Can Seattle Support Six Major Pro Sports Teams?

I was reading an article in today’s Seattle Times about a Metropolitan King County Council hearing on the Seattle arena proposal to build yet another sports arena in SoDo, when this bit stuck out to me:

[Councilmember Jane] Hague then wanted to know if the region could support so many teams. Counting the NBA and NHL, as well as the University of Washington football team playing in a new stadium, Councilmember Larry Phillips said the area could have seven major teams. He wondered if any other “midsized major market” supported that many.

“I think this area can support it,” [former Sonics coach Lenny] Wilkens said.

Phillips said he’d want to see a market analysis.

Traditionally the only kind of market analysis I do is for the Seattle real estate market, but once in a while I like to branch out, so I thought I’d give the Council a head start.

To get an idea of how reasonable it might be to have six professional sports teams here in the Seattle metro area, I took a list of the top 30 largest metro areas in the United States and counted up how many pro sports team each metro area currently has. For this analysis, I decided to exclude college sports and just focus on NFL, MLB, NBA, WNBA, NHL, and MLS. Las Vegas is the 30th-largest metro but has no pro sports teams so we’ll leave it off the chart. LA’s Inland Empire (Riverside & San Bernardino Counties, #12 on its own) doesn’t have any sports teams of its own, so I included its population with LA. I’ve also included the San Jose metro area population (#31) with the San Francisco population to better reflect the whole Bay Area.

Here’s the resulting chart, showing where Seattle sits today with four teams (NFL, MLB, WNBA, and MLS):

Number of Professional Sports Teams vs. Metro Population

As you can see, Seattle’s current collection of professional sports teams puts us slightly above the trendline of these 28 metro areas. If we were to add NBA and NHL teams to our roster, it would put us on par with Washington DC, a metro area with 63% more people than Seattle.

[Update: A friend of mine asked for a weighted version of the above chart, where the major sports (NFL, MLB, and NBA) count double. You can view that version here.]

Another informative way to look at this question is in terms of population per team. Here’s a table of that data, showing Seattle’s location with and without two extra teams:

Click on any column header to sort by that column.

Metro Teams Population Pop. per Team
Denver 5 2,599,504 519,901
Seattle (proposed) 6 3,500,026 583,338
San Francisco Bay Area 7 4,391,037 627,291
Minneapolis 5 3,318,486 663,697
Kansas City 3 2,052,676 684,225
Cleveland 3 2,068,283 689,428
Pittsburgh 3 2,359,746 786,582
Phoenix 5 4,262,236 852,447
Seattle (today) 4 3,500,026 875,007
Boston 5 4,591,112 918,222
St. Louis 3 2,817,355 939,118
Tampa 3 2,824,724 941,575
Washington DC 6 5,703,948 950,658
Cincinnati 2 2,138,038 1,069,019
Detroit 4 4,285,832 1,071,458
San Antonio 2 2,194,927 1,097,464
Portland 2 2,262,605 1,131,303
Philadelphia 5 5,992,414 1,198,483
Dallas / Fort Worth 5 6,526,548 1,305,310
Atlanta 4 5,359,205 1,339,801
Chicago 7 9,504,753 1,357,822
Baltimore 2 2,729,110 1,364,555
Miami 4 5,670,125 1,417,531
Houston 4 6,086,538 1,521,635
San Diego 2 3,140,069 1,570,035
New York 11 19,015,900 1,728,718
Los Angeles + Inland Empire 9 17,249,798 1,916,644
Orlando 1 2,171,360 2,171,360
Sacramento 1 2,176,235 2,176,235

At 875,007 residents per local pro sports team, Seattle is already 25% below the 28-city average of 1,174,483. If we were to bring both NBA and NHL teams to our market we would shoot to a full 50% below the average.

It would appear that the answer to Councilmember Hague’s question of whether Seattle can “support so many teams” would appear to be “probably not.”

As for Councilmember Phillips’s question of whether ‘any other “midsized major market”‘ supports six teams, the answer is no. Only five other markets currently have six or more professional sports teams:

  • Washington DC – 6 teams, 63% more people than Seattle
  • San Francisco – 7 teams, 79% more people than Seattle
  • Chicago – 7 teams, 172% more people than Seattle
  • Los Angeles – 9 teams, 393% more people than Seattle
  • New York – 11 teams, 443% more people than Seattle

Not even close.

Obviously a more detailed analysis would take into account incomes, recreational spending patterns, and other factors. That said, we’re obviously not hurting for pro sports teams here in Seattle, relative to the size of our market. So why exactly do we need to spend $200 million in public funds to build a new stadium and bring two new pro sports teams to Seattle?

