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This week marked a big milestone for the future of pro sports and live entertainment in Seattle as the City Council approved a new $660 million deal to renovate Key Arena, signed by Mayor Jenny Durkan today.

It’s the latest chapter in a decade-long saga that started after Seattle’s NBA franchise departed to Oklahoma City in 2008. Numerous high-powered groups and individuals have been involved in the process of building a potential new stadium in Seattle, including former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who was part of a ownership group that nearly brought the NBA back to Seattle in 2013.

But the city has now put its faith in Oak View Group, a Los Angeles-based organization led by Tim Leiweke, a sports industry veteran who has experience building new arenas across the globe.

Leiweke spoke at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit this past June in Seattle and talked about his vision for the new Key Arena, which could re-open and host an NHL team as soon as 2020. He addressed various topics ranging from transportation; security, esports; Amazon; and Seattle’s technology industry boom.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Getting to and from the new Key Arena is a hot topic and OVG has committed $40 million toward transportation improvements in the surrounding area. Leiweke said technology will play a big role:\ “Thinking about technology as an opportunity to communicate to people how to get to and from the campus, without thinking that they had to park right next door to the arena, is the greatest challenge we have with this particular development.”
  • Leiweke expects that Key Arena will host 20 esports events per year, and he wants to engage with companies like Activision Blizzard. “Do I think 18,000 people come into each and every one of those 20 nights to watch people play games? I’m not sure it’ll be 20,000, but look, if you do 5,000-to-8,000, and that keeps your building busy, and those are 20 nights that you can schedule around your anchor tenant and your concert business, I think it’s a fantastic addition completely driven by technology.”
  • Leiweke said the place where technology can be most effectively used is security, noting tools like facial recognition and drones. “There’s changes coming with security that will be able to keep our fans, our campuses, and our facilities safe. I think it’s the technology that will ultimately help us understand who’s on our campus, where they’re at on our campus, and how we get them into the building and out of the building as quickly and as convenient as humanly possible. From a security standpoint, the way you secure your campus, at the end of the day, is going to be technology.”

Read on for the full interview with Leiweke (edited for brevity), or watch the video above.

Renderings of Oak View Group’s proposed KeyArena renovation. (Oak View Group Image)

GeekWire Editor Todd Bishop: “It’s been a couple weeks since Oak View Group was announced as the preferred partner for the redevelopment of what’s now known as KeyArena in Seattle. You’ve said that this Seattle arena renovation plan is the most iconic, the most visionary, and the greatest opportunity you’ve been involved with. Now, that’s from a person who oversaw, in previous roles, development of arenas including STAPLES Center, L.A. Live, the neighborhood, the O2 in London. What makes this the most iconic and the greatest opportunity you’ve had so far?”

Oak View Group Tim Leiweke: “…I think this is a unique situation, because seldom in your life do you have a chance to bring a winter sports franchise to the fastest-growing marketplace in all of North America, and I think for those of you that live here, you know this. For those of us that have been coming to this town for 20 years, we certainly have learned this. When you walk through Amazon’s campus and you look at what’s going here; when you hear Google and their announcement of the new jobs they’re moving down here; when you see Expedia and the campus they’re building; you begin to understand how dynamic Seattle is and what a great opportunity it is. The fact that they don’t have a winter sports franchise is shocking, so our ability to bring either a hockey team, a basketball team, or both here is fantastic.

But also, we could sit here and debate where the arena ought to go, but if you look at Seattle Center, this is a building that was built back in 1962. That’s where the Space Needle started. That’s where this community hosted the World’s Fair. The history and the tradition of this building is amazing, and our ability to go in and add 350,000 square feet and not make the roof change, and honor the historic nature of the building, and spend $564 million doing it and going down, it’s a hard project. It’s a visionary project. It’s an amazing project. It’s on 75 acres of the most beautiful campus I’ve seen in any urban core, and we get a chance to bring winter sports back to Seattle in the fastest-growing marketplace in the United States and North America.

I don’t know where else we’ll ever have a chance to do that again, and it certainly isn’t something I’ve done in my career, so we’re extremely excited about it, but we’re also nervous. This isn’t for the faint of heart.”

