Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke said Tuesday that Climate Pledge Arena will be “state of the art” and ready to go for the NBA from a design, revenue and organizational perspective as soon as the league announces expansion plans.
But Leiweke said he isn’t making assumptions about that timeline, despite NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s statement Monday that the league is studying expansion more closely than it was pre-pandemic as a possible revenue booster. Leiweke, whose company is in the midst of a $930 million overhaul of the former KeyArena in Seattle, has been an executive for multiple NBA teams and spent decades working closely with the league’s head office and longtime friend Silver on arena projects in North America and abroad.
“We’re not anticipating anything,” Leiweke said of the league’s expansion timing. “The league knows the leadership on our side — from ownership to our management of the building — are NBA ‘family’ members. They’re well aware of that. They’re well aware of the steps we’ve taken so that if and when they come knocking on our door, our building will be 100% ready.”
He said nearly $50 million of the arena’s cost has gone toward outfitting it with particulars the NBA insists upon.
Silver for years dismissed talk of NBA expansion or relocation, especially in the middle of the last decade when Seattle-area groups were pitching future arena projects for the city’s Sodo district, Bellevue and Tukwila. But that changed Monday during Silver’s annual preseason news conference with reporters, when he suggested the NBA was looking at expansion more closely.
“I think I’ve always said that it’s sort of the manifest destiny of the league that you expand at some point,” Silver said, as reported by ESPN. “I’d say it’s caused us to maybe dust off some of the analyses on the economic and competitive impacts of expansion. We’ve been putting a little bit more time into it than we were pre-pandemic. But certainly not to the point that expansion is on the front burner.”
That last part is important. While Sonics fans have impatiently awaited a replacement NBA team since Seattle’s was relocated to Oklahoma City in 2008, professional sports leagues often view the creation of new teams in time frames of decades rather than years. It isn’t uncommon for cities to wait 15 or 20 years for departed sports teams to be replaced, meaning the Sonics’ absence here is still nascent.
But it’s also unclear whether COVID-19 and the financial havoc wreaked on all sports has increased the appetites of current NBA owners for lucrative expansion fees — some estimates peg those at $1.5 billion to $2 billion — they could garner.
“We’re very appreciative of the markets that have indicated an interest in having an NBA team,” Silver said. “One of the issues for the league office — and this comes up all the time in terms of competitiveness — it’s not a secret that we don’t have 30 competitive teams at any given time right now when you go into the season, measured by likelihood of ability to win a championship.”
Silver was expressing similar concerns back in 2015 and right up until May 2016, when the Seattle City Council effectively killed off the Sodo arena proposal in a 5-4 vote. The difference now: Rather than dismissing expansion outright, he’s openly contemplating where it fits within the context of competitive balance.
“One of our focuses as the league office is always on ‘How do you create better competition,’ ” Silver said. “So that’s one of the things that we continue to think about as we consider expansion. … It’s an economic issue and it’s a competitive issue for us. So it’s one that we’ll continue to study, but we’re spending a little bit more time on it than we were pre-pandemic.”
Leiweke, from the time he began touting KeyArena remodel plans in October 2016, has long balked at playing up NBA expansion. Instead, he focused on the more realistic NHL — which was openly seeking expansion locales — and by December 2017 had league permission to apply for a team that was officially approved as the Kraken franchise in December 2018.
But all along, Leiweke reassured anyone listening that the NBA was always on his mind.
The nearly $50 million spent on NBA particulars at the arena include home and away locker rooms of specific sizes and proximity to the court along with secure player access. They’re also designed so opposing players can’t cross paths in the arena tunnel or back-of-house areas. The WNBA’s Storm also will play its home games at the arena.
Additional locker rooms for NBA officials — men and women — also had to be provided within a certain distance from players.
Leiweke noted that the Populous architectural firm, which is working on Climate Pledge Arena — due to open late next summer — has designed numerous NBA buildings. And that sports venue consultant CAA Icon, serving as Oak View Group’s (OVG) representative in the arena’s development, worked on the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, which opened two years ago as home to the NBA Bucks. “So, we know all of the NBA standards,” Leiweke said. “And they were built in to this building.”
He added that all arena-related investments have an NBA component within those deals in case the league puts a team in Seattle again. That way, he added, any future Seattle NBA owner will be guaranteed revenue streams “in the top percentile of the league” even though the city will actually continue to own the building.
“Everything we’ve done — from naming rights, to sponsors, to suites, to opera boxes, to club seats — we have built in to protect the economics of the NBA team,” he said. “And that’s critical — to maximize the revenue streams. So, we’ve done that as well.”
Leiweke said the league is well aware of the NBA-specific expertise behind the arena project. The “NBA family members” he mentions on his group’s ownership and management side includes OVG partner and Seattle Kraken principal NHL owner David Bonderman — a minority owner of the NBA’s Boston Celtics. Also, Kraken minority owners and Climate Pledge Arena investors Chris and Ted Ackerley are the sons of longtime former Seattle SuperSonics owner Barry Ackerley.
OVG executive vice president and arena general manager Steve Mattson spent the prior decade in an identical job managing the Target Center for the NBA main tenant Minnesota Timberwolves. Eric Bresler, OVG’s senior VP of programming for Climate Pledge, most recently was executive director of the Chase Center in San Francisco — home to the NBA’s Golden State Warriors — and was a marketing VP at American Airlines arena in Miami when the Heat moved in there two decades ago.
Leiweke ran the NBA’s Toronto Raptors as president and CEO of that team’s parent company from 2013-2016 and before that ran Staples Center, home of the Los Angeles Lakers. He’d also previously served as president of the Denver Nuggets and a marketing executive with the Timberwolves.
None of that guarantees the Sonics are coming back. But Leiweke says all he can do is be ready to pounce the minute Silver and company make an NBA team available.
“We’ve taken the steps necessary,” he said. “And again, we await their direction.”