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Originally published February 12, 2015 at 5:01 PM | Page modified February 13, 2015 at 9:23 PM

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New investor groups forming to bring NHL or NBA to Seattle

Jac Sperling, who has strong ties to both leagues, and New York investment banker Ray Bartoszek have been courting potential partners, possibly giving Chris Hansen’s proposed Sodo arena project some competition.

Seattle Times staff reporter


When Jac Sperling calls, people drop what they’re doing and pick up the phone.

As a longtime NHL and NBA deal maker, the Florida-based Sperling has phoned people nationwide the past year about a specific topic: forming an investor group to bring hockey or basketball to the Seattle area.

And Sperling isn’t the only one doing this.

Two sources with strong NHL ties indicate that New York investment banker Ray Bartoszek also spent much of 2014 courting investors to lure an NHL team to a Tukwila site owned by Seattle real-estate magnate David Sabey. Bartoszek, 50, who’d hoped to buy and relocate the Phoenix Coyotes to Seattle in 2013, is said by two sources to be close to finalizing and announcing his group of national and local investors.

Sources say Sperling and Bartoszek realize the NHL likely will come here first, given the NBA’s reluctance to expand. But sources say both remain open to adding an NBA team later.

Bartoszek is vacationing abroad and could not be reached.

Sperling, 62, when asked whether he is putting a group together, said only: “Seattle would be a very strong market for an NBA or NHL team.’’ Mason Cave, senior partner with IntraVest Development of Arizona, which wants to lure arena investors to a Bellevue site it controls, said he’s had multiple phone conversations with Sperling since August.

The conversations were initiated by Cave, who wanted opinions on how to get IntraVest’s land up to NHL arena standards. But eventually, their conversations morphed into bringing an NHL team to Bellevue.

“Jac (Sperling) indicated he might have some people who would be interested in the team ownership but not on the land-ownership side,’’ Cave said. “So we’re kind of stuck on the land assemblage.’’

Sperling is also said to have looked into the Tukwila site informally while he assembles investors.

Tukwila the likely favorite site

The sources say a Tukwila or Bellevue arena would require up to $500 million in mostly private funding.

And that high cost means potential groups realize any arena — especially with only an NHL tenant to start — needs to be incorporated within a grander entertainment district to maximize revenue. That’s why the vast Tukwila property — totaling 66 acres — appears the favored site.

Sabey has long envisioned an entertainment district replacing the site’s current use as the chief distribution center for Unified Grocers. He said as much in an August 2007 rezone application with the city of Tukwila, saying grocery storage was “outdated” and the land would work best with “office, retail, lodging, entertainment and light industrial warehouse and manufacturing uses.’’

The application described “a likely development scenario” of 700,000 square feet of offices, 550,000 square feet of retail, 80,000 square feet of hotel lodging, 60,000 square feet for a movie theater, and 100,000 for light manufacturing. It said the eventual departure of Unified Grocers offered a unique opportunity to enhance the site’s “prominence” and that existing light rail lines could allow for a station there.

Jim Kneeland, a spokesman for Sabey, agreed more is envisioned for the site.

“He does think it’s a very strong location for a corporate campus of some type that might include hotels and some of the things that are involved,’’ Kneeland said. “And it could include an arena. But it’s not the centerpiece.’’

Though potential sports owners sometimes do initial location scouting, they typically line up investors before approaching land owners. Kneeland added that anybody wanting to discuss a project of that scale needs to have the NHL on board to get Sabey to bypass other deals.

“He doesn’t want to tie that site up for years while they line up a team and all of those things. If they came to him and said, ‘We’ve got a deal, we want to look at your site and see how it fits into what you’re doing,’ I’m sure he’d talk to them.’’

And a deal with the NHL won’t happen until any new group announces itself as official.

The Unified Grocers’ lease with Sabey recently was extended two years to April 2017 while the company seeks a new location. That means no serious arena groundbreaking could occur before then, though an NHL expansion franchise could be awarded and temporarily play elsewhere.

The NHL was prepared to let the Coyotes play three seasons at KeyArena had they relocated to Seattle.

Sabey previously expressed interest in an arena. Former Sonics owner Clay Bennett, who moved the team to Oklahoma City in 2008, told reporters the previous year that Sabey had approached him about building an arena on his land to keep the franchise here.

But Kneeland said Sabey, though an avid Seattle sports supporter, would want others spearheading any major plan involving an arena.

Sabey’s son, Jim, is head of marketing for Parkwood Entertainment, the company founded by pop music star Beyoncé. Kneeland said Sabey knows there are potential synergies with the music industry, and that’s why he initially envisioned an arena when buying the property in 2007.