[Update: Whoa, 164 226 comments and counting on the Seattle Times piece linking to this post. People certainly have strong opinions on this subject!]

[Update 2: …and it’s been posted on the Seattle P-I as well.]

[Update 3]
There have been a number of comments on the Seattle Times piece as well as here on this post about the various other factors that need to be considered when attempting to answer the question of whether Seattle can support six pro sports teams.

Although I did plainly call out that this was just a cursory analysis meant to answer the specific “metro size” questions posed by the Councilmembers, I decided to get the latest Personal Income data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis to run a few additional numbers.

Here’s what the first chart looks like if you use Personal Income as the x-axis instead of population:

Number of Professional Sports Teams vs. Metro Population

I made a weighted version of this one, too if you prefer that.

For the non-stats-nerds out there, the R² value on the chart is the coefficient of determination, which is basically a way of measuring how closely correlated two sets of values are. In this case, total Personal Income and number of sports teams are 82% correlated, which is pretty high, and sightly better than the 79% correlation between population and number of sports teams.

And as long as I’m posting an update with incomes, here’s the table version, looking at personal income per local pro sports team instead of population per sports team:

Click on any column header to sort by that column.

Metro Teams $M Income $M per Team
Denver 5 $121,902 $24,380
Cleveland 3 $84,854 $28,285
Kansas City 3 $85,217 $28,406
Seattle (proposed) 6 $176,085 $29,348
Phoenix 5 $152,810 $30,562
Minneapolis 5 $154,479 $30,896
Pittsburgh 3 $103,039 $34,346
Tampa 3 $105,596 $35,199
St. Louis 3 $117,421 $39,140
San Antonio 2 $78,416 $39,208
Cincinnati 2 $84,611 $42,306
Detroit 4 $170,618 $42,655
Seattle (today) 4 $176,085 $44,021
Portland 2 $90,654 $45,327
Boston 5 $253,463 $50,693
Atlanta 4 $208,107 $52,027
San Francisco Bay Area 7 $374,249 $53,464
Washington DC 6 $323,536 $53,923
Dallas / Fort Worth 5 $277,516 $55,503
Philadelphia 5 $281,517 $56,303
Miami 4 $242,278 $60,570
Chicago 7 $435,413 $62,202
Baltimore 2 $133,587 $66,794
Houston 4 $281,842 $70,461
San Diego 2 $143,109 $71,555
Orlando 1 $75,289 $75,289
Los Angeles + Inland Empire 9 $691,121 $76,791
Sacramento 1 $86,943 $86,943
New York 11 $1,028,140 $93,467

At $44,021M in Personal Income per local pro sports team, Seattle is currently 15% below the 28-city average of $51,811M. If we were to bring both NBA and NHL teams to our market we would be at 43% below the average.

Here’s how the five markets with six or more professional sports teams stack up against Seattle in terms of total Personal Income:

  • Washington DC – 6 teams, 84% more income than Seattle
  • San Francisco – 7 teams, 113% more income than Seattle
  • Chicago – 7 teams, 147% more income than Seattle
  • Los Angeles – 9 teams, 292% more income than Seattle
  • New York – 11 teams, 484% more income than Seattle

It would appear that the answer comes out roughly the same when you factor incomes into the equation. Seattle still just doesn’t stack up with the metro areas that have six or more teams.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that I personally don’t really care whether Seattle gets a new stadium and two new teams. I’m neither a sports fan nor a sports hater. I’ve got no horse in this race, and nobody’s paying me to do this basic analysis. I just saw the Councilmembers quotes in the Seattle Times and thought it was an interesting question worth exploring.

31 thoughts on “Can Seattle Support Six Major Pro Sports Teams?”

  1. I agree, that adding both NBA and NHL would likely “oversport” the region and put teams at some risk. But I think your basic numbers could be refined a bit. For example, the Wikipedia list you reference does not, I believe, include the Everett (Snohomish) or Bremerton (Kitsap) population in the 3.5 million “Seattle” number. I think anyone would agree that if you include Olympia, then these two areas are certainly part of Metro Seattle. Adding those two components still keeps us @ #15, but with aprox. 4.1 million population instead of 3.5 million. As you may have mentioned, adding Riverside to LA makes sense (which puts Greater LA @ approx. 16 million) so I think we’d be considered the “14th” largest market. And if we’re at 4.1 million, there’s no way the Bay Area is only 4.4 million. You need to include the San Jose and Santa Clara region — which makes the Bay Area 6.25 million — which is in line with where they should be (up alongside DC, Dallas, Houston, Philly, etc.). You need to do a little more work on the basic population numbers before devling into the more esoteric aspects of an analysis (incomes, etc.)

