Will Houston Ice Seattle’s NHL Hopes?

July 26, 2017

With the Houston Rockets now for sale, the possibility arises that the NHL could again look at that market.  The Rockets owner remained unwilling to consider sharing the arena on any terms that would have been acceptable to NHL partners throughout his ownership of the franchise (though minor league hockey was played there).  And during his ownership reign, the NHL continued its sun belt market focused strategy.  It’s fair to conclude that given Houston’s size, wealth and location, the city would have appeared near the top of the list with a more welcoming arena partner.

Houston’s strengths as a market still apply, which could impact Seattle’s NHL hopes.  The Toyota Center is NHL ready, a franchise there could be placed in either conference, or allow another Central time zone club to switch conferences.  That lessens the need for Seattle as an addition to the shorthanded Western Conference.  It probably also helps to have a ready made rival nearby in the Dallas Stars.  And Houston has a surprisingly robust hockey history, ranging from the WHL to various minor league teams.

This all goes to show that those who claim to want a modern arena developed within Seattle, along with their involvement in the excruciatingly slow process, best get moving.  Events far from here, and outside local politicos reach, can have just as much impact in determining whether the city gets to suit up in the NHL or NBA (again) in the future.


Why The Arena Decision May Slide To 2018

February 27, 2017

The KeyArena RFP calls for proposals by mid April, with a city decision by the end of June.  Concurrently, the MOU with Chris Hansen’s SoDo project expires at the end of November.  Though with Hansen offering to essentially scrap the MOU by privately funding the arena, that date isn’t as significant.  However, the city says the new proposal triggers a new review, estimated to be completed in late summer or early fall.  This despite the only major change being the financing.

With a mayoral election this November, along with two city council seats, one held by retiring pro SoDo Burgess and the other by anti SoDo Gonzalez, it’s quite possible that any second look at the SoDo proposal gets pushed to next year.  That could even be the fate of the winning RFP bid, favored to be current KeyArena operator AEG.  Because while a decision by early summer may be preferred, action on that bid may be delayed as the city “process” grinds on, taking every and all possible KeyArena constituents into account.  That’s why some have estimated the winning bid may not see completion of the project until 5-7 years out.  Entertainment and sports facilities understandably don’t rank high on elected officials’ agendas, though there is something to be said for acting within a reasonable time frame on private offers that other cities would elevate immediately.

And while SoDo naysayers such as the Seattle Times believe this whole process is rushed, with no prospective NBA or NHL teams on the horizon, those with an understanding of the situation know that such claims are ridiculous.  Right now, NHL clubs in Brooklyn, Raleigh and Phoenix are actively looking for arena or ownership solutions in their home markets, for now.  Just over the past few years, NBA or NHL teams experienced sudden ownership turmoil that led to the sale of teams in Sacramento, Los Angeles and Atlanta (to Winnipeg).  Stuff happens.  It’s imperative for a region that wishes to host teams to be prepared for such situations, to say nothing of the cleaner expansion possibilities.

But Seattle, under current elected officials, is not such a city.  That’s why the process has dragged along.  And it’s why the likely winning bid to renovate KeyArena will be focused around turning the old, temporary, 1962World’s Fair building into a midsized concert venue.  If the NBA or NHL and prospective owners don’t like that, well, that’s not the city’s problem.

So we wait, and wait and wait.  After having over 10 years to consider KeyArena’s future, the city is forced to react only when a legitimate proposal emerges in SoDo.  Given the city’s intent on slowing or stopping the SoDo plans, barring a miracle, sports fans are left hoping a serious arena proposal emerges outside the city limits.  That would be a miracle in itself, likely on par with city politicos giving Hansen’s plan the green light any time soon.

The Arena Debate and Local Sports Talk Radio

December 30, 2016

Since the SoDo arena was first proposed, dividing lines have been drawn between those supporting the plan and those opposed, whether on an economic development basis, political views, the future direction of Seattle, etc.  That has extended to sports talk radio as well, with KJR 950 supporting the plan, and in many ways actively campaigning for the arena.  As such, the station has interviewed Chris Hansen multiple times, along with other arena supporters.  In contrast, the potential redevelopment of KeyArena and any other regional arena proposals, often get quickly shot down as not feasible by those at the station.

