Tim Leiweke Has the City's Support, but Don't Mistake the Potential Seattle Sonics Savior for a Philanthropist

"Bear in mind that when Seattle gets a professional hockey or basketball team, neither is going to be called the Seattle Altruists."
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This article appears in print in the February 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Like a squirrel discovering a bird feeder that hasn’t been varmint-proofed, the Seattle City Council has vigorously glommed onto Tim Leiweke and fully expects to extract from him the following promissory kernels: Making Seattle Center great again. | Fixing the Mercer Mess. Again. | Bringing a National Hockey League team to Seattle. | Bringing a National Basketball Association team to Seattle. Again. | Dragging the Monorail into the 21st century. Or at least the 20th century. | Getting our kids into Ivy League schools. | Whitening our teeth.

OK, I haven’t yet found those last two items in the Memorandum of Understanding Leiweke signed with the city in December. But I’m pretty sure he’s good for it because Tim Leiweke makes everything seem possible. 

Not since Tim’s younger brother Tod helped make the Seattle Seahawks a National Football League powerhouse has Seattle seen a salesman so smooth, so savvy, so sure of himself. Tim Leiweke, as you may have heard, is the cofounder and CEO of Oak View Group (OVG), the Los Angeles-based firm that pledges to create a new sports/entertainment venue — please don’t call it a remodel — under the historic tin hat of KeyArena. The city council loves Leiweke because, like his brother before him, he says all the right things with the charm of a golden retriever and the certainty of a silver bullet.

And talk about connections! In sports management circles, Leiweke has held major executive positions and/or had ownership affiliations with 12 professional teams — four in the NBA, three in the Major Indoor Soccer League, three in Major League Soccer and two in the NHL. The guy knows more people than Oprah.

And his persuasive skills are legendary. In Los Angeles, he got Farmers Insurance to agree to a naming-rights deal on a football stadium — Farmers Field, I kid you not — that never broke ground. Six years ago, an article in The New Yorker quoted former NBA Commissioner David Stern — the all-time bête noire of Seattle hoops fans — describing Leiweke as “a sort of modern-day P.T. Barnum.”

Now there’s an endorsement Seattleites ought to weigh carefully. The commissioner who helped facilitate the hijacking of the Seattle Sonics to Oklahoma City likened our purported basketball savior to a funhouse showman fond of perpetrating hoaxes on the unsuspecting.

To be fair, I know Tod Leiweke, Tim’s brother, to be a kind and honorable man, so I’m willing to cut Tim considerable slack here. He clearly wants to build Seattle a classy arena at virtually no cost to the city, while also kicking in money to find solutions to the inevitable traffic snarl coming to Lower Queen Anne and paying to accommodate other Seattle Center tenants being affected by two and a half years of disruption and construction.

What’s not to like? The city obviously believes Leiweke is The Man for All Seasons — or at least hockey and basketball season — and that hitching its wagon to his winning personality is a good thing. But bear in mind that when Seattle gets a professional hockey or basketball team, neither is going to be called the Seattle Altruists.

Leiweke isn’t in this to lose money or break even. After spending five years and millions of dollars, his previous employer, Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), walked away from the L.A. stadium endeavor when it didn’t pencil out. As the Los Angeles Downtown News noted at the time, in March 2015, Leiweke is like a cat that always lands on its feet. He is nimble and clever, and the city should be ever mindful that it is partnering with an entrepreneur, not a philanthropist. 

John Levesque is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine. Reach him at john.levesque@tigeroak.com.

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