The politics of sports has been on display fully over the past week with the announced plans for the Seattle arena. The city decided that their best option at this point is to move forward with the proposal from Oak View Group (OVG) which involves a complete renovation of the old Key Arena at Seattle Center.
This option was chosen and recommended by the Mayor and other politicians involved over the proposal from Seattle Partners, which also had a plan to renovate “the Key”. However, their plan contained some elements that concerned some key people in the city government. They officially “withdrew” their proposal ahead of not being chosen just before the announcement was made late last week regarding the arena plan for Seattle to gain either an NBA or NHL franchise.
The other option on the table is the SoDo arena concept pushed by Chris Hansen and his group of investors, which he has spent huge sums of his own money obtaining land in that part of the downtown area with the goal of getting the Sonics NBA team back to the city. The plan involves the vacation of a roadway which is very unpopular with the politicians as well as a location that is close to the Port of Seattle and the major outdoor stadiums for their other professional sports teams.
This location coupled with the change to the roadway grid and the potential for traffic congestion near the Port, all are factors that are stacked against the SoDo arena concept. Those factors outweighed the amended proposal from that investment group that stated that they would develop the site and construct the arena completely with private funds.
The renovation of the Key Arena at Seattle Center will be a public/private partnership arrangement for the financing, which is admittedly unpopular with some Seattle residents. The OVG proposal involves keeping the iconic roof structure of the facility intact while essentially gutting and rebuilding the entire existing interior structure. It will reconstruct the entire seating bowl and their plan for the site involves digging below ground to expand the footprint of the building while maintaining structural integrity. It will also be an environmentally friendly building project, with LEED certification processes involved in the various aspects of the construction of the renovated facility.
The NHL was contacted almost immediately after the news that Seattle was moving forward with the OVG renovation project for an arena that would meet NHL standards. The NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman, issued a statement that essentially stated that the NHL has had no contact with Seattle and has no plans to expand the league at this point.
The politics of sports on the professional stage was in full effect here as well. It is no secret that the NHL has interest in expanding to Seattle. The demographics of that market make so much sense for the league in several metrics, that they would be foolish not to explore the option. The OVG proposal added two partners that are keen on getting professional hockey to Seattle, which was noted in the press release of the announcement.
Bettman is playing his cards here because he does not want to discourage other markets interested in potential expansion from thinking that Seattle has any sort of inside track to what will probably be the last slot available in the NHL for a very long time. The NHL has a conference alignment issue with 16 teams in the East and 14 teams in the West. The league took one step toward correction of that imbalance with the addition of Las Vegas as an expansion franchise beginning next season.
The assumption is that they will add one more team in the West to balance the two conferences and the league for scheduling and other purposes in the somewhat near future. The OVG group stated that the proposal is still pending approval and they will need at least 2 years probably closer to 3 years to get the entire renovation at Key Arena completed.
Some area residents are not happy because they did not want another major sports team or teams playing in that neighborhood. This is a very political issue and the design of the building and the mass transit plan for light rail access is part of the proposal from the city level to alleviate traffic concerns.
The design of the building was also a point of concern for residents of that neighborhood. Some concerned parties did not want a monstrous new arena going into that Seattle Center site. The trend in sports arenas is for larger footprint buildings packed with amenities for fans and concert attendees.
The OVG plan for Key Arena accomplished providing more amenities without dramatically increasing the overall footprint of the facility by proposing to dig below ground and implementing those amenities in areas below the current street level. The plan for the renovated facility also calls for improvements to the park area around the Seattle Center, which should be viewed favorably by the residents.
NBA: “Cutting the Pie”
The return of the NBA to Seattle is an entirely different situation. The topic of expansion for hockey has been an active one, with Las Vegas set to join the circuit and with the imbalance of teams alluded to earlier. The NBA is in a different stage in their life cycle as a league. The owners and the league office just agreed recently to a new TV and media rights deal that will reap them significant economic revenue which is divided up among each member franchise.
The NBA owners are currently not eager to “cut the pie” into more pieces by adding more franchises. The amount of the expansion fee would be offset by the amount that the new team gets as their portion of basketball related income. The NBA also has no franchises in a situation where relocation is being discussed.
These factors, when all are taken into account, amount to the fact that the Key Arena renovation, if approved, is going to take approximately three years to complete from the point that permission is given for renovation work to begin. The NBA is not planning to expand any time soon. The NHL has other interested cities in expansion, but they may never expand to Seattle for a variety of reasons.
The politics of sports in this situation leaves the SoDo arena proposal in serious jeopardy. The time, effort, and money spent by that group is going to upset some powerful people in that city if that proposal is rejected by the political groups involved.
Up In Flames
The politics involved in the Seattle arena decision also could become a leverage play for another team: the Calgary Flames. The president of that hockey team, Brian Burke, commented to a group of business leaders at a team function recently that the franchise could move out of Calgary if it does not get a new arena.
He continued his comments reportedly by stating that the Flames had relocation cities under consideration if they were to ultimately decide to move the team out of Calgary. In that scenario, once relocation is brought up, Seattle is not very far behind. It is no secret that Seattle wants an NHL team, and the opportunities for relocating an existing franchise are very unique and infrequent.
The Calgary Flames have presented their vision and plan for a new arena and entertainment district with other real estate development around the new facility that has been deemed “unsustainable” by the political powers that be in that city. This is where the friction between the city and the team began.
The Flames play in the SaddleDome which was built when Calgary hosted the Olympics in 1988. It is among the oldest arenas in the league, a fact that supports the team ownership and their contention that it needs to be replaced. The Mayor and other politicians have stated that they do not support using taxpayer money to fund a new arena. This could get very sticky, and the speculation over the future of the team in that city will follow suit.
It is doubtful that Calgary will leave a city that they have an established fan base within and have over 30 plus years of history. It could be that Seattle is a leverage play, as I mentioned before, or it could become seriously considered for their future. The primary issue is that Seattle lacks a suitable arena for at least three years.
Another option to watch is the Flames using Quebec City as either a chip to secure their own new arena deal, or for a real alternative should the political situation with Calgary become untenable. Quebec is a whole different scenario because they have an NHL ready arena built and fully operational, they just lack a team.
It is all part of the politics of sports and it has played out in two places, Seattle and Calgary, in a week. Those two situations are just a drop in the bucket, wait until next week, and the next potential issue with politics and sports will be right around the next bend.