Meanwhile, 710 ESPN, likely influenced by the Mariners and Seahawks, their broadcast partners, has barely mentioned the SoDo proposal.  Essentially, they’ve practically ignored the plan over the last couple of years, using arguments that the anti SoDo groups have applied.  This position stands out, because early on in the SoDo developments, 710 was not so indifferent.  And especially recently, they’ve taken the banner of KeyArena redevelopment and ran with it.  This included an interview with Tim Leiweke, the public face of one of the two groups planning to respond to a city issued RFP for renovating KeyArena.

Expect this situation to carry on into 2017, until one plan finally stands above the other.  Then both stations will likely support whatever arena plan that is, because only then can progress be made towards the ultimate goal, which is getting NHL and NBA franchises to fill that arena.

What’s Next For Safeco Field?

May 30, 2016

With the previous post discussing the M’s change in ownership, it’s worth wondering what impact new management may have on Safeco Field or the surrounding neighborhood.  Stadiums only slightly older than Safeco are in various stages of either being replaced (Atlanta), headed towards replacement (Arlington) or are having replacement floated as an option (Phoenix).  Such a scenario doesn’t seem likely here, as the stadium is in good shape and seems to still generate significant revenue for the team.  And it’s just as unlikely that ownership would spend for their own new facility or see the public in some nearby city or suburb splurge for a stadium to lure the M’s out of SoDo.  Especially after the team’s highly public anti-SoDo Arena stance.

The trend in baseball stadium renovations seems to lean towards smaller seating capacities, which would be the case in all three examples cited above.  It’s possible the team would consider reducing it’s capacity of just under 48K seats.  Another trend in stadiums and arenas is more public gathering spots (not unlike the LF-CF bullpen area of Safeco).   Beyond these options, the club might consider more general tech refurbishments to keep the park modern (already done with the video board and with stadium Wi-Fi).  They’ve also already reduced the total amount of suites and introduced new club areas for higher end ticket sales on a limited game basis, rather than a full season ticket requirement.

It’ll be interesting to see if the team, with the new ownership, aims to develop the land surrounding Safeco either themselves or in partnership with others.  Historically, the team has not wanted much development outside Safeco, which would possibly draw dollars away from the park.  But teams throughout major league sports are seeing the value in real estate development around their facilities.  In fact, it’s driving some of these new stadiums.  The M’s have participated in the Stadium District Concept Plan, so perhaps the change in ownership spurs more movement with respect to that plan.  It’s another possible revenue generator.  As with the SoDo Arena plans, the M’s have seen what others envision for the neighborhood.  We may eventually see what they themselves have in store for both their home and the area around it.

T-Mobile Arena Will Not Be In SoDo

January 30, 2016

Stepping a little bit out of its normal operations, T-Mobile USA announced the company’s first naming rights deal earlier this month for the soon to open arena in Las Vegas.  T-Mobile customers who use the arena will gain access to a few benefits beyond what other arena visitors experience.  This deal seems to align with the company’s “uncarrier” marketing campaign, as it’s widely expected this new arena will soon be host to many sports and entertainment events, including an NHL expansion franchise, which would be the city’s first team in one of the major leagues.

We can presume that this would take locally headquartered T-Mobile USA out of the naming rights competition for the new SoDo arena, should it be built.  Of course for T-Mobile, it makes sense to commit money to an existing arena in a market they find compelling, rather than waiting to see if an arena gets built in Seattle.  This isn’t to say they might not still try to get the rights, as American Airlines has naming rights for arenas in both Dallas and Miami, but it’s rare.

