It was a decade ago that the SuperSonics limped into their final season in Seattle. After a miserable 2007-08 campaign, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz sold the team and its new prize, Kevin Durant, to a group of businessmen from Oklahoma City, and the Sonics became the Thunder.
Now, after years of speculation and failed proposals, Seattle has a timeline for the possible return of the NBA — and a brand new expansion into the NHL. On Monday, it was announced that Oak View Group (OVG), led by former Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment CEO Tim Leiwike, and the city have reached an agreement to renovate KeyArena and have it suitable for professional sports by as early as 2020.
The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) will be proposed to Seattle’s City Council on Tuesday, though voting will not formally take place until December. OVG’s proposal is a $600 million renovation project to the city-operated KeyArena, which opened in 1962. KeyArena used to house the Sonics, and is currently home to the Seattle Storm of the WNBA and is a major location in the city of concerts and other events.
OVG has proposed to commit $40 million to transportation upgrades around City Centre, $20 in a community fund, and the cost of the project in total. After the renovations are complete, OVG would also be on the hook for $168 million in capital investment upgrades over the 55-year lease of the building.
According to Leiweke, a major goal of the MOU was to let the NHL and NBA know that Seattle was serious about actually getting something done.
“I think the most important part of this MOU is the fact it states very clearly to the leagues that this project is going to happen, we do have a deal with the city, they can make a deal,” Leiweke said. “But more importantly it sends a very strong message now to the NBA and to the NHL that everyone worried about, ‘Yeah will it ever get done with the city? Will they ever be able to get to the finish line? Will you ever possibly get this deal done within the politics of Seattle and the Seattle process as everyone likes to call it?
“Guess what? Game, set and match. We clearly send a message to everyone that this will get done, this will get built and we are ready now to go get one and hopefully soon, two teams.”
Throughout the process of bringing the Sonics back to Seattle, local hedge fund manager Chris Hansen spearheaded multiple proposals for the development of a new arena in the city’s SoDo district, which is where SafeCo Field and the MLB’s Mariners are located.
Hansen had proposed to entirely fund a stadium project in SoDo, which was attractive to Seattle residents because a renovated KeyArena would massively increase traffic and congestion downtown. That said, the city has always seemed to be attracted to a KeyArena renovation because the construction of another facility, among other things, would leave an expensive white elephant in the middle of the city.
The Key Arena proposal would have it opening by Oct. 2020.— 206 Hoops (@206Hoops) September 12, 2017
Please plan ahead for traffic and get in your car now.
Whether or not this results in the return of the Sonics is up in the air (and isn’t really of interest to the reads of this site so I won’t dive into further detail), but the project seems nearly certain to bring the NHL to Seattle. David Bonderman, a businessman who attended the University of Washington, has reportedly committed money into the building project and appears to be the front-runner for NHL ownership. You might recognize Bonderman’s name from a decade ago when he and a partner tried to pursue NHL expansion into Las Vegas.
The timeline of the arena’s completion is also of interest. The goal of being ready by October 2020 perfectly matches up with the end of the NHL’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement. The NHLPA has an opt-out clause on Sept. 19th, 2019, meaning there’s potential for another lockout in 2019-20. When the Golden Knights joined the league, ownership cut the league a cheque for $500 million. Another substantial fee being spread around the league’s 30 owners would certainly mitigate the cost of missing, say, half a season again, especially if it resulted in a more favourable CBA for the owners.
That lockout bit, of course, is simply speculation on my part and a little bit of cynicism having lived through three lockouts. Regardless, it could come through expansion or it could be through relocation, but it appears the NHL is Seattle is becoming closer and closer to reality, which is a very exciting prospect for the growth of the sport.