Tim Leiweke speaks at the 2017 GeekWire Sports Tech Summit. (GeekWire photo / Kevin Lisota)

Bishop: “Let’s fast-forward to 2025. I’m an NHL fan or an NBA fan, and I’m going to this new Seattle arena. Sketch out the vision for me. What’s the experience going to be like from going from my house to the arena, buying the ticket, getting through the gate, experiencing the game, interacting with the players? Just give me the highlights of how this arena is going to be different and what the fan experience is going to be like.”

Leiweke: “One thing that occurred to me, I got up early this morning and I walked not only the campus at Seattle Center, but also the campus at Amazon. It’s really remarkable when you walk through what they’re doing. It’s shocking, gutsy, innovative, and scary to see a company grow that fast. The thing that occurred to me, as I looked at the hundreds and hundreds of young people walking into that campus, is, I looked around and I realized there’s not a lot of cars. They’re not coming in cars. They’re coming in buses. They’re on bikes. A lot of people were getting off the light rail that’s in and around their campus.

It was pretty remarkable to see that the new generation, they understand … look, Uber, Lyft, and Curb didn’t exist 10 years ago, eight years ago. These are new phenomenons that are changing the way that we think about how we get from point A to point B. If you look at new technology that people can pre-reserve a parking space and put it into an app, and the app will take you directly to the parking space on the night of an event, none of this existed just a few years ago.

What we’re going to have to think about for 2025 is driverless cars. People always kind of chuckle when I talk about, do we have drones that are taking people from point A to point B? At the Consumer Show this year in Vegas, they were there, and it was pretty amazing to watch, the fact that there’s a new mode of transportation that is going to come in our lifetime at some point or another, and that will change the way we think about how we bring people in and out of our facilities.

Thinking about technology as an opportunity to communicate to people how to get to and from the campus, without thinking that they had to park right next door to the arena, is the greatest challenge we have with this particular development. Same in Miami. We’re not building a parking garage in Miami at the MLS stadium there. By the way, some of the other projects we’re looking at, we’re not looking at building parking garages either, because we think the world’s going to change, and there’s going to be technology, in particular, a huge impact on getting out of the car and either doing driverless cars, Uber, mass transportation, or ultimately finding ways to park and then commute in by doing what I think people are going to do here, the Monorail.

I think the biggest change will be security. Those that think these issues and incidents and acts of terrorism that we’re now seeing in and around live music, sports, and facilities is going to come and go — unfortunately, this is our way of life, and we have to be prepared for it.

So, we can no longer secure [just] our building. If you look at every major terrorist attack that has happened in the last three years now, the majority of them are happening on the outside, not the inside. We’ve all spent huge amounts of money on X-ray machines, and metal detectors … coming into this building last night, we had to go through a bag check to check our bags in order to go through a line in order to go through security in order to get our tickets ultimately taken, so…”

KeyArena renovation
Renderings of Oak View Group’s proposed KeyArena renovation. (Oak View Group Image)

Bishop: “Will technology change that?”

Leiweke: “Sure. It should, because what we need to do is ultimately say, we need to keep our fans safe, that’s first. And we need to do it using technology so we don’t make them wait in three lines. That’s not good for our fans, so how do we do that? Technology is going to allow us to have facial recognition, and that’s going to change security. Security will no longer be about a building or a stadium — it’s going to be about a campus, and security is going to have to get stretched, and we’re going to have to have security everywhere. There will be aspects of technology, drones, cameras, facial recognition, the new Ticketmaster system where you know who has that ticket and who’s in your building. Why do we make our season ticket holders, if we know it’s really our season ticket holder coming into the building, and Pete’s been a season ticket holder for 20 years, why is Pete going through three lines? He’s not our threat.

I think the other thing is, there will be non-technology. To this day, if they would have had ‘Vapor Wake’ dogs in Manchester, that bomb wouldn’t have gone off — at least, not there, because the dog would have smelt it. I’m still a huge fan of ‘Vapor Wake’ dogs for our campus, because it’s the only technology we have today. Amazingly, there’s only one machine they’ve invented today that can smell bomb belts like that, and it cost over a million dollars for one of the machines, and you got to walk through it in order to really make it work.

