Garrulous and bombastic, Hollywood producer Joe Roth always wanted to win, always wanted to put on a show. As Seattle Sounders part-owner from the MLS beginnings, he could be a load to handle for his partner, the more reticent and self-effacing Adrian Hanauer. But at 71, Roth wanted to be bought out of his shares. So Hanauer found 11 Seattle wealthies eager to jump into pro sports ownership.
Historically in pro sports, adding members to an ownership group is like adding more British royals to a fox hunt. The ninnies are forever falling off the horses, making a spectacle in the mud and complaining about the slowness of the servants helping them up. And the fox, a metaphor for a championship, gets away.
Hanauer knows this. He did it anyway.
“Going from one to 11 is different,” he said. “But we have a sturdy fence.”
He means that the newbies may be allowed to heckle and pester him privately as majority owner, but on all matters relating to soccer and business operations, he is the decider. And since the Sounders have MLS’s best cumulative record in the club’s decade of existence, he has cred in the matter.
“The people who put the (ownership) structure together, that was was their mandate,” he said Tuesday after a press conference at team headquarters in Pioneer Square, where he disclosed the successful conclusion of a 15-month effort to cash out Roth with local ownership. “I have majority control, in part because the league doesn’t like multiple owners. This group trusts me, and I know in my heart what’s good for the Sounders.
“As long as I’m true to that, we’re good.”
From the fans’ perspective, that is the key element emanating from the hoopla surrounding the participation of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, his wife, Ciara, hip-hop star Macklemore and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in the ownership group.
What fans want to know is whether the new arrangement is close to idiot-proof. Nothing ever is idiot-proof, of course, but a firewall against ownership mendacity, perfidy and scalawag-ness needs to be a priority installation.
Just as every ticket buyer at a baseball game knows how to handle a bullpen better than the hometown manager, every investor in ownership knows how to run the franchise better than the boss. These are just the customs. The trick is to devise workarounds.
“There’s going to be a period of getting to know each other, finding a balance,” Hanauer said. “I want these families engaged, enthusiastic and passionate. I want Russell and Ciara to have this be a passion of theirs. There’s going to be a right balance of how everybody interacts. We just have to have rules of engagement.
“So far this group has been super respectful. I don’t expect problems.”
Hanauer didn’t reveal percentages of who owns what, but did say that his current share, 35 percent, will go up, as will the 7.5 percent share of comedian Drew Carey, now the lone Sounders owner without a Washington driver’s license. Roth’s share of 32.5 percent will be parceled out among the 11 “families,” as Hanauer preferred to call the new investors.
Besides the Wilsons and Macklemore, here’s the roster additions:
— David/Sabrina Nathanson: David was head of business operations of FOX Sports Media Group that helped FOX win the bids for the 2018, 2022 and 2026 men’s soccer World Cups. Also an investor in NHL Seattle.
— Satya/Anu Nadella: Microsoft CEO.
— Soma/Akila Somasegar: A former senior executive at Microsoft, Soma is managing director of Madrona Venture Group.
— Terry/Katie Myerson: Driving force behind the assembly of the new group. Terry was formerly executive VP of Windows and Devices at Microsoft, now with Madrona.
— Brian McAndrews/Elise Holschuh: Brian was a vice president at ABC Sports and CEO of Pandora and aQuantive, and a senior VP at Microsoft.
— Amy Hood/Max Kleinman: Hood is Microsoft CFO, