In December, everything changed.
The political battle was won and before anybody could even catch their breath an NHL franchise was announced. Just like that, the contentious political sausage-making was over and we entered a new, hopefully more joyful, phase of this long and arduous process.
Like many participants I have found myself needing some time to adjust. Honestly it has taken a couple of months just to let the NHL announcement sink in and I keep finding myself waiting for something to go terribly wrong, conditioned by precedent to believe that things never work out as I wish they would. It is going to take a while for that feeling to go away but hopefully it continues to get a little easier every day.
In reality NOTHING has gone wrong. OVG delivered EXACTLY what was expected of them and are moving forward with intentionality. The dust has begun to settle and a new landscape is starting to take shape.
There are new faces. Gone, but not forgotten, is Brian Surratt whose steady leadership contributed greatly to the MOU passing. An announcement of new project leadership structure is imminent with the possibility that primary management may be shifted from the Office of Economic Development to another body in City Hall. Seattle Center Director Robert Nellams has announced that he will be retiring in May but will remain to finalize the last details of this arena project. It is his mic drop moment, and I am very happy to see a good man leave on top.
Many familiar faces remain. Station management at KING 5 continues to empower their dogged reporter Chris Daniels to follow the story, sending him to the NHL All-Star game in Tampa, Florida last week. Chris has been on the ground and in the trenches since the beginning of this saga, and his station’s leadership deserves recognition for continuing to allocate resources to cover this story when and where it takes place. I’m excited for Chris’ continued coverage of this expansion process.
Here at SB Nation, we are feeling a real boost in enthusiasm and morale. The level of support and communication offered by OVG and the mayors office is both unprecedented for our site and appreciated. We hope for a similarly productive relationship with the soon to launch Seattle Steelheads (actual franchise name TBD). In preparation for the NHL we are adding writers and expanding hockey content, anticipating the launch of a new NHL sister-site sometime between June and August.
Welcome Doug Mellon, Sean Clement, Matt Sampsell, and Curtis Frazier. Everyone is doing a great job and Doug in particular deserves credit for the leadership he is showing. We are enjoying expanded relationships with the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips in hopes of educating fans about the sport and recognizing these first class WHL organizations. It’s a lot of fun to cover games again and will only get better as we get closer to having an NHL team.
Sonics Rising will be closely aligned with this new site. We will continue to cover NBA news and issues surrounding the return of the NBA to Seattle.
Any sense of respite or celebration the Oak View Group felt upon having their MOU approved was probably short lived. While the political lobbying phase ended abruptly and triumphantly that victory offered no opportunity for them to rest. Instead multiple new administrative burdens packed into a very tight schedule for completion forced Lance Lopes and his crew back to work immediately, perhaps with even more work on their plate than before.
The first item on that list has been the finalization of a contract to implement the terms of their MOU. At the same time they are moving forward to complete the design, permitting and preparation for construction of a $650 million building with the hope of breaking ground just under 8 months from now. All indications are that OVG’s experience and competency are helping to keep the process on track to begin demolition next fall.
”There is a lot of work to be done between now and putting a shovel in the ground, but all parties are working very hard and in good faith to implement the terms of the memorandum of understanding between OVG and the City that was agreed to last December,” Greg Narver, chief of the Seattle City Attorney’s office Civil Division tells Sonics Rising.
OVG is no longer just building a facility. In addition they now face the substantial task of processing an NHL franchise application and ultimately helping build a team. Reports from the NHL All-Star game in Tampa indicate they may be just days away from submitting the formal NHL application, along with a $10,000,000 deposit. While OVG has certainly been willing to spend money to advance this project, the expansion application fee seemingly represents the first large check that owners David Bonderman and Jerry Bruckheimer have been asked to write, committing them to many other large checks in the future. Essentially this is a $10 million commitment towards another $1.3 BILLION in future spending on building and franchise.
“God bless David Bonderman.” Tim Leiweke told Sonics Rising in December. “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. Let’s enjoy the ride.”
While much of the initial application workload is likely to be performed by OVG’s 110+ Los Angeles-based employees they have also announced the addition of Steve Mattson as Director of Arena Operations on the ground in Seattle. They are in the process of adding both local consultant support and additional staff members to handle everything from the season ticket drive to finalizing construction bids. It won’t be too long before operational tasks like concession negotiations and scouting for an expansion draft also come to the forefront.
Professional sports franchises are massive operations and a large local team needs to be assembled and learn to work together in very short order. OVG has just 2 short years to put personnel in place to run this operation at a scale that our fans have not seen in a decade or more.
OVG has demonstrated a patient approach throughout this process., operating with a well thought out timeline and awareness of deadlines that allows them to set aside issues which are not time sensitive in favor of those which require the most immediate attention. While there is no doubt that they will need some level of visibility and public outreach to complete a season ticket drive it would not surprise me if their primary focus remains on getting the contracts finalized and NHL expansion application approved until construction begins in the fall. No matter how substantive any immediate action may seem that effort will likely be just a precursor to an even larger campaign that will build methodically over time, culminating closer to franchise arrival when the job will be made easier by the presence of an organization and imminent team for the public to see and touch.