  2. You’re assuming that all “professional” sports teams have similar market demands, which is not a good assumption.

    By the way Detroit has a WNBA team, along with the major 4’s.

    1. Detroit had a WNBA team, the Detroit Shock. In 2010 that team moved to Tulsa, OK and is now the Tulsa Shock.

      And I’m not “assuming that all pro sports teams have similar market demands,” I was just trying to answer the fairly straightforward questions posed by the Councilmembers: Does “any other ‘midsized major market’ support [six pro sports teams]?”

  3. I think your analysis is off. The reality is that the WNBA is not a “major” franchise. The Storm is one of, if not the, preeminent and popular WNBA franchise, and typical crowds for those games average 6-7,000 a game. To go with that, there is little corporate sponsorship and tv/radio money. Also, just basing support to population size is wrong. Jacksonville is the largest city in Florida and large market, and only have one team with the Jaguars. Yet despite their large market and being the only show, the Jaguars draw the least amount of fans of any other team in the NFL.

    You have to include the SeaTac region in general. The Mariners recently said that 40-60% of their attendees come from outside the city limits or drive from more than an hour away. As we see with baseball tv deals, franchise value is incredibly dependent on the value that team will fetch for television rights. The Seattle market is the primary market not only for Washington, but largely Oregon, Idaho, Montana and parts of B.C. The Seahawks and Mariners own the rights to those territories, so thus, the value of the television deals will be incredibly valuable. Exceptions would be seen in Oregon for the NBA (Blazers) and MLS (Timbers & Whitecaps), but the NHL team would own rights to Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.

    As you say there needs to be a more thorough look that includes factors such as average incomes, but also local businesses. The reason KeyArena did not function for the NBA’s current economic structure was because of a lack of suites. Businesses will spend hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, for suite ownerships with specific teams. As we well know, Seattle is ripe with many elite companies. Their presence alone make it an attractive market for NBA and NHL.

    Denver is the best possible comparison to what the situation will be like in Seattle (though you seem to discount them because of a lack of a WNBA franchise, but as I said earlier, its a stretch to include that as a definitive pre-req). They are easily able to support the NFL/NBA/NHL/MLB. They struggle a bit with the Rapids of the MLS, but that is still a league that has yet to capture mainstream attention. The Rapids are part of what MLS fans call “MLS 1.0″, whereas the Sounders are “2.0”. MLS 2.0 began with the introduction of Tornoto FC in 2006 and the next wave of expansion. Since the arrival of Toronto FC, every MLS expansion market sense has been widely popular and much more profitable than 1.0. In Denver the MLS is still growing, and is perhaps the one franchise that is not supported as well.

    The only time Denver has not supported a team as well has been the teams don’t perform well. The Rockies are a prime example, and could be compared with the current Mariners situation. In the late 90’s, early 00’s the team was terrible. As a result the team went from leading the league in attendance (like the Mariners in ’00 and ’01), to one of the lowest in the league. However, beginning in ’06 the team began to win, in ’07 went to the World Series and last year improved attendance by over 1,100,000 fans from the bottom level of 2005. If the teams win, fans will support it.

    1. I included the leagues that I did based solely on Councilman Phillips’ statement as presented in the Times:

      Counting the NBA and NHL, as well as the University of Washington football team playing in a new stadium, Councilmember Larry Phillips said the area could have seven major teams.

      I didn’t include UW football just because it would be too difficult to figure out which college teams are big enough to count as “major” in all 27 other metro areas. It’s not like I’m getting paid for this or anything, it was just a quick analysis to answer a simple question that was posed by the Councilmembers.

  4. Also as to “why” we should use $200 million in bonds is no different than funding the arts, beautifying & building up the Pike Place area, maintaining parks. People like and enjoy the arts for entertainment. People enjoy Pike Place as an attraction. People enjoy going to parks. People also enjoy going to basketball games. Its a form of entertainment, no different from any kind except for the polarizing issue of the compensation of the performers. We don’t have to, but the arena plan appears to be one in which the $200 million will be re-paid without burden to the taxpayer, meeting the requirements of I-91 that was passed in 2007. Is it necessary? No. But could it be a tremendous civic assest that millions of northwest citizens could draw entertainment from and pour money into surrounding businesses? Yes.

  5. I would say you are nowhere near being able to give an to the questioned posed. A detailed analysis is warranted before forming a conclusion.

