'We're going to get you a team,'

Oak View Group head promises a franchise as KeyArena MOU is signed

UPDATED (Dec. 9): “We’re going to get you a team.”

That was the promise made Wednesday by Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke, before signing a Memorandum of Understanding on a $600 million revamp of KeyArena.

“The mayor looked me in the eye last week and made me swear to her that I would spend every waking day trying to get the NHL here and the NBA back here,” he said.

That’s the task at hand for the Los Angeles-based developer, as it now tries to win over skeptics who remain unconvinced that professional hockey or men’s basketball are in the venue’s future. 

“Whichever one comes first — if we do a great job with them — the other one will come,” he told reporters.

But when asked what the response has been from both leagues since Monday’s city council vote, the OVG co-founder and CEO was deliberately mum.

“The fact I’m not talking is a good indication and I’ll leave it at that,” he said.

His elusiveness would be explained the next day, as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced during the league’s Board of Governors meeting that an ownership group headed by businessman David Bonderman and film producer Jerry Bruckheimer had been given the green light to file an expansion application. The price tag for that franchise has been set at $650 million.  

While that doesn’t guarantee the city a franchise, it sets the wheels in motion with a season-ticket drive in the coming months to prove the market’s interest, and a path similar to that followed by a group in Las Vegas before it was awarded a team in 2016.

In a statement, Leiweke said his group intended to file its application “promptly.”

“We look forward to providing details on this process in the near future and having the opportunity to demonstrate why Seattle would make a great NHL market,” he said.

Meanwhile, the agreement signed Wednesday provides the framework for the construction and operation of a redeveloped arena, with a footprint nearly twice the size of the current building while preserving the current roofline. The hope is to break ground next fall, and open in October 2020, with an anticipated 39-year lease and the option for two eight-year renewals. OVG will fund construction and cover any cost overruns and then assume all operation and maintenance costs. The group must invest a minimum of $168 million in capital improvements to vest those eight-year options.

What the agreement doesn’t do — according to Mayor Jenny Durkan — is preclude other groups like Chris Hansen’s SonicsArena team from continuing their own efforts to build an arena in SODO. The MOU does include an exclusivity clause that prohibits the city from providing, “financial support, benefits, or incentives (other than those that are generally available to any potential developer)” for a live entertainment venue that seats more than 15,000 people.

“There is nothing in this MOU that blocks the path for any other people who want to try to develop an arena,” she said. “We are all ears on that, but we are moving forward on this because we think it is a good deal for the people of Seattle, we think it is good for Seattle Center and its neighborhoods, and we think it is the best path right now to get us an NHL team and maybe an NBA team, and it’s not a zero-sum game, so we are looking forward to that as well.”

Sporting a Sonics tee under her blazer, Durkan recalled the days of Lenny Wilkens, Spencer Haywood, and Freddie Brown, and what those teams meant to the city. 

“Those were the things that gave Seattle some of its spirit,” she said.

But, she said, it was important that efforts to bring the team back did not come at the expense of taxpayers.

“This will be financed by the people who are investing in this arena, so we make sure we are protecting our dollars,” she said.

She also noted the $40 million fund for transportation improvements, as informed by the North Downtown Mobility Action Plan currently being developed.

“It is time for us to reimagine; reimagine this space, and what it will be like, not just with KeyArena, but with all the other things that will be happening in and around this neighborhood and this city,” Durkan said.

Of course, for many that vision involves new sports franchises, something Leiweke acknowledged.

“If we don’t have a franchise a year from now, they should take me and put me up on top of that arena, and while they start tearing the arena down they should let me dive into the middle of the rubble because I haven’t done my job,” he said. “Our job is to get you a team, and so hold me accountable a year from now — or sooner.”

Though Wednesday’s MOU signing marks a key milestone in the arena saga, there remains work to be done. The city and OVG will now negotiate development and lease agreements, in addition to a Seattle Center integration agreement and other related transaction documents before construction can begin.

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