Kraken Will Face Big Challenge In Competitive Sports Market

The Seattle Kraken enter their local sports market at an exciting but challenging time. Several Seattle teams will be playing meaningful games, likely in front of passionate crowds who have not seen them in person for over a year. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made the introduction of a new sports franchise more daunting — in a time when consumer confidence is recovering and local businesses are adapting quickly to stay afloat.

The Kraken may be faced with the toughest entry into a sports market in recent decades. Whereas teams like the Vegas Golden Knights, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Nashville Predators were able to quickly gain market share, Seattle faces an uphill battle — a combination of one of the nation’s strongest sports markets and economic & social effects from the pandemic.

A Busy Time for Seattle Sports

The NHL regular season is on track to begin this October, one of the busiest months in professional and collegiate sports. The October-December period in the Pacific Northwest further amplifies the challenge of getting established sports fans in the mindset of following a new team. Not only are fans able to return to sporting venues to see their teams for the first time in over a year, albeit in varying capacities, but they also have more broadcast & streaming options to tune in.

The Seattle Seahawks have cultivated a passionate fan base that permeates the Pacific Northwest region.

October is the heart of football season for both the regionally popular Seattle Seahawks and college football teams such as the University of Washington. The Sounders of Major League Soccer (MLS) will be playing their final stretch of regular-season games before the start of the postseason in November. Even the Storm of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and/or the Mariners of Major League Baseball (MLB) could be playing into October; I’ll get to that a little later. The numbers below account for 2019 average attendance per team:

  • Seattle Seahawks (NFL): 68,990
  • University of Washington Football (NCAA): 68,238
  • Seattle Sounders (MLS): 40,247
  • Seattle Mariners (MLB): 22,122
  • Seattle Storm (WNBA): 7,562

To a lesser extent, we should also consider the Portland market, as it’s just a three-hour drive from Seattle. The Trailblazers, who, to some, have filled the void left by the SuperSonics, will begin their season in the same month as the Kraken. The University of Oregon Ducks — roughly 100 miles south of Portland — and Oregon State Beavers also have sizable followings in the region.

Seattle Is Practically a Title Town

Not only do Seattleites have a plethora of teams to cheer for, but they also have a reason to be confident that at least one of those teams will compete for a championship. The Kraken may have a shot at the playoffs in a weak Pacific Division but will likely be looking up to other dominant local clubs for a while.

The Seahawks headline this list, as they have been in the Super Bowl conversation nearly every season since Russell Wilson’s arrival in 2012. The club won Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014, and in the following season, came within one yard of another title. They have won nine playoff games since 2012, have missed the playoffs just once in that stretch, and can continue their success in 2021 with Wilson under center.

Dating back to their 2009 debut in MLS, the Sounders have been arguably the league’s most successful club. They won the MLS Cup in 2016 and 2019, have appeared in four of the past five championship games, have never missed the playoffs, and at 8-0-5, are currently MLS’s best team. Their 40,247 average attendance in 2019 ranked second in the league; third-place FC Cincinnati drew nearly 13,000 fewer fans.

Two other Seattle teams could be playing meaningful games in October as well. Currently, the Mariners sit 3.5 games back of the second American League wild-card spot. The club has not qualified for the playoffs in 20 years, and should they get in, will likely draw a surge in fan interest; generations of Mariners fans have long waited since the days of Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson to have a shot at the October Classic. Additionally, the Storm are defending WNBA champion, and after the Minnesota Lynx, have won the most titles since 2010 with three. The 7,500-plus fans drawn on average in 2019 is no slouch, either.

Social & Economic Factors May Have an Impact

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought on a series of social and economic challenges that have impacted the opening of Climate Pledge Arena, the city of Seattle’s recovery, and consumer behavior.

Last week, Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke stated that the arena’s general contractor and the club’s ownership group had to devise a set of health and safety protocols — since adopted statewide — to keep the building’s completion on track. Additionally, changes to shipping logistics and price increases for materials hindered the completion timeline; Leiweke expects the venue to open in mid-October, shortly after the regular season begins.

Concurrently, the city of Seattle has a long recovery ahead that could affect the community surrounding Climate Pledge Arena. For example, according to the Downtown Seattle Association, more than 450 street-level business locations have closed since the pandemic arrived. Mayor Jenny Durkan and private investors have collectively committed $16.4 million to a series of downtown recovery projects led by business, labor, arts, and community-based organizations.

Seattle Kraken Climate Pledge Arena
Seattle’s downtown is recovering from a global pandemic that influenced the closure of 450 downtown street-level business locations (credit: I, Daniel Schwen via Wikimedia Commons).

However, these organizations need consumers, patrons, and participants alike to sustain the revitalization. According to 2020 USPS data, the net migration of households out of Seattle was 26,082. In other words, the difference of households filing change-of-address requests from Seattle to other cities was 26,082 greater than the number of households moving from other cities into Seattle (from “Seattle shrinking? Seattleites moved out in droves in 2020, though most didn’t go far”, The Seattle Times, March 6, 2021).

Nonetheless, the Kraken have reasons for optimism. First, the data indicates that a majority of households are staying in greater Seattle, migrating to nearby suburbs such as Bellevue, Shoreline, and Kirkland. Second, consumer spending could shift in a direction that would produce more sold-out games. A chief economist at PNC Financial told Reuters last June that consumers will shift their spending growth from goods to services in the latter half of 2021 and throughout 2022. There are two caveats to this projection. The first is inflation, as the Federal Reserve reported to have reached its highest level in 29 years. The second is the possibility of a resurgence of COVID-19 cases.

Final Thoughts

The Kraken’s initial success will likely be compared to that of the 2017 Golden Knights, as the teams share the same expansion draft rules. However, the more I think about it, I see Seattle’s entry into the league as a different situation.

The Kraken enter an already established sports market that will be in peak season and will be competing intensely for attendance, corporate sponsorships, and merchandise sales. The further teams like the Seahawks and Sounders advance in the playoffs, the more difficult it could be for the Kraken to attract new fans. Factoring in the city’s recovery from the pandemic, I think it’s possible we witness a more gradual emergence of the Kraken in the Emerald City than what we saw in Sin City.

Next week’s expansion draft, the entry draft, and Seattle’s preseason games in WHL arenas may serve as a good benchmark to gauging the team’s success, at least as far as year one.

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