Tim Leiweke explains how renovated KeyArena will bring NHL, NBA to Seattle

SEATTLE -- Let it be known: Tim Leiweke is a sports fan.

The CEO of the Oak View Group, which hopes to invest more than $600 million to drastically rebuild Key Arena, loves just about any game you can think of. Signed Pele soccer balls, Shaq's shoes and dozens of trophies line his office. He rifles off NBA rebound statistics and obscure MLS trades easily.

When he talks NHL, his eyes go wide with fantasies of unbeatable goalies and bearded coaches. In a perfect world, they'd be part of a team in Seattle.

But love sports as he may, Leiweke also presents himself as a realist.

In an exclusive hour-long interview with Q13 News' Bill Wixey, the 60-year-old with a decades-long history in sports said a few things that might make Seattle fans cringe.

There's no magic fix to Key Arena gridlock. A new arena won't automatically bring back the Sonics, especially in the next three years.

Still, Leiweke adamantly believes a rebuilt Key Arena is the best way to get one - if not two - professional sports teams to Seattle. He also believes his Seattle ties, his friendship with Adam Silver, and his vast experience in sports entertainment are Seattle's best shot at seeing professional basketball again.

Starting Sunday, Q13 News will bring you Bill Wixey's exclusive eight-part series with OVG CEO Tim Leiweke. You can watch and read some of the highlights below. 

Part I: The pain of losing the Sonics

It's hard to believe it's been more than a decade since the Sonics left town.

But for thousands of Sonics fans around Seattle, the wound is still raw. And their only request is repeated daily:

Bring our Sonics back. Any way you can.

Leiweke says he understands how fans feel about losing their team. He's seen the joy and jubilation a city gets from gaining a sports franchise. As someone who helped the Quebec Nordiques move to Denver in 1995, he's also seen the devastation as a team pulls away.

"I understand the frustration and the hurt and pain," Leiweke said. "I've been through it."

He says Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett never wanted to keep the Sonics in Seattle. The band-aids of previous, quick-fix Key Arena remodels made it all the more easy for the team to be taken away.

"People had an agenda," Leiweke said. "They had an agenda and were going to do whatever they could to make it happen."

As easy as it seemed to take the Sonics away, it won't be nearly so simple to bring them back, Leiweke says. Despite the promises that are made by a variety of parties about timelines and deadlines, it's not a quick fix.

"I know you want me to say," he said. "You want me to say I'm getting the Sonics back and they're moving next back year. I've been saying all along I won't lie to you."

He doesn't promise the Sonics, and he certainly doesn't promise them quickly. But he says his group is by far the best, honest hope the city has.

"You're going to have to trust us," Leiweke said.

Part II: The building, the league and the city

Leiweke's pitch to bring the NBA back to Seattle?

Playing by the rules. Up-front bargaining. Waiting for expansion to occur, not trying to take a team in the "middle of the night."

Much of that is a not-so-veiled reference to Chris Hansen's dealings with the Sacramento Kings.

Hansen's backdoor dealings upset the NBA and commissioner Adam Silver, someone Leiweke calls a friend. It takes time to do it right, Leiweke says, but that's what he's committed to doing.

"It's not going to happen tomorrow and it's not going to happen in a year," Leiweke says. "We need to understand that when the commissioner of the NBA says 'I believe Seattle is going to get a team, but it may take 5-10 years,' he means it."

Leiweke says the city and city officials have made it clear to him that the NBA needs to come back.  From city leaders to the people who check Leiweke in at the hotel when he visits Seattle, the NBA is a priority.

The city has checked over the OVG proposal, Leiweke says, and one of its biggest assests is the fact it lines up with what the city has heard from the NBA. Given Lieweke's history with the league, he says, he knows they emphasis careful planning and a reasoned approach.

"We are 100 percent aligned with the commissioners and the owners in the NBA," Leiweke said.

The biggest priority when it comes to getting a team? Patience. First secure the building, Leiweke says, then get an NHL team in. Then go after an NBA team.

"We are going to be patient and let it play out and people need to understand if there's a chance to bring the Sonics back to Seattle, we are the best team to make it happen," Leiweke said.

Part III: The NHL ownership group

Leiweke and OVG are partnered with investment banker David Bonderman and Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer to bring an NHL to Seattle.

Though Bonderman, Bruckheimer and Leiweke have the resources to bring an NBA team to Seattle if the opportunity arises, he says, an NHL team comes first. Mostly, because the NHL is yearning to expand. There are 31 teams in an unbalanced league. One more team would balance out scheduling.

