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Hockey in Seattle will have implications elsewhere, including Tacoma

The iconic sloped roof of KeyArena, center, a sports and entertainment venue at the Seattle Center, is seen from above Dec. 4, 2017. An NHL team is scheduled to begin playing there in a few years.
The iconic sloped roof of KeyArena, center, a sports and entertainment venue at the Seattle Center, is seen from above Dec. 4, 2017. An NHL team is scheduled to begin playing there in a few years. AP

Seattle is getting a National Hockey League franchise beginning with the 2021-2022 season, the soon-to-be-former KeyArena is getting a $800 million remake, and somewhere there’s a group of Sonics fans wondering, “Wait a minute. Wasn’t this supposed to be about basketball? How’d hockey get in here?”

Lots of people are doing a lot of wondering about a lot of questions, and not just what the remodeled venue at Seattle Center will be called. There’s also the matter of what the team playing in the building will be called, whether that will be a more traditional name reflecting the region’s heritage, or something more contemporary to capture the flavor of modern Seattle — the Insufferable Hipsters? The Self-Styled Progressives? The Amazonians?

The prospect of another big-ticket professional sports franchise in the region has loads of implications for business and consumer spending, traffic, other venues, even real estate. So let’s get digging.

We’ll start with what this means for our own venue, the Tacoma Dome, coming off its own physical overhaul.

The timing couldn’t be better. The T-Dome comes back online as an entertainment venue just as KeyArena shuts down for gutting and reconstruction (retaining the distinctive roof, a remnant of the building’s start in life as the Washington state pavilion for the 1962 world’s fair). That gives it a few years to build up a steady stream of concerts, one-off sports events and other shows.

Once the new Seattle building is open and competing with the Tacoma Dome, will it grab all of the big-name shows and events?

Not necessarily.

The Seattle arena won’t have as many dates available because hockey will tie them up. Then there’s the matter of access. The new Seattle venue isn’t on light rail, isn’t close to freeways, many of the Sonics-era parking lots are gone, and, oh by the way, they’re tearing down the Alaskan Way viaduct. If traffic snarls prove too much of a discouragement for concertgoers to make the trek to Seattle from the south, that’s one more argument in the T-Dome’s favor (provided, of course, I-5 through Tacoma is functioning).

The region’s two pocket arenas currently hosting major-junior hockey — the Seattle Thunderbirds at the accesso ShoWare Center in Kent, the Everett Silvertips at Angel of the Winds Arena — have a little more to worry about if having an NHL teams grabs all the attention of the region’s hockey fans (some cities host both NHL and Western Hockey League teams, but that’s in hockey-mad Canada).

But maybe not, for multiple reasons. One is the size of the building — Everett and Kent can survive if they find enough events that don’t need or want a facility the size of Seattle’s.

Another is the aforementioned matter of access.

Here’s a third: the cost of a ticket. An upper-level, end-of-the-rink ticket for an upcoming home game for the Pittsburgh Penguins, a successful team in a smaller market, costs $67, not including various fees. A Seattle Thunderbirds ticket for one end of the arena runs $18 for adults.

As a hockey fan who has attended both NHL and WHL events (and even the old Tacoma Sabercats), your columnist can attest that you can get a pretty good show, and be a lot closer to the action, for that $18 ducat. For many fans deciding how to allocate their discretionary income, they may root for Seattle’s NHL team, but, when it comes to attending a game, what they can afford is the WHL’s product.

The interesting financial aspect of Seattle’s new team will be corporate sponsorship and spending, from tickets and suites to advertising. Seattle certainly has the corporate base to support the hockey team, the Mariners, the Seahawks and the Sounders. Do those companies have the inclination to spend their dollars that way, especially in an era of tight budgets and uncertainty over the payback from marketing efforts?

The nearly forgotten man in the latest news about KeyArena’s reconstruction and the arrival of a hockey team is Chris Hansen. You remember, the guy who bought 13 acres of property in Seattle’s Sodo district for a basketball arena only to be thwarted in his efforts.

If Hansen wanted to give the finger to the port, the Mariners and the city, he’d establish the world’s largest rendering plant, or a gargantuan auto wrecking yard, or maybe a 24-hour pile-driving testing lab. More realistically, if Amazon or some other corporate client decides it wants more office space locally, he has a nice developable parcel just waiting.

That has real-estate implications all the way from Sodo to Tacoma. More new office space on the regional market could hinder efforts to add elsewhere. But more mixed-use encroachment on one of Seattle’s remaining commercial-and-industrial districts could prompt some businesses to recognize the inevitable, costly trend and bail out for places like Tacoma and Pierce County.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.
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