Tod Leiweke doesn’t exactly keep a low profile. He was largely responsible for turning the Seattle Seahawks into the hyper-popular NFL franchise they are today, with fans known for cheering loud enough to create literal seismic activity. He also spurred the feverish excitement around the Seattle Sounders in the MLS and was CEO of the Tampa Bay Lightning for five years. And, oh yeah, he was COO of the NFL as recently as 2018.
And yet, during his time as CEO of the Seahawks and the Sounders, he was an 11:00 p.m. hockey player, the type who joined his pals at the rink on a Sunday night to release stress. During those graveyard-shift beer-league games, Leiweke witnessed Seattle’s overlooked love for hockey. Just as the maniacally passionate Seahawks fans contradicted the tired stereotype of Starbucks-swilling hipsters populating the Pacific Northwest, Leiweke saw, anecdotally, indications of an untapped market that would embrace the NHL.
The NHL board of governors agreed in December 2017 to consider an expansion application from Seattle with a $650-million fee, and the nascent franchise named Leiweke president and CEO a few months later. He didn’t perceive the market as a blank, unexplored desert from which the team would have to cultivate a fan base from scratch, which is what the Vegas Golden Knights were tasked with doing in June 2016 when they scored an NHL franchise in a market known to be populated by transplants from other states and countries. According to Leiweke, traditional research didn’t necessarily paint Seattle as a fertile hockey destination, but he firmly believed the fans were already out there and would swallow up tickets in a frenzy. He was right. When the season-ticket drive kicked off on March 1, 2018, a total of 33,000 depositors signed up in the first 48 hours. Nine months later, on Dec. 4, 2018, the NHL board of governors approved Seattle as the 32nd franchise. Even after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the franchise had sold out its season-ticket pool by early 2021.
The team brass, including co-founders and co-majority owners David Bonderman and Jerry Bruckheimer, felt extremely confident in their burgeoning fan base, and the process of naming the team only solidified the feeling. The concept came from the people of Seattle, after all. When Leiweke, who is also part-owner, would engage with Seattle citizens in the months after the NHL approved the franchise, he’d ask them for suggestions on a name. The most common, by far, was the Kraken. As he puts it, the concept of a giant, tentacled sea monster already “lived in the theater of their minds.” It was an idea befitting the wildlife that accompanies a port city.
“Big, big animals live here,” Leiweke said. “Some of the biggest octopi in the world live right here in Elliott Bay. I think the mystery of the sea is what brought many people here, and it is totally synonymous with this city on the sea. Bringing people into that, it’s not like we named the team after some fictitious character that doesn’t really have footing within this community. This is about as authentic as you get, named by the fans, unique to our city. I’m not sure many teams would’ve named their team the Kraken, but here it worked brilliantly.”
On July 23, 2020, Seattle’s NHL team officially adopted the name, sporting a tentacled ‘S’ with a glowing eye as its primary logo and a color scheme of “deep sea blue,” “ice blue,” “boundless blue,” “shadow blue” and “red alert.” Introducing the tangible brand spiked already high expectations for the franchise’s entertainment experience. The Golden Knights had set a new standard for spectacle when they arrived in 2017-18, leaning into their medieval themes and channelling the sparkly pizzazz of a Vegas show, making the pre-game experience at T-Mobile Arena a must on hockey bucket lists. So how are the Kraken, with a fresh and flashy team look, going to measure up? If you don’t think they felt the pressure, check out their recent hiring history. They’ve tabbed Jonny Greco, the Golden Knights’ former vice-president of events and entertainment and chief experience officer, as the Kraken’s senior vice-president of live entertainment and game presentation.
So what should new Kraken fans expect? Will players skate out for games under giant tentacles? Will costumed pirates command ships inside the arena, calling to “RELEASE THE KRAKEN”? Leiweke keeps the plans to himself lest he ruin the surprise. But he is supremely confident fans will love the in-game experience. One reason why: the configuration of Climate Pledge Arena.
The venue, which will seat 17,100 for hockey, is simultaneously state-of-the-art and a piece of Seattle history. It’s managed by Oak View Group, a consulting and investment company in sports and entertainment that, not coincidentally, is headed by CEO and co-founder Tim Leiweke, Tod’s brother. OVG redeveloped the venue from KeyArena, the on-and-off home of the NBA’s SuperSonics from the 1960s through the early 2000s, as part of a $700-million project that included preserving the arena’s iconic roof as a historical artifact. As for the drastic changes underneath the roof? They connect with the new arena name and will shape the fan experience. ‘Climate Pledge’ was the name that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos chose when his company purchased the rights to rename KeyArena in June 2020. The goal was to use the new moniker to raise environmental awareness, and OVG has incorporated many features to live up to the arena’s name. It hired Jason McLennan, a world-renowned sustainability architect, for the arena redevelopment. The result was a subterranean design, because building an arena into the ground reduces the facade materials needed and the greenhouse-gas emissions that come with it. According to the Kraken, Climate Pledge Arena will have the greenest ice in the world, created using rainwater, and will be the first arena to ban single-use plastics. It will also be the lowest embodied carbon arena in the world, because saving the original roof reduces all the materials that would’ve been needed for construction from scratch.
So why will the environmentally conscious design enhance the fan experience? Because an arena below-ground allows for a vertical seating plan right on top of the action.
