Inside sports business
GREENWICH, Conn. – Less than a year ago, investment banker Ray Bartoszek was prepared to buy and move the Phoenix Coyotes to Seattle overnight.
Today, the Coyotes remain in the desert and Bartoszek sits in his office in a distant New York suburb, with an NHL dream but no team. That ownership dream still involves Seattle, but Bartoszek now wants to radically change his game plan.
He’s done listening to the prevailing wisdom that told him the quickest way to land a team post-Coyotes was by playing ball with the Chris Hansen-Steve Ballmer duo in trying for an NHL expansion franchise. The idea sounded good: He’d land the expansion team for their proposed Sodo arena, while they navigated political red tape and got a venue built.
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Now, he’s not so sure.
With no Sodo arena deal in sight to entice the NHL to award a franchise, Bartoszek is seeking alternatives: the most eye-catching being a proposal to pump tens of millions of dollars into overhauling KeyArena into a modern, NHL-only facility.
“I think we’ve got to get away from this idea that the key to this is through that real estate,’’ Bartoszek said of the Sodo project, still awaiting political approval in a stalled process. “I assumed those guys held the keys to the city and the ability to get this all done. Now, it’s time to look at other approaches.’’
Bartoszek, 48, had planned to play three seasons on a temporary basis at KeyArena, starting last October, if one more city council vote in Glendale, Ariz., had swung his way and the Coyotes had been forced to move.
Only when the Coyotes were his was Bartoszek prepared to devote the time and effort needed to work through the politics of securing a new arena deal. He wouldn’t go into exact details of his Coyotes purchase agreement with the NHL — citing confidentiality clauses — but did say fail-safes were in place to protect him had a new arena failed to materialize after three years.
But today’s situation is different.
The NHL was in emergency mode last summer, needing a fast landing spot if the Coyotes were booted from Glendale. Today, there is nothing forcing the league to expand, meaning it doesn’t have to offer protective guarantees, favorable purchase prices or settle for less than a top-notch arena deal.
And if Bartoszek wants that arena deal soon, he appears to have good reason to change course.
What was once solid NHL momentum for Seattle coming out of the Sochi Olympics has evaporated after Ballmer and Hansen allowed the arena process to stall by not submitting documentation to complete an environmental impact study. Instead, they spent months exploring NBA markets for relocation to Seattle, then, when that failed, declared they lacked enough hockey passion to push the arena project forward.
Hansen did say he and Ballmer would work as minority ownership partners with anyone willing to foot the significant extra money to change their arena project to an NHL-first venue.
That’s easier said than done for Bartoszek, who isn’t interested in putting up big Sodo arena money in addition to a hefty NHL expansion fee.
Given that cost, combined with the political hurdles, Bartoszek figures overhauling KeyArena into a 17,000-seat, luxury-suite-laden facility could be a better idea. It would keep a team downtown and theoretically cost much less than a new venue. He said he has no desire to go to Bellevue, despite investors continuing to explore it as arena site.
Bartoszek, whose wife is a Seattle native, said he has had preliminary discussions this week with AEG Facilities, which operates KeyArena for the city.
Whatever they concoct had better be dramatic. The league wasn’t impressed with KeyArena last year, and commissioner Gary Bettman was cautious Thursday when asked about an overhaul.
“We know, in its current form, it isn’t an ideal or close to an ideal hockey facility,’’ Bettman said. “If that were the view long term, I’m not sure that’s anything anybody would be interested in.
“However, if there was a new state-of-the-art building that was hockey friendly and a hockey team had prospects of getting in there, then somebody might be able to get our attention.’’
So it’s all about the cost of transforming KeyArena into such a venue. Bartoszek is still working that out.
“I’m still as enthusiastic about the NHL and Seattle as I’ve ever been,’’ Bartoszek said. “But at some point, you’ve got to get the thing done.’’
That appeared unlikely to happen soon if he had kept his options tied exclusively to a Ballmer-Hansen duo that cares about little beyond the NBA. Landing an NHL franchise, after all, was always Bartoszek’s dream, not theirs. Now, it might have to live or die with whatever he can put together on his own.
Geoff Baker: firstname.lastname@example.org
or 206-464-8286 On Twitter: @GeoffBakerTIMES