Wednesday’s vote by the Wisconsin State Senate approving an arena in Milwaukee effectively kills any chance of the NBA returning to Seattle soon. It also means an arena can be built here only with an ‘NHL first’ scenario.
Inside sports business
After months of speculation, Chris Hansen, Ray Bartoszek and other would-be arena builders in this region have their answer.
It’s going to be “hockey first” in Seattle, or no arena at all.
That was the message from Wisconsin on Wednesday when the state senate approved funding for a new arena to keep the Milwaukee Bucks in that city by a 21-10 margin. The state assembly is expected to ratify the move a few weeks from now, so this all but ends any hope of an NBA team relocating to Seattle any time soon.
Not that this should be a surprise. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has insisted for months the Bucks were not relocating.
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“We have complete confidence they’re going to get the deal done in Milwaukee,’’ Silver told me in New York back in April. He added that he’d met with owners and community leaders in Milwaukee and only “a bit” of negotiating remained.
Sure enough, a tentative deal was reached weeks later and Wednesday — after the usual political arm-twisting — arena proponents got enough votes. If you’re new to political blow-by-blows, the machinations of obtaining the votes may have seemed like high drama.
But to the politically seasoned, this was deal-making as usual.
In other words, arena builders here should have been looking at “NHL first” a while ago. That’s been the likeliest scenario for getting a team, based on what Silver told Mayor Ed Murray in January and repeated to me in April when I asked not only about relocation, but NBA expansion within two or three years.
“My sense right now is that, from a competitive standpoint, we have a 30-team league that can be competitive,” Silver told me. “But the talent is such that, it shouldn’t necessarily be the case that we should be adding additional roster slots.’’
Silver repeated that in Las Vegas on Tuesday.
“The ultimate issue, whether it’s Las Vegas, Seattle or any other community interested in an expansion team — we, unlike the NHL, are not in an expansion mode right now,’’ Silver told reporters.
The message could not be clearer: The NBA isn’t coming, near-term.
Sure, that’s lousy for basketball fans, especially after a successful Seattle Storm/Pro-Am event Friday that attracted more than 9,000 fans to KeyArena. But it’s wishful thinking to assume that, with the Bucks issue settled, Silver will shift focus to Seattle, reverse all prior statements and award us an expansion team overnight.
It’s time to stop clinging to false hope and listen to the man.
It’s time for Hansen and would-be NHL partner Victor Coleman to reach a “hockey-first” financial arrangement for a Sodo District arena. Coleman was already expected to make a $10 million NHL expansion application — $2 million of which is non-refundable — by Monday’s league-imposed deadline even before the Bucks vote ended our immediate NBA chances.
But applying is only the first step. The NHL will want detailed financial plans from Hansen and Coleman by a final Aug. 10 deadline.
Tukwila arena builder Bartoszek will also apply and concluded a while ago that “NHL first” is the only option. Bartoszek’s privately funded arena plan means he doesn’t have to shift gears depending on which sport is coming.
It’s different with Hansen, who has a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Seattle and King County for up to $200 million in funding if he lands an NBA team.
But that deal has no “NHL-first’’ provision, and Murray has told Hansen he needs more private funds if only hockey is coming for now.
Hansen already faces a tough sell getting the city council to approve removal of a street for his arena. A vote is expected by November and might not pass even if Hansen adds more private money.
Without a new arrangement between Hansen and Coleman, Murray has zero chance of twisting enough council arms for the vote to go the arena’s way. And if it fails, Tukwila becomes the arena frontrunner.
Perhaps that’s not the worst result.
Sure, the NHL — like any pro league — would rather be downtown. But, as with fans dreaming of an NBA return to Seattle, those leagues have to face reality, too.
And if the NHL wants to be in this market ahead of the NBA, it will go with the arena that’s ready.
The window for an NHL team is wide open, and whoever lands one now will almost certainly get the NBA expansion franchise later once that league is ready. This isn’t New York City: There aren’t enough financial “whales” here who care about sports to build two new arenas in different locales.
So, it’s time for Hansen, Coleman and anyone else serious about an arena to stop talking and start getting “NHL first” plans done. Otherwise, their arenas — like the chances of the NBA coming here soon — will remain a dream and nothing else.