The conclusion that I have come to over the past four and a half years of writing pieces centered on the topic of sports arenas, is that a strategy exists in getting these deals done that is far more intricate than many would believe. These strategies involve the team ownership, the league office, as well as political and business leaders.
These strategies could involve a real estate developer if they are not already involved as part of the ownership group, and they can involve civic groups or environmental groups depending on the project.
These arena development agreements for sports can be complex and involve tax payer dollars, or they can be privately financed which inherently leads to other issues in that circumstance.
The strategy behind the building of a sports arena was on full display over the past two days with the situation in Seattle. The lack of an updated venue that met current NBA or NHL standards was the main reason why the Sonics moved out of the city about nine years ago. The city had been working with a developer for a proposed new sports arena in the SoDo neighborhood, which was proving to have too many cumbersome hurdles.
The city shifted their priority to the old Key Arena at Seattle Center and fielded development proposals to renovate, expand, or rebuild a new arena on that site. The Oak View Group had the winning proposal, and on Tuesday, the city government announced the agreement of a newly renovated and expanded world class arena on the Seattle Center site built entirely with private funds.
The residents who pined for the return of the Sonics, and the sports fans that dreamed of an NHL expansion hockey team in the Emerald City, rejoiced because they had finally a light at the end of the tunnel with this news. The last, and most important, major hurdle for the city to gain at least one, if not two, new major league teams was seemingly cleared.
The old adage: “you never know what tomorrow will bring” is certainly true in Seattle; where residents woke up the next morning to learn that the Mayor of Seattle announced his resignation amid an alleged sexual misconduct scandal, and that the arena plans for Seattle Center were put on hold indefinitely.
In addition, in a related story, Wednesday brought the news that the Calgary Flames and their new arena negotiations with municipal officials were broken off with no resolution. This situation has been brewing for several months with proposals and counter-proposals being made by both sides, with no substantive progress being made toward a functional plan.
The surprising element of this situation is that the incumbent mayor, Mayor Neshi, was publicly acting as if the new sports and entertainment arena was part of his vision for the future of the city. The Flames management held a Wednesday press conference to refute that vision by stating that Mayor Neshi has not advocated at all for a new arena, and was insinuating to the public another stance in order to win the votes of hockey fans.
The NHL league office sent a strongly worded message to the Mayor, and the components of these arena deals are riled up north of the border. This news that the Flames had put $200 million on the table toward the development of the new facility and then even changed the site from one end of the city to the other, immediately bowed to speculation that the team would relocate to either Seattle or Quebec City.
The Flames management stated that they will continue to play in the second oldest arena in the NHL, while the other teams enjoy the advantages from better revenue streams achieved by playing in a new facility. However, they also insinuated that they will keep the relocation option on the table. The Mayor does not have to change his stance because polling shows that the people in Calgary do not want to use public money on a new arena.
The relocation to Quebec City is always going to be a hot topic, as they took an entirely different approach and pulled out all the stops to build a new arena a few years ago with no guarantee of an NHL team coming there either through expansion or relocation. The NHL passed them over for expansion in this last cycle, choosing Las Vegas to expand the league into, citing the weak Canadian dollar at that point in time.
A group of NHL players were surveyed recently and the majority of them selected Quebec as the place they would like the league to expand to in the future. This was ahead of Seattle and Houston on the list of choices. Quebec will always be a popular spot because of their history in the league with the Nordiques, and the nostalgia that hockey fans have for that team and for the rivalry with Montreal to be reinstituted.
Quebec took the step of making the most difficult hurdle in gaining a new franchise, the arena, the easiest step by building it. The residents, business leaders, and politicians were all on board with getting an NHL team, now they will wait to see if that maneuver will provide the desired end result.
The New York Islanders are involved in a new arena quest as well. The main issue is that when the team moved from Nassau Coliseum to Brooklyn, they underestimated the significance of the Barclays Center being built for basketball and the impact that would have on the hockey fan experience.
