The Capacity for Additional Major League Franchises in Seattle

As part of the arena discourse, discussion has focused on the Puget Sound region’s ability to support additional pro sports franchises.  Ideas have ranged from the speculative nature of politicians to more well known methods based on population.  A further useful measurement is one that has previously been taken by that uses Total Population Income (essentially local GDP) of a region.  From there, it uses a formula to determine how much TPI is needed to support a franchise in each major league sport, defined by the authors as MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA and MLS.  With that data, one can determine how much TPI a region is using to support their current franchises and how much is left to support additional ones.

The TPI data is taken from government statistics.  It works well because it uses both population and income data.  Two regions with similar populations may have different TPI depending on the income levels of the areas.  In looking at how this relates to Seattle, I slightly adjusted the data because the government figures did not include Olympia or Bremerton as part of the great Seattle/Tacoma market.  At least for sports fandom, it’s safe to say that fans in those cities support Seattle teams, whether that be going to games or following them via different media platforms.

Let’s get to the numbers.  For 2009, the region’s TPI was $187B, which placed it approximately 13th in the U.S. as ranked by Primary Census Statistical Area.  Such measurements place the city right behind Miami/Ft. Lauderdale and Atlanta but just ahead of Detroit and Phoenix.  That matches up fairly well when the regions are ranked by population or TV market size.  The 2009 values to support a team in the various leagues were as follows: MLB – $86.7B, NFL – $37.3B, NHL – $37.3B, NBA – $36.4B, MLS – $13.9B.  Given those figures, the region is already using $138B in TPI to support the three franchises it has.  This leaves $49B in TPI available, which means the region could attain either an NBA or NHL franchise, but not both.  Gaining a franchise in each of those leagues would place the TPI available in negative territory, meaning the region would have more teams than TPI indicates it can support.  This is not unusual, as many regions including Denver ($80B), Phoenix ($48B) and Minneapolis/St. Paul ($48B) all sport negative figures.  If Seattle gained teams in both the NBA and NHL, its TPI would be negative, but nothing close to these other cities.

It’s a little bit of a quandary, as the economics of a new arena work best when the building is occupied by both arena leagues.  But this region’s TPI figures show that the area can support only one team before getting too stretched.  The TPI numbers do not take into account how fast a region is growing, so a region could grow into its teams over time with population and income growth.  It also does not factor billionaires living in an area with assets to burn, which can help an area overcome a TPI shortfall.  Lastly, the study does not consider how much TPI is needed to support major college athletic programs or minor league teams.  Certainly, these types of organizations are prevalent and well supported in many regions.  In that case, it may mean less income available to support current or potential major league franchises in a region.

What’s the final call?  The data seems compelling enough to conclude that the region can support one of the NBA or NHL.  This would give Seattle teams in four of the major leagues.  Arguably, we’ve already been here.  From 1977 to 1983, a much smaller Puget Sound region supported the Mariners, Seahawks, Sonics and NASL Sounders.  Given the growth of the region, the wealth and the unusually high number of Fortune 500 companies headquartered here (8) relative to our population, the market should be able to support both the NBA and NHL over time. But this is dependent on the region continuing to grow and attract people, jobs and wealth.  It’s not guaranteed, but it’s definitely within reason.


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