Seattle Awarded 32nd NHL Franchise
On Tuesday, the NHL announced that the league will expand and add a 32nd franchise, which will begin play in the 2021-22 season. The NHL’s board of governors voted unanimously in favor of awarding the next franchise to the city of Seattle.
The Seattle franchise will enter the league in the 2021 campaign as a member of the Pacific Division. Seattle’s introduction will push the Arizona Coyotes into the Central Division. Seattle’s owners will pay $650 million for the rights to enter the league, which is 30 percent more than the $500 million the ownership group of the Vegas Golden Knights paid to enter the NHL prior to last season.
The Seattle owners initially said they wanted to be able to enter the league in the 2020-21 season, but the NHL was reluctant to try and rush the expensive renovation project set to get underway on the team’s venue KeyArena. Instead, the league pushed the team’s entry date back a full season.
Seattle has been without a winter sports team since the NBA’s SuperSonics infamously uprooted and moved to Oklahoma City back in 2008. The team moved after the city refused to fund a project to build a new, state-of-the-art venue. The Sonics also played in KeyArena. The city does have a WNBA franchise, the Seattle Storm, which also plays in the venue. The Storm will temporarily relocate for the 2019 season as KeyArena begins its massive $700 million overhaul.
Seattle’s ownership group, which is headlined by majority owner David Bonderman, sent a large group of people to the NHL’s board of governors meetings this week in Georgia. The contingent also includes movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer and CEO Tod Leiweke. Leiweke joined the project after resigning as the COO of the NFL back in March of this year.
The fact that the league’s other owners voted unanimously in favor of adding the Seattle franchise was not a surprise in the least. Back in March, Seattle’s ownership group put together a season ticket drive during which they received 25,000 deposits within the first hour alone. The goal of 10,000 deposits was exceeded within 12 minutes of launch.
It’s safe to say the interest in hockey in Seattle seems greater than the interest that Las Vegas had prior to joining the league. It took the Vegas franchise 2 days to notch just 5,000 season ticket deposits. In October, Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan made a lengthy presentation in front of the NHL executive committee in New York City. It was clearly impactful, as the committee voted unanimously (9-0) in favor of moving Seattle’s bid forward to the final vote.
The Seattle ownership group has already paid the league $10 million with their initial application. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says that the Seattle franchise will have a chance to be competitive right away, as was the case with the Golden Knights. The rules for the expansion draft will give the still-unnamed Seattle team a chance to collect some quality talent from around the league.
The Golden Knights made a shocking run to the Stanley Cup Finals in their inaugural season. They ultimately lost at the hands of Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals in 5 games. Had the Golden Knights won the title, they would have become the first American pro sports franchise since the Cleveland Browns in 1950 to win a title in their inaugural campaign. Bettman said that he did not receive any pushback from other team owners regarding potentially using the same rules for Seattle’s expansion draft.
At a press conference prior to the Stanley Cup Finals back in May, Bettman said, “I think clubs have learned a lot. We needed to make the team more competitive. This was the first expansion in the salary cap era as we afford all of our clubs an opportunity to be competitive, it wouldn’t make any sense not to have the expansion team the same way.”
With the NHL set to expand to 32 teams, further expansion in the league will likely be tabled for the next several years. However, a number of other cities remain interested in adding an NHL franchise, with Houston likely topping the list.
At a press conference announcing the decision, Bettman said, “Today is an exciting and historic day for our League as we expand to one of North America’s most innovative, beautiful and fastest-growing cities. We are delighted to add David Bonderman, Tod Leiweke and the entire NHL Seattle group to the National Hockey League family. And we are thrilled that Seattle, a city with a proud hockey history that includes being the home of the first American team to ever win the Stanley Cup, is finally joining the NHL.”
Now, the NBA is the lone professional sports league in America without a representative in Seattle. The NHL franchise will join the MLS’ Sounders, the NFL’s Seahawks and MLB’s Mariners in the city. However, the addition of an NHL franchise will likely pave the way for the NBA to get back into the Seattle market following the Oklahoma City fiasco that occurred over a decade ago.
Back in 2016 hedge fund manager Chris Hansen tried but failed to reach an agreement with the city of Seattle to fund a new building.
In October, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that the return of the Sonics to Seattle was not coming “any time soon.” Windhorst cited sources that said “some prospective ownership groups that have met with NBA officials have been told expansion may not happen until 2025 at the earliest, when a new TV deal can be negotiated.”
Seattle hosted an NBA preseason game earlier this year. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said at the time, “I love Seattle. Personally, I think it’s a great market. They’re doing all the right things in terms of building a new arena, or revitalizing KeyArena. It’s just not on the agenda right now.”
Some NBA owners are reportedly on the fence regarding expanding the league’s revenue sharing to add a new franchise. Silver has said that there are also concerns that adding a 31st franchise would dilute the league’s talent pool. That’s a particularly silly concern considering the amount of talent in the NBA has arguably never been better.
Silver added at the time (during a radio interview), “To me, what we’re most focused on is ensuring that we have 30 strong teams right now, and we still have work to go. Not only if you expand does it dilute revenue, but it dilutes talent. I think that’s one thing that people don’t always focus on – they hear big prices for expansion teams, but it’s like selling equity. All of our teams now that own 1/30th of our global prospects of the league, if you expanded by two teams then they would own 1/32nd of the global prospects of this league.”
Translation: owners are greedy.
Back in 2008, owner Clay Bennett demanded the city fund a new $500 million arena for the SuperSonics. When the city refused, Bennett decided to move the team to his home state of Oklahoma, where they would become the Thunder. Bennett agreed to leave the Sonics’ imagery, name and franchise history behind in the event that Seattle ever did get another team. When the NBA does decide to move back into Seattle, the team will almost surely call itself the SuperSonics.
A strong NBA fanbase remains in Seattle, so any move back into the city would surely be met with open arms. Here’s hoping expansion into the NHL is the first real step toward getting basketball back into the city.
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