Breaking Down the Obstacles of Potential NHL Expansion to Seattle

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Breaking Down the Obstacles of Potential NHL Expansion to Seattle
Rendering of a proposed new NHL and NBA arena in urban Seattle. (Photo Courtesy of SeattleMag.com)

Hockey in the Pacific Northwest has a future again.

Less than a month after the Coyotes fell off the relocation radar, reports have circulated that NHL GM Gary Bettman is seeking to bring hockey to the Seattle area via expansion.

Per Seattle radio host Mitch Levy via Twitter:

Per Brian Stubits of CBS Sports:

Levy went on to say that a franchise would cost $275 million to acquire and if that became a reality, it would begin operations in 2014-15. Of course, it would all be based on an ownership group coming forward and the plans for a new arena continuing down the path of becoming reality. Key Arena likely would serve as the home of a team until an arena came to be.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

 

Obstacle No. 1: Venue

The first of many pitfalls Seattle would have to work around in the expansion process would be the arena.

Photo Courtesy of VIPseats.com.

Key Arena, the only viable temporary home for the team, is a 51-year-old building that seats just 15,177 for ice hockey—only Winnipeg's MTS Centre would have a smaller capacity.

The WHL's Seattle Thunderbirds played there for one season before a cringeworthy rink arrangement convinced them to move elsewhere. Fans can only sit alongside one-half of the ice and the jumbotron hangs over the blue, rather than red, line. Simply put, it's a poor fit for ice hockey.

So, indeed, the first few years would be rough for Seattle—but that's not exactly unusual for an expansion team.

In the long term, a proposed new Sonics Arena could serve both future NHL and NBA teams in Washington State. The approximately $200 million project in the same district as Qwest Field (NFL and MLS) and Safeco Field (MLB) would seat around 17,500 for hockey in a modern, cutting-edge facility.

Artist rendering of hockey in Sonics Arena. (Photo Courtesy of TheStranger.com)

Such a project would take years to build, though, even if it made it through the approval phase unscathed and on time. Moreover, the majority of the City of Seattle's Memorandum of Understanding with the Arena group is also focused on the NBA in particular; it's unclear whether the NHL would be able to garner an equally large investment of taxpayer dollars.

All things considered, Seattle should be able to handle physically supporting a major league hockey franchise in decades ahead—but the next few years could be less than ideal.

 

Obstacle No. 2: Ownership

Photo Courtesy of SeattleTimes.com.

Ray Bartoszek, a 47-year-old Connecticut hedge fund manager and New York Yankees shareholder, has been mentioned often as a potential Seattle owner. In June, a family spokesperson told Washington news channel KING 5 that "[Bartoszek is] interested in Seattle’s economic well-being and its future."

Little else about Bartoszek—including his exact ownership share in the Yankees—is publicly available. However, nothing about the mega-millionaire indicates he wouldn't be capable of covering a $275 million expansion fee.

But can Seattle support a hockey team strongly enough to keep it profitable from that point forward?

 

Obstacle No. 3: Fan Support

Demographically, Seattle is a fantastic location.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The metro area boasts 3.4 million people, ranking as the 16th-largest in the U.S.— and bigger than that of 16 current NHL clubs, as well. It's the nation's 12th-best TV market (per Nielsen)—bigger than that of 19 current NHL clubs. It's the nation's eighth-youngest city. And, according to Men's Health 2011 rankings, it's the most active city in the country.

All of those statistics look extremely favorable to an expansion franchise from a relatively up-and-coming sport.

A Seattle Thunderbirds game in the ShoWare Center. (Photo Courtesy of CultureMob.com)

The Thunderbirds and Silvertips of the junior league WHL haven't exactly gone wild in attendance—the Kent-based Thunderbirds ranked 14th of 22 teams in attendance in 2012-13, averaging just 4,036 per game in a 6,000-plus seat arena, while the Everett-based Silvertips (about 30 minutes from downtown Seattle) ranked 10th with 5,062 per game.

Conversely, Seattle is well known for its feverish support of professional franchises.

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
The atmosphere at a Seattle Sounders' MLS match.

The NFL's Seahawks averaged 67,946 fans per game in 2012, a whopping 101.4 percent of Qwest's reported capacity. The MLS's Sounders lead the league in attendance by a mile; their average 40,650 fans per game in 2013 is nearly double that of the second-ranked club. Even the now-relocated NBA's SuperSonics averaged 90 percent or better attendance most seasons.

Seattle can't flaunt the nearly guaranteed fan support that expansion-seeking Canadian cities like Quebec can, but the odds still indicate that strong attendance would come in time.

 

Obstacle No. 4: League Balance

In the new NHL conference alignment, the Western Conference holds just 14 teams, while the Eastern Conference contains 16.

Photo Courtesy of TomFulery.com.

That imbalance is one of several reasons that Seattle is being pushed so strongly for consideration from within league circles. However, it could also hold up a completed expansion deal if such a situation arises.

With 30 teams currently in the league, expansion would need to occur in pairs. Even if a Seattle framework deal falls in place, the league may insist on finding a second city before going forth into a NFL-style 32-team format.

And that's where geography could become a problem.

Only Portland, Ore., could potentially be ready for a West Coast NHL expansion at the same time as Seattle, and that's still a big if. Kansas City, Mo., and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, each have one factor going for them—a state-of-the-art arena and a lengthy hockey history, respectively—but little else.

The best expansion locations outside of Seattle all fall in the Eastern half of North America.

And that's simply unacceptable in the current alignment.

 

Looking Forward

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

An NHL team in Seattle seems increasingly inevitable by the day.

The Pacific Northwest is a promising region primed for professional hockey's arrival. While ownership and fan support are both nagging concerns at the moment, both could also evolve into highly conducive factors in the very near future.

The focus of Seattle's hockey expansion obstacles revolve around the lack of a respectable venue. Tremendous amounts of money, trust and time stand between the current situation and a long-term home for a NHL franchise.

Irksome logistics, such as the league's conference alignment and less-than-stellar relationship between Commissioner and Board of Directors, could also emerge as major holdups.

In time, professional hockey will almost certainly find its way into the Seattle area.

But when?

That's an entirely less definite debate. 

 

Mark Jones has been an NHL featured columnist for Bleacher Report since 2009. Visit his profile to read more, or follow him on Twitter.

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