In ways subtle and profound, Seattle pro sports just became better Wednesday.
The development won’t make Ichiro younger or NFL-penalty-leader Germain Ifedi more mature. It will make the prospective NHL team more successful and will make Seattle more attractive to the NBA.
The best possible person to upgrade Seattle’s sports future, Tod Leiweke, is back.
The CEO who re-invented the concept of the 12s, helped the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl and hired Pete Carroll and John Schneider, has returned to Seattle. The CEO who helped make the Sounders the most successful expansion franchise in modern American sports history will be CEO of the prospective NHL expansion franchise expected to be awarded to Seattle this year and open in a renovated KeyArena in 2020.
Most of all, Leiweke is a guy, according to his good friend, Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer, “who people run through walls for.”
It’s hard to say what may prove the more valuable contribution from Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke for the NHL’s long-term future in Seattle: The $660 million in private funds secured to make over a 55-year-old public building in the face of massive skepticism, or the hire of his brother.
Both events are remarkable advances after the weary civic trudge since the 2008 hijacking of the NBA Sonics by prairie pirates.
But money is always available for proven risk-takers. As one member of the OVG crew that is taking on the development risks said at the Seattle Center press conference announcing Tod Leiweke’s hire, “Tod left the second-best job in America.”
That would be the NFL’s chief operating officer, the No. 2 post behind commissioner Roger Goodell. The assumption around the NFL was that Tod Leiweke would be a popular, worthy successor to Goodell in the most powerful U.S. sports job, particularly since Goodell is ham-fisted where Leiweke is skilled.
As Hanauer put it, “(Tod’s) one of those rare individuals who’s smart and competitive, with all the business skills to go with it, wrapped around one of most genuine, caring, empathetic people you’ll ever meet.”
A lot of people in the NFL are thinking an opportunity has been lost.
Rather than wait for the retirement of Goodell, who just signed a contract extension, Tod Leiweke fled the sports epicenter for the fringes, a left-coast job in the No. 4 sport in America for an expansion team that won’t play for almost three years in a building that is not yet guaranteed to be (re)built.
“I found the NFL an amazing, fascinating place to work,” Tod Leiweke said Wednesday at the presser, where he was joined by the prospective club’s primary owners, filmmaker Jerry Bruckheimer and investment banker David Bonderman. “I was starting to get quite comfortable in my role there. I wasn’t looking.
“But the stars aligned.”
What were those stars? Here’s four, in no particular order, all of which were necessary:
— Hockey: The Leiweke brothers grew up in St. Louis with mad love for the NHL Blues. When Tod was CEO of of the Seahawks/Sounders from 2003-10, he played as often as his schedule allowed in a senior men’s league.
“I’ve probably been to 500 hockey games in my life,” he said. “I love it. I played it when I was here. I’d do it again. I’ve asked my wife to get me into a better training program. I’m bringing back 10 more pounds than I left with.”
He left the Seahawks in 2010 to be CEO/part-owner of the NHL Lightning in Tampa Bay, something less than a sacred ground for hockey. They made the Stanley Cup finals in 2014-15, after which the NFL swooped him away.
— Seattle: “I love this town,” he said. “It’s an incredible thrill to come home.
“I think this could become a great market in NHL. I think what’s unique in hockey about this (potential franchise) is the ownership group and the extraordinary building my brother is helping create. I think it is the perfect set-up for recruiting the best, whether it be general manager, coach, trainer and, ultimately, players. This is going to be a very, very special place to play hockey.
“One of the great things about Seattle is community, and the community of teams is so fantastic. They all find a way to get along. They don’t feel like they compete. They feel like they work together.”
— Brother Tim: The boys’ mother died when Tod was nine, a step-mother died later. The family was not well-off and neither went to college. Now the boys are near the pinnacle of the U.S. sports industry.
“We always remained friends,” Tod said. “We worked in the same business, and now we work together.
“He did what others couldn’t do (in creating a Seattle arena). We wouldn’t be here without you.”
Tod looked at Tim, sitting to his right against a wall, and for a couple of moments, there was a quiver of chins and a threat of salt water. If it wasn’t sincere, it was certainly good theater.
— Expansion: Lance Lopes, an OVG senior executive who worked under Tod Leiweke as Seahawks general counsel, said starting fresh is ideal for Tod Leiweke.
“With expansion, you don’t have to clean up somebody else’s stuff,” he said. “It took us five years with the Seahawks.”
“It’s kind of fun to start from scratch, so you can build a culture the way you want,” Tod Leiweke said. “I’m not here to kinda make it work. I’m here to make it work.”
Tod Leiweke took over a Seahawks franchise in the doldrums and helped make it work for three Super Bowl appearances. He was put in charge of a soccer expansion franchise that has never missed a postseason and won an MLS Cup. And his Lightning had the NHL’s third-highest regular season points total (113) as playoffs begin Thursday.
The feats required the hard labors of many beyond himself. That’s a Tod Leiweke specialty.
“He has the ability to recognize, and surround himself, with good people, to give them enough direction to help them do their best,” Hanauer said. “You see it in his delivery — his honesty, humility and the ability to drive people to success based on their personalities.”
At the press conference, Tod Leiweke spent most of his remarks citing many in the room — an impressive gathering of Seattle sports figures, current and retired — for their deeds previous and contemporary. It came off not as an Oscar winner’s gush, but as a sincere and personal expression of gratitude upon the start of another push for the pinnacle.
He lit the lamp at the presser. Next: The Stanley Cup.
Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com.