The Seattle Thunderbirds begin another Western Hockey League season Saturday at the ShoWare Center in Kent, and the Everett Silvertips will do the same at their Comcast Arena.
While those buildings are occupied with hockey, the Seattle Storm will drop into the Tacoma Dome for a WNBA playoff game at 2 p.m. Sunday. But then the Storm will return north to KeyArena, leaving Washington’s third-largest city once again without an indoor sports team to call its own.
It has been that way for more than a decade.
With an appropriate arena, the Tacoma Rockets never would have left town in 1999. And with an appropriate arena, the Seattle Thunderbirds might have moved into town in 2009.
But as the years have passed since the Tacoma Dome’s opening in 1983, the building’s size – and increasingly its age – have left it as a white elephant for minor league sports, bypassed by newer facilities of more manageable size such as the ones in Kent and Everett.
And after hearing from a Chicago-based consultant hired to study the issue, Tacoma seems to have accepted that things will stay that way for the life of the dome.
“They came heavily down on the side of the civic area, and for a number of reasons,” said Kim Bedier, Tacoma public assembly facilities director. “For one, the area is really over-venued already. And, of course, it would take extensive renovations to bring it up to the requirements of today’s leagues with the suites and all the amenities that everybody is looking for.”
What junior hockey and other indoor minor leagues want these days are fan-friendly facilities with 6,000-10,000 seats along with suites, club seating, office and retail space, appropriate locker rooms, and an inviting environment for the patrons, including plenty of places for them to part with their dollars.
When the Tacoma Dome was built, that might have been the checklist of a major-league franchise. These days, it’s the price of admission for almost any sports league.
“Minor league fans now expect most if not all of the same amenities that you would get in a major-league facility, obviously just in a smaller building,” said Brian McKenna, commissioner of the ECHL, the new hybrid league made up of the surviving West Coast Hockey League teams and the East Coast Hockey League.
“So I think it is important to have a relatively modern facility (with) everything from the concessions to the parking to the audio-visual – the video boards that you would have in the arena – various food options and then some form of club seats, suites, that kind of thing.”
The Tacoma Dome has never had suites or luxury seating. But once it was huge and new. And that was enough to lure the Tacoma Stars (indoor soccer, 1984-92), Tacoma Express (football, 1990), Tacoma Rockets (hockey, 1991-95), Seattle Sounders (soccer, 1994), Seattle SuperSonics (NBA, 1994-95) and Tacoma Sabercats (1997-2002).
Then one by one, they all folded or left for smaller and shinier homes.
“I went with our team last (season to ShoWare Center in) Kent, and ... I just said, ‘Had this thing been in Tacoma, there would be no Kelowna Rockets. They’d be the Tacoma Rockets,’” said Bruce Hamilton, owner of the junior hockey team that moved from Tacoma to British Columbia in 1995.
“I don’t deny this to anybody: If we had a 6,000-seat building in Tacoma, we ... would never have left, I’m positive of that. It’s sad, but that’s the way it goes.”
The Rockets eventually were replaced by the Sabercats of the WCHL, who learned the same hard lessons.
More than a decade later, no one has tried again.
The Seattle Thunderbirds considered Tacoma before choosing Kent. And so did a professional lacrosse team called the Stealth, which opted for Everett before moving on this year to the Langley Events Centre in suburban Vancouver, B.C.
A spokesman said the Stealth not only found the Tacoma Dome unsuitable for all the usual reasons, but the team also feared that the lacrosse community around Bellevue wouldn’t travel to Tacoma.
The Thunderbirds had no problem with Tacoma, but they agreed about the Dome.
“We met with really all the cities in the area and really were looking for a partner,” said Colin Campbell, vice president and assistant general manager of the Thunderbirds.
“In Kent, the timing was perfect. There was a new mayor – Suzette Cooke had just been elected mayor – she came back from a council retreat ... with one of their goals and objectives to create something that would become a destination and a gathering point for the City of Kent. We met with them about a week later, and the moon aligned with the stars.”
The result was the ShoWare Center, which seats about 6,000 for hockey, includes suites and club seating, and houses the Thunderbirds’ offices and team shop.
Since its opening in 2009, the building also was briefly home to the Kent Predators arena football team, and it remains home to the Seattle Mist, a women’s lingerie football team.
Yet despite some 220 events in 2012, the ShoWare Center does not make money – at least based on its operating budget. An economic-impact study released last year shows that the building loses hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, but also brings millions of dollars into Kent “in direct, indirect and induced revenues.”
“The minor-league tenant is critical to the bottom line of the building,” said Tim Higgins, ShoWare general manager. “It’s a hockey arena, even though we are a multi-purpose venue. That’s critical. We are able to do everything from the Globetrotters to Disney on Ice to the circus to skating events to major concerts. (The Thunderbirds) bring us 36 events throughout the year, plus playoffs. We are very active and very busy, but the main tenant is why we’re here.”
The calculation isn’t so clear at the Tacoma Dome, where the events calendar next month shows a Bon Jovi concert, a Cirque Musica performance with the Tacoma Symphony, a four-day RV show, the five-day Holiday Food & Gift Festival, and the two-day South Sound Women’s Show.
“A tenant is a good thing and a bad thing,” said Bedier, who held a similar position at Comcast Arena before moving to Tacoma. “It’s good because it is steady money, it’s steady food and beverage – if they’re doing well. ...
“On the flip side of that, it also takes dates off your calendar for really big shows where you can make a whole bunch of money in one night. ... I can’t tell you how many times I was challenged in Everett: I’d get a call for a show and, ‘Oh, darn, I’ve got a hockey game.’ ”
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808