Renovating KeyArena seems the more likely path in bringing the NBA and NHL to Seattle. This new twist comes as the city has looked at more options besides the Sodo arena group.
Inside sports business
For Bob Newman, the idea KeyArena could be upgraded for the NBA and NHL was old news.
Public records released last year showed the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) president was among those kept updated in 2015 by city officials about a pending final report from the AECOM architectural firm confirming KeyArena’s renovation potential. Select city council members had already heard in a November 2014 preliminary AECOM briefing that a renovation was possible, despite contrary conventional wisdom.
But Newman, whose company has managed KeyArena marketing since 2008, says he knew about the renovation possibility — thanks to AEG’s own internal studies — even before those early AECOM findings began leaking out two-plus years ago.
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“In a very positive way, it confirmed what we suspected,’’ Newman told me last week of the AECOM report, published in June 2015. “Some of their solutions were different from ultimately where we may head. But it confirmed, in a very positive way, that there are a lot of different ways to look at KeyArena.’’
So, if Newman knew a renovation was doable years ago, why was no plan proposed? Impossible, he told me. Until recently, the city had closed its arena process to anybody but entrepreneur Chris Hansen.
And that alone should dispel many inaccuracies surrounding Seattle’s ongoing arena quest.
The latest twist last week saw the city request proposals to renovate KeyArena for the NBA and NHL. Los Angeles-based arena giants AEG and the Oak View Group say they’ll submit proposals by an April 12 deadline.
Still, among some local sports fans, there remains anger and confusion. They feel Hansen and his proposed Sodo District arena should have already been greenlighted and can’t comprehend the city going this route.
Again, part of their anger stems from longstanding myths and inaccuracies.
The reality is KeyArena was always the critical piece to this yearslong puzzle. It’s a profitable, city-owned facility that studies show will become a money-losing drain on Seattle Center if Hansen’s project gets built in Sodo and siphons away events.
That’s no small detail. It could cost city taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
City officials have known for years the KeyArena question needed solving. It’s why the AECOM study was first commissioned.
But nobody moved on it until now because the city’s 2012 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Hansen effectively provided him a five-year stranglehold over future KeyArena decisions through next Dec. 3.
The MOU provided up to $200 million in public bond funding for the Sodo project if Hansen secured an NBA team. And it reserved KeyArena for Hansen’s use as a temporary NBA facility until the Sodo venue was built.
Hansen kept pursuing that public money through last May, when the Seattle City Council voted down his request to buy part of Occidental Avenue South for his Sodo project site.
That effectively ended the Sodo project. Hansen has since waived future KeyArena rights and announced he’ll submit a revised Sodo plan featuring all-private financing.
Thus, the city’s arena process is finally allowing competition from what advocates insist is a viable KeyArena option deliberately ignored until now.
So, let’s dispel some myths.
The biggest is that if a KeyArena renovation was viable, somebody would have tried it long ago. As shown, that wasn’t allowed. Once the city opened its process, two global arena companies stepped up immediately.
Second, there’s the myth the NBA won’t even consider a KeyArena remodel. But here’s what NBA commissioner Adam Silver told me last April.
“Nothing’s a closed deal. Especially with what an arena renovation looks like these days compared to the old days. It’s very different. And so, when somebody talks about renovating KeyArena — depending on how much was invested — it could look just like a new arena, frankly.’’
Third, the myth that waiting this long has cost us NBA and NHL teams. No, what’s cost us teams is the MOU public-funding component requiring an NBA franchise by next December. The NBA insists it isn’t close to expanding.
Mayor Ed Murray in 2015 strongly suggested Hansen drop his public funds pursuit for a more private-funded “NHL first” plan to participate in that league’s expansion process.
Hansen declined, passed on NHL expansion and kept seeking public money.
That’s why we have no teams.
Sure, the city council could have voted to sell Hansen the Occidental block last May on his say-so a more “shovel ready” arena plan would entice the NBA into expanding. But Silver told me last April, days before the vote, that a “shovel ready” plan wouldn’t change anything.
It was a powerful message from Silver. And the council heard it.
Fact is, even before Silver’s comments, most council members initially opposed scheduling a vote at all until Murray intervened. And some who ultimately voted “Yes” to giving Hansen the street weren’t convinced it was as decisive a moment as Sodo backers claimed.
They figured it would move the process along in good faith, but privately doubted he’d secure a team before his MOU expired. Meanwhile, they’d at worst buy themselves time until that expiry to ponder a KeyArena solution.
Instead, the surprising 5-4 “No” vote immediately thrust the KeyArena question center stage.
Sure, there remain serious KeyArena traffic concerns, as demonstrated by a new Seattle Center and Uptown parking study. That’s why the city insists any renovation proposal include parking and transportation solutions.
Meanwhile, Hansen faces his own challenges. Namely, convincing the city it can net enough economic gain from a revamped Sodo proposal to offset projected KeyArena and Seattle Center losses.
In other words, the road to resolving this yearslong arena process was inevitably going to run through KeyArena somehow. And focusing on that reality, rather than disproved myths, makes it much easier to understand why the process is unfolding this way.