How Sonics’ return would fit under Kraken’s new umbrella co.

Sources indicate Kraken ownership is preparing to bring the NBA back to Seattle.

  • Geoff Baker, The Seattle Times
  • Wednesday, May 8, 2024 4:00pm
  • SportsKraken

SEATTLE — Does the Seattle Kraken’s planning of a new umbrella company to house major projects mean the Sonics are being revived? Well, it’s certainly a positive sign — but as with much of the 16 years since the NBA team left, there are important caveats to consider.

Tongues were sent wagging late last week when Kraken co-owner Samantha Holloway teased a summer rollout of the umbrella company that would presumably encompass a revived Sonics franchise given her family’s pledge to seek any available NBA team. That rollout will continue an offseason of major Kraken change on and off the ice as well as in the team’s executive ranks and now beyond with this new company.

Holloway’s email message to season-ticket holders was to watch for “a parent brand that will umbrella the Kraken brand and prepare for other big opportunities” without specifying what those were or specifically mentioning the Sonics. But that company has been in the works for more than two years with the hope of preparing Kraken owners for the possibility of NBA expansion, which is widely assumed closer than at any time since the Sonics left for Oklahoma City in 2008.

The NBA is reportedly close to finalizing a new national television network package for three times the amount of their expiring nine-year, $24 billion deal. Expansion is expected to be the league’s next major agenda item after that.

Although Seattle and Las Vegas are broadly viewed as front-running expansion targets — with Tim Leiweke’s Oak View Group having developed Climate Pledge Arena and now building a new Las Vegas venue to house the franchises — nothing appears imminent. But the Kraken forming the umbrella company leaves them positioned to tackle NBA expansion if it arises near-term while tending to more pressing immediate challenges.

A source close to the team explained: “As the Kraken organization grows and takes on projects like Memorial Stadium, the need for an umbrella brand became clear.” The source emphasized that nothing has changed with the NBA. “When [NBA] commissioner [Adam Silver] is ready, so is this ownership group, but they’ll be careful not to get ahead of this process,” the source said.

The Kraken ownership, led by Holloway and her co-owner father David Bonderman, are entwined with Leiweke’s OVG company in the $150 million rebuild of Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center into a modernized 10,000-seat venue by 2027. Their project’s “One Roof Partnership” name is a nod to the NHL team’s One Roof Foundation charity arm handling the public-schools component of the project.

Having a single sports franchise’s management oversee expansion into other ventures isn’t the way teams typically approach things, as evidenced by the Allen family-owned Seahawks and NBA Portland Trail Blazers being overseen by the Vulcan Sports & Entertainment LLC parent company.

Plans for such a Kraken umbrella company began two years ago, when CEO Tod Leiweke — younger brother of OVG head Tim Leiweke and assumed future head of the new business entity — saw his team president duties shifted to former chief operating officer Victor de Bonis. That freed up Tod Leiweke to focus more exclusively on bigger corporate matters such as the team’s sponsors, launch of an AHL Coachella Valley franchise, the running of Climate Pledge Arena and the upcoming Memorial Stadium overhaul.

Leiweke and de Bonis have their NHL executive origins rooted in the Vancouver Canucks, back when Orca Bay Sports & Entertainment — now known as Canucks Sports & Entertainment — formerly was parent company to the NHL squad and the since-relocated NBA Vancouver Grizzlies in the 1990s. They learned early on how such things are structured and the need for a separate, more distanced corporate layer to focus on overall business interests beyond those of just the hockey team.

The Kraken are finalizing how management of the unnamed umbrella company will be structured. For instance: Do they keep one CEO for the umbrella company and just a president for the NHL team, or two CEOs managing each entity? For now, some smaller corporate restructuring and hires have already taken place within both the team and the umbrella company that should be announced in coming weeks.

Holloway’s family has repeatedly stated its intent to be part of the majority ownership of any incoming NBA franchise.

Her father, billionaire co-owner Bonderman, told The Seattle Times in February 2018 that he and Hollywood business partner Jerry Bruckheimer were prepared to become top owners of any NBA franchise offered to Seattle. Bonderman is already a minority owner of the Boston Celtics and is said to be quietly exploring opportunities to divest that stake in preparation of any franchise becoming available to Seattle.

“It makes a lot of sense, actually,” Bonderman said back in 2018 of owning a future Seattle NBA team. “And if there’s a franchise on offer, we would be in the thick of the fray trying to bring it home to Seattle.”

His daughter, Holloway, who became a Kraken co-owner in December 2022 to oversee the team’s daily operations from Seattle firsthand, is in charge of spearheading the family’s future NBA efforts.

“I think that the Kraken is a new brand and extremely important to this city and our family, and we need to grow this brand and make a hockey fan out of everybody here,” Holloway said upon assuming her Kraken co-owner’s role. “As a separate endeavor, we believe this town needs a basketball team as well — or an NBA team, as it has a great WNBA team already. And our family is prepared to work on making that a reality as we built the arena to be able to do that as well.”

But as has been well-documented the past decade, the NBA will expand only when ready. Local speculation that NBA expansion was imminent proved incorrect in May 2014 when billionaire former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer left a Seattle group headed by entrepreneur Chris Hansen and bought the Los Angeles Clippers — stating he did so because he’d been told the league wasn’t adding new teams.

Eight years ago last week, the Seattle City Council quashed a bid by Hansen’s group to build a new arena in the Sodo District fewer than two weeks after Silver reiterated that the league wasn’t expanding regardless of the vote’s outcome. But Silver indicating expansion may be on the agenda once TV deals are complete, setting the stage for a possible return nearly two decades after the Sonics relocated to Oklahoma City in 2008.

All this change is a huge reason the Kraken are eager to turn the page on their disappointing third season and bring fresh energy to the franchise. They’ve started what they hope will be a summerlong transformation by ending their ROOT Sports TV contract in favor of producing their own game broadcasts for distribution on free Tegna-owned outlets and a streaming deal with Amazon Prime in Washington, Oregon and Alaska.

Just days later, they did something in the works since before season’s end by firing coach Dave Hakstol last week.

The Kraken know things are changing swiftly on multiple corporate and TV fronts and won’t risk the NHL team again stalling out of the gate next fall. They need the hockey squad keeping up with the rest of a growing organization they hope will soon become a major sports power within the region.

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