NHL Expansion to Seattle: Not so Fast Without an NBA Partner

Nicholas GossCorrespondent IJuly 31, 2013

Aug 30, 2012; Seattle, WA, USA; General view of the Space Needle and the downtown Seattle skyline before the NFL game between the Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When the NHL and NHLPA agreed to realign the league for the 2013-14 season, they conveniently left two open spots in the Western Conference divisions for possible expansion.

One of those spots could be occupied by a Seattle franchise in the near future.

According to talk show host Mitch Levy of 950 AM in Seattle, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is reportedly exploring the idea of bringing professional hockey back to the city.

Before Seattle fans get too excited, it's important to note that there are a few significant roadblocks to overcome before the NHL makes its first foray into the Emerald City.

The biggest obstacle is the lack of a new, state-of-the-art arena that would allow an NHL franchise to be profitable. At the moment, the only stadium in Seattle for a hockey team is the aging Key Arena, which hasn't housed a pro franchise since the Seattle SuperSonics relocated to Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 NBA season.

The problem for the NHL is that it's likely in a holding pattern while the NBA figures out what it's future (if there's a future at all) is in Seattle, because according to Percy Allen of the Seattle Times, there has to be an NBA tenant for construction of the new downtown arena to commence.

A spokesman from the mayor’s office told the Seattle Times last week said the city wants a NHL team to play at KeyArena. He also said several potential investors have expressed interest over the years. Conceivably, KeyArena, which seats 11,000 for hockey, would be a temporary home.

Seattle has a deal in place with [investor and prospective NBA owner] Chris Hansen on a $490 million downtown arena. However, the agreement calls for a NBA team to be the primary tenant before construction begins.

Would the presence of an NHL team be enough to begin the process of new arena construction? Chris Daniels of King 5 News reported on that situation last month.

Investor Chris Hansen has indicated, in a previous interview with KING5, that he would be open to starting construction of a new arena with an NHL team as the first tenant...A source close to the situation said Sunday it is unclear if the MOU would need to be amended to start construction with an NHL team first.

As for the NBA's future in Seattle, Nick Eaton of SeattlePi.com provides details on what could be next.

Expansion seems to be the preferred option for Hansen’s group, which lost its bid last month to acquire the Sacramento Kings and relocate them to Seattle. There appears to be a “working plan” to bring the NBA back to Seattle, according to Tim Montemayor of KGO Radio in San Francisco.

Without the proposed Sonics Arena, which would be a beautiful place to watch hockey, going "all-in" by expanding to Seattle without the assurance that this new stadium would be built, is a risk not worth taking for the NHL.

Key Arena would be a suitable rink for a few years while a new stadium is built, but as a long-term building, it would be difficult for a team to maximize its profitability with only 11,000 seats and fewer modern amenities (such as luxury boxes) than newer venues. The MTS Centre in Winnipeg is the only NHL arena with a capacity of less than 16,000. 

Even if a new NHL team was able to sell out consistently in Key Arena, 11,000 fans is not going to generate huge revenue. According to Mike Ozanian of Forbes, selling tickets is crucial to financial success for NHL owners.

Among the four major team sports in North America, hockey is by far the most dependent on ticket revenue. During the 2010-11 season, the typical NHL team relied on gate receipts for half of their revenue...Only eight teams out of 30 failed to sell at least 95% of their tickets during the 2011-12 season.

According to its website, the Sonics Arena would seat 17,500 for NHL games.

The NHL's alleged interest in expanding to Seattle isn't a total surprise. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly addressed rumors surrounding the Pacific Northwest while in Vancouver last week.

I’m not sure we ever really addressed Seattle as a specific alternative in that process, but I think it’s safe to say that we’re very intrigued by the Pacific Northwest generally.

Going forward, I would expect that, to the extent expansion comes into the picture or relocation is needed, I’m sure the Pacific Northwest is going to get serious consideration.

Seattle is a great sports town. The Sounders (MLS) and Seahawks (NFL) post strong attendance numbers, and the Sonics finished in the top 15 in NBA attendance percentage in four of their final five seasons in the city, per ESPN.

There are plenty of sports fans in this region for an NHL franchise to be well supported, and the success of the WHL in Seattle and Portland helps proves that there's interest in hockey throughout the Northwest.

But the best option for the NHL is to wait on Seattle and see if the NBA awards an expansion franchise to the city because getting a brand new arena is critical to financial success.


Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Finals, as well as the 2013 NHL draft.