Make no mistake, before it is all said and done the PR effort around this franchise launch will be huge. I also expect involvement of former Sonics players and NBA ambassadors to be included, as OVG understands the importance of resolving lingering resentment and addressing concerns that could split the fan base and dampen NHL enthusiasm.
Whether or not OVG spends the next few months with their head down filling out paperwork, fans can expect Mayor Jenny Durkan to continue her emergence into a more prominent leadership role, especially when it comes to advocating for the return of the Sonics. Durkan has put stakeholders on notice that she understands the civic opportunity that comes with the arrival of not just one but potentially two professional franchises and intends to do everything in her power to ensure that a Sonics franchise follows the NHL into town as early as possible.
”There is no better cheerleader now for the NBA than the mayor,” Tim Leiweke told Sonics Rising in December. “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’ve encouraged her to meet with the commissioner at the right time.”
Regardless of whether a revitalized Seattle Center nets Seattle one franchise or two, Durkan clearly considers the project’s transformational impact substantial enough to mention at nearly every opportunity, as demonstrated by her call out to corporate leadership at the recent unveiling of the landmark spheres located on the nearby Amazon campus.
Our city has always invented the future. Other cities see the opportunities that we have happening in downtown: from the new Seattle Center Arena to the Spheres blossoming here. Congratulations to everyone at @amazon on another big milestone in Seattle, where you have your roots. pic.twitter.com/MoktWjENpY— Mayor Jenny Durkan (@MayorJenny) January 29, 2018
The mayor does not, however, seem content to limit her message to the corporate interests which dominate downtown politics. Rather, her administration appears intent on establishing expectations that NHL and eventual NBA franchises will maximize their impact not just with the business community, but with the general citizenry. She offers a compelling vision for these franchises, challenging everyone involved to focus on early engagement with the region’s youth, marginalized communities, and nonprofit organizations .
”I think that [sports] helps build a great city,” Durkan told Sonics Rising. “It gives every kid in every part of this town something to believe in and hope on. That sounds corny, but I think it’s true. I also think you see the amount of philanthropy that can flow into a town or with the involvement the players can have in schools and in mentoring programs.”
Local non-profit leaders agree.
“Professional sports franchises can make a huge impact on the youth in our community in many ways,” says Jeff Rainey, COO at the YMCA of Greater Seattle.
The YMCA has partnered with the Seahawks and coach Pete Carroll in his ‘A Better Seattle’ initiative, which supports The Y’s Alive & Free—a program in which they build meaningful relationships with hundreds of young people involved in gangs, violence, and the juvenile justice system. As an organization they develop the potential of more than 140,000 young people in King County, operating 13 branches, 2 overnight camps, and 200+ programs in King and southern Snohomish Counties.
”The Seahawks have helped make the program stronger than we could have ever imagined,” Rainey adds. “It’s not just the generous funding and resources Coach Carroll and A Better Seattle provide; he enjoys spending time with our staff, whom he refers to as the real MVPs. Kids also get face-to-face time with Coach Carroll and the players, which is hugely impactful—sometimes even lifesaving—for a young kid who may be at risk.”
”Research shows when kids are having fun they are at their optimal learning peak and retain the most information,” says Jaci McCormack, President of Rise Above, a nonprofit that works with with celebrity atheletes including Gary Payton, Lenny Wilkens, Slick and Donald Watts to empower, educate, and create resiliency in native youth through sport.
McCormack points to former Boston Celtics star Chris Herren’s moving speeches on drugs and fast lifestyle as a great example of the powerful message that athletes can send.
“Once we get their attention with basketball it creates an opportunity to engage in conversations around substance abuse, healthy relationships or self-image related issues.”
By all accounts, OVG shares this commitment to the community. Early in the MOU process, they committed $10 million to Youthcare, a fantastic organization which helps transition homeless youth off the street and get them the support they need to be successful. As part of this partnership, formerly homeless youth in will receive job opportunities and training within the new arena.
”One of my favorite sayings and I feel very, very driven by is, it is the obligation of each of us to pass on to the next generation a better world than the one in which we received. And my Dad taught me that and I want to try to do that for my kids and my grandkids,” Leiweke told Sonics Rising.
After years of hearing elected officials question whether sports can make any impact at all, it is refreshing to have leaders choose instead to ask “how much impact can we make?” I welcome a mayor who challenges everybody involved to think big, plan early, and make sure that we don’t miss any opportunity to revitalize the Seattle Center, bring excitement and growth to North Downtown, and help as many kids as possible in the process.
”Mayor Durkan gets it,” a source in city hall told me recently. “She’s going to make the most of this.”