NHL to Seattle: The NBA Blocks the Shot

The Phoenix Coyotes remain a possible candidate to move to Seattle in a few years. (Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports)
The Phoenix Coyotes remain a possible candidate to move to Seattle in a few years. (Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports)
The simmering topic of NHL expansion to the city of Seattle may have plenty of support, but also its share of detractors.

Those in favor of adding an expansion team in Seattle trumpet the area’s many strengths. To wit: the size of the media market (13th), its tech-centered commerce, the Puget Sound’s robust hockey history and the potential for an instant rivalry with the city of Vancouver. Those against it either prefer another city or believe the current talent pool of players is too watered down to justify additional franchises.

Either way, judging by media reports, efforts continue behind the scenes to bring the NHL to the Emerald City. How likely are they to be successful?

Seattle’s mayor recently met with Gary Bettman

Mayor Ed Murray said last Thursday that he had met with both NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Bettman indicated the NHL would like to put a team in Seattle, provided an arena was available for it to play within.

Obviously, Seattle wants the NHL, and it seems clear the NHL would embrace Seattle. What’s the problem?

Arena delays

Although a Memorandum of Understanding between the city of Seattle, King County and investor Chris Hansen’s group to help finance a new 18,500-seat arena has been in place since 2012, the project is moving forward at a glacial pace. A long-delayed Environmental Impact Statement will not be completed until at least April, pushing the timeline for starting construction into 2016, if not beyond. The current MOU expires in 2017.

The project hinges on securing an anchor tenant, which has been another major source of frustration. As written, the MOU requires an imminent NBA franchise in order to kick in the potential $200 million of City and County bonds necessary to help finance the $490 million arena.

So far that hasn’t happened, but it’s not for lack of trying. Not only was Chris Hansen rebuffed in his efforts to acquire the Sacramento Kings, but the Phoenix Coyotes were within one vote from moving to Seattle back in 2013.

The NBA has no imminent plans to return to Seattle

As stated above, the Memorandum of Understanding requires an NBA franchise be obtained to trigger the lion’s share ($120 million) of the agreed-upon public financing. Although the NHL has been pointed in its desire to have a franchise in Seattle, the NBA has not. In fact, Silver informed Murray that the NBA has no plans to add an expansion franchise or allow a current team to relocate to Seattle.

Given the heavy-handed way the league intervened in the Sacramento Kings effort — rejecting Seattle in favor of a lower offer from a Sacramento-based ownership group — it’s highly likely the NBA means exactly what it says.

Thus, arena investors are faced with a dilemma: convince an NBA franchise to relocate and hope the NBA will not stand in the way, or work with skeptical area politicians to rewrite the deal so that the NHL can come first.

Amending the Memorandum of Understanding

Seattle Arena project
Investor Victor Coleman could help get the arena project off the ground. Credit: 360 Architecture)
Although rewriting the current agreement would appear to be the easy answer, nothing is simple when it comes to government. Political wills shift with the winds, with no guarantees that the votes will be there. As Mayor Murray put it, “My pushback is always that I don’t see that unless there is a financial model that’s beneficial.” Translation: the politicians consider the NBA more lucrative than the NHL.

The situation represents a perfect storm of dysfunction and obstruction. Although a new arena cannot even begin without an NBA team in hand, the NBA has little interest in Seattle. Polite comments about the city’s attractiveness notwithstanding, league officials have made that point exceedingly clear.

Hope remains

Local NHL fans are becoming increasingly frustrated, but hope is not lost. Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo Sports appeared on “The Michael Grey Show” on 710 ESPN Radio in Seattle, proclaiming “it’s a matter of when, not if, for the NHL in Seattle”. He reminded listeners of the five-year out clause in Phoenix Coyotes’ lease with the city of Glendale, along with the imbalance between the Eastern and Western conferences. He concluded by pointing out that expanding westward to Seattle and Las Vegas is one of the very best ways to generate new hockey fans, which is a huge part of Gary Bettman’s legacy.

“The idea is they’d put a team in Seattle and put a team in Las Vegas, (which) obviously syncs up pretty well with the current format and geographic configuration of the league,” said Wyshynski. “I’d say the timeline is within the next three years.”

For that to take place, something will have to give. Can intransigent politicians be convinced not only to do the right thing, but do it quickly?

Stay tuned.