SEATTLE — For more than a decade, Seattle has spun in circles in the quest for an upgraded sports arena, never finding a solution that didn’t face multiple obstacles.
Seattle may have finally found its path to an answer and with it the culmination of a saga that could land either an NHL or NBA team in the city.
With KeyArena in the background, Mayor Ed Murray discussed his reasons Wednesday for selecting the Oak View Group, headed by industry leader Tim Leiweke, to do a $564 million privately funded renovation of the former home of the SuperSonics. The renovation would bring the building up to the standards of the NBA and NHL.
"I think the proposal they have put forward is absolutely the best that we’ve got of any of the proposals," Murray said.
While concerts and entertainment will be a significant part of the calendar for the proposed venue, and the NBA is a dream for the future, it was clear the NHL is the immediate target.
Seattle’s history is as a basketball town but the completion of an arena could be the ticket for getting an NHL team into the market first. The NHL has not hidden its interest in Seattle, the No. 14 media market in the country and the only market in the Top 25 nationally that does not have an NBA or NHL team.
But the NHL has also grown frustrated by the starts and stops of an arena process that’s seen more roadblocks than successes.
OVG may be the group to solve those frustrations.
OVG is already partners with Delaware North, whose chairman Jeremy Jacobs also is the owner of the Boston Bruins. Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini was in attendance to the side of the stage and acknowledged the league’s interest in Seattle.
"It’s a very strong desire," Aquilini said. "I don’t think there is anybody opposed to it."
Leiweke had one more card to play Wednesday, announcing that billionaire David Bonderman and filmmaker Jerry Bruckheimer were joining the investment group with the primary task of acquiring an NHL franchise.
Bonderman has been a minority owner of the Boston Celtics since the early 2000s and was among those looking into purchasing the Golden State Warriors less than a decade ago. That franchise eventually went to Joe Lacob.
Although he lives in Texas, Bonderman has significant Seattle ties. He graduated from the University of Washington in 1963 and has a fellowship in his name at the school.
Bruckheimer has no sports ownership ties but was rumoured to be involved in talks about the expansion NHL franchise in Las Vegas that eventually went to Bill Foley.
"We’re listening to what we’re told. Let me emphasize that. It’s been nine years since Seattle had its heart stolen so when the Sonics moved this has been a chase ever since," Leiweke said. "We’ve listened to the commissioners, we know what they are saying, we know how they feel about expansion, we know what the opportunities are out there and we’re going to follow the lead of the commissioners. I would say the first shot that is most likely to happen is an NHL team."
OVG was the only remaining group from the proposal process that started earlier this year, making Murray’s announcement anticlimactic. A competing bid from Seattle Partners — a group that included arena giant AEG — withdrew its proposal Sunday amid criticism of how the city handled the proposal process.
Seattle Partners proposed a $521 million remodel that required using $250 million of the city’s bonding capacity to complete the financing, which was deemed a deal breaker after the city demanded the project be privately financed.
The decision to go with OVG is subject to both sides agreeing on details of the proposal and the finalized transaction must receive approval from the City Council, which might prove tough. There’s also the question of how much influence Murray’s decision will have since he is not running for re-election in November.
Murray said he hopes to have a signed memorandum of understanding with OVG by the end of 2017. The MOU can’t be signed until after a similar agreement with investor Chris Hansen expires in November. Leiweke said the tentative plan would be to start construction after the 2019 NCAA men’s basketball tournament games at KeyArena, with the hope of opening in 2021.
While Hansen’s competing project across town isn’t dead, it may be in its final stages with limited city support. Hansen’s proposal only requires city approval of a street closure to move forward, but he has said he will not start construction until a franchise is acquired.