Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 23 No. 24
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Forum: The ambition of Tim Leiweke

If there is an early favorite for dealmakers during a pandemic, it would be Tim Leiweke and his Oak View Group. In March — just a few weeks into the global shutdown — I was assured that his organization and its Global Partnership Group would complete three massive naming-rights deals by Labor Day, which would continue the run it started with naming-rights deals at the University of Texas basketball arena (Moody Center) in November and the Philadelphia Union’s Subaru Park in February.

Even after my conversations in March, I doubted the run would continue, but I am about to be proved wrong. Look at the results of the past six weeks. First, in one of the most innovative and groundbreaking naming-rights deal ever, Tim, his brother, Tod, president of Seattle Kraken, the host team of the venue, and OVG’s Dan Griffis completed a 20-year naming-rights deal with Amazon for Climate Pledge Arena, which promises to be the most environmentally advanced arena in the world. The deal was valued at nearly $400 million. Then, just four weeks later, OVG closed another stunner — a 20-year deal for Swiss investment firm UBS to obtain naming rights for the New York Islanders’ mixed-use Belmont Park Arena and development on Long Island. This one was valued at roughly $350 million. OVG was able to close these deals despite the pandemic, as sources tell me the talks were far enough along that the concerning global climate didn’t ultimately derail the interest of the brands.

It’s a great example that if you have the right story and vision, even a global health crisis can’t slow a deal. Tim Leiweke, one of the most effective closers in the past 20 years, said the Amazon deal was the most difficult of his career. Think of the complexities: Amazon is incredibly sophisticated in its dealmaking, and certainly doesn’t seek branding. Climate efforts have been a priority of founder Jeff Bezos, who wanted to use the venue to bring awareness to their philanthropic endeavors. So for the Leiweke brothers and Griffis to incorporate Bezos’ vision to transform the arena’s existing design and development to become the “greenest” facility in sports involves remarkable flexibility, nuance and patience. All while understanding the need to meet the demanding standards of environmentalists and sustainability advocates. Any relationship could not be  viewed as a gimmick. It had to change the way people think about building or retrofitting arenas. Not an easy task, and a lesson to all sellers that a good idea always wins. 

UBS, which invests in premium assets — Formula One, Art Basel — is likely focused on the economic return of New York City and a commitment to the vibrant, desirable region. But let’s not be Pollyannaish. There are significant risks to these deals with the uncertain future of the live-event business. OVG and the brands are betting on a massive post-pandemic renaissance where people will flock to these venues in destination draws Austin, Seattle and New York City.

OVG is also not done: It is close to completing a naming-rights deal to its new arena in Manchester, England, adjacent to Man City’s Etihad Stadium, scheduled to open in 2023. Deals of this size continues a theme we’ve talked about since March. There are some organizations playing offense and this should inspire the rest of the industry.  In a call last week, a source asked me incredulously, “How is Oak View doing this?”  For Tim Leiweke, it’s his hope and belief that these deals will send a message. “We are focused on generating a new sense of enthusiasm and energy that our industry will recover, and the corporate community is as committed as ever,” he told me. “Those that say our industry will never be the same are right, but for the wrong reason. We will come back stronger and better than ever, because we have always been at the center of our communities.” Leaders in sports know Tim Leiweke as a force involved in many aspects of the sports business — some sharply competitive to our own business at SBJ. But if you asked a group of them who would be the leader in carrying the torch of dealmaking through a global crisis, most would point to Tim Leiweke. He’s proved to be up to the task.

THE LEDECKY CONNECTION: As I thought of the Islanders deal, I couldn’t help but think of co-owner Jon Ledecky, the uncle of standout Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky. If you told him a year ago that he wouldn’t be in Tokyo watching his niece going for gold medals but instead be part of a group doing a major naming-rights deal for the team’s sports and entertainment complex in the middle of a pandemic, he surely would have had your temperature checked.

 

First Look podcast, with what Abe's watching this week, at the 26:26 mark:

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.