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NHL success could pave the way for NBA return

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It’s time for people to put the past behind us, jump on the bandwagon and send a convincing message that Seattle is ready for the NHL and NBA

2017 NHL China Games - Los Angeles Kings v Vancouver Canucks Photo by Yifan Ding/NHLI via Getty Images

Our job is to rebuild a great new arena and get it open hopefully by November 2020 and do a very good job at getting at least one anchor tenant if not two anchor tenants here to join the storm. That's what were going to do. And what I say to everyone is, relax enjoy the ride. This is going to be fun. We have really, really good partners and David Bonderman and Jerry Bruckheimer, we're really lucky to have them because God bless David Bonderman, he's willing to write a very large check here in order for us to make this a privately financed little trip that we're all about to take here.

...We have the unique capabilities, qualifications, resources, relationships and experience in order to do that. I want everyone to have fun. Start enjoying this. Stop wringing your hands man. This is the fun part. - OVG Ceo Tim Leiweke

Just a couple of weeks ago some sports fans were questioning what the harm would be if we slowed down the KeyArena process. People actually advocated in favor of the dreaded “Seattle process” to slow things down, dragging out a plan just because they thought they knew better.

That was last week. This week we have new information.

In hindsight it is clear that there was a plan. There could be no hesitation on the December 4 MOU vote because had Mayor Jenny Durkan (wearing a Sonics shirt!) not signed the MOU on December 6 we would not have had a deal in time for the NHL board of governors meeting that took place the very next day. If we had slowed down by even a single day NHL expansion would have been delayed by at least a year or perhaps, in a worst case scenario, the league would have finally lost patience with our dysfunctional city and chosen to move in another direction.

With this stunning change of circumstances it is time for those who lobbied hard to undermine this plan to reconsider their position, move past their bitterness and support our city’s newest sports franchise.

This expansion process will be watched closely by both the NBA and NHL. Our success or failure with the first arriving franchise will send a clear message to NBA commissioner Adam Silver about the state of our city.

Shortly after signing the MOU, Oak View Group CEO Tim Lieweke (who is always cautious of getting ahead of the commissioners) sat down with SonicsRising and talked about why the NHL is likely to come first, how the strength of our market makes this project his highest priority and his plan to earn the NBA’s attention through a successful NHL launch.

I got a bunch of people now reading into it. You, the fans, the city, the politicians, the media, but I have two guys back in New York that are watching us, Adam Silver and Gary Bettman and so I'm extremely ultra sensitive in making sure we do not ever, ever, ever step on their toes because they are the gentlemen and the owners of those various leagues. They're the ones who determine who gets a franchise if you do expansion and so they mean everything to me on this process. So I never take favors because they both get upset with me when they think I'm more focused on one than the other. But the reality is this, I don't have a better friend in the business than Adam, I don't. He is, when I was thinking of creating this company, I went to Adam Silver. When I went to Toronto to take on Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment, I did it because of Adam Silver. This first thing I tackled and the first franchise that I tried to turn around up there and in fact turn around was the Raptors. I have been involved in more basketball teams than I have been involved in hockey teams. And so the notion at the end of the day that I'm not a basketball guy is absolutely dead wrong.

But I'm also a realist...and there is no NBA team available today. None. And I know that for a fact and people can debate and they can sit there and argue with me but I'm telling you flat out today they are not expanding. And there is no team moving and so the reality of the situation is this isn't what I want. This isn't what I love. This is about what we can get for Seattle. And the first thing that moves, we're going to go get it. And so this isn't about a love of basketball compared to hockey, or love of hockey compared to basketball.

...Let's just say we get an NHL team first. And let's say we knock it out of the park with the NHL, sell out every game, maximize revenue, have a great five year run with the NHL. Why do people not believe, understand, or think that that will ultimately catch the attention of the NBA? It just doesn't make any sense to me. So everyone's like we get the NHL, and we'll never see the NBA. I see exactly the opposite. If we do really really well with the NBA or we do really really well with the NHL, whichever first one knocks on the door.

This is Seattle, the league is going to come here. Who doesn't want to come here? Look at what the Sounders do. Look at what the Seahawks do. This is a market place that, at the end of the day that is renowned for how loud you all are, how passionate you all are, and how supportive you all are. Who in their right mind wouldn't want to be in Seattle? So our obligation is to get whichever one comes first and do a great job with it, because that would be the best welcoming card and map we can lay out for the next one, and they will follow what we do and if we do it well, of course they're going to want to be here.

Leiweke cautions that nobody can demand a team. The NBA, much like the NHL, grants franchises at the sole discretion of its owners and commissioner and will do so if and when they are ready. He and his company however bring to the table unmatched experience and a longstanding track record with the leagues. If there is a path forward he has just demonstrated his ability to work quietly with the commissioner to make it happen.

