SEATTLE — Amazon has purchased the KeyArena naming rights, but an unprecedented sports-world twist will see the venue become known as Climate Pledge Arena rather than using the company’s name.
The arena, home to the city’s incoming NHL franchise and WNBA’s Storm, will be powered 100% by renewable electricity when it opens by late-summer 2021 and seek to achieve a zero-carbon footprint. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos broke the news Thursday on Instagram.
NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke said in an interview Thursday that the arena aims to produce zero waste, source food locally and by 2024 eliminate all single-use plastics.
He said the team had long sought increased “sustainability” within the arena, but the Amazon deal takes things to a different level. Talks began roughly a year ago, and though naming rights were discussed with additional suitors, Amazon kept rising to the forefront.
‘We were talking about Amazon and talked about community,” Leiweke said. “And they came back and said, ‘Look, the No. 1 community cause for us and what we believe in most is climate and Jeff’s commitment to the Climate Pledge.’ And we came away inspired.”
What resulted, he said, was something NHL Seattle, the Oak View Group (OVG) arena developer and Amazon all felt could give the city something bigger to believe in during these trying times.
“I never dreamed that we would have this type of platform,” he said.
Naming a venue after something other than a corporate entity, team owner or municipality is rare in North American sports. A company paying for rights and naming a venue after a social cause might be a first anyplace.
Kraft Foods once paid to name a college-football bowl game after a social cause, with the Fight Hunger Bowl played annually in San Francisco from 2010-13 — and the Washington Huskies winning the final contest under that name.
Bezos said in a statement: “We’ve secured naming rights to the historic arena previously known as KeyArena. Instead of naming it after Amazon, we’re calling it Climate Pledge Arena as a regular reminder of the importance of fighting climate change. We look forward to working together with Oak View Group, a new Climate Pledge signatory, and NHL Seattle to inspire global climate action.”
After years of criticism that Amazon was a laggard in disclosing its climate impacts and taking action commensurate with its size and stature, Bezos announced the Climate Pledge last September. “We’re done being in the middle of the herd on this issue,” Bezos said at the time.
Climate Pledge signatories commit to regularly disclose of their greenhouse gas emissions; pursue a decarbonization strategy that focuses on strategies including efficiency improvements, renewable energy and reduced materials usage; and purchase carbon-offset credits for emissions they can’t directly eliminate, funding third-party projects expected to reduce, avoid or remove climate-warming gasses from the atmosphere.
Last week Amazon announced its first co-signers of the Climate Pledge, Verizon, Infosys and consumer-goods giant Reckitt Benckiser Group (RB). Arena developer OVG joined the pledge as part of Thursday’s naming-rights deal.
Industry talk is that Verizon will become a technology partner at the renovated arena — bypassing Bellevue-based T-Mobile — and other OVG-developed sports properties nationwide. Having Verizon already committed to Amazon’s pledge should make an arena partnership with OVG easier to logistically implement.
The signatories’ goal is to become carbon neutral by 2040, 10 years ahead of what is called for in the drafted-in-2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to hold global average temperature increases this century to well below 2?degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.
Critics, including the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice group, want the company to target zero emissions by 2030 without the use of offsets — which fund things like forest preservation, but have a questionable impact on the broader climate equation because they allow companies to continue polluting.
Shortly after Bezos made Thursday’s announcement, Leiweke broke the news to workers at the arena site — accompanied by Jason McLennan, founder of the International Living Future Institute and CEO of McLennan Design.
McLennan was hired late last year as a sustainability consultant for the $930 million all-private arena rebuild. The native of Sudbury, Ontario, who grew up a hockey fan, met Leiweke in 2014 to work with him when the latter was CEO of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But McLennan said in an interview Thursday he never imagined this. The arena is believed to be the first in the NHL to shun natural gas, a primary component of systems used to dehumidify ice rinks.
McLennan said the toughest challenge was arena work had already begun, with natural gas equipment purchased and architectural work planned to accommodate it. It had to be switched on the fly.
“I think what’s unique is we’re doing so many things at the highest level possible,” said McLennan, who left Sudbury at 19 to study architecture at the University of Oregon. “And I hope that it inspires a sea change in the entire sports and entertainment industry.”
He added: “This is about as hard a building site to do this stuff in. It’s a lot easier to do what we’re talking about in office buildings, or schools or people’s homes. So if you can do this all in an arena, then the message here is there’s no excuse for not thinking about this with everything.
“And that’s really a powerful lesson.”
OVG co-founder and CEO Tim Leiweke, older brother of Tod Leiweke, said Thursday it wasn’t until February that he had architectural firm Populous, project manager CAA Icon and general contractor Mortenson redo arena plans. The added work amounted to “tens of millions of dollars” — much of it covered by NHL Seattle principal owner David Bonderman — after negotiations involving “more than a thousand people” to ensure the zero-carbon goal was attainable.
To eliminate plastics in four years, OVG had to get its to-be-announced soft-drink and malt-beverage partners to reconfigure their manufacturing and bottling.
“They had to transform their entire company’s philosophy and timeline on sustainability just for Seattle,” he said.
OVG also got creative on solar panels, because the arena’s historical-landmark-protected roof couldn’t be touched. Instead, the panels will go atop the Alaska Airlines Atrium at the venue’s main entrance and the VIP parking garage.
“I’ve been doing this more than 40 years and built more arenas than anybody on the face of the Earth,” Tim Leiweke said. “This is the hardest negotiation and commitment towards a partnership like this that I’ve ever been a part of.”
There will still be natural gas used during construction, with OVG calculating the embodied carbon from that and finding “natural climate solutions” to attain net zero carbon for the building. But once finalized, there will be no gas used anywhere.
Tod Leiweke said the NHL had to be shown that the ice system and other plans would work, but added that commissioner Gary Bettman is “thrilled” with what’s happening.
“You go all the way back to 1962 when the building opened and what all of this stood for,” Leiweke said. “Seattle was on the forefront, it was the World’s Fair, it was about the future. It was about exciting people about what was to come.
“And in an amazing, circuitous route, this (arena) roof now stands for those things again.”