So just a quick story. This is not technology, but it shows you sometimes the things that we have today, that exist today, might be the best solution. The New York Mets ended up buying a bunch of ‘Vapor Wake’ dogs, and they donated them back to the police department, and then when the Mets had games, the police department would bring the dogs to Citi Field. St. Paddy’s Day Parade two years ago, a million people on the streets of New York, most of them not feeling any pain, bomb dogs walking along, nose goes up in the air, and he goes back a block and picks up on a guy, and the police officer says, ‘I’m afraid my dog smelled something on you. I got to pull you out.’ Checks him out, nothing there, walks away. Another half block later, the dog’s nose goes back in the air, he goes right back to this guy. They pull him into one of their substations they had on the route, and as it turns out, he had a nitroglycerin pill for his heart in his pocket, and the dog smelled it almost a block away.

We’re going to need that on our campuses until we figure out technology that ultimately can replace the nose of a dog, which is the most effective means today at making sure … I’m not worried about the arena at the Seattle Center. I’m worried about Seattle Center and the 75 acres, so what we’re going to have to do in 2025 is make sure we protect the entire campus.”

(GeekWire photo / Taylor Soper)

Bishop: “When you talk about that, the first thought that goes across the minds of a lot of folks out there is privacy. If you’re going to be scanning my face, tracking my movement through the arena or Seattle Center, I’d rather just stay home. What do you say to people who say that?”

Leiweke: “I’d say I don’t agree with that at all. One, we don’t make going to sporting events convenient today. Let’s admit that what we’re making people go through right now is a bit extreme, and yet last night [Sounders FC owner Adrian Hanauer] had 45,000 people here.

I think if you look at the fan experience today, it’s not great. I think technology’s going to make it better, not worse, and still, we need to come together as a society and ultimately celebrate. If you look at what happened in Manchester, a week later they had 60,000 people show up at the stadium and a defiant message that you will not disrupt our choice, and our freedom, and our lifestyle, and we’re going to have the right to go where we want to go, and yes, we’ll put up with the other aggravation we now had to put up with. Our challenge is to understand that people want to come together and celebrate. The game’s still always much better in person than it is on TV and on distribution channels, but that said, what we have to do is say, how do we do that, make them feel safe, and not make them go through three lines of security in order to get to the event and enjoy the moment?”

Seattle traffic
Snarled traffic in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Bishop: “You mentioned earlier walking through the Amazon campus. Obviously, there is a very large employee base of Amazon, but if you look back at KeyArena when the Seattle Sonics were still here, a big portion of the audience for those games came from the Eastside. There’s no real option for light rail in the short-term across SR 520. Wouldn’t that make the argument for Interstate 90 and the Sodo arena being the arena and the location that could better serve the broader population?”

Leiweke: “Yeah, I’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding getting into shooting at any other project, and I’m going to stay with that.”

Bishop: “Well, let’s talk about your project. What do you say to people on the Eastside who say, “It’s not the bridge, it’s the mess’?”

Leiweke: “Here’s what I say. Two million people went to KeyArena about eight years ago when they had the Sonics, they had the Thunderbirds, they had the concerts, and they had the family show. Since that time, they’re now introducing computerized lighting systems on Mercer. We’ve never had them before. By the time we open our arena, we will have that.

Within 10 years of the arena opening, there will be a light rail station there, and in the meantime, if you look at not only the technology that’s been created, and Uber, and Lyft, and hopefully driverless cars, that will get people in and out of the building, the infrastructure in and around Seattle Center has gotten better, not worse. There’s actually more parking there than there was when the Sonics are there. Look at the gates and the beautiful headquarters building they built and the garage they have next door.

What we have is, we have traffic in Seattle everywhere … The newspaper that we were just at is next to the Space Needle in Seattle Center. It took me five minutes to get on the freeway. Then the freeway stopped, and it stopped because of what’s going on right here, and that’s people trying to get out, and it was completely blocked. Then we came here, and guess what we hit? A train, so we were trying to figure out how to get on the ramp and get above the train, and so there’s nothing easy in Seattle.

You’re the fastest-growing city in the United States. You’re going to have traffic problems. The traffic problems are not KeyArena’s. The traffic problems are Seattle’s, and we have to solve them. But at the end of the day, next door the Amazon campus has 35,000 people going and coming from that campus each and every day. They not only get there, but stand down in that campus and look around and what will amaze you is, it seems to me the majority of those people are getting there either walking or commuting somehow. There’s not a ton of cars that were on the streets within the campus today.

