Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
After losing millions of dollars during the Sonics' final years, the 52-year-old Key Arena is a moneymaker again.
After years of losing money, the 52-year old arena turned a $1.2 million profit last year, according to a report in Sunday's Seattle Times. That's a full reversal from 2005 when it lost over $1.5 million.
Why the shift? After the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City in 2008, the arena took on a more diverse collection of tenants. Seattle University's men's basketball team moved in. So did the city's roller derby squad. (Seattle's WNBA team has been at the arena since 2000.) Most significantly, it's taken on more events and concerts.
With no NBA team, many weekends and prime nights have been open for booking, and that's resulted in more bands making sure their tours stop at Key Arena. Although the venue is owned by the city, L.A.-based AEG Facilities is responsible for booking shows, operating suites, and managing sponsorships.
Key Arena's new fortunes will likely reverse as soon as a new arena gets built. Concertgoers often complain of the building's poor acoustics, and big acts will want to play at the biggest, nicest, venue in town. So would a hypothetical NBA team.
Built as part of the Century 21 Exposition, the arena formerly known as the Seattle Center Coliseum was fully renovated and its naming rights sold to Key Bank in 1995 (the sponsorship deal expired in 2011, but it's still called Key Arena). After Clayton Bennett bought the Sonics in 2006, the arena was deemed by the new owner as unsuitable for his team. Two years later, the Sonics packed up for Bennett's hometown and never looked back.
When hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen came close to moving the Sacramento Kings to Seattle in 2013, a new facility was seen as a must. The city council reached a tentative agreement with Hansen to build a facility in SoDo near Seattle's NFL and MLB venues, but NBA owners ended up voting against rejecting Sacramento's relocation. The Kings were then sold to another group who kept them in Sacramento.
For now, Seattle remains NBA-deprived while Key Arena stands as a modest venue turning a modest profit. It's a reminder that when a sports team moves away, the loss can be more noticeable in the emotions of a city, not necessarily its balance sheets.