Will Hockey Win? New Developments In NHL's Race With NBA To Seattle

May 23, 2014

A recent visit by the head of the National Hockey League has people in Seattle once again talking about whether the NHL will beat the NBA to town. KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel says that's "score one" for the hockey execs.

'A Big Move'

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, his deputy and four Los Angeles businesspeople met with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine on May 6 in Seattle, as was first reported by KING 5 reporter Chris Daniels.

The parties involved say not a lot was discussed and that the visit was a "meet and greet." But Art says the visit itself speaks volumes.

"They went out of their way to fly here to try to understand what's going on politically to be of interest to the NHL. That's kind of a big move," he said. "It seems the NHL is quite serious about Seattle. That gesture alone has gotten people to arch their eyebrows and say, 'Is this possible? Could the NHL be here first ahead of the NBA?'"

Enough To Change Signed Deal?

Seattle and King County leaders have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with arena investor Chris Hansen that calls for an NBA team to arrive ahead of an NHL team. Art admits changing that agreement would be tough, but not impossible.

He says it's easy for critics to demonize the arena project as corporate welfare, even though there are no current or future taxes at risk. The public participation is in the form of getting $200 million in construction money based on the city's ability to pay it back.

"The solution would be that the prospective NHL owners would have to reduce the public risk sufficiently to make this almost a no-brainer," Art said. "Whether that will happen really depends on whether Chris Hansen wants to continue knowing that NHL would be first when his passion is the NBA."

NHL 'Economically Stable'

There are currently no obvious prospects for NBA relocation or expansion to Seattle. But Art says there could be some movement soon in the NHL. He says new TV contracts are bringing in greater revenues for hockey.

"They seem to be more economically stable than at any time in their history," he said.

Like the NBA, the NHL has 30 teams, but there are 16 in the East and 14 in the West. Art says they'd like to get two more teams in the West. He adds Seattle is a decent media market and is close to Vancouver, B.C ., which has a very established Canucks franchise. The rivalry is enticing.

"A lot of momentum is there for the NHL to try to be first," Art said. "Will it be able to sustain economically? That's the big question."

Despite Roadblocks, 'Some Serious Eagerness'

Another big question is the status of the arena proposal. Art says the draft Environmental Impact Statement seems to be stuck in bureaucracy. 

"It's not going to be ready until September," he said. "And even then it's going to be subject to litigation by people who are opposing the Sodo location.

"The NHL says, 'We'll play temporarily at KeyArena  for two, maybe even three years if we know that an arena will be built.' And Seattle can't say that yet."

But Art points out that the NHL commissioner paid a visit to Seattle despite this uncertainty.

"That demonstrates some serious eagerness, and I think Seattle sports fans should be listening. That hasn't happened in quite a while," said Art. 

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You can find Art Thiel's work at Sportspress Northwest and Crosscut.com.