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As NHL eyes expansion, Mariners may know soon if they'll have SoDo neighbors

Sonics Arena Design Review

As the Mariners sit in a constant state of purgatory between contention and being completely toast, there are those out there who have started to look elsewhere—to soccer, to football, to anything else. This is understandable, it happens.

In the landscape of existing teams and distractions, there is one beyond that landscape that noteworthy, particularly in a Seattle sports scene that could use some good news at the moment. That is, the NHL is officially considering expansion, and it stands to reason Seattle is in play. So let's walk through it, for those who are interested.

What's going on?

Yes, as mentioned, expansion. After lots of hush-hush talk and cutesy notes passed between the league and prospective franchise owners, the NHL is actually going to do this. Well, not definitely expand, but formally look at it. Here's the basics, from ESPN:

NHL owners met in Las Vegas on Wednesday morning in advance of the annual NHL awards ceremony when the matter was discussed. Bettman cited Las Vegas, Seattle, Quebec and a second team in Toronto as the markets that have expressed the most serious interest, but said that the NHL has also received interest from Milwaukee, Kansas City and Portland over time.

"We will, probably starting in early July, accept formal applications from entities, people that are interested in pursuing an expansion team," Bettman said following the completion of the meeting. "We will then go through a formal vetting process."

The earliest that any potential expansion team would start playing in the NHL is the 2017-18 season, deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.

Yes, early July. In a matter of a couple weeks, bids and proposals will begin coming in for a new NHL team. So while Seattle and Chris Hansen have danced for years around whether or not an NHL-first plan might be feasible for the city and the arena financing plan as it exists now, now there's a deadline.

So, where's Seattle at on this?

Well, it's tricky. As most are well aware, Tukwila has entered the fray. Ray Bartoszek's group even had a representatives on hand in Las Vegas for the NHL meetings and awards ceremony. The thing is, Tukwila is not Seattle—and I don't necessarily mean that in an opinion-based derogatory way. It's just that the NHL, as it should, will evaluate the proposal as it exists, different from one based in downtown Seattle.

To put it bluntly: if you were rank all the potential destinations for a new team, there's a decent chance a downtown Seattle organization would beat out competitors in Las Vegas, Quebec City and Toronto, but a Tukwila team may not.

Geoff Baker, for all his detractors for his time on the Mariners beat, has covered this story very well in his role as Sports enterprise and investigative reporter for Seattle Times. Last night, I felt compelled to ask him about the previous assertion, one that's reasonable enough.

"Downtown Seattle is a slam dunk," he wrote "Tukwila isn't unless they present a rock solid plan."

Well, where's that downtown arena situation at? It's precarious. To break it down, we dive into Baker's report on yesterday's events:

Hansen’s ability to fund an "NHL first" move to Sodo remains questionable after he said in interviews last month he’d yet to receive a reworked financing proposal from partner Coleman or anyone else. Coleman had previously given an interview to KING-TV stating his frustration with Hansen and their lack of progress toward an NHL-first deal.

Mayor Ed Murray has warned Hansen must put more private funds toward his planned arena if it’s only an NHL team there initially. An agreement between Hansen, the city and King County calls for up to $200 million in public bonds for an arena if an NBA team comes first.

But Murray said he cannot sell the city council on approving the arena for the NHL with the way that deal is currently structured.

Viet Shelton, a spokesman for Murray, said Wednesday the mayor has yet to receive a new proposal from Hansen. But Shelton added: "The NHL news today, I think, creates an opportunity for folks eager to bring an NHL team to Seattle to see what can be done on that (financial) front.’’

What Shelton says here is important. The only stumbling block is money. If someone with enough money and passion for the NHL comes forward to partner with Hansen on this—and if it is indeed the "slam dunk" Baker says it is—SoDo will be home to an NHL team.

In speaking with Softy on KJR in late May, Hansen made it clear he would be more than accommodating of an NHL owner as long as that individual met two conditions in putting together a proposal: don't make the existing deal with the city worse, and don't make the transaction worse financially for his existing group.

Though he acknowledged he had yet to receive a formal or informal proposal at that time for a financing plan, it wasn't on account of his camp being difficult because, naturally, an NHL-first plan is a great thing for them.

Why? A completed arena looks a lot different to the NBA than one that isn't built yet—even if the plan for it is in place and completely financed. It looks different to the NBA itself, and to existing and potential owners.

So a lot that hinges on whether or not an NHL owner steps forward in the very near future.

And, one last thing to remember here: there's often times a lot more going on the background with these types of things, as hours spent perusing the Tukwila document dump made more than clear. Just because Hansen says he hasn't received a formal proposal yet, and the mayor hasn't reviewed one, that doesn't mean it couldn't happen very soon.

How does this impact the Mariners?

Fully acknowledging I'm writing this several hundred words into a a post on a Mariners blog, I have to say it's minimal at first glance. And that may be the reason Chris Daniels tweeted this following the project's approval by the Seattle Design Commission:

Even if it's purely out of resignation, this is still quite the change from when they were actively funding the opposition. Much of their arguments agains the project centered around issues like traffic and whether or not that specific location was feasible, but it was always worth wondering—assuming?—it was about more than that.

After all, another professional sports team or two represents competition for the Mariners, just as any form of entertainment does. While there is overlap—and plenty of rich people and companies in Seattle—the Mariners will compete with all other teams for walk-up attendance, season ticketholders, suites, corporate sponsorships and more. Though it doesn't always seem like it, there is a finite amount of money in Seattle.

The thing is, those items mentioned above matter less than ever as a means of extracting it thanks to the demise of non-live television programming. TV deals rule all, and the Mariners got in first—and with a good partner in DirecTV.

As new professional sports teams enter the market, potentially NHL first and the NBA later, ROOT stands as the likely destination for their games. The possibility exists that an NHL and/or NBA team try to go it on their own, hitching their wagon to a cable company like Comcast, Seattle likely isn't a two regional sports network town.Even larger markets have struggled with the idea.

And even if it were, the reach of individual cable providers isn't going to match that of DirecTV—as an NBA or NHL team has the potential to reach a large swatch of the Mariners' MLB rights territory (ROOT's broadcast area), which is the largest in the game.

In sum: the more teams in Seattle, the more games on the Mariners-owned RSN, the more that RSN can charge cable providers, the more cable providers can charge consumers, the more the Mariners make in money to, ideally, spend on payroll.

So, this is a good thing. Yes.


Honestly, above all else, this would just be cool to see. As a sports fan, as a Seattleite, bring on the NHL—and then the NBA shortly thereafter. It isn't about the Mariners, but just wanting more. I played hockey my entire childhood, and while I've never closely followed the NHL, I'd love to do so now.

Based on what I've seen from people here on LL and elsewhere, the desire to watch a hockey team—regardless of any familiarity with the sport—seems to be quote popular.

So make it happen, random rich guy. And if it ends up helping the Mariners along the way, that isn't the worst thing ever.