Tim Leiweke, CEO of KeyArena renovation developer Oak View Group, made a surprise denial last week, saying he wasn’t close to a naming-rights deal for a venue only 16 months from its estimated reopening.
But the reason talks aren’t further along, according to multiple sports and corporate sources, is that escalating arena costs — now $930 million, up from an initial $600 million — caused OVG, by late 2018, to shift priorities away from naming rights in order to first secure premium amounts for smaller founding partner sponsorships.
OVG is said to want $4 million to $6 million annually for founding partnerships, such as those done with Symetra, Virginia Mason and Alaska Airlines. Sources also say OVG is in final negotiations with Verizon on a coveted technology founding partnership that’s taken longer because of the volume of competing bidders.
Leiweke said last week he had shifted from prioritizing naming rights.
“There is an order to what we plan to do,” he said, adding that naming rights come last. “Like everything we’re doing with this arena, we are taking our time to do it right and think about things differently.”
Theories abound on why that strategy shift occurred. One is that OVG securing higher founding partnership amounts will drive up the bigger-ticket naming rights. Had the naming rights sold first, it would set the high-bar sponsorship price and potentially lower what founding partners would pay.
Also, when initial naming rights discussions happened in early 2018, the arena’s projected cost was still $700 million. But by the time Mortenson replaced Skanska Hunt as project contractor in December 2018, estimates were nearing $900 million and OVG had shelved naming rights to focus on founding partnerships.
“Everybody involved in this assumes the final cost of the arena is going to be a billion dollars or more,” one source involved in sponsorship discussions said. “And Oak View Group is making these sponsorship decisions based on that because at the end of the day, they’re paying for the place.’’
Leiweke heads a five-member KeyArena sponsorship team that includes his daughter, OVG president (business development) Francesca Bodie; his brother, NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke; OVG global partnerships head Ryan Brach; and NHL Seattle VP (corporate partnerships) Jeff Webster. They vet one deal at a time, completing Symetra last June, Virginia Mason last July and Alaska in mid-January.
NHL Seattle spokesperson Katie Townsend said Friday the sponsorship team is “still in discussions with a number of prospective technology/solutions partners” and won’t comment further until a deal happens.
Once founding partnerships are done, including the technology deal and one for wireless and beverage partners, the focus reverts to naming rights. Amazon has been widely viewed as a contender for those, including in a Sports Business Journal (SBJ) story last week — dismissed as “speculation” by Tim Leiweke — that pegged the online retailer as the naming rights front-runner.
But sources suggest Microsoft is also interested in naming rights and could make more sense from an integration perspective. Microsoft Xbox had a decadelong jersey and pitch sponsorship with the Sounders, signed in 2009 when Tod Leiweke was the soccer club’s president.
Also, a yearly NHL video game by EA Sports has helped fuel sales of the Xbox One gaming console.
Another potential bidder is said to be Expedia, which last year expanded to an Interbay campus two miles from KeyArena. But it’s unclear whether the December resignation of CEO Mark Okerstrom would impact the company’s involvement.
For now, OVG remains focused on securing a premium for founding partnerships; a strategy sources indicate has paid off thus far.
Midmarket arenas with one major sport tenant typically generate $5-6 million annually for naming rights. But sources suggest OVG has already beat that by securing several $4-6 million deals on its founding partnerships alone.
For the KeyArena technology partnership, OVG put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) a year ago through project partner ME Engineers and drew more than a dozen respondents, including Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T. Beyond the partnership’s sponsor component, a prime attraction was the contract to hardwire the arena for technology infrastructure.
Equipping “new build” sports venues is a coup in the competitive tech field, often bringing prestige and new business.
“It’s pretty unusual to get everybody throwing their hat in the ring,” one source familiar with the process said. “But this was one of those cases where it was a desirable enough property that they generated some pretty good competition. So, it put OVG in a pretty good spot.”
If Verizon is indeed picked over Bellevue-based T-Mobile — nothing has been officially signed yet — it would differ from prior OVG founding partnerships involving only local companies. But multiple sources say New York-based Verizon pushed ahead because of its willingness to do a “bundle deal” beyond KeyArena on OVG projects potentially including arenas in Long Island, N.Y.; Austin, Texas; and an American Hockey League facility in Palm Springs, Calif., for NHL Seattle’s farm team.
OVG is said to have received KeyArena technology partnership offers surpassing $5 million annually, with an additional $20 million guaranteed infrastructure spend. OVG informed competing bidders in late December it would focus on a Verizon deal.
“Because of all the competition, I think this has taken a little longer than what they’d hoped,” one source said. “Now, they’ve really got to put rubber to pavement to get it all done and ready before they open up the building.”
Numerous “robust players,” national and local, are also said to have applied for the wireless partnership, including McKinstry in Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood. Sources also expect a beverage partnership, though that involves fewer applicants and usually just a choice between Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
Once done, focus shifts to naming rights, for which the SBJ story said OVG is seeking $14 million annually. Sources labeled that figure unusually high for Seattle, but they could envision OVG asking for it given what’s described as its aggressive KeyArena approach — resembling bigger-market arena deals in San Francisco and Toronto.
JPMorgan Chase in 2016 pledged $15 million annually over 20 years for naming rights at San Francisco’s Chase Center, and Scotiabank in 2017 committed a record $32 million per year at Toronto’s venue.
Tim Leiweke ran Toronto’s arena until 2015 as CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and knows its finances. Also, he’s a longtime associate of former SuperSonics ball boy and current Warriors president Rick Welts, who oversaw the Chase Center deal.
Those venues do differ from KeyArena: Scotiabank Arena has the NHL’s coveted Maple Leafs franchise and the defending NBA champion Raptors. And the lone-tenant Golden State Warriors in San Francisco are worth several times more than NHL Seattle.
But much depends on whether KeyArena naming-rights bidders consider it a future home to more than the NHL and the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. One factor driving competition and higher pricing on partnership deals, according to sources, is the belief a future NBA team could follow NHL Seattle to KeyArena.