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The case against delaying KeyArena

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Delaying approval of KeyArena until next year could put Seattle’s NHL expansion hopes at risk

NBA: Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors
The new Rockets owner wants to bring the NHL to Houston.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

All tea leaves currently point to the Seattle City Council voting to approve the Oak View Group’s KeyArena proposal as early as December 4, the day after Chris Hansen’s Sodo MOU expires. In fact, the OVG plan as crafted by founder Tim Leiweke is expected to be voted out of committee today, though some amendments are expected.

Many fans and some media members express a desire for the council to delay the vote until a few months into next year to give the members a chance to compare the Sodo proposal side by side.

While I understand the desire to see Chris Hansen get a fair shake, at the very least to have his current vacation application voted on, I believe it would be a serious mistake to delay the vote past this year. Sonics Rising founder Brian Robinson sums my concern up perfectly.

We now have serious competition for big league hockey.

In The Athletic article Brian refers to, we learn that the new owner of the Houston Rockets, Tilman Fertitta, has already met with league commissioner Gary Bettman about the viability of an NHL franchise in Houston. While the old Rockets owner was a barrier to the league, the new owner seems to be a potential bridge for a city that is a bigger market than Seattle.

In the article, Bettman expressed interest in the Houston market in his own unique way.

When reached via telephone Wednesday evening, Bettman declined to comment on the meeting. He refuted the notion that the NHL was actively looking for relocation options.

“We’re not relocating any clubs right now,” he told The Athletic.

When asked whether Houston would be considered if that changes, he responded: “If Houston were to express an interest in having an NHL franchise, under the right circumstances, it's something we might want to consider.”

For his part, Fertitta is enthusiastic about bringing the league to his market, though the interest is preliminary and there is some legwork to be done.

“I would love to bring an NHL team here,” Fertitta told Houston’s Fox affiliate station last month. “It's just got to make sense. It'd be hard to fathom that we can't support an NHL team here. Zero has happened, but we will start looking at it.”

The article curiously does not mention expansion as a possibility. It only discusses relocation. Possibilities for that in the near future would seem to include the Arizona Coyotes, the Calgary Flames, and the Ottawa Senators. Houston would be in competition with Quebec if one of those decide to move.

While Houston is just starting to look at the possibility of an NHL franchise, they have the advantage of an arena that would already work for the league. This makes them more of a relocation candidate than Seattle.

When I look at Leiweke’s relationships with the NHL, his quotes about not getting ahead of commissioners, his quotes about how much closer the NHL is to coming than the NBA, and a mountain of circumstantial evidence that includes a Seattle City Council member predicting expansion to Seattle in 2020, I have a hard time not believing that OVG has a handshake agreement with the league for expansion, provided the arena timeline is aggressive.

But never forget that Seattle has earned a reputation as a city that is all talk when it comes to building an arena. The Sodo project experienced delay after delay after delay, due in large part to unwarranted opposition from the Port of Seattle, but also due to Hansen’s mistakes, which include taking his foot off the gas during the EIS process, as well as not fully engaging with local politics. Also never forget that the NHL wants steel coming out of the ground before they commit to anything.

I believe the NHL wants to expand to Seattle and relocate to Houston and/or Quebec. With an uneven number of teams, expansion is a given. But relocation is a messy proposition that is by no means certain.

And here’s the most important quote in the Athletic article.

“Do I want to see Toyota Center filled up 300 nights a year? Definitely.” Fertitta said, according to the Houston Business Journal. “I would put an NHL team here tomorrow.”

Fertitta is not just interested in a team. He wants one as badly as we do. If Seattle reinforces its reputation of delay, delay, delay, we could easily find ourselves in line behind Houston.

Speaking only for myself, let’s seal the deal with the NHL. Let’s approve KeyArena on December 4.

Watch video of the November 16th Select Committee of Civic Arenas meeting here: