With 2018 finally here, the Seattle arena saga seems to have a final chapter in sight. But it’s fascinating to look back and see the mistakes Chris Hansen made that led to his SoDo plans turning to dust.
The biggest mistake of all, as it turned out, was that Hansen’s tunnel vision prevented him from seeing the true picture of the national sports landscape as it related to Seattle. That tunnel vision, which was solely focused on the NBA, ignored the reality that it was the NHL who most wanted to be in the Emerald City. In the end, it was a hockey-centric KeyArena rebuild that killed any hope for Hansen’s arena to be built, no matter how stubborn he remains.
Think about this: since Hansen’s initial Seattle arena proposal, purposely called Sonics Arena, there were four NHL-centric arena proposals made for Tukwila, Bellevue, the south end of Boeing Field and the Oak View Group’s Seattle Center/KeyArena plan. That doesn’t include AEG’s plans for KeyArena (which was shelved when they believed the deck was stacked in OVG’s favor) and Don Levin’s Bellevue Arena plan that was being evaluated a year before Hansen started his SoDo push.
That there was so much interest in bringing the NHL to Seattle, while Hansen was focusing solely on the NBA, should have been a clue to him. Apparently, it wasn’t.
That Hansen was showing himself as anti-hockey was clear from the beginning. The first renderings for his arena that included an “oh, by the way” plan for hockey that somehow didn’t include player benches or penalty boxes raised eyebrows among local hockey fans. His lackluster efforts to maybe…possibly…if he had to…try and change the NBA-specific Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the city of Seattle was lackluster, if that.
When prospective NHL owners tried to negotiate with Hansen for use of the SoDo arena, it turned into an exercise of frustration. Whenever Hansen would say something about hockey, it was always in a tone that he wasn’t interested in having anything to do with the sport. The Sonics were his focus. He was going to bring back the Sonics. That was always the pitch.
Of course, others made mistakes along the way. Then-mayor Mike McGinn and the Seattle City Council should have been more forceful in making Hansen add the NHL to his MOU when that was being created in 2012. But they were as much starstruck with Hansen at that time as former mayor Ed Murray was with Tim Leiweke and his KeyArena plans five years later.
Yes, there was the opposition from the Port of Seattle, the Seattle Times and others that also played a role, and eventually a big one. But they could have been easily pushed to the side years ago if the SoDo Arena MOU included the NHL as well as the NBA. They became a big factor when, looking back in hindsight, the MOU had already been exposed as the major flaw of the deal.
There are a couple of what-ifs in this, as well. What if Hansen was able to steal the Kings from Sacramento in the same way Clay Bennett stole the Sonics from Seattle? What if Steve Ballmer stayed in Hansen’s group and not bought the Clippers? Maybe the arena is being built right now, and the drama of the past two years doesn’t happen.
But what we also know is this: if Hansen’s MOU was for the NBA and NHL from the beginning, there’s no doubt the arena is not only built in SoDo, but it might be close to finished right now. Seattle would also have its long-awaited NHL team, whether being a relocated team or an expansion team alongside Las Vegas (which always seemed like the NHL’s plan). That Hansen somehow couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see that possibility was the fatal flaw in his SoDo plans.
That fatal flaw was the one exploited by Leiweke and OVG. They understood that the NHL badly wanted to be in Seattle, and with Leiweke’s connections within the league, they knew what it would take to accelerate the expansion process. The arena issue was always at the forefront, because thanks to Barry Ackerley and mid-1990s Seattle leadership, KeyArena became a horrific place for hockey after its rebuild. That Ray Bartoszek’s proposed Tukwila arena was even considered a serious possibility showed how much the NHL wanted to be in the Seattle area, but not in the current KeyArena.
It also showed that the NHL knew trying to work with Hansen was useless. Even Victor Coleman’s attempts to negotiate with Hansen in 2015, with NHL expansion in the balance, were fruitless. The only thing standing between Seattle and an NHL team was Hansen, and as long as his NBA-only MOU was still in force, nothing was going to happen.
That is a big reason why the NHL supported the Leiweke/OVG proposal for rebuilding KeyArena into an NHL-ready arena by 2020. Finally, Seattle would have an acceptable hockey arena. That Leiweke put together an ownership group that was known to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL for years was a bonus. The speed that the NHL approved a tentative expansion team for Seattle, a few days after the City Council approved OVG’s arena plans, showed this.
It should have also shown Hansen just how wrong he has been over the years with his NBA-centric vision. But, seeing his response after the council’s approval of the KeyArena MOU, Hansen still has no clue. The stubbornness he shows that he hasn’t learned from this experience, and that he won’t learn.
In the long run, Hansen’s dream of bringing back the Sonics will die, too, because the NBA will see the new arena at Seattle Center and go there, with a team owned by a group Leiweke has put together that was able to afford the likely $1 billion-plus that an expansion team will cost. Everything Hansen will have done, all the money he had spent, will end up being wasted, if it hasn’t been already.
That will be because of Chris Hansen’s own ignorance of the national pro sports landscape, his ambivalence and/or dislike of hockey, and his NBA tunnel vision. He’ll likely never claim a loss, but eventually Hansen will become a footnote in the crazy history of Seattle’s arenas.
(Photo of KeyArena from Wikimedia Commons user Cliff)