We have a lot of work to do to figure out a transportation plan. I’m not claiming it’s going to be perfect — it’s not. But I went down to Staples Center a few weeks ago, and it took me an hour and a half to drive down there. Last time I checked, Staples Center sells out every night, still.”

Valve hosts The International, a big esports event, each year at Key Arena. (GeekWire photo / Kevin Lisota)

Bishop: “How much are you depending on the continued tech boom to make this project economically viable in terms of the ultimate demand for games, entertainment at the arena?”

Leiweke: “I think technology makes the experience better. It doesn’t replace the experience, so we should understand that. I think looking at the Amazon campus and understanding they’re a tech company — do I feel better about the $564 million bet, plus buying a team, when you look at 35,000 people in that campus? Yes. We feel much better that technology and Seattle becoming a technology hub is going to have a huge impact on the people that we get to talk to to buy our tickets for sports and music.

Do we ultimately think there’s going to be esports? Yes. I think there’s 20 nights of esports that will be in this building. We’re just following the lead of the guys that are thinking about esports as well as anybody — Activision and Blizzard — and their league is going to be 20 nights. We’re excited about that concept and that technology. Do I think 18,000 people come into each and every one of those 20 nights to watch people play games? I’m not sure it’ll be 20,000, but look, if you do 5,000-to-8,000, and that keeps your building busy, and those are 20 nights that you can schedule around your anchor tenant and your concert business, I think it’s a fantastic addition completely driven by technology.”

Bishop: “In terms of that, you’ve said that the NHL is likely to be first, and I recognize you’re being very careful not to speak on behalf of any of the leagues.”

Leiweke: “I’m the only guy I know that’s not in a league and still getting fined by commissioners. It makes no sense whatsoever.”

Bishop: “Is it conceivable that we could have an NBA team, and a Sodo arena, and an NHL and entertainment arena separate at KeyArena?”

Leiweke: “People could spend money, so if you’re going to privatize both arenas, and one’s going to run off and get a hockey team, and the other guy wants to go get a basketball team, so be it. But here’s what I do know. [NBA Commissioner Adam Silver] has been very clear on this. There’s no expansion currently being debated, discussed, or contemplated at the NBA, and I wouldn’t if I were them either. Their TV contract is fantastic now, so it’s not even a conversation.

The problem with Seattle is twofold. One, their hearts got ripped out seven, eight years ago when the Sonics left, and it was not done in a great way, and they were misled and some people came in, and ultimately they had a personal agenda that cost this community their basketball team. I think people are bitter about that. They don’t think it was handled well by the league, by (former NBA commissioner) David Stern, by the political leaders. I think we have to inherit that distrust.

Now, add to that that for seven years they’ve been told, ‘I’m going to get you an NBA team,’ and then we come along and say, ‘I’m sorry for being honest, but there is no NBA team to be gotten right now. They’re not expanding.’ Because of the job that Adam Silver has done — and he’s done a tremendous job as commissioner of that league — there’s no teams that are in danger today of failing in their marketplace and moving.

The reality is, the conversation is one where if you just do simple math, there’s 31 National Hockey League teams. There’s 16 in the east and 15 in the west. It takes you about a second to figure out they need another team out west. Is there a better marketplace west of the Mississippi today than Seattle for a winter sports franchise?

What they need is, they need an arena, and then they need an owner. Well, we believe we have a vision to do both. If someone else wants to come along after we do that and build another arena and put the basketball team in there, great. I’m fine with that. I don’t think it works, especially when Live Nation is our equity partner, and they’re going to put 40 or 50 nights of music in the building they own every day of the week — so you lose all the music, and you lose the hockey, and then you’re going to go put another arena up and spend $600 million privately. I think that’s a tough economic bet.”

Key Arena hosted a tennis match between Roger Federer and Bill Gates this past April. (GeekWire photo / Taylor Soper)

Bishop: “One thing that might have gotten lost amid the announcement about the choices of your group as the preferred partner is that Jerry Bruckheimer is among your partners. I mean, we’re talking Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Armageddon. How will Jerry Bruckheimer’s sensibilities impact the design of this arena?”

