It’s been more than six years since the SuperSonics fled Seattle, leaving fans bitter at the NBA and then-commissioner David Stern. Surprisingly, the NHL has never had a franchise in Seattle. The Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League and the Totems of the Northern Pacific Hockey League are the only attractions for local hockey fans. It seems, however, that Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the NHL, wants that to change.
Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and a group of Los Angeles-based businessmen flew to Seattle on May 6 to meet with King County executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. The group was made up of Victor Coleman, the CEO of Hudson Pacific Properties and a board member for the L.A. Sports & Entertainment Commission, Jon Glaser, the managing member of JMG Capital Management, and representatives from Premier Partnerships.
While building an arena and negotiating for some small portion of public dollars still proves to be a significant hurdle, the meeting was a step in the right direction. If an agreement were to be struck and plans to build an arena suitable for both the NBA and the NHL, significant stakeholders would be impacted.
The NHL does not do well in some cities. While each team has its own reasons for remaining in markets that are less lucrative than Seattle, several teams might consider a move. Some other teams that might want to relocate are bound contractually to their current cities for the foreseeable future. Two teams in non-lucrative markets that might consider a move are the Florida Panthers and Nashville Predators.
The Florida Panthers have had trouble putting fans in the seats. This season, the team was ranked near the bottom of the league in attendance at an average of just more than 14,000 per game. On top of low fan interest, the Panthers have one of the league’s weaker Forbes franchise values at $240 million. These factors, in addition to the current struggle with their building, the BB&T Center, make the Panthers a prime candidate for relocation.
The Nashville Predators are arguably one of the best candidates for relocation. Nashville is a small market and also home to the NFL Tennessee Titans. While generous revenue sharing and national media deals help inflate the Titans’ value to over $1 billion, the Predators value is only $205 million, less than half the league average.
Despite a winning record, the Predators could only draw 16,600 fans per game this season to a stadium that can seat over 17,000. After significant increases for the 2010 and 2011 seasons, attendance has stagnated. This team has long been the subject of relocation rumors but the majority sale of the team to a local group prevented a move in 2007. Perhaps it is time for the Predators to start fresh in a more suitable market. Seattle presents that opportunity.
The people of Seattle want basketball back in their city. The NBA has consistently leveraged large public subsidies for new arenas and renovations across the league. In 2007, Seattle refused to pay public dollars for an arena, and the NBA brought down the hammer. Seattle may never be willing to finance a large percentage of an NBA arena, and for this reason it is hard to imagine any scenario in which the NBA would be willing to relocate a franchise there.
Fortunately for Seattle, the Golden State Warriors bucked the trend this year, signing a deal to finance their new $600 million arena privately. If the NHL is able to relocate a team to Seattle and build a basketball-compatible arena with private dollars, it may open the door for an NBA team to return to Seattle.
Arenas take a long time to build, and negotiating contracts with cities is an ordeal that any potential ownership group and the NBA would gladly avoid. With an arena already in place and an NHL franchise already playing there, it is not unreasonable to think that an NBA team in need of a new arena could skip town and head to Seattle.