Featured Image: Seattle Storm players at Westlake Center, 2002 (photo via Seattle Municipal Archives on Flickr under a Creative Commons 2.0 license)

OPINION: Climate Pledge Arena Will Be the Storm’s Home, Too

As a new arena brings massive investment and support for the Seattle Kraken, the Storm is overshadowed.

by Maggie Mertens

You might think, based on the constant media coverage of Seattle’s new NHL team and the announcements carefully marketing what will soon be known as Climate Pledge Arena as “the future home of the Seattle Kraken” at seemingly every opportunity, that the renovated arena in Seattle Center will be used exclusively for the NHL team that has yet to play a single game.

In fact, a storied team will also make Climate Pledge Arena their home: the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. For the past three years I’ve followed the arena renovation news with interest because I can’t wait for the most successful sports team in Seattle history  — which continues to win, by the way  — to play in an arena worthy of their excellence. 

Instead, all summer, I’ve read breathless media coverage of the Kraken’s big draft. And of Kraken fans (how can you be a fan of a team that doesn’t exist yet?) trying out their season ticket holder seats. And of the special design considerations to turn our old arena into a professional hockey venue. And of the multiple partnerships being made with local restaurants and sponsors between the arena and the Kraken, as if this is the only team that will play in this venue. 

I have nothing against the Kraken. Or hockey in general. I’m glad hockey fans in Seattle will get a professional team to root for — maybe the NWHL will be next? I’m annoyed because setting up the Kraken as the main event and the Storm as a sideshow is just so typical of the double standard that women’s professional sports are subject to.

Anytime someone like me starts to complain that women’s teams don’t get the same level of treatment — in publicity, pay, sponsorship, or broadcast deals — as men’s teams, the same tired argument gets trotted out: Media coverage and investment in facilities and advertising can only come once a team or a league has proven their worth, i.e., once they’re raking in the same billions that men’s professional sports do

So, can someone explain to me how a team that doesn’t exist yet has already proven they’re worth a $1 billion arena renovation and seemingly endless media coverage and sponsorship partners? And the Seattle Storm, who have already brought Seattle four championships (more than any other team in the city), boast not one but three superstar level talents (one of whom has been playing here — and winning — for a decade longer than Russell Wilson), and have a legion of rabid season ticket holders and fans who regularly travel around the country to away games, haven’t proven they’re worth the same level of investment? And are being relegated to a mere footnote in every mention of the new arena? 

I think the answer lies somewhere in the fact that part-owner, president, and CEO of the Kraken, Tod Lieweke, is the brother of Tim Lieweke, CEO of the Oak View Group, the group financing the renovation and that owns a  51% share of the arena. So big-money business partnerships and sponsorships involving the stadium and the hockey team are probably natural — but why can’t they put even token marketing muscle behind a proven team like the Storm? 

After all, in June 2017, when it was announced that Oak View Group would oversee the renovations — but before the NHL had officially granted Seattle an expansion team — Tim Lieweke said when asked about the chances of luring an NBA team back to the city: “We already have an anchor tenant, and it’s the Seattle Storm, and we will treat them as such.” 

But now that opening day for the arena approaches, and nearly every press release and partnership announcement bears only the Kraken logo, and every news story about the arena centers the Kraken and hockey fans, I can’t help but wonder if that priority has shifted since the NHL deal. (The Oak View Group hasn’t responded to a request for comment.)

Don’t get me wrong. I think Climate Pledge Arena will, ultimately, be a very good thing for the Storm. They will be co-tenants of the arena, and they will have their own, separate locker rooms. Their logo appears on the arena’s website. And this is nothing against the Storm’s ownership group, who have grown the team’s presence in the city admirably. I’m just tired of the argument that women’s leagues don’t deserve the kind of huge investment men’s teams get without so much as anyone batting an eyelash. 

Recently, I spoke with sports economist David Berri about fandom and audience growth in women’s professional leagues. He told me that the argument that women’s teams need to earn out, or hit some magical point of popularity to gain financial investment, is false. After all, Berri said, most men’s sports teams weren’t profitable for decades. When Art Rooney began investing in the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1933, for example, it was “one of the [worst] investments you could make,” according to Berri. No one, people told Rooney, would want to watch professional football. But he kept at it. And kept losing money for 40 years before the team even won a playoff game. “Today, [Rooney’s] grandson sits in the owner’s box of a billion dollar franchise,” Berri told me. 

“These people weren’t buying teams because they thought they were a phenomenal investment  — so why aren’t more people doing the same thing with [National Women’s Soccer League] and WNBA?” Berri wondered. “To me, there’s no reason to think that in 50 years the WNBA isn’t going to look a lot like the NBA.” 

And what’s more, the data is already showing that money is being left on the table because of this lack of investment in properly supporting and marketing women’s leagues. A recent study by Sports Innovation Lab, a consultancy firm, showed that fans are already showing up in much greater numbers to watch WNBA and NWSL games — while viewership for most men’s leagues has gone down in recent years. And the authors of this study predicted that if women’s leagues captured just 10% of sponsorship money by 2023, that could earn $2.3 billion in revenue. 

“If you invest, they will come. That’s what we’re saying in this report,” Angela Ruggiero, CEO and co-founder of the Sports Innovation Lab, told CNBC. “Those that understand that shift in revenue will be able to lean into it.”

Veterans of the WNBA know this. Sue Bird and Elena Delle Donne have said as much for years. 

“We absolutely do not get promoted as our counterparts do. Yes, I’m talking about the NBA,” Delle Donne wrote in a post on Twitter in 2018. “Fans feel like they know NBA players. How is anyone to get to know me and my colleagues if we aren’t marketed as much?”

I look forward to seeing how Climate Pledge Arena will offer deserving and supportive Seattle Storm fans a beautiful place to watch basketball starting next spring. I just hope seeing a world-class team at a world-class arena will also be the kick that big business and investors need to bring the same kind of financial support being given to the new Kraken to the championship Storm. After all, they’re the team who have been holding up that historic Seattle roof on their own for the past 13 years.

Maggie Mertens is a Seattle-based writer who covers the intersection of gender, sport, and culture. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, espnW, Glamour, VICE, and other publications.

📸 Featured Image: Seattle Storm players at Westlake Center, 2002 (photo via Seattle Municipal Archives on Flickr under a Creative Commons 2.0 license)

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