The sight lines for hockey at Barclays are terrible, the scoreboard is off center in the orientation to the rink, and the ice conditions are awful because the arena does not have the right pipes to adequately keep the water temperature low enough. It is a total debacle and the team is looking at two potential sites in Queens: one near Aqueduct Racetrack, and the other next to Citi Field where the New York Mets play baseball.
The league office has completely shut down any potential for the Islanders to return to Nassau Coliseum (which was renovated completely and is now a smaller seating capacity) and pursuing the Queens options. Many people in recent polling believe that the Islanders arena, another new arena in the NY metro area is unnecessary, so it will be interesting to see how this situation works itself out.
The New York metro area is one of key significance for the NHL and with the Rangers and the New Jersey Devils, the league has three franchises in the region and has a vested interest in making sure that all of them are given the best possible opportunity to remain profitable.
The scenario with the Islanders searching for a new home is similar, yet different, to the Arizona Coyotes and their ongoing struggle to find a new arena closer to the population center of the Phoenix market. The Coyotes have had issues for years on the business side, and the dispute with the Glendale municipal government involving the arena lease terms are just the tip of the iceberg.
The ownership group of the team appeared to have a deal in place with Arizona State University for a new arena being built in Tempe, but that deal fell through in February 2017. The focus now is on a few other sites in the East Valley and this boondoggle for a new arena will continue for the foreseeable future, as will the inevitable relocation rumors.
However, relocation seems unlikely as the NHL is unbalanced and needs more teams in the West, they would not move the Coyotes to Quebec, and the situation in Seattle is murky at best. The league remains bullish on keeping a team in the Phoenix area because they are enamored with the media market size.
The Phoenix Suns are also seeking a new arena to replace their current aging home court, and the NBA league office is, of course, willing to back the team up on getting the public funds squeezed out of the government to get that accomplished.
The state and municipal level governments in Arizona are looking at a scenario where the Coyotes, Suns, and the MLB team, the Arizona Diamondbacks; are all seeking taxpayer funding for public/private arrangements to build new sports venues. The resulting idea within the state assembly there is to build a sports arena in downtown Phoenix that would be shared by both the Suns and the Coyotes in order to save the outlay of total public funds.
However, the reports out of Phoenix are that the Suns ownership is not on board with sharing a facility and want their own facility in the downtown area. The Coyotes are in a different situation, they have stayed publicly mum on the shared arena concept, largely because they would probably play anywhere other than in their current arena in Glendale. It is a situation that is complex, has a ton of moving parts with proposed arena sites on Native American tribal lands, and a host of other issues that merit watching in the weeks ahead.
The Carolina Hurricanes are the final situation with arena management and potential relocation that will be explored in this analysis. The team is about to be sold from Peter Karamanos to Chuck Greenberg but the sale is not completely finalized yet.
The arena lease is key to the sale because the team has been the source of relocation rumors for the past four or five years. Carolina does not have the corporate sponsorship opportunities of other, larger markets. The Hurricanes have not had much on-ice success in recent years which has put a subsequent drag on attendance levels.
The current arena lease between the group that controls the arena and the Hurricanes is seen as one of the most favorable lease agreements from the perspective of the team as far as being a tenant in a building. The PNC Arena is in need of some renovations and improvements which many believe will be done once Mr. Greenberg affirms that the team is staying in North Carolina.
The consensus from some within the NHL circles is that the team could relocate to Quebec, but in many ways that may not make sense from a business perspective. The ownership, in this case Greenberg, would have to pay a steep relocation fee to go to Quebec. In this case, the ownership could use that money as their portion of a public/private agreement to construct a new arena in North Carolina.
The case for a sports arena is dependent upon so many variables and involves many shifting priorities and calculated interest groups from politicians, to team owners, to the league office, and local business leaders. The case studies, individually must be taken on balance, I understand all sides of the situation.
The owners feel that the municipal governments stand to make a lot of money on the ratable tax revenue from the arena, the public feels that they should not have tax money go toward the construction of a facility of this type, and the cities that do not have a new sports / entertainment venue miss out on the latest acts or could lose a team over it. All of these variables are valid, and all of the scenarios I laid out will continue to develop from Seattle to Phoenix and beyond in the months ahead.