Seattle is perfectly situated for hockey, Leiweke says. The city is a sports hub for a large region, including Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Alaska. This large region is quite a carrot for the NHL.

"There are 12 to 14 million people in the region," Leiweke said. "There's a natural rivalry with Vancouver. We would be the only team that operates in the region and one of the biggest draws in the NHL."

Seattle also already shown an appetite for hockey. The Seattle Thunderbirds draw some of the biggest crowds in the Western Hockey League, and the Everett Silvertips are well established as well.

Another benefit to the league is the city has shown a penchant for expansion franchises. Take a look at the Seattle Sounders, which Leiweke's brother, Tod, played an instrumental hand in. NHL brass could look to the Sounders as a shining example of how new teams are embraced in the Emerald City.

"We aspire to learn from the Seahawks and the Sounders and the job they've done," Leiweke said. "If you see those results, and being the only (NHL) team in the Northwest, you have to feel pretty good about the odds of success."

Part IV: A new arena under an old roof?

Leiweke says there's confusion in the marketplace about OVG's plans to renovate Key Arena. People hear the term renovation, and their minds jump to earlier attempts at fixing a dilapidated Key.

Make no mistake about it, Leiweke says. The $600 million put into revamping the arena will totally change its feel.

"First, this is a new arena," he said. "This will be a world-class arena. It will look like you are walking into a new building because you will be."

Aspects of Key Arena, built in 1962, will remain. The iconic roof. The glass fronts. Its relationship with the Uptown neighborhood.

Everything else, Leiweke says, is sure to be improved. More seats, more floor space when needed, and first-class luxury suites. It will look and feel like some of the more prized buildings in the NHL and NBA.

And it will be up and running by 2020. An no, Leiweke doesn't think that's an overly aggressive timeline.

"I've built 18 arenas and stadiums in my career," Leiweke says. "There's no reason to say it will take three years when it can be done in two."

With only around 17,500 seats planned for the NHL, and the possibility for about 18,000 seats for the NBA, it may have among the least number of seats in both leagues. But smaller, more intimate sporting venues are what the league is gravitating toward, Leiweke says. Gone are the 20,000-plus seat NHL arenas of the past.

"United Center is literally taking seats out to get a little smaller," Leiweke said.

Acoustically, new Key Arena will have no rival, Leiweke said. OVG's partnership with Live Nation means some of the best acts in the world will come. Lighting, acoustics and concert venue seating needs to work as well as the anchor-tenant NHL.

"We want to make sure it's tight, acoustically perfect," Leiweke said

Part V: The transportation problem, and possible aids

One major sticking point has been on the minds of Sonics fans when it comes to a Key Arena renovation: Traffic.

How can we get 18,000 people into and out of the Seattle Center when Mercer is already such a notorious mess?

Leiweke admits traffic in Seattle is a problem. Everywhere. Not just around the Key.

"What I can tell you is we are not solving your traffic problems," Leiweke said. "Anyone who comes along and says 'don't worry about it, we have you covered,' - they don't have it covered."

There are ways to mitigate traffic problems around an 18,000 seat arena, Leiweke said. In 10 to 12 years, light rail is projected for the Seattle Center. That could go a long way in moving mass amounts of people efficiently.

Until then, design spaces accommodating rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft can help prevent rideshare bottleneck. The traffic lights along Mercer need to be computerized so they sink up, allowing traffic to run without as many stopages. Monorail needs to be better advertised and easier to access.

Leiweke and OVG are offering $40 million over the life of the project for traffic cops, light-timing fixes and other ways to bridge the gap until light rail comes.

Remember too, Leiweke says, that Seattle Center already serves as a community gathering place for concerts and sporting events. Add that to Amazon's continued expansion and the area around the Key routinely sees heavy traffic, even without a hockey game.

"There are 12 million people that go to the Seattle Center, almost twice as much as the heyday of the Sonics," Leiweke said, noting it's much more than an arena that creates traffic problems.

"It's an issue we are never going to have a perfect solution to but I assure you we are going to spend every day trying to make it better." Leiweke said.

Part VI: The next steps

The city council should vote on Dec. 4 whether to approve the Memorandum of Understanding for the arena given by OVG. This is the day after SoDo arena backer Chris Hansen's MOU expires with the city. From there, studies will need to be done before KeyArena is gutted.

City officials are reportedly looking over the MOU extensively, and Leiweke said he's talking constantly with the brass.

Despite the city's notorious bureaucracy, he claims his work toward a Seattle arena is among his best, even though few tangible movements - like shovels in the ground - have been made.

He said he won't stop until it's done.

"For me and my lifetime and my career I consider this a highlight," he said. "I'm having a lot of fun with this right now."