SEATTLE - Chris Hansen says he’s not done in his pursuit of an NBA franchise and a new arena for the city.
“We’re committed to moving forward,” said Hansen in a wide ranging phone conversation Monday afternoon, his first since Steve Ballmer, his former business partner, was buying the Los Angeles Clippers.
“There are no shortage of interested majority, and minority partners,” said Hansen, who acknowledged that Ballmer carried significant financial muscle. The lead investor for Seattle’s new arena project said that Ballmer had wanted to keep their group small, because it has the financial power, but would likely now seek about 5-10 people for their ownership group.
The NBA approved Ballmer’s $2 billion purchase of the Clippers last week, pending a vote by the league’s owners, also known as the Board of Governors. That could happen quickly. Hansen says he will not be a minority owner of the Clippers.
The San Francisco resident, who grew up in Seattle, says he’s now more concerned about the escalating values of NBA franchises, in the wake of Ballmer’s purchase, instead of finding minority investors.
“We’ll need other partners, likely, as franchise values go up, but it’s not a major hurdle,” said Hansen.
Still, he says the rising cost of the NBA franchise values provides more equity, and backing, for the arena project.
“The city’s in more of a secure position,” he added.
The future of the project and the city’s NBA hopes were immediately called into question after Ballmer dropped the bombshell last week. Ballmer was thought, by many, to be the financial backbone of the group, given his estimated $20 billion in personal wealth.
Hansen’s group won approval back in 2012 to build a half billion dollar NBA/NHL arena, pending an environmental review of the project. The group would be issued up to $145 million in financing, should he acquire an NBA franchise, and up to $200 million in public financing for an NBA and NHL franchise. Hansen and Ballmer’s bid and relocation of the Sacramento Kings was turned down last year.
Ballmer’s planned purchase of the Clippers has sent tongues wagging at both the City and County Council chambers. The former Microsoft CEO’s name, along with former Sonics minority owner Wally Walker, and Pete and Erik Nordstrom added significant financial and local strength to the bid. Some Seattle elected leaders have grumbled privately that the proposal, without Ballmer, is now in jeopardy. The deal still needs a final vote after the environmental review. Only city councilman Nick Licata has made his thoughts known, calling Ballmer’s departure a “red flag.”
King County Councilman Joe McDermott, however, said last week that Ballmer’s involvement in the project “isn’t essential.” McDermott chaired the county review of the project and is the current budget and fiscal management committee chair. McDermott says that Hansen could finance the complex arena deal on his own.
“My understanding is that the reviews that have been done on Mr. Hansen’s finances, alone, that he could support this deal,” said McDermott last week, adding that while altering the MOU for an NHL team to prompt construction was “certainly possible,” it “probably doesn’t make financial sense for only NHL.”
Real estate magnate Victor Coleman, along with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, met with King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray back on May 6. Murray says the NHL identified Coleman as a prospective owner and asked about the possibility of changing the existing Memorandum of Understanding on the project to allow for an NHL team to prompt construction. Murray said last month that he told the NHL the council was unlikely to do so.
Hansen said he’s also not actively trying to change the MOU.
“We would like to bring the NHL to Seattle, the NHL would do really well,” said Hansen. “It would be fantastic.”
But he says an NHL owner would have to come to the city and be willing to offer a deal that “does not dilute protections and security,” calling it a combination of money and risk. He says the discussions should primarily happen between the NHL, city and county.
Constantine issued a statement last week saying, “Here in King County, the resolute work by investor Chris Hansen to build an arena started well before Mr. Ballmer was involved, and it will continue after. We will keep working to bring back our Sonics and bring the excitement of NHL hockey to our region.”
Constantine has privately been meeting over the last several months with interested hockey investors and has been trying to quietly move the project forward, according to government and business sources tied to the project.
Coleman has recently acquired a group of office buildings in the Seattle and Lynnwood areas, and dropped $281 million on two buildings near the existing stadiums in the Pioneer Square/SoDo area. He has declined comment on his NHL or Seattle interests.