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For hockey or basketball in Seattle, local ownership is key

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The significance of local ownership in sports and Leiweke on how significant local ownership will be in the potential NHL franchise

NHL Seattle

Local investment is the key flavor in team ownership Seattle Hockey Partners CEO Tod Leiweke told a Seattle radio audience last Tuesday evening.

Okay, he didn’t call it “flavor” or “ingredient” or any other culinary buzzword. But speaking with KJR 950-AM’s Dave “Softy” Mahler on the first of a planned weekly radio segment called “Tuesdays with Tod”, Leiweke spoke of its significant value.

And then local investors... There’s some fantastic, fantastic leaders who have stepped up and said I want to be a part of this. You know, David Bonderman could’ve done all of this on his own, but he saw real value in having not only folks who could afford to be a part of something like this but folks who are true leaders and understood the community. And I’m just so happy that we’re going to have a significant part of this franchise owned by local owners. Not only do I get to serve fans, I get to serve some really cool people who are going to go on this journey with us.

Much has been made of the local connections of the potential ownership and management group that could bring NHL hockey to Seattle.

Born and raised in Los Angeles and a graduate of Harvard Law School, David Bonderman resides in Forth Worth, Texas and makes his living as a billionaire investor. Bonderman’s tie to the Emerald City is as an alumnus of the University of Washington, and he’s still a proud Husky. In 1995, he donated the annual Bonderman Travel Fellowship program to his alma mater.

Leiweke, the group’s president and chief executive, is a native of St. Louis and earlier this year left his position as the Chief Operating Officer of the NFL — second in command to commissioner Roger Goodell — to head up the city’s hockey effort. Tod has an extensive history with sports, having been an executive with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild and Vancouver Canucks, the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers, the New York Arrows of the Major Indoor Soccer League, and the PGA Tour. For five years, he served as CEO and minority owner of Tampa Bay Sports & Entertainment, owners of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning and the Arena Football League’s Tampa Bay Storm. But it’s Tod’s years with the Seattle Seahawks and founding and ownership of the Seattle Sounders FC that prove most relevant.

Beyond those ties, Seattle Hockey Partners is courting lifelong or long-term local investors with deep roots and prominent standing in the community in various sectors. Folks who understand the market, the community, its people. Owners with as much passion for the city and region as for the sport, if not more.

To get an idea of the value of local ownership to a major professional sports franchise, we need only look back a dozen years to the sale of the Seattle SuperSonics.

In July 2006, then-Starbucks CEO and team owner Howard Schultz held a press conference with his Sonics team president Wally Walker to announce he had sold the team to interests out of Oklahoma City. Schultz made sure to stress how “extremely difficult” and “personally disappointing” the decision to sell was while trumpeting it as an opportunity for “renewed hope and enthusiasm for professional basketball in the Northwest region.”

At the table in front of the press in the Furtado Center that midsummer day sat Clay Bennett, the public face of Professional Basketball Club LLC, the new Sonics ownership group. More relevant, Bennett was joined by a man named Ed Evans.

G. Edward Evans earned his money as an executive in the wireless telephony business. He was actually the first approached in Oklahoma City by the investment bank that was handling the sale of the Sonics for Schultz and his circus cavalcade of owners (a 58-member cabal). As Walker puts in the documentary Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team:

There was an Oklahoma City group we were talking to through the sales process. Clay Bennett was not a part of it. It was run by a guy named Ed Evans. When he said to us, ‘I think it’s a great market, there’s a great opportunity, I’m going to keep the team in Seattle,’ we believed him. We had people who knew him and he had some history here, and it made sense.

Talk at the time had it that Evans had business or familial connections to Seattle; it’s difficult to corroborate that twelve years later. One thing known was that he was part of one of eight groups who had bid (and lost) on purchasing ownership of the Washington Nationals from Major League Baseball a year earlier in 2005. All groups were committed to making baseball work in the nation’s capital, to keeping the team in their market.

Evans was quoted in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2006 saying the Sonics group was “very interested in controlling a basketball team. (We) weren’t real concerned with where the basketball team is. This may be the best opportunity for our group to participate in the NBA.”

David Locke, now voice of the Utah Jazz, was at that time play-by-play broadcaster and blogger for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm and would serve as radio voice of the Sonics for the first season under the new ownership. Locke offered thoughts on an interview Evans had with former KJR sports radio host Mitch Levy in July 2006:

The number one thing that jumped out at me about Ed Evans is that he was straightforward. He wasn’t trying to spin. He wasn’t hiding things. He answered questions without hiding the answer in big words and complicated sentences that left you feeling like the Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoon. He didn’t try to make everything rosy. He was honest and understandable.

I find it interesting that Evans was not a part of the group, led by Clayton Bennett, which was responsible for getting Oklahoma City ready for the Hornets relocation last season. His interests are clearly about owning a professional sports team.

I am getting the vibe that this ownership group is a conglomeration of two different groups, Evans and Bennett, that came together to get into the NBA.

Remember Evans was a part of a group that was trying to buy the Washington Nationals and wasn’t able to acquire the franchise. He has consistently stated that he wanted in on professional ownership and this was his vehicle. This was a decision about choosing the NBA or not choosing the NBA.

Evans continually mentioned that they wanted into the NBA. He also said that Seattle presented the best opportunity. There were other franchises available; none of them brought what Seattle brings.

That bolded comment above is a vital point. When Evans was approached by the Sonics’ representative to talk of a sale, he was a majority investor and the controlling member of the group. In the end, Evans would vanish from the ownership completely.

During their multitude of calls regarding the sale, Walker says, “suddenly, this guy Clay Bennett’s on the conference call. Where’d he come from? So it came up, really, at the very end that he was involved at all, and no one had ever shaken his hand at that point.”

Following the NBA Board of Governors’ approval of the sale of the team to the Oklahoma City group, Percy Allen of the Seattle Times wrote of Bennett’s response to the disappearance of Evans:

“He advised me that he had another business opportunity that he wanted to pursue,” Bennett said. “His contribution to the process was very important and he remains a friend to the group. The deal, as any deal does, evolved in a degree in terms of roles and at the end of the day, this is where we all agreed to be. It’s all very positive.”

Allen mentioned at the time that an NBA source told the Times that “the league had deep concerns about the financial stability of the ownership group under Evans’ control.” The veracity of that comment is hard to verify, but one thing was very clear: the one guy with any possible local ties in the ownership group and an interest in keeping the team within the market was out.

In Sonicsgate, then-Seattle city attorney Paul Lawrence states that, though there were “willing Seattle partners” who wanted to be part of the ownership group, the Oklahoma City group decided not to allow any local Seattle ownership. Ultimately, without a champion for the city among their ranks, this made it easier to part ways with the market and file for relocation.

Local ownership brings a loyalty and commitment to a market beyond pure economics. Local owners will work hard to find ways not just to keep a hockey team or a basketball team in town, but ways in which to communicate and partner with the community at large. Ways in which to become not just good neighbors but contributors to the culture and vibrancy of Seattle in many facets.

There are sure to be knowing nods and a few surprises when local ownership for the hockey group is announced. The curious question is just how “significant” of a part of the franchise, as Leiweke refers to it, that these local investors will own.

We’d wager on bigger than you think.