“It’s a bowl that I think is as tight and intimate as any bowl built in the modern era,” Leiweke said. “You’ve got to go back to the old-time arenas, whether it be the Boston Garden, the Montreal Forum, Chicago Stadium, to get that sense of what our bowl feels like.”
When the puck drops in October 2021 on the Kraken’s first game, how many fans will pack the bowl? Because of the pandemic, it’s too early to know, but management is optimistic about seeing a capacity crowd for Game 1. As of early June, approximately 65 percent of King County’s population over 16 years old has received both doses.
Whenever people can start populating the arena, the Kraken believe they’ll see a fan base as economically diverse as any in the league. The two Seattle Center Monorail stations will be remodelled in time for the start of the 2021-22 season and are directly adjacent to the arena. In Leiweke’s mind, that makes the experience of attending a Kraken game possible for many different income brackets. You don’t need a car and a parking spot to get there. The idea ties into the franchise’s bigger-picture commitment to inclusivity and accessibility, which includes the One Roof Foundation, a new charity focused on three pillars: improving youth access to hockey with a focus on BIPOC youth and in BIPOC communities, helping end youth homelessness and raising environmental awareness.
The commitments to making hockey more accessible are also reflected in the Kraken’s entire hiring process. You won’t find a more diversely staffed team in the NHL. It’s not even close. Approximately 45 percent of the Kraken’s staff are women, most notably director of hockey strategy and research Alexandra Mandrycky and senior quantitative analyst Namita Nandakumar (see The Hockey News’ Draft Preview edition for a profile on both). Members of the BIPOC community account for 26 percent of the Kraken’s staff. Is this the most progressive franchise in the NHL? It is to any outside observer, but the Kraken don’t see themselves that way. They want this level of representation to be the norm.
“I’m not so sure we think that we’re progressive,” Leiweke said. “In wanting our staff and ultimately the sport to be diverse, those are principles that everyone in hockey should, and many have, embraced.”
So it’s clear that newly minted Kraken fans can feel confident they’ll get an exhilaratingly fresh experience once they see their team debut in October. They’ll have a franchise to be proud of, on the cutting edge of sustainable energy and inclusivity. But will they also have an instant winner?
As far as expansion teams go, the Kraken have the toughest act to follow in major-pro sports history after the 2017-18 Golden Knights won the Pacific Division and crusaded to the Stanley Cup final. Vegas built a much stronger roster than anyone predicted, largely because it exploited teams’ financial woes and scored high-upside players in side deals. In hindsight, it’s hard to believe then-GM George McPhee acquired Norris Trophy threat Shea Theodore as a “thank you” from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Vegas taking Clayton Stoner’s contract with its official expansion-draft pick.
So will the Kraken have similar advantages to exploit? It’s complicated. On one hand, GM Ron Francis knows other GMs league-wide have their backs up this time.
“The previous expansion draft before Vegas was in 2000, so it had been 17 years before Vegas came into the league in expansion,” Francis said in an April media availability session. “A lot of the GMs who were in place hadn’t been through expansion before, and it was a new experience for everybody and a new set of rules. So certainly there was an advantage for Vegas over some of the teams at that point. Plus I don’t think teams had as long a runway to prepare for that expansion draft. This time, it has only been four years since the last expansion draft. A lot of the same GMs are in place. I’m sure they’ve learned a lot, and they’re going to do everything they can to make sure they’re better protected against us.”
On the other hand, the loss of league revenues as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic may end up accidentally creating advantages for Seattle similar to what Vegas experienced. As Francis points out, the salary cap is expected to hold flat at $81.5 million for a second consecutive year, and many of the existing contracts were signed pre-pandemic under the pretense of the cap rising each year. It was supposed to climb as high as $88 million for the 2020-21 season, so it could’ve even crested $90 million by 2021-22. Instead, teams will bump their heads on an $81.5-million ceiling again, and many are desperate to unload money. That puts side deals squarely back in play, and Francis says some GMs have even begun kicking the tires with him.
Also working in Seattle’s favor: with the Vegas experiment going so swimmingly and the public perception of the Kraken’s business decisions to date being so positive, Seattle shapes up to be an instantly attractive free-agent draw. The Golden Knights only signed one UFA during their exclusive negotiating window before the 2017 expansion draft, but the Kraken should be a much bigger threat to snatch quality UFAs this time. Multiple prominent agents have suggested to The Hockey News that their UFA clients consider Seattle a legitimately exciting destination. Any UFA signed before the expansion draft, however, counts as a player chosen from his previous team, so it’s unlikely Seattle signs more than a couple UFAs before the expansion draft, as the Kraken are best off preying on players under team control to create leverage.
Nevertheless, Seattle will exploit every possible avenue to build a winner.
“The more darts you throw at the board, the better chance you have at success,” Francis said. “We’re open to anything and everything as we try to build this team, from draft picks to guys who are RFAs who might be left unprotected to guys who are UFAs we look to sign. We’re not opposed to looking in any areas to try and build the best possible team we can in the first year as well as build the organization for the long term to be successful year after year.”
As Leiweke puts it, the greatest fan experience Vegas provided was going to the Stanley Cup final. The Kraken’s No. 1 priority is to deliver the best on-ice experience possible. Given all the other ways they plan to bring the game to a better place off the ice, however, don’t be surprised if they start collecting fans all over the world, regardless of where they sit in the standings.
This is an updated version of a story that ran in the 2021 Draft Preview edition of The Hockey News, which includes several other stories on the Kraken as part of a larger package. You can purchase the issue here.