It’s one thing to spend two hours driving to and from work to support a family. But doing it to see a sports team is a sacrifice many won’t make. While Seattle measures up in metro size, we face challenges getting that population to games in the city.
Inside sports business
How legitimate is it to claim this city of about 700,000 people actually constitutes a sports market of 4 million?
I’ve heard Seattle fans use that bigger “metropolitan-market” population number for years as one reason we’ll handle an NHL franchise and likely NBA again on top of the professional squads already here.
But having grown up in Montreal, which also has a metro area of about 4 million, I can tell you Seattle feels much smaller. And that got me looking into this whole metro population thing. What I found provided insight on where our strengths lie and what needs improving.
First, a “metro area” is defined as a densely populated urban area and the surrounding smaller communities with socioeconomic ties to it — primarily, people commuting in from these places for work. By that definition, Seattle’s metro population is nearly 4 million — estimated at 3,867,000 by the U.S. Census Bureau as of last year.
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The thing is, the geographic size of metro areas in the Northwest tend to be bigger than typically found elsewhere. Seattle and 640,000-resident Portland are relatively small and expensive, causing people who work there to move farther out and drive longer distances to their jobs.
Seattle counts its metro area as 5,872 square miles, and Portland’s is 6,684 square miles.
By comparison, Montreal’s city population of 1.7 million is more than Seattle’s and Portland’s combined. And its metro population of 4.1 million spans a geographic area of only 1,644 square miles.
So 41 percent of Montreal’s metro area lives within the city itself and the rest is commuting about 20 minutes over bridges from every direction for work. About one-fifth of Seattle’s metro population actually lives in the city, while the rest can face work commutes of 60 or even 90 minutes.
This has obvious sports implications.
It’s one thing to spend two hours driving to and from work to support a family. But doing it to see a sports team is a sacrifice many won’t make.
So, while Seattle measures up in metro size, we face challenges getting that population to games. And yet the NHL still wants to come. And, as I’ve written previously, a group wants to bring Major League Baseball to Portland.
Given that, there must be other things teams and leagues are considering. After all, metro areas such as Minneapolis and Denver are even smaller and more far-flung yet succeed with multiple sports teams.
I asked Michael Rapkoch, president of Dallas-based Sports Value Consulting and business adviser to numerous pro teams, what owners and leagues look for in a market. He told me raw population data don’t tell the full story.
“We don’t just look at one thing like population, or income,” Rapkoch said. “We look at a whole multitude of fact patterns to see whether it’s going to be viable.”
Most teams, he added, actually view their primary customer base as extending beyond metro markets. This bigger “Defined Market Area” (DMA) is usually measured within a 75-mile radius around a team’s main base of operations.
Using the online Big Radius Tool from Indiana University’s business school, I calculated Seattle’s 75-mile radius DMA territory at more than 4.8 million people and Portland’s at more than 3.3 million.
And that actually isn’t very big.
Portland’s would be third lowest in the majors, ahead of only Kansas City and St. Louis, and Seattle would rank 22nd among 30 MLB teams. In the American League West, Anaheim has 21 million people within a 75-mile radius, Oakland has 11 million, Arlington, Texas, about 7.7 million and Houston roughly 7.2 million.
But, again, raw population data don’t tell all.
Some of those cities have DMA radiuses overlapping other major urban centers with competing teams from the same sport. And those teams offset that bigger population potential.
You won’t see many San Francisco Giants fans flocking to the Coliseum for Oakland Athletics games, just as Los Angeles Dodgers fans aren’t heading to Anaheim to see the Angels.
Seattle and Portland don’t have same-sport teams within a 75-mile radius.
But Rapkoch notes existing pro teams from other sports will also impact market potential. An NHL team here would compete for money from the same population as the Seahawks, Mariners, Sounders and college Huskies.
Rapkoch says it’s also important teams “have a great partner in the city and the state” to help build them a stadium or arena. We saw both sides of that here with a dragged-out Sodo District arena project and now an expedited KeyArena renovation.
Rapkoch also looks at where a city’s population is trending.
“Fifteen years ago, Nashville was kind of a quiet town,” he said. “Now, it’s booming. It’s just out of this world, one of the fastest-growing cities. You look at trends like that, rather than a stagnant number.”
Seattle’s DMA population has grown 15.7 percent the past decade, compared with 15.5 percent for Nashville. Portland’s has jumped 13.4 percent.
That explosive growth has also been wealthy. Seattle’s metro economy just got ranked No. 4 nationally and Portland was No. 13 in a study by Business Insider magazine.
Two reasons Montreal lost its MLB team despite a better-situated metro population were overall economic decline and a lack of corporate support.
Beyond corporate money, Rapkoch cautions there must be enough local-television competition for teams to garner strong broadcast-rights deals. Portland especially would need that in TV-driven MLB.
The NHL is more gate driven, with expensive tickets. So Seattle’s big challenge remains getting its spread-out population to KeyArena for hockey despite weak public transit.
That’s why improving transportation remains a top preoccupation ahead of any NHL arrival.
And why, despite us measuring up in wealth and population with other multisport markets, we still aren’t home free.