This also reminds of the strategies behind naming rights deals.  Apparently Chris Hansen and company have chosen not to seek a deal yet.  This has happened in other cities, whether to get a early sense of the financial metrics a naming rights deal might provide, or to give an unbuilt facility a sense of destiny.  But it doesn’t always work, as the Farmers Field folks in Los Angeles know.  More common strategies are naming the facilities as they’re being completed, such as Safeco Field or the Vegas arena.  Or, waiting a bit for better market conditions to strike a deal after a building has already opened, as we saw at Seahawks/Qwest/CenturyLink Field.  The wait continues for an arena in SoDo, while the doors will soon swing open at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Stadium District Concept Plan

August 21, 2012

In July 2012, the Washington State Major League Baseball Stadium Public Facilities District and the Washington State Public Stadium Authority co-issued a report on the future of the immediate area surrounding the stadiums.  This ten year plan took into account the changes happening along the waterfront and in Pioneer Square, the International District and SoDo.  The plan envisions residential, hotel, office, restaurant and retail development along Occidental and First Avenue, with Occidental becoming a pedestrian focused thoroughfare.  While there is quite a bit of pie in the sky features mentioned, others such as for Occidental and First have some plausibility.  Primarily, even without a grand plan, the area is evolving, on game days at least, into a gritty, informal entertainment district.

Beyond what the report mentioned, I’d add two fan friendly features that could be added to the area now.  Given the plethora of empty office space and that many of the teams it covers call SoDo home, ROOT Sports would do well to move their offices and studio to this district.  A ground level studio that could be viewed from the sidewalk would certainly draw attention and spectators.  And, with all the teams and fans in one area, a sports museum/hall of fame that is open year round and independent of whether an event is taking place in one of the stadiums would fit well.  The Mariners are the only team that has anything like a museum in their stadium.  Of course, there’s plenty of Sonics memorabilia that probably fits better in a place like this rather than the Museum of History & Industry.  The Mariners, and Seahawks and Sounders for that matter, could continue to have their in stadium display while being encouraged to make items available to a wider audience outside the stadium.  A new arena with new teams right next door to the current stadiums would only strengthen the argument for these two features being added to the district.

It’s noteworthy that the Mariners are supportive of this draft concept plan, considering that for so long they have been perceived as anti-development around Safeco Field.  The Seahawks and Sounders support is in line with previous public statements regarding growth in the area.  Even if only half the plan became reality, it would substantially change the area around the stadiums.  After looking at the concept, it’s easier to see how Chris Hansen and Co. could be viewing their mini entertainment district around the proposed arena as simply an extension of the concept plan another two blocks south to connect Safeco and the arena.  Additionally, the arena location falls within the proposed Stadium District boundary.  That the Mariners would support the concept plan, but not Hansen’s arena, is a little odd, as it seemingly would help to increase foot traffic, patrons of the entertainment district establishments and the property values near the stadiums.

The port has valid issues.  It’s inevitable that growth will happen in SoDo as property values increase in the area while it simultaneously becomes one of the last areas left near downtown that can be built out.  A buffer of stadiums and related establishments separating the port from South Lake Union-like gentrification of SoDo is a better option than residential and office building across the street from the port.

I’m surprised this report didn’t get more media attention when it was released last summer.  I didn’t come across it until a few months ago.  Given the discussion surrounding the arena, port and SoDo, one would think this report would get a re-airing.  It makes for fun reading and provokes thinking about not just the stadium district, but its neighbors as well.

The Mariners Speak

April 4, 2012

The much anticipated opinion of the Mariners on the proposed arena is now public.  The team makes many valid points, but in doing so seem to forget some of their own experiences regarding Safeco Field and the SoDo neighborhood.  And as too often seems the case with the organization, appear to have a tin ear to the general sporting public opinion, at a minimum.  Let’s take a look at portions of their letter.

Much has already been said and written in the media about the proposed new arena for a possible NBA and/or NHL team. Unfortunately, that has also included inaccurate speculation about the position of the Seattle Mariners on this proposal. The speculation in the sports media has been that the Mariners are against the proposed arena.

We strongly support the return of the NBA to Seattle, and would welcome the addition of an NHL hockey team.  We are fans of all sports.  It is our strongly held belief that professional sports are important to the fabric of the community, and that Seattle is a vibrant sports market that will benefit from the addition of basketball and hockey.

Excellent.  This is what most sports fans hoped to hear.

When the Mariners worked with King County and the publicly appointed landlord to plan a new ballpark in 1995-96, the site of Safeco Field was chosen following a year-long public process that considered four or five alternative locations in King County. The site was not dictated by the Mariners, or by any single interest.

