At Mayor Ed Murray’s news conference Wednesday to announce Leiweke’s Oak View Group as the city’s preferred partner for a KeyArena remodel, Leiweke was a veritable force of nature, selling his project with vigor and force.
His pronouncements were, in many cases, unequivocal:
“We will get it done, and we will build it on time.”
“This will be a world-class facility. It will be top of the NHL and the NBA for economics.”
“Go ask the commissioners, and they’ll tell you, the group we’ve put together is as good a group as has ever been put together to go chase franchises.”
“We made a commitment from day one we were going to go get you teams. And we are going to do that. … We’re going to get you a team. Mark it right here. I promise you.”
But despite all the bravado, despite the sparkling bona fides of the business partnerships Leiweke has procured, despite his impeccable connections within both the NBA and NHL, there remains a nagging doubt. And it goes beyond the huge skepticism about how a new KeyArena would overcome the immense traffic and parking challenges in lower Queen Anne. It goes beyond even the disdain for a political process in Seattle that can seem pre-ordained and unfair.
At one point Wednesday, Leiweke acknowledged that he reads the comment section in various arena discussions “more than I should.” So he should be well-versed in one of the main reasons many Seattle sports fans are holding back their enthusiasm despite the impressive prospect of a sparkling arena upgrade.
They simply haven’t been convinced Leiweke is as committed as Chris Hansen, who is pitching an arena project in the Sodo district, to the effort that prompted the arena drive in the first place: getting the NBA back to Seattle.
Certainly, there is a large segment of hockey fans delighted by what was portrayed by Leiweke as the much more imminent and likely possibility — getting an NHL team to Seattle by virtue of either expansion or relocation.
But I’ve found that the true fan passion in this endeavor lies in those who are yearning, heart and soul, to replace the Sonics, who were uprooted to Oklahoma City in July 2008 — nine years ago next month. And despite the flashy rollout of the new KeyArena plans Wednesday, those basketball zealots, it appears, still have their faith in Team Hansen.
From the beginning, Hansen has painted his quest as an unabashed attempt to get back the Sonics, the team he loved as a kid growing up in Seattle. And that narrative has, and continues to, resonate powerfully with people.
Leiweke on Wednesday made an overture to Hansen, twice inviting him to join their efforts to bring the NBA to Seattle as a part-owner of a potential basketball team.
“Chris, if you want an NBA team, this is where it’s going to happen,” he said.
But Leiweke also injected into the debate some realism that people may not want to hear. His promise was to get “a team” and “maybe two.” That “maybe” echoed through the outdoor news conference at KeyArena’s East Plaza. Though an NHL expansion into Seattle seems feasible, the NBA doesn’t appear to have any plans to add or move clubs.
“I always chuckle when I hear everyone say an NBA team is coming here,” Leiweke said. “There is no team coming here without the commissioner and the owners deeming that a team is going to come here. We think the NHL is the better bet for today.
“We think if we do a great job with the NHL, that the NBA will put Seattle in their plans if and when they expand, or if and when they need to find a market for a current team. But we don’t think that’s going to happen for a while.”
Of course, that raises the question of whether the NBA would be satisfied as the second tenant in an arena. And there are those who wonder if OVG is truly motivated to get pro sports into the building, because the financials pencil out without it. It’s a notion that makes Leiweke bristle.
“If we don’t get an anchor tenant, we are prepared to continue to operate with the Storm, with Live Nation (the nation’s leading concert promoter), and with other family shows and activities,” he said. “But despite what I occasionally hear and read, that we only want to do music in here, we have spent an enormous amount of time talking already to both leagues.”
Folks in Kansas City, Mo., will tell you they’re getting a feeling of déjà vu. When plans for the Sprint Center were unveiled in 2004, with a $54 million contribution by Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), which was then run by Leiweke, he told the Kansas City Star, “I’m fairly optimistic you’re going to have one or both (NBA or NHL) here when you open your doors.”
Doors opened in 2007. Ten years later, the only pro team to have made Sprint Center its home is the Kansas City Brigade/Command, a barely noticed Arena Football team from 2008-12 that eventually folded. Yet the facility has been a financial success, to the point that many city leaders now believe it might be better off without pro sports.
Still, some in the city feel used by Leiweke. In 2011, Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger wrote that Leiweke and AEG had abandoned Kansas City to concentrate on bigger projects in Los Angeles.
“Back at the Sprint Center,” he wrote, “the chances of landing an NHL or NBA team have gone from Leiweke’s purported lock to cautiously hopeful to dying to now mostly forgotten. We are yesterday’s news to the company that did everything but promise us a team.”
Leiweke left AEG in 2013 and in 2015 formed its instant rival, Oak View Group, with partner Irving Azoff, a music industry titan. Addressing Sprint Center’s so-far futile efforts to land a pro sports team, Leiweke said Wednesday, “In Kansas City, at the end of the day, we can’t force leagues to go move somewhere. We gave it a good effort, and by the way, we got close with a certain hockey team.”
He’s likely referring to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who reached an 11th-hour deal to remain in Pittsburgh. They also went down the road with the Nashville Predators. Now both those teams are playing in the Stanley Cup Final, and Sprint Center seems further off than ever from obtaining an NHL or NBA team.
Leiweke no doubt would point out that Seattle is not Kansas City. It’s a much more desirable city for pro sports leagues for a variety of reasons. It’s hard to envision Seattle not landing an NHL team in short order if this deal goes through.
But will we get the NBA — the Sonics — back any time soon? That’s a very real question, no matter who builds the arena. That kernel of doubt is muting enthusiasm even for those who can find a way to get past all their other issues with KeyArena.