Leiweke: “I think we have two really interesting partners in David Bonderman and Jerry Bruckheimer. David Bonderman owns lots of things through his partnership in TPG, including Cirque and CAA, and so he’s in the entertainment business, he’s in the technology business, and I think he’s going to bring a very sharp mind to how we build a building that is, from a technology standpoint, very advanced.

We have to be as good as San Francisco and not only the 49ers’ current stadium and the job they’ve done with technology, but what [Golden State Warriors owners] Joe, Rick, and Peter are doing with the new Chase Center and how brilliant that building’s going to be. Sacramento, and what [Sacramento Kings owner] Vivek and [Kings President] Chris Granger have done there, phenomenal.

We have to be as good as that, because it’s Seattle, and I think Bondo’s going to bring us relationships, connections, experience, knowledge and a drive to force us to really think outside the box on we have to be as good as any other building from a technology standpoint.

Jerry is going to be about the experience. He’s going to be about the brand. He’s going to be about the hockey team.”

Bishop: “So explosions is what you’re saying.”

Leiweke: “Well, we’ll see. Maybe we’ll have pirate ships kind of skating through the ice in the middle of the game. Jerry has been chasing the NHL for a long time. He’s a passionate hockey guy. He used to sit next to me. His season tickets were next to mine for the Kings, so he went through our Stanley Cup run with me. There’s no one more passionate than Jerry about how to build a hockey team, how to build a brand, and how to build something that’s going to entertain people. Those are two good partners, and they also happen to bring an enormous amount of not just expertise, but their wealth is going to help us, because we have to privatize the building, and then we have to go buy a team.”

Bishop: “My last question here is about technology. What are your thoughts on augmentation of the experience, either in the stadium through VR, or at home through continued annotation of the screen?”

Leiweke: “The ability now to replay, to look at calls, to look at near misses that should be maybe goals or shouldn’t be goals — I think technology has made that better. We all wish it would go a little bit quicker, and I think it will over a period of time, but I think, again, I believe technology enhances the experience. It doesn’t replace the experience. I think what’s going to happen is, our ability to go up to concession stands and pull what we want and walk right out, and not have to go through a checkout lane … the theory of ultimately living in a technology world where we get rid of lines, we get rid of cash, we get rid of the hassles of security, I think that is a huge opportunity for our industry, and I’m really excited about the future, because it’s changing every day very quickly.”

Bishop: “You mentioned esports earlier. Will esports influence the actual design of the arena as you’re thinking about the unique nature of that experience?”

Leiweke: “Probably. We’re spending a lot of time thinking about technology and events in the venue, and one thing I’d say is, it’s not lost on us that you have Amazon here, you have Microsoft here, you have a lot of technology in this marketplace. If we could get to them quickly, what we want them to be seen as is a visionary partner in the design of the building and the design of the customer experience. So my guess is, whether it be esports and having a relationship with Activision and Blizzard, to think through what that’s going to look like in five years if you’re coming to an esports event, or it’s a hockey game and thinking through how we could improve the customer experience. We’re sitting in one of the great technology capitals of North America. I would hope we can empower them to help us think through how we make this experience in our building very unique and something special to Seattle.”

Bishop: “Don’t forget about Valve and Gabe Newell. I mean, I’m sure he would want to have a say in this. Have you ever thought about engaging with them in terms of the design as well?”

Leiweke: “I think you’re going to see a lot of people that we haven’t even met yet in this town hopefully be activated into our process. There’s a lot of really smart people in this marketplace, and we’re excited about trying to utilize all of their thinking on making this their arena. This is an amazing marketplace with a lot of very smart people.”

Bishop: “What would be your key takeaways for this audience, people interested in technology in sports? What are the key things you would want them to know about where things are headed?”

Leiweke: “Well, I think our lives are all going to get better, because technology is changing so quickly and challenging us to rethink the customer experience. To me, the one place where it’s most evident is security. There’s changes coming with security that will be able to keep our fans, and our campuses, and our facilities safe. I think it’s the technology that will ultimately help us understand who’s on our campus, where they’re at on our campus, how do we get them into the building and out of the building as quickly, as convenient as humanly possible, and from a security standpoint, the way you secure your campus at the end of the day is going to be technology. The dogs are important, but at the end of the day, that, to me, is going to change all of our lives and our business far greater than any other aspect of what technology is going to do to facilities or sports going forward.”

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