Old age is an awkward subject. But if we’re talking about responding well to old age, then Seattle’s KeyArena is the great-grandma who’s still taking salsa lessons and mowing her own lawn.
And the facility’s supposed death after the NBA’s Sonics left town? It’s overstated, at least for now.
The arena is now quite profitable, thank you — much more so than in the days of the Sonics, to the surprise of many who saw an uncertain future for the sports venue after the team’s departure in 2009.
The Lower Queen Anne facility has gone from losing money in the Sonics’ final years to turning more than $1.2 million in profit for Seattle last year.
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The arena has been transformed into an “economic engine” for the city, says Robert Nellams, director of Seattle Center, the city department overseeing KeyArena.
The facility’s economic buoyancy results largely from booking more musical performers. It also means that, despite the heartbreak of Sonics fans, the team’s departure wasn’t a disaster for the city’s pocketbook.
To be sure, some local businesses aren’t cashing in as much as they did during the Sonics’ heyday. Charley Shore, executive director of the Queen Anne Chamber of Commerce, said the neighborhood’s restaurants were busier when KeyArena had the Sonics.
Sports fans “were more in tune with going out to restaurants and enjoying the game,” she says. “Now the performances sometimes don’t lend themselves to going to the restaurants afterwards.”
The local scene, however, is steadily recuperating from the recession, she says.
KeyArena just celebrated the 50th anniversary of its first concert (the Beatles in 1964), and has been around since 1962 (it was previously the Seattle Center Coliseum). In arena years, 52 is practically ancient.
Many wondered whether Seattle would find use for an outdated building abandoned by the NBA. But the money kept rolling in: In its first full year without the Sonics, 2010, the arena generated a meager $19,225 in net profit. That number has increased every year since.
Compare those numbers with 2005, for example: KeyArena was hemorrhaging money, even with its anchor team, the Sonics, still in place. The arena’s net loss that year was more than $1.5 million — and it was $3.275 million if you don’t include the city-allocated admissions tax that benefited the arena until 2011.
There were 108,196 guests who came through KeyArena’s doors in December 2013 — its busiest month since 2007.
How has “The Key” gone from a left-to-die arena to one that actually sees profit? By city officials taking the punch of losing an NBA franchise, regrouping and changing the way they thought about a sustainable arena in Seattle.
“I think like a lot of Seattleites and sports fans, there was a lot of pain,” Nellams said about the Sonics jetting off to Oklahoma City. “We took that pain to maybe one notch above because we internalized it as ‘They don’t think we’re good enough’ … That’s why it was so important to rally ourselves.”
The business plan that formed from those early Seattle Center meetings revolved around building a multipurpose schedule.
The WNBA’s Storm, Seattle University men’s basketball and the Rat City Rollergirls now shape KeyArena’s athletic schedule, which is only a portion of what makes the venue successful.
Seattle Center communications director Deborah Daoust said musical artists are more likely to put KeyArena on their tour schedule now that the Sonics aren’t occupying the most desirable dates during concert season.
Artists who play at KeyArena pay a rental fee and reimburse for the employees needed to put on the show: Security officers, sound crews and ushers all have their wages paid by the artist.
Plenty of big names have paid those fees. In 2013 alone, stars like Kanye West, Rihanna, Maroon 5 and Bruno Mars visited the Key.
A partnership with AEG Facilities, a Los Angeles-based entertainment group, has helped KeyArena attract big-name artists in the wake of losing the NBA. AEG Facilities also manages many responsibilities the Sonics used to have, like suite sales and sponsorships.
“We want to be in major markets that have a great passion for sports and entertainment,” said Bob Newman, president of AEG Facilities. “Seattle fits every part of that. The city’s history in sports, music, culture and entertainment is one of the top in the country, if not the world.”
But the concert venue hasn’t managed to retain all acts. Bumbershoot moved to the nearby Memorial Stadium this year due to scheduling conflicts with the WNBA.
Ironically, if the NBA ever returned to Seattle, likely in a new arena, the Sonics’ old home would suffer. Another reason KeyArena has remained sustainable is because it hasn’t had to compete with another arena.
Even with in-city competition, it’s possible for older arenas to survive. Take UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena, previously called U.S. Cellular Arena, which used to host the Milwaukee Bucks. It’s 54 years old.
After the Bradley Center was built as the Bucks’ new home, city leaders had to re-evaluate how the old one could remain useful. A plan similar to KeyArena’s emerged: Recruit a local college basketball team (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in this case), bring in roller derby and become a multipurpose facility outside of athletics, too. And UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena is still kicking.
“It comes down to the economics of what is your overhead for the building — your debt and operational expenses,” said Matthew Parlow, a Marquette law professor who has studied stadium and arena finances for more than a decade. “It’s possible to still be successful even when you lose an anchor tenant.”
With the naming rights paid off as of 2010 and no debt remaining on the building, KeyArena has been one of the lucky ones. Obsolete — and demolished — arenas span the U.S., from Memphis’ Pyramid to Inglewood’s Forum and Philadelphia’s Spectrum.
Somewhere in the intersection of sports and entertainment, in the wake of a sports heartbreak, KeyArena is not just treading water but moving forward.
The future is unknown: The potential of a new Sodo arena has lingered for years. If a shiny new arena is built, KeyArena’s business plan might have to change again. The competition might even be too much one day.
But for now, the former home of the Sonics has moved past its disappointing breakup with the team. KeyArena is enjoying its time as the stubborn senior citizen cheating death.
“There aren’t many major arenas that have performed as well as KeyArena after a major departure,” Newman said. “I think it stands at the top of the list.”
Seattle Times business reporter Ángel González contributed to this story, which also contains information from The Seattle Times archives.