SEA ISLAND, Ga. — The unanimous decision by the NHL Board of Governors to give Seattle an expansion franchise on Tuesday was a difficult one. Not for the NHL, which had heard the Seattle presentation and voted to approve them for the 2021-22 season within the span of 45 minutes in their meeting at a swank, cavernous resort in Sea Island, Georgia.
But for me, a cynic.
This was far too easy. Far too smooth. I began reminiscing about those halcyon days when the league was debating the merits of giving Las Vegas a franchise. All that hand-wringing over whether they could, like, make ice, or if all the players would become red-eyed craps zombies during road trips.
“I didn’t think Vegas would work,” admitted one Eastern Conference governor to ESPN on Tuesday. “I don’t have the same concerns about Seattle.”
If there’s one word to describe the Seattle bid to become the 32nd team in the current incarnation of the NHL, it’s “inevitable.” Commissioner Gary Bettman always talks about “the three pillars” for a successful expansion bid: “terrific and committed ownership, a thriving market and a state of the art venue.”
For years, Seattle had the market, which was coveted by the NHL for its demographics and geographic advantages. Yet the other two pillars were frequently constructed of mashed potatoes, falling apart at the most critical moments, including during the run-up to the last round of expansion that gave us those sweet Golden Knights.
Not this time. This time they had the considerable riches of David Bonderman, a 76-year-old billionaire, and Jerry Bruckheimer, the 75-year-old entertainment mogul.
“It’s a phenomenal city, it’s got a great work force, it’s got a very young work force, it’s got some of the greatest sports fans in the world. Every time I turn a Seahawks game on, I see how rabid their fans are and how disappointed they were when the (SuperSonics) left. I just know that we can create the excitement that they had for their basketball around hockey — and hopefully we bring a basketball team back,” said Bruckheimer.
They had Tod Leiweke as a team president and his brother Tim’s Oak View Group to build that third pillar, a renovated Key Arena at Seattle Center.
“I remember sharing with Gary Bettman years ago that I thought Seattle could be an incredible market for the NHL,” said Tod Leiweke. “They talk about psychographic fits. There are demographics and then there are psychographics. It was perfect for the National Hockey League. It’s now up to us to deliver the championship team these fans deserve. We’re going to start working on that right now.”
(“Psychographics,” for the record, refers to the study and classification of people according to their attitudes, aspirations and other psychological criteria.)
And of course, they had the $650 million expansion fee and a total cost of around $1.4 billion dollars when you factor in arena and infrastructure construction. That too.
But there has to be some challenge, right? Some cause for concern about a new team in a market that hasn’t had pro hockey since 1924?
“They’re going to absolutely kill it,” said one Eastern Conference governor. “That market has money to spend. I think the expansion fee should have been even higher, because they’re going to be top 10 in revenue in the league.”
The Seattle market is viewed by the Board of Governors as a fertile one. “The demographics are perfect,” said an Eastern Conference governor. “We target the 18- to 29-year-old fans in our [team’s] marketing. They have short attention spans. They also have a lot of money. Seattle is an expanding market, a growing market, and I think it’s going to be successful.”
If there was any challenge, he said, it’s in growing the hockey community that’s there.
“Youth hockey isn’t where it needs to be, given how close the city is to Seattle,” he said. “But with three sheets of ice at the new [practice] facility, that will change.”
The hockey community is growing, but Seattle is without question a sports town. If there is one concern about the market, it’s that it’s as oversaturated as Vegas was untouched. (Remember, the NHL got in before the Raiders did.)
“I’ve never been in a market with an NFL team and a baseball team and a women’s basketball team, and potentially an NBA team. And the Sounders as well, who are doing amazing. You have a competitive sports landscape. You have a demand for sports, and whether people are going to start to choose,” Victor de Bonis, the team’s COO and a former executive for the Vancouver Canucks, told the ESPN On Ice podcast. “But being there, it doesn’t really matter what team it is, everyone supports every team in Seattle.”
Actually, the Board of Governors was impressed with the fan support for the Seahawks, Mariners, Sounders, Reign, Storm and college sports. They don’t see it as competition for the same dollars, but a town that clearly likes its sports.
“I didn’t know a lot about the market before this week, and their presentation. I didn’t know how successful the teams were as far as fan support,” said one Eastern Conference governor. “The owners involved with the team are a smart, smart group. The Leiwekes are known quantities. I’ve no doubt they’re going to be a success.”
It all tracks back to the ownership group for many of these voters. Whatever issues Seattle might have as an organization or in the market, they’re confident this group can solve them.
“I haven’t really thought about the revenue potential there. But it’s the leadership group. There’s absolute trust in the leadership group. If there are any issues facing the franchise, everyone’s confident they can figure it out,” said one Western Conference governor.
For Leiweke, figuring it out means making sure that the arena construction remains on target, and that the various transportation projects necessary to make getting to the arena easier are also on schedule.
“This isn’t for the faint of heart. We have an incredibly ambitious building project, we’re going to try to renovate and build a new arena. I said ‘renovate,’ but we’re going to keep the historic roof. And then building out a team that can be competitive in one of the most competitive leagues in the entire world,” he said.
“We’re a growing city. We believe many of our depositors live in a pretty reasonable distance. So the city has changed a lot. There are a lot more people living in the city of Seattle. But transportation is a challenge. When you have an urban arena — and we think it’s the ultimate urban arena — there are things to work on. But we have some ideas.”
That includes constructing more parking garages around the arena, and increasing the capacity of the monorail during hockey events.
“We’ve got challenges in front of us. But we also have momentum. And the great momentum I feel is really the fans. We’re so inspired by them to be here, and we’re going to think about them every day, and they’re going to drive us to excellence,” said Leiweke.
Leiweke couldn’t stop smiling. It was a victory parade of Seattle backers, years in the making.
I tried my best to rain on it, which is the life’s work of the cynic. I tried to find the negative. Tried to mine the depths of cynicism among the NHL’s money men to find out why they thought this could work. Played the oversaturated market card. Played the traffic jam card. Played the “NBA’s return puts the NHL in the backseat” card.
This might be the most thunderous slam dunk in Seattle since Shawn Kemp was traded.
“I think for better or for worse, what we’ve learned about the market confirms what we always thought about the market, which is it’s a young, dynamic, engaged market. Supports its professional sports franchises. It’s an area of the continent that can be served well by an NHL team, it’s good solid ownership, it’s going to have a first-rate arena,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
“There’s not a whole lot not to like.”