This is what I've done for a living for 40 years. I've built 18 of these facilities. We know how to develop things. I've run more franchises than I can even remember but that's 20-something odd. I have 16 or 18 championship rings somewhere in some storage vault somewhere. And so when you go back and look at this opportunity, out of 40 years, 18 projects, 12 different teams and lots of championships.

Yeah so lets look at my track record with David and now Adam. So, they parachuted me in right? To rebuild Denver and the Nuggets and we ended up getting the Pepsi Center and - a private arena there with the Pepsi Center - I helped build the Minnesota Timberwolves, which to this day still has the record for the largest expansion attendance in the history of the NBA. So we drew a million fans in Minnesota and one of my favorite sayings that a commissioner said to me during the time is anyone that can sell a million tickets to the kind of basketball you guys are playing, deserves to be a hero.

Cause remember, it was Bill Musselman and Bill's idea was run out the 24 second clock and it was some kind of ugly basketball we were playing, so I was with the Timberwolves and did an expansion team there, I went in and turned the Nuggets around and got them to a point where they became a very good organization with a new arena selling out every night.

I helped build the arena with Dr. Buss and Jeanie Buss, and was on the board. The only non-Buss member of the Lakers board. And then I went up to Toronto and helped turn that around and I did it in large part because I wanted to work with Adam Silver again, because I love Adam Silver. And so this premise that I don't love basketball is ridiculous.

Despite being unable to guarantee an NBA team, Leiweke offers up some hope to long suffering Sonics fans. When asked about the NBA's desire to return to Seattle, he is honest and forthright about the league's current (lack of) expansion plans but also unequivocal about the league’s position on our booming market.

Yes. They like Seattle. Adam likes Seattle. There is not a chip on anyone's shoulders about Seattle, there is a great deal of respect and appreciation. We all watched what happened here, again with Seahawks and Sounder so they are the fan of the marketplace and the growth of the marketplace but at the end of the day they're just not looking at expansion.

Leiweke also likes Seattle. In fact he likes it so much that he is staking his reputation on this project, making it his company’s highest priority, investing $660 million themselves and ultimately securing an additional two billion dollars or more for franchise acquisition. With that much money at stake, failure is not an option.

When do you get the opportunity to go into a top 20 market, the fastest growing city in the US, and get a chance to get a team here and build a brand new arena? It just doesn't exist and it won't exist again in my lifetime. No one will ever do what we're trying to pull off here again and certainly its nothing I've ever done before. So all of my past, all of my experience, all of my contacts, all of my relationships have led me to this point and for my career I think its my shining moment and so its my highest priority.

We're spending $600 million. So I hope I'm not the idiot that spends 600 million and ultimately the NBA or the NHL don't work in our building and so we have Barclays Center or we have the old Phoenix building, please shoot me. Because after 38 years of doing this, if this is the conclusion after 600 million that we suddenly took ourselves out of the market for a third anchor tenant, we absolutely are the stupidest human beings on the face of the Earth cause we just spent 600 million and couldn't reach our potential.

...I laugh when people think we're building it for music only, music doesn't pay for 600 million. I love music, but it comes and it goes. If we're not building an asset, if we don't have a real asset that we own a piece of, and we're not building the value of that asset, you cannot get a rate of return back on your $600 million investment, of course we need a team.

...We would love to have two teams. This is dates. We're like a hotel. I want occupancy and I’d like to have occupancy like the Staples Center, where at times we had 280 events (a year) and made more money that any building anywhere in the world.

Despite speculation to the contrary OVG has designed both their building and their financial model to attract an NBA franchise if and when one should come available. As he advised earlier the building will open it’s doors with WNBA, NHL and NBA locker rooms ready to go, but his commitment to the NBA is more than just lockers.

Our arena is going to be built very specific to NBA standards and it will meet and beat every NBA standard. Our arena will be built economically so that they will share in the upside of the building including a third of the equity will be reserved for an NBA owner at a later day if they want to come in and be our partner. So we reserve the right to protect the upside.

And finally, the way we designed the building was very, very specifically to maximize revenue streams for three anchor tenants: The Storm, the NHL, and the NBA.

My part is to make sure economically we're doing deals so that if we're going to the naming rights partner we say, you're going to pay us $20 a year and if we get an NBA team your going to pay us $25 a year and that extra five dollars is going to the NBA team. That's what we're doing on all of our deals.

So we're doing that with naming rights, were doing that with suite holders, we're doing that with club seat holders, we're doing that with founding partners and presenting partners. And every deal will have an NBA or NHL component to make sure we're protected if the second or third team moves in, we're in a position where we have the economic upside so that we're top third relevant to an in in each of the leagues.

