Seattle Kraken and the new wave of athlete investors.

On 1st May, Seattle Kraken reached the end of their debut season in the National Hockey League (NHL).

It was an underwhelming finale – a 4-3 defeat away at the Winnipeg Jets – that capped a slightly disappointing campaign. An inconsistent Kraken were never in serious playoff contention and never looked like making the playoffs – let alone matching the achievement of the league’s last expansion franchise, the Las Vegas Knights, who won the NHL’s Western Conference in their first year in 2017/18.

Typically, building a team from scratch at elite level is a difficult task. Nevertheless, the Kraken arrived having generated considerable excitement off the ice. Their playful identity and distinctive branding, designed around a mythical sea creature, made an instant impact. Seattle had been waiting since 1975 for a professional ice hockey team and had not had one eligible to compete for the Stanley Cup since the Seattle Metropolitans folded in 1924.

It helped that improving public health conditions in the US meant that fans could enjoy the action at the $1.2 billion Climate Pledge Arena – named in a sponsorship deal with Amazon to create awareness around climate change and underline its own ambitions to be one of the world’s most sustainable sports venues.

Until recently, the team’s ownership group had looked relatively conventional. Seattle Hockey Partners is backed by private equity billionaire David Bonderman, Amazon CEO David Jassy, and veteran US sports executive Tod Leiweke, the former CEO of the National Football League’s (NFL) Seattle Seahawks. The presence of blockbuster Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer added further media interest.

Last month, though, the group welcomed two new minority investors: rapper Mackelmore and Marshawn Lynch, a celebrated former star of the Seahawks. According to CNBC, the pair were unlikely to have secured much more than a one per cent stake in a franchise worth an estimated $875 million but their presence will be significant in other ways.

“For us,” said Leiweke, “we didn’t need additional investors, but the thing that attracted us to these guys was their interest in community activism through this organization, and that’s a big deal.”

The involvement of Mackelmore and Lynch offers some intriguing possibilities in fan engagement, content creation and cross-promotion. Lynch, for instance, is expected to participate in the NHL’s ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ diversity campaign. It also forms part of a growing trend in sports team funding that leverages the profile, as well as the capital, of athlete and entertainer investors.

The most prominent recent example of this is probably Angel City FC, who won their first ever National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) match against North Carolina Courage on 30th April. They have assembled a huge ownership group headlined by the likes of actor Natalie Portman, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, tennis legend Serena Williams and World Cup-winning US soccer players Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach.

In Major League Soccer, Nashville SC welcomed investment in April from actor and producer Reese Witherspoon, her tech entrepreneur husband Jim Toth, and Derrick Henry, running back for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.

That pattern is now not only spreading but internationalising. In May, a trio of US past and present US athletes – NBA star Chris Paul, along with current and former NFL players Larry Fitzgerald and Kelvin Beachum – bought into Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket team Rajasthan Royals.

“When somebody signs up at that level,” said Leiweke of Lynch and Mackelmore’s Kraken investment, “they’re writing a check, but there’s so much more than that. They’re giving their time, relationships, and ultimately giving you their passion, and that’s the most treasured part of this.”

However the Kraken fare in the 2022/23 NHL season, those investors will also help them keep an eye beyond the ice.

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