Things are different in Bellevue, where IntraVest has a deal to buy 4.4 acres from a local firm called Dog Walk LLC once the land is rezoned for greater retail use. But two city-owned parcels just north of the site need to be bought by a different investor and consolidated with the IntraVest site into one 10.4-acre property for an arena.

Asked whether Sperling was putting an ownership group together, Cave said: “I think he may be looking for a group. But I don’t think he officially has a group.’’

Sperling and Leiweke relationship

Sperling has strong NBA ties, having agreed to run the Hornets franchise in his native New Orleans in 2010 at the league’s behest after it took over that team. Sperling later brokered the 2012 sale of the Hornets — now named the Pelicans — to Tom Benson, who is 87 and being sued by his estranged daughter and grandchildren over his mental competence to run the franchise.

Depending on that case’s outcome, the Pelicans eventually could be put back on the market.

Another interesting note about Sperling is his ongoing business relationship with former Seahawks president and CEO Tod Leiweke. The pair teamed up in 1998 when Sperling helped broker the deal that brought the NHL expansion Minnesota Wild to St. Paul.

Sperling became CEO and now is the vice chairman of the Wild’s ownership group, and Leiweke served as the team’s first president. Leiweke joined the Seahawks in 2003 and since 2010 has been CEO of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning.

Leiweke and Sperling recently were reunited in Tampa Bay, as co-advisers to Lightning owner Jeff Vinik in his $1 billion “Channelside” development around the team’s Amalie Arena. Leiweke declined to comment for this story, except to say that Sperling’s business deals are his own and he has not been approached to join any NHL or NBA ownership group here.

Cave said it was Leiweke who arranged his phone introduction to Sperling. Leiweke in September 2013 spent $3 million to purchase a Mercer Island waterfront home — once owned by Seahawks coach Mike Holm­gren — and spent much of last summer in Seattle.

At one point, Sperling flew here as Leiweke’s guest and was introduced to various sports and business figures. Two people who’ve spent time with him are Sounders owners Joe Roth and Adrian Hanauer.

Hanauer and Leiweke remain close friends from their days launching the Sounders under the Seahawks banner. They vacationed together last month in the Caribbean.

In an interview, Hanauer said he’s met Sperling but has no interest in joining any NHL or NBA owners group and hasn’t been asked. Roth did not respond to an interview request.

For all his deal making, Sperling doesn’t take a lead role in any group. His payoff usually comes from compensation for brokering the deal itself and — as with the Wild — an occasional board or executive title.

That’s why, as long as Leiweke maintains a seven-figure property here, with connections to Sperling and local sports figures, he’ll loom as a potential player in any future Seattle franchise. As a sitting CEO and part-owner of the Lightning, however, Leiweke could never link himself to a Seattle project until an expansion team is in hand.

Cave said he’d been approached by some Bellevue City Council members “acting in an unofficial capacity” in May about yet another NHL group. But he never heard back and doesn’t know whether that group also is looking at Tukwila.

A source said one reason groups are shy about officially dealing with Bellevue is the strong political ties between Mayor Claudia Balducci and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Constantine is a key supporter of Chris Hansen’s proposed Sodo arena project, and rival NHL groups worry about tipping their hand too soon on alternative plans.

Bartoszek front and center

As for Bartoszek, he is said to be the frontman in his group. A minority owner of the New York Yankees, Bartoszek has longed to bring an expansion franchise to Seattle since the Glendale (Ariz.) City Council voted to keep the Coyotes there.

With plans to relocate the Coyotes to Seattle, Bartoszek told The Seattle Times last April that it was time to move beyond the proposed Sodo site and look for alternative arena locations.

At one point he considered Seattle Center but dismissed that. And although Cave and IntraVest managing partner Thomas Roskos once hoped to lure a relocated Coyotes franchise to a new Bellevue arena, a source with knowledge of Bartoszek’s group said he has now zeroed in on Tukwila.

Bartoszek is expected to announce his group in March or April upon returning from vacation. One potential investor he approached, according to multiple sources, was Hollywood producer Thomas Tull.

With a net worth estimated around $1 billion, Tull has been courted by multiple potential Seattle owner groups.

It is unclear whether he would join Bartoszek. A Tull spokesman declined to comment.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, typically reluctant to discuss Seattle possibilities, told a Vancouver, B.C., radio station two weeks ago that groups are interested in Bellevue and Tukwila. Bettman’s new openness appears to back up the contention by sources that Bartoszek — and perhaps Sperling — are further along than anyone has indicated publicly.

And that would mean one thing: Hansen and his oft-delayed Sodo project soon could have bona fide competition.

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286


On Twitter @GeoffBakerTIMES

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