery), and added 12-esque fan touches; when the Lightning score, Tesla coils in the scoreboard shoot out static electricity charges that look like lightning bolts.

    The question remains about the Key Arena location, but for now it’s about recognition of Tod and his respect from the NHL and hockey community. He’s the right man for the job.

    BTW, the Sounders probably got surpassed as the most successful franchise launch by Atlanta United, who averaged 46,000 (!) and drew north of 70,000 for some games while fielding an upper-level MLS team, and the Vegas Golden Knights, who won their division this year and just drew first blood in their Stanley Cup playoff round versus Los Angeles.

    • art thiel

      Tod gets the retail end of sports franchise operation like no one I’ve been around. But we can’t hold against him his inability to pave over Lake Union to solve SLU traffic.

      As far as Sounders’ success, they’ve sustained it over years. Atlanta/LV are still early in their developments.

  • Feldie

    You feeling alright Art? What’s with all the love?

    • art thiel

      Calls ’em as as sees ’em. If someone does it right, say yay. If someone does it wrong, say boo.

      In these parts, we’ve had a long history of do-wrongs.