The Mariners ultimately got what they wanted, which was a semi isolated downtown location where there’d be room for a retractable roof on the stadium and enough space to have plenty of room for revenue generating restaurants and concessions.  Further, because this location was removed from existing restaurants and bars, the stadium would have less competition from outside vendors.  I was among those who hoped that a stadium could fit in the Kingdome’s north parking lot.  The Mariners were never in favor of this because it didn’t meet their demands mentioned above.

We were well-served by the extensive site review and selection process, and believe a new team would be equally well-served by a detailed examination of alternative arena sites, rather than prematurely locking in on a single location.

When what became Safeco Field got bogged down in the usual Seattle process from things ranging from site location to, primarily, state funding, the ownership at one point threatened to put the team up for sale, which was a way of threatening to move the team, since no one believed a new owner would keep the team in Seattle.  With this threat duly noted, the state moved along to fund the project after an initial public vote rejected state financing.  The Mariners issued the threat because they wanted the construction to begin immediately, as every day they had to stay in the Kingdome was another day they lost money. The Mariners know that a slow process could very well kill the potential arena deal.

Cities and neighborhoods like Bellevue, Renton, Seattle Center, South Lake Union and others should all be given careful consideration as a potential home for the new arena.

Surely the Mariners know the region’s politicians are anti sprawl.  A major purpose of all the public money used for transportation projects over the years is to move people into and out of Seattle, preferably without their own vehicle.  Placing an arena outside the city goes against this planning.  An arena at the Seattle Center or South Lake Union would not have near the public transportation options that SoDo offers.  That’s why the city has identified SoDo as the preferred location for a stadium district.  Ample public transportation options already exist, and are supposed to get better.  In addition, an investor has already purchased land in SoDo, with the city’s support, specifically for the arena.  What do the Mariners propose for acquiring land in these other locales?  Who is to fund such a purchase?

The proposed SoDo location, in our view, simply does not work.

Oh.  In other words, please stay away from our publicly funded, $500M stadium.  We do not want this to become an entertainment district, which could draw revenue away from Safeco Field and towards establishments outside the stadium.

This is why City permit conditions imposed on Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field prohibit major events from being held concurrently, and require a 4-hour window between the end of one and the start of the next. These conditions also restrict weekday start times, and limit us to six weekday day games per season.

The city should definitely consider lifting the restrictions placed on the Mariners, Seahawks and Sounders.  The Mariners should not be limited in their amount of weekday day games.  As the downtown expands, and if the stadium district expands as well, the city will have to learn to deal with multiple events happening in the district that could also impact commuter traffic.  Other cities would fall over themselves to have so much activity in their downtowns.

I hope that this letter helps clarify our position. We strongly support the return of the NBA to the Seattle area. But we have strong reservations about the SoDo site for an arena. We believe that the interests of all citizens, especially our sports fans, would be better served if there was an established public process to select the best possible arena site.

The Mariners are fighting an uphill battle and they undoubtedly know it.  By stating their position publicly, they’re in line to receive some type of accommodation if the arena proposal moves forward.  But the team desperately needs better pr guidance.  Having received public funding themselves, they look terrible by arguing against a proposal that would be privately financed.  The team is completely correct to bring up their concerns, as they have to look out for what is in their own best interests.  And while they’re within their rights to look out for their fans, they must also know that many of those same fans eagerly await the arrival of the teams that would fill the arena.  So the organization risks alienating not only general Seattle area sports fans, but Mariners fans too.

With the team having performed poorly of late, they should be concerned about losing fans and sponsorship revenue to potential new franchises.  But that’s part of the dynamic teams must contend with when they operate in a top 15 media market.  Winning would cure a lot of what concerns the team, because in the end, the organization is concerned about revenue generation and profitably being at risk to new competitors in the marketplace.

I go back to what I’ve said before.  The team should make the most of the potential changes in their neighborhood.  Buy ROOT Sports.  Rebrand it, move the offices and studios to one of the new, empty office buildings across the street from Safeco.  The network can benefit from being part of the new entertainment district.  To add value to the network, use equity slices to entice the Sounders, the NBA team and NHL team to enter into tv agreements.  Lastly, celebrate all the activity and value that’s been created in SoDo, of which the Mariners are an integral piece.