    Also – the WNBA is not a major sports league simply in terms of attendance. Not even close. The MLS would be considered a major sports league depending on the market. If you look closer you will see there are a handful of teams that draw very well and more who do not. In Seattle, the Sounders would outdraw both the Seahawks and Huskies football on an annual basis with their currently scheduled home games.

  6. First off, anyone who thinks that wnba team is considered a major sport monetarily, would be misguided for this argument. As was mentioned earlier, Detroit has a major basketball, baseball, football and hockey teams….wnba is not part of this equation. That said, do understand that Detroit is a regional entity when it comes to it. They have all of Michigan and parts of Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana on lock. This can be also said of Dc, where you also have Baltimore only 25 minutes away and shared fan loyalties . Seattle operates like a regional city-state, and with that they could easily pull fans from across Washington, BC, Alberta, and Oregon….even the whole PNW region for that matter. If any new team in Seattle marketed themselves in similar fashion lime the New England Patriots do, you may have a legit way of having this realized.

  7. David, good comments but you forgot to mention Alaska as a part of the Seahawk/Mariner market. All the games are broadcast on stations from Anchorage, AK.

  8. Tim, if you’re going to include the WNBA, you should include Division 1A (FBS) college football programs and Division 1A basketball programs. Many FBS teams outdraw the NFL, and are a significant factor in sports spending. Los Angeles is a good example – no NFL team, but both USC and UCLA are effectively pro teams in terms of draw.

    @ David – Jacksonville may be the largest city in Florida, but it is the 4th largest area in the state and only a fraction of Miami, Tampa, and Orlando metro areas. Jacksonville has been aggressive about annexing everything around it. It’s actually a very small market, comparable to Milwaukee, WI or Oklahoma City. I think it’s #29 in market size among NFL teams (only Green Bay, Buffalo, and New Orleans are smaller).

  9. your assumption of total market saturation in every major metropolitan area is probably an important one to highlight. for example the los angeles area (riverside is a stretch to include) is really several micro-markets, yet even still they are considering the addition of another nba team (Anaheim wants the kings) and an NFL franchise. you must be including the nets in your 11 new york teams, but they are moving to brooklyn, which at the very least removes some peripheral markets. The other variables you ignore that you mention are I think very significant and you cant really make a statement about the viability of an expansion without them. covariance between WNBA and NBA teams should be examined as well, I feel like Seattle is the only example of WNBA without NBA? also MLS fans might be atypical sports fans? also, what about all of those data points of similarly sized metro areas with 5 teams? While this is a legit graph and adds some (concerning) information as to general population trends, I think that “probably not” is a pretty strong conclusion from such weak data.

  10. If you are including the WNBA in your results shouldn’t you also include the Stealth Lacrosse and Mist Lingerie Football teams as well. They draw similar size crowds.

    Most sports entertainment dollars spent in a typical US city go to what many consider the big four leagues (MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA). I think this is one of the major contributing factors of why the MLS has struggled to take hold in other cities. Seattle is quite unique in their support of the Sounders. Sounders aside, Seattle only has two of the big four leagues represented, whereas the other top 13 markets all have at least 3 teams from the big four leagues. There are even several markets much smaller than Seattle that have 3 or 4 teams in the big four (Tampa, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland).

    If you re-analyize your numbers using just the big four leagues you will find that the approximate population threshold to support one major league team is about 600,000 per team. Even a small city like Green Bay/Appleton with a population of around 530,000 can support one team. Seattle could definitely support the big four plus the Sounders without much difficulty. If you factor in future population growth, when the Seattle area grows it will be even more able to support the teams.

    Great discussion!!

    1. Hi Johnnyicemaker, See my comment above about why WNBA was included. To your point about the Sounders, personally if I were in Sounders management I would be pretty concerned about the notion of an NBA and NHL team moving in next door. It seems most other markets that have NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL struggle to find support for MLS…

      1. Somehow I don’t think the Sounders are too concerned…

        Seattle Sounders fans were the fourth largest crowd to watch a soccer match anywhere in the world on Saturday night. Only FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich had larger attendances.

        That’s what the editor of World Soccer magazine wanted everyone to know when he saw the 64,140 fans who packed CenturyLink Field for the Seattle Sounders’ hair-raising 2-1 win in Kasey Keller’s final regular season home game.

        (via mlssoccer)

        Attendance is what you are missing from your analysis. We already know the Sonics attendance records and we’re only talking about an average 17273 fans per game for NBA. NHL comes in with a slightly higher 17322.

        Yep, some folks might have to cut their prices to keep attendance up in the future, but it is a business after all.

