By Allan Muir
Doesn’t seem that long ago that just the mention of NHL expansion would have hockey purists sharpening their pitchforks, oiling up their torches and burning Gary Bettman in effigy. Now? People call a second team in Toronto long overdue and can’t wait for the return of hockey to Quebec City. Funny how it works when location is driven by fan interest rather than a need to expand a television footprint.
Tough to say yet which of those is actually the dominant force behind the bid to put a team in Seattle, but even if it is just another one of Bettman’s acts of manifest destiny, at least that town feels right for hockey, doesn’t it?
And of all the options currently on the table, Seattle might be the closest to reality. Like just over a year from now close if a Seattle talk show host is to be believed. And as Jonathan Willis pointed out in yesterday’s Edmonton Journal, there are plenty of good reasons this could happen sooner rather than later:
Seattle is a strong destination for an NHL hockey team for a number of reasons. The city has a plausibly functional temporary home in the KeyArena, and ultimately the expectation is that a new $490 million downtown arena will be built. Seattle also has the 15th-most populated metropolitan area in the United State, highly comparable to Minneapolis-St. Paul and St. Louis and significantly larger than a number of other cities with NHL teams. It’s also a good fit for league geography – the Western Conference has just 14 teams to the East’s 16, so the Seattle club would help even things out.
Then there’s a natural rival in Vancouver, the city’s rich history with the sport…shoot, Seattle even has its own hockey bar.
And then there’s the massive check the league’s current owners would get to cash once they find someone willing to pay something like $300 million to buy their way into the club.
So yeah, it’s gonna happen. And it could be awesome.
But here’s the thing. The NHL made mistakes 20 years ago when rushing to make expansion work. So no matter how badly they want Seattle to happen, the league has to avoid hopping into bed with the first person willing to pick up the tab. Yeah, a new arena is key, but this proposal lives or dies on the quality of its ownership.
As Elliotte Friedman and Glen Healy reported on CBC’s Hot Stove, there were two investors ready to pony up $220 million for the Phoenix Coyotes with an eye on moving them to Seattle. When the Coyotes found their financial footing, the duo was framed as potential owners of an expansion team in the city.
But are Ray Bartoszek and Anthony Lanza, a pair of New York-based hedge fund managers, the right guys to buy the team? Maybe. Maybe not. The league has had mixed results with hedge fund types in the past, including Jeffrey Vinik in Tampa Bay and Philip Falcone in Minnesota.
Vinik had to shutter his fund after it suffered considerable losses when he took his eyes off the prize. He’s now focusing on the Bolts full-time and with a personal wealth estimated at $500 million, he shouldn’t have any problem paying the bills.
The same can’t be said for Falcone, a minority owner of the Wild whose recent attempts to plead his way out of massive civil fraud charges were rejected by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Anyone that runs afoul of that group is someone you should probably watch your wallet around.
Falcone’s problems aren’t brought up to paint all hedge fund managers as sketchy, but the profession’s recent track record suggests some close scrutiny might be wise.
The bigger red flag might be the impetus behind Bartoszek and Lanza’s interest in getting involved. A story in the Seattle Times paints the duo as looking at the potential of ownership as an investment, not a passion project.
City councilman Tim Burgess said it was apparent the New York investors had a different message than Seattle native Chris Hansen, another hedge-funder who wants to return the NBA’s SuperSonics to his home town and is the driving force behind the new arena project.
“One of them clearly had more sports motivation than the other,” Burgess said. “The other one was very business-oriented and was looking for an investment that would have long-term benefits. Neither one of them struck me as Chris Hansen, who I’m sure has a business orientation towards the NBA, but clearly has a lot of Seattle motivation and basketball motivation.
“They didn’t strike me as having that. They spoke very highly of Seattle as a media market and recognized as it relates to the NHL that this market had great potential and had not been tapped and they wanted to be hopefully a part of that. Beyond that they weren’t that detailed.”
That’s the kind of talk that makes you want to run out and buy season tickets and a couple of sweaters, isn’t it?
Again, there’s nothing wrong with taking care of business first and foremost. In fact, it’s kind of important. But at the same time, you want whoever buys the franchise to be as invested in the city and the sport as they are in emptying the fans’ pockets of all disposable income.
In the end, Bartoszek and Lanza may turn out to be heroes of Seattle hockey. But if the league is serious about bringing the game to the Pacific Northwest, they need examine all their options and make sure they partner with people who will do it right, not just those who will do it right now.