Would an NHL team reduce Seattle’s NBA chances? Some experts say yes

Feb 27, 2018, 5:43 AM | Updated: 8:17 pm
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
LISTEN: Would an NHL team reduce Seattle’s NBA chances? Some experts say yes

Seattle appears primed to secure an NHL team, should the sale of thousands of season-ticket deposits on Thursday go as predicted.

New photos detail latest features of remodel

For those who think that a rebuilt sports arena and a professional hockey franchise set the table for an eventual return of the NBA to the Emerald City, some sports economists are prepared to rain a little on that parade.

Rodney Fort, a professor of sports management and economics at the University of Michigan, said professional teams calculate the pool of entertainment dollars before relocating or expanding to a city. And while the NHL and NBA see Seattle as an under-tapped market, both know that the pool is deeper for the team that jumps in first.

“The other thing that matters (for pro teams) is what else could fans be doing with their money,” Fort said. “What’s going to be the value of having a team in a particular location?”

Fort said it isn’t simply a calculation of median income, available arenas, and market size. Teams look at what else people and businesses might do with their entertainment budgets. It’s easier to make money with pro football in Houston, he said, than in Los Angeles given both cities’ options of alternative entertainment.

“It matters how large the place is. It matters how much money,” Fort said, adding that money given to one pro sport might not be available for a second one. “How much discretionary money (do) people have in their entertainment budget?”

Seattle’s advantages are obvious, economic analysts said, but so are it’s liabilities.

If the city were to get an NHL team, potential professional basketball owners would have to find a way first to get comfortable with one central fact: With an NBA franchise, Seattle — at 3.6 million people — would become nearly the smallest metropolitan area with representation from the five major professional leagues.

While Denver is slightly smaller, even Minneapolis-St.Paul is 200,000 people larger with 3.8 million. And five-league metropolitan area populations rise rapidly from there. Boston’s metropolitan area is 4.7 million. Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. sit at better than 6 million each; Chicago is nearly 10 million; Los Angeles is 12.8 million and New York is 23.7 million.

Seattle sports teams do pull fans from a larger geographic area than most teams, however. Its position in the remote, far left corner of the lower 48 historically has meant that the region draws fans from Alaska, Idaho, Montana and — except for the NBA — northern Oregon.

Even NBA naysayers admit that the Puget Sound’s economy and projected growth dwarfs the similarly-sized Minneapolis metroplex. Like Seattle (with the Pilots and the SuperSonics) Minneapolis has endured the relocation of two popular professional sports teams (the Lakers and the North Stars).

But the reason both cities have been jilted more than once and threatened with moves many more times is their relatively small size for hosting the number of teams they do, sports economists point out.

Brad Humphries, a pro sports economist and professor at the University of West Virginia, said it is possible to make the NBA work in Seattle but any potential owner is going to see additional hurdles if the NHL plants itself in the market first.

Humphries knows a bit about the local pro sports market. He was brought in as an expert witness by the new team owners in the legal dispute with Seattle when then Sonics decamped to Oklahoma City.

He said it won’t just be the size of the market that might give a new basketball team owner pause. The cost of doing business in the city, along with $1 billion or more as the likely entry price for an NBA expansion, any owner will have an acute need for a hungry, available, under-tapped market.

“The NBA and NHL seasons pretty much coincide,” Humphries said. “I can imagine that prospective owners would be concerned about this because there is direct competition for consumer dollars at the same time of the year every year, every year, every year.”

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Would an NHL team reduce Seattle’s NBA chances? Some experts say yes