  11. I applaud your effort to look at facts without bias for or against the proposal. The inescapable conclusion is that there is great risk of failure. There is another complicating factor that makes Seattle’s prospects for success in this new venture even more risky than your analysis already shows. The NBA and NHL will be sharing the same building. As far as I know, there is no precedent for those two leagues successfully sharing a venue in a market of Seattle’s size. If you look at the markets of equivalent size, you will find a pattern of failure of one or the other of the two sports while trying to share the same venue. In Phoenix, where the NHL team started out sharing the same building with the well-established NBA team, it became clear that the hockey team needed its own venue, and they moved to their current home in Glendale, where they continue to struggle. Moreover, the risk factor is enhanced by the effort to start up two new franchises in Seattle at the same time or nearly the same time. This may have no precedent even in markets much larger than Seattle. The two leagues will be competing for the same ticket dollars, suite tenants, advertising sponsors, and television and radio deals. In fact, the prospects in my opinion are so poor for the success of this idea, I doubt that NHL ownership will ever buy into the idea of joining Hansen’s owned NBA team as a co-tenant in the proposed new arena, because they will recognize these risks. From the moment that Hansen proposed an arena that can only be financially viable if we have two new franchises sharing the same venue, I have been saying the idea is dead on arrival. It has been distressing that the professional analysts on the review panel have not stressed these factors so the public can understand the likelihood that ten years down the road, the arena will be a major public and private headache.

    1. I don’t think the situation in Phoenix is comparable to what they are planning in Seattle. The reason the Coyotes had to leave for their own arena in Glendale is because, like many arenas in the southern US where hockey isn’t a popular sport, the US Airways Center wasn’t capable of fitting a regulation-sized hockey rink on the floor. They had to sacrifice seating and fan experience to make it work and it would have never worked as a long term home for a hockey team. It is the same problem that Seattle’s current arena has and is what has kept the NHL out of the city for decades. What makes this new proposal different is that the arena will be constructed for both games, meaning it will be able to change from basketball to hockey in hours without ruining the fan experience, which is absolutely crucial to a pro sports team’s survival.

      That said, I do think the NHL will be at a significant disadvantage if they entered the Seattle market. On top of established MLB and NFL franchises they will face a rejuvinated Sonics fanbase and a Sounders fanbase that is unlike anything in any other city. The NHL will find success if they manage to capitalize on the things the Sonics and Sounders cannot do; create loyal fans in surrounding states and most importantly in Portland and capture disenfranchised fans from Vancouver.

  12. Simple: If this stadium is SUCH a great deal, a private developer would jump at the chance to put up the 200 million these leeches are tying to suck from the tax payer. The simple fact that they want public money indicates that this stadium will be a money pit, plain and simple.

    As to the poster that tries to compare this stadium to a park: Get real. Public parks (to use your example) are non profit spaces. NHL and NBA teams are for profit businesses, plain and simple. Paying for their “factory” with public monies is straight forward corporate welfare – they’ll be sucking at the teat of the taxpayer. Look up the Reason.com articles on the Washington DC stadium for a great take down on the so called economic benefits of publicly funded stadiums.

    Seattle and the state of Washington have sunk over a billion into the two albatrosses that are the current stadiums when the streets and water / sewer systems of the city are falling apart. But hey, the masses need their circuses while the city figuratively burns.

    1. PS. Looking forward to the flaming responses from the ball sport lovers that think it’s their Almighty Given Right to have some one else subsidize their preferred form of entertainment.

  13. Counting NBA as major and NHL as not makes no sense. Ticket prices for NHL games are quite comparable to NBA tickets in many markets. Both teams host 41 regular season home dates. WNBA pricing is also much lower than NBA or NHL pricing.

  14. Typical “the Tim” half baked spreadsheet job. You need to include a measure of the team’s success. Are they profitable at X population per team? This is just what exists – they may be failing and with a lot of public charity.

    (Note – Profit may not be the correct measure since it includes soft expenses like depreciation. Revenue is probably better because it includes TV and ticket sales.)

  15. Are you able to do an analysis to take into account the Cascadia region as a whole, i.e. Portland, Seattle, Vancouver? I’m assuming that there would be visitors from Portland and Vancouver.

  16. Another key factor aside from population is the economic base. Using the San Francisco Bay Area as an example, it is the 5th most populated metro area in the country after NY, LA, Chicago and DC/Baltimore area. However, the Bay Area is one of the most affluent metro areas in the county as it ranks first among metro areas in average income. So despite having less people than Chicago and the DC area, the Bay Area actually has a bigger economy (supported by the tech industry) with higher total output. It is the third largest metro economy after NY and LA. So it s not a coincident that the area has more pro teams than any other metro aside from NY.

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