First World Problems in the Deep: A Year of Seattle Kraken Fandom
My employer, Amazon.com, sponsors the Seattle Kraken and holds naming rights to its home arena. Amazon CEO Andy Jassy owns a stake in the Kraken. This article represents my own opinion only and not necessarily that of Amazon.com.
Yesterday, I attended my eleventh and last Seattle Kraken game of the team’s inaugural season. The NHL’s newest team is well out of playoff contention, and the Kraken won only two of the 11 games I’ve seen in person. Despite the expenses and the challenges of being a hockey fan, I’m happy with the return of men’s pro indoor sports to Seattle and I’m planning to go to more games in the future.
The NHL voted unanimously to sell Seattle a new franchise in December 2018, and from that moment I knew I wanted to go to its games. I grew up on Long Island as a fan of the often woeful New York Islanders, who played at the dreary Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and I attended a few of their home games as a kid. When I moved to Pittsburgh for school, I latched onto the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were teetering on the brink of financial ruin and who nearly left town. When I moved to Seattle in 2006, the city still had the Sonics, but I never saw them play before they were sold and moved to Oklahoma City. I did see our junior hockey team, the Thunderbirds, play at KeyArena before they moved to a smaller venue in the suburbs.
Professional sports are expensive for owners and for fans, especially for those of new teams. The NHL sold a new franchise to the Kraken for $650 million, a 30% increase over the $500 million that the Vegas Golden Knights paid just a few years earlier. The Florida Panthers, who began playing in 1993, paid just $50 million for their franchise. The Kraken also needed a new arena. KeyArena’s renovation in the 1990s prioritized basketball at the expense of hockey. Oak View Group spent about $1 billion to demolish everything but the arena’s historic roof and to build a new, much larger facility in the same place. After paying for the franchise and for the arena, the owners had to hire a full staff and acquire players for its major and minor league teams. That’s a ton of money to spend up front, and without any substantial public subsidies — Seattleites got sick of publicly-owned arenas after building a few ourselves — the funding came from the private sector. That’s where TV rights deals, corporate sponsors, and ticket holders come in.
I joined a friend’s group to buy season tickets. Ten of us chose to share four club-level seats on the lower deck of Climate Pledge Arena. These seats require a multi-year commitment and require us to buy every game, including preseason games, that the Kraken play at home. My share entitles me to 10 tickets per season; I chose to go solo to each of 10 games, joining a mix of friends and guests for each. We had also intended to sell our tickets to the home opener against Vancouver, but after the secondary market yielded us no good offers, we sold the tickets for face value within the group. I attended the opener with three of my fellow group members.
When I bought my tickets, I thought that they might grow in value. The previous NHL expansion team, the Golden Knights, reached the Stanley Cup Finals in their first season. Season ticket holders get priority access to buy playoff tickets and to buy tickets to other events. Our seats are in a club section with exclusive concession stands and dedicated restrooms, and close to center ice. Despite the nice views from our seats, my group’s tickets haven’t held their value very well. International border restrictions meant that at the start of the season, Vancouver fans couldn’t drive down for a Canucks–Kraken game as easily as they would have in 2019. The team was in or near last place for most of the season. Particularly for weeknight games, tickets sold on the secondary market for less than half of their face value. “Can you imagine paying full price for these seats?” asked a fan rhetorically, sitting next to me at one early-season Kraken game. “I can,” I replied, with only a bit of regret.
The Kraken put a lot of thought into optimizing the fan experience, and I liked most of what I saw. In a brilliant move, the Kraken’s smartphone app grants free passes for most public transit modes, including the Seattle Center Monorail, to ticket holders before and after games. I biked to three games and parked right outside the arena for free. In the cold wet winter, I relied on the RapidRide D Line bus to go to and from games, which worked pretty well. Concession stands inside, with the notable exception of the main team store called “The Lair,” had quick-moving lines and self-checkout options that helped me pay the ridiculously high food and drink prices without a human reading them out to me. (A decent beer is $16 plus tax; a hot dog cost me over $8.) Getting into and out of the arena was very efficient. Local businesses in the nearby Uptown neighborhood did brisk business on game nights. Although Seattle Center has hosted many festivals, I didn’t observe much of a festival atmosphere outside the arena before or after a game. People strode purposefully to the game from parking garages and bus stops. The only popular pre-game attraction at Seattle Center was the Armory building, with a large food court, where the Kraken added a team store and some activities for kids.
For fans, the Kraken’s COVID-19 protocols were well-intentioned but not very well-implemented. Getting into games for most of the season required me to use the CLEAR Health Pass app, which demanded an absurd amount of personal data to generate a QR code proving my identity and my COVID vaccination status. At the nine games I attended while vaccine verification was mandated, nobody validated my vaccination status. Once, without realizing it, I walked right past the person checking QR codes, and nobody prompted me to go back. At the other eight games, a person looked with their bare eyes at my QR code, didn’t scan it to validate it, and waved me inside. Mask wearing was also mandated inside by local policy, although at any given time, I’d estimate compliance at no more than 70% before the mandate was lifted in mid-March. I tested myself for COVID a few days after every early-season home game I attended. Despite having received a couple of exposure notifications on my phone, I never once tested positive after a game.
Even without going to the arena, Kraken fans are likely to get soaked with high fees for watching games legally. Watching most games at home requires a subscription that includes Root Sports Northwest, a regional sports network that is largely owned by the Mariners. Root Sports is only available on cable or satellite TV or on FuboTV, an over-the-top streaming service that with tax costs over $70 per month. I also paid $7 a month for ESPN+ to watch a few exclusive Kraken games — my ESPN subscription through Comcast didn’t include ESPN+ access. For people who prefer streaming services that cost $15 or less per month, live sports are so expensive that they might as well not exist. I know people with six-figure incomes who pirate their live sports streams out of spite. At least the NHL makes highlight packages available for free on YouTube after every game.
Winters in Seattle are bleak. Our days get as short as eight cloud-covered hours. In most years, I’d use my winter spare time to play video games, read, and watch movies and TV. Now that the Kraken are in business, I’ve been watching a lot of the games and following the news about the team. The team’s win-loss record isn’t pretty, but it’s typical for an expansion team. I see plenty of Kraken gear being worn in the city. The team’s gorgeous new practice facility is open to the public and includes classes to help kids learn how to skate and play. If the team does its outreach well, a generation of children will grow up watching hockey and some will end up playing for the Kraken. I just hope that their friends and family will be able to see their games.