With the approval of a Memorandum of Understanding between the city and Oak View Group to renovate KeyArena as early as October 2020, the Seattle City Council set forth the pieces to bring an NHL and perhaps an NBA franchise to the city.
It wasn’t standing room only like it was 19 months ago. Attendees didn’t cheer or boo after speakers pleaded their cases, either.
A cursory glance would suggest this was just another city-council meeting. The reality is — from a Seattle sports standpoint — it might have been the biggest day of the year.
On Monday afternoon, the city council took the most significant step toward getting the Sonics back yet. With seven “yes” votes to one “no,” (council member Lorena Gonzalez was not present), it approved a Memorandum of Understanding between the city and Oak View Group to renovate KeyArena as early as October 2020.
Theoretically, newly elected Mayor Jenny Durkan could overturn the decision greenlighting the $600 million, privately funded remodel, but that seems highly unlikely. And though there is public skepticism as to whether OVG CEO Tim Leiweke can eventually deliver an NBA team to Seattle, it’s safe to say the city made its play.
“It’s been a long road,” said council member Debora Juarez. “We can get a world-class arena at little or no cost to the taxpayers.”
Flash back about a year and half ago, when the council was voting on a different arena proposal. After buying up a chunk of land in the Sodo District, developer Chris Hansen sought a street vacation on Occidental Avenue that would allow him to break ground should he obtain an NBA team.
That meeting was exponentially more crowded and boisterous than the one Monday, as NBA die-hards, Port of Seattle representatives and myriad other groups crammed their way into City Hall. But the council voted Hansen down, prompting pain and anger in Sonics fans throughout the city.
Perhaps that’s why there were so many empty seats Monday afternoon. Arena fatigue has become very real, as political twists and contentious debate has stripped people of their enthusiasm.
But for those who did make it to City Hall on Monday? Almost universal joy.
Lance Lopes, a former Seahawks executive who serves as OVG’s Director of Special Projects, pumped his fist when the vote became official. Leiweke’s daughter, Francesca Bodie, turned to him and said, “We did it.” The crowd, meanwhile, burst into applause — and Leiweke’s face was visibly victorious.
Not wanting to get ahead of himself, though, Leiweke opted not to express his excitement verbally. In the 30 seconds he spent with the media, Tim stressed it was still up to Durkan to approve the council’s decision.
But that’s sort of like a coach up by 30 points choosing not to celebrate until the clock is at 0:00. The fact is — this thing is happening.
So what’s next?
Leiweke has stressed from the beginning that hockey will come before basketball, and in the next few months, the NHL is expected to make an announcement regarding a franchise in Seattle. Could be via expansion, could be relocation — but with billionaire investment banker David Bonderman and movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer conveying interest as potential owners, the money would likely be there.
As for the NBA? Well, fans might have to be a little (a lot?) more patient with that. The league’s collective-bargaining agreement doesn’t expire until 2024 and, even then, there is no guarantee for expansion.
The talent pool is already diluted, and the league is swimming in money. But Seattle’s rapid growth and basketball appetite could have the NBA salivating.
So, yes, the Sonics returning just became a very real possibility. With the city taking a concrete step toward building a world-class arena, locals can allow themselves to dream.
Monday’s vote won’t be shown on any highlight reels, but that doesn’t mean we should downplay what occurred. It might have been a small crowd — but it was a huge day.