That's our job. So the rest of it is up to the commissioners and I'm going to follow their lead, cause I've never seen a franchise either expansion or move, that was decided upon without a commissioner being the first and the last one to make that decision and I have great respect for Adam and Gary, and I'm not going to do anything to get ahead of them. But I will make sure it be design or whether it be economics, if that opportunity become available and they were interested in Seattle, we have the wherewithal with the economics to make that work.

With an MOU in place and NHL expansion franchise lined up OVG is expected to move quickly, assembling an organization capable of supporting their expansion bid.

What you're going to see is we will put together a team here, an executive team here and a management team here, and by the way we're going to have some local owners. So we're in the middle of that and that will come very soon. And this group, those who actually operate this on a day to day basis, they're going to end up being front and center. And even I get a chance now to fade to the background and get to work very very hard at getting all this done quietly. The face of this organization, the brains of this organization, the leadership of this organization, it has to be about Seattle. And so we will put together an organization that will be run by somebody that will ultimately be the face and the voice and the thinking and the passion and the heart of what we're trying to do here.

...Our goal is to get a management team in place that the rest of the sports industry looks at and says my god they're really good, they really mean business.

The first order of business for this new management team will be making this process fun for the fans again. Given the hardship and trauma of the last decade that is no small task but Leiweke asks fans for a fresh start and renewed commitment to bringing the NHL and NBA to Seattle.

Today is the first day of our lives together as partners in this great endeavor that we call Seattle and Seattle Center and so I would encourage everyone is take a deep breath, be happy. This is the fun part of the process now. This is ... I sense everyone wringing their hands and being nervous and you know, I think they need to calm down and enjoy the ride. Because the ride is going to get interesting and its gonna get fun. And yes we're going to fight hard to get you a franchise in the NBA and a franchise in the NHL.

Don't lose your dreams. Don't lose your passion. Don't give up. I see people writing these emails and these posts saying I give up, I give up, I give up because we can’t do Sodo. Guess what? If we're going to get teams we're going to get it with the ownership group that we have here. This is a really good ownership group, well respected within, as I said, we have 28 partners in the arena alliance and the NBA and the NHL. We know all these people. We come from their world. This is what we do for a living. I've been doing it for 40 years. Trust us. Don't lose faith, don't be pissed.

Pissed is an accurate word to describe many fans reaction since this project was announced. Fans are still pissed about the teams departure, pissed about 10 years of futility and pissed about a political process that did not deliver them the result they expected. Much of that anger has been directed straight at Leiweke.

Tim Leiweke has weathered that criticism and delivered for us. He has delivered political support, he has delivered a building and now he has delivered the first of two new franchises. His critics were wrong. He had a plan for the NHL and I believe him when he says he has a plan for the NBA.

Sonics fans have also gained a critical ally in our effort to bring back the NBA. New Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan kicked off her term in a green and gold t-shirt, establishing herself early as the greatest advocate sports fans have seen since Mike McGinn led our charge in 2011, committing not only to prioritize the NBA’s return but also to be pro-active working with the leagues to make it happen as soon as possible.

There is no better cheerleader now for the NBA than the mayor. She's made it very very clear to us and so believe me, we have a power. She is dynamic. She's powerful. She's focused and she's really good. I am really impressed by her and we're really looking forward to building this under her regime. Opening it under her regime. She's not going to let us rest on the NBA. She has made that very clear to me and I have accepted that fact and we're encouraged her to go with the commissioner at the right time.

I understand the hesitancy people have felt working with a mayor who did not value us prior to the NHL’s official announcement, but the situation has changed. We have a new mayor to lead us and a new opportunity to pursue. If we screw this up I cannot imagine why the NBA would even want to consider coming here. If, on the other hand, we knock this out of the park, our success will send a powerful message to league offices in New York that this region is rabid for professional sports.

This is a pivotal moment. People who were previously skeptical can make a choice to be a part of the NHL’s success or contribute to it’s failure with continued complaints about traffic and a political process that, while frustrating, is now firmly in the past.

It does not matter what position you took last week. Today is a new day and there is room on the bandwagon for everybody.

Fans who want Seattle to have a vibrant and successful sports culture should not settle for simple acceptance that this is happening but instead challenge ourselves to do more. It is up to us to generate the enthusiasm this project needs to show Adam Silver that Seattle’s dysfunction is behind us and we are ready to get it right this time.

It is time to support David Bonderman and Jerry Bruckheimer’s bid for NHL expansion, bringing the passion for hockey that we could no longer muster for politics.

It is time to be “all in” with Mayor Jenny Durkan, standing behind her to show the world that our city deserves both the NHL and NBA.

Help us send a convincing message to both leagues that Seattle is enthusiastic and ready for winter sports. Cheer loudly and invite your friends to do the same. Choose to be a part of an NHL success story that will let the NBA know our city and region are ready for the Sonics to come back.