Finally, the opportunity arose Thursday for the chance to ask Tod Leiweke, mastermind behind the renaissance of the Seahawks and the birth of the Sounders before leaving in 2010 for the NHL and now the NFL front office, two questions critical to the future of Seattle sports.
Will he be part of a group that brings the NHL to Seattle?
Does he still claim to be the good Leiweke brother?
He quickly answered the second one.
I do,” he said, smiling. “It’s not hard.”
The first, he dodged completely.
“At 4 o’clock there’s a guy coming named Leiweke. Talk to him.”
Tod Leiweke, the NFL’s chief operating officer and the No. 2 executive in the NFL behind his lordship, Roger Goodell, was referring to his brother, Tim, who was also a speaker at the second annual Geekwire Sports Tech Summit. Tod wasn’t being mean to Tim, just being a brother. For those who know the difference, you must be a brother.
Tim Leiweke is CEO of Oak View Group, the Los Angeles arena developer that won the right to negotiate with the city of Seattle to re-do KeyArena into a world-class venue for a bid of $564 million. He did indeed speak to the gathering at CenturyLink Field’s conference center, mostly on technology’s impact on sports, but the most interesting stuff was about his proposed Seattle arena.
Tod wouldn’t speak for Tim’s plans, but older brother Tim has never been shy about speaking for himself. In fact, the more bodacious Leiweke even made fun of his habit of hyperbole.
“I’m the only guy I know who’s not in a league who’s getting fined by commissioners — makes no sense,” he said, drawing laughter. But he did address perhaps for the first time publicly the question of whether two privately financed arenas were possible for the fastest-growing city in the country.
The question is on the minds of Sonics fans whose champion, Chris Hansen, has worked for six years to create an arena in Sodo upon $125 million worth of properties he bought for one primary purpose: Bringing back the NBA. That is not the priority of Leiweke’s well-heeled group, which appears to have the ear of Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council eager for a robust Seattle Center.
Answering a question from moderator Todd Bishop, Leiweke never said never to such a possibility — same as Hansen — but did elaborate Thursday on how he believed a double-arena plan was improbable.
“If you’re going to privatize both arenas, and one’s going to go after a hockey team and one’s going to go after a basketball team, so be it,” said Leiweke, hypothesizing. “What I do know is (NBA commissioner Adam) Silver has said expansion is not being debated, discussed or contemplated. If I were them, I wouldn’t either. They have the world’s best TV contract now. It’s not even a conversation” to add teams and dilute long-term revenues.
Leiweke explained the two impediments to the NBA becoming the first winter sport in Seattle: Lingering NBA bitterness and NHL eagerness.
Seattle hoops fans “had their hearts got ripped out when the Sonics left,” he said. “It was not done in a great way. They were misled; some people came in who had a personal agenda that cost the community their basketball team. I think that many people are bitter about that. They don’t think they think it was handled well by the league, by (then-commissioner) David Stern, by the political leaders. We have to inherit that distrust.
“Adding to that, for seven years they’ve been told (by Hansen), ‘I’m gonna get you an NBA team.’ And we come along and say, ‘I’m sorry for being honest, but there is no NBA team coming right now.’ Adam Silver’s done a tremendous job as commissioner; there’s no danger of a team moving.
“The reality is simple math: there’s 31 hockey teams, 16 in the east, 15 in the west. Takes you about another second to figure out they need a team in the west.”
Leiweke reiterated that his group has attracted two potential owners of an NHL team in Seattle: Hollywood film producer Jerry Bruckheimer and investment banker David Bonderman, a University of Washington grad. What agreements they may have signed to bind them remain unclear, since the NHL has made no commitment to another expansion.
“Is there a better marketplace west of the Mississippi than Seattle for a winter sports franchise?” Leiweke said. “The (NHL needs) needs an arena, and needs an owner. We believe we have a vision for both. If someone else wants to come along after we do that, and build another arena with a basketball team in there, great. I’m fine with that. I don’t think it works. Especially when (concert promoter) Live Nation is our equity partner, and they put 40 to 50 nights of music in a building they own.
“(Hansen would lose) all the music, all the hockey, and you’re going to go put up another arena for $600 million. I think that’s a tough economic bet.”
The rationale explains why Leiweke has so far not sought a non-compete clause from the city to forestall the possibility of the council granting a street vacation for Hansen. Seattle Partners, the arena developer who pulled out of the city’s bid process, wanted a non-compete to deny Hansen. Leiweke made no such request, essentially saying to Hansen: I dare you.
Leiweke is also expected to offer another asset: His brother. Those who know Tod Leiweke understand his true sports passion is hockey, which is partly why he left the Seahawks in 2010. He was lured into part-ownership of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning.
In 28 years in pro sports, Tod Leiweke has executive experience with the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLS, the PGA Tour and chaired a United Way campaign for a year in Seattle. In his tenure here that began in 2003, he made many decisions for owner Paul Allen’s enterprises — Seahawks, Trail Blazers, Sounders, First & Goal and Vulcan.
His most dramatically impactful decision was firing Seahawks coach and local favorite Jim Mora after one season in order to hire Pete Carroll and John Schneider.
Perhaps his most clever decision was to invite Goodell in 2009 to climb Mt. Rainier with him to raise funds for charity.
The stunt drew national attention and allowed Leiweke and Goodell to become acquainted in ways that only dangerous adventure can bond people. Goodell was sufficiently impressed with the experience to think Leiweke would be his No. 2 — the position from which Goodell was elevated to succeed Paul Tagliabue as commissioner. Leiweke left Tampa for New York in 2015.
“For him, it was one of the coolest things he’s ever done,” Leiweke said, disclosing that Goodell has in his office the hiking boots and photos from his ascent. He recalled that Goodell had a crossroads moment in the 3 a.m. darkness upon a glacier when he sent the light from his helmet lamp into a crevasse that had to be leaped over to continue.
“He made the mistake of looking down,” Leiweke said. “He wasn’t sure he wanted to go on.
“(Climbing guides) Ed Viesturs and Peter Whittaker were very persuasive. I think there was some bad words exchanged. But when he got to the top, the sun was coming up and he was quite emotional.”
All of this mountaineering history with the NFL’s capo di capo is offered to suggest that Leiweke may have another idea for his future — NFL commissioner, arguably the most important job in sports. But being commissioner is a generally thankless task that certainly pays well — Goodell is pulling down more than $40 million annually — but is complicated by the fact he works for 32 bosses who think they know more than he does, and millions of consumers who are certain they know more than he does.
But being president and part-owner of an NHL team is something he already has done well, and has an added potential virtue of getting to hold a Stanley Cup at center ice for him and Seattle, a favorite city among his many stops. It is a thing far more alluring to him than cash.
But that image is far down the road. Neither brother has spoken publicly of a role for Tod, although those who know both seem confident of such a deal.of hockey. Tim acknowledged it was Tod who suggested he look at remodeling KeyArena. But Thursday Tod, who two years ago sold a home he owned on Mercer Island (once owned by former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren), was itchy to move on from such talk.
“Tim came up to some games and fell in love with the place,” Tod said after his morning conversation at the event, distilling dismissively his brother’s MO. “I’m gonna let him speak for himself.”
Smiling, Tod pushed through the media gaggle, signaling its end. A few hours later, Tim left the stage and headed to the elevator without answering reporters’ questions.
Keep an eye on these guys. They’ve climbed some mountains, here and far, metaphorical as well as physical. They are the sports-business world’s most interesting bros, although I’d pick up the dinner tab to be at the table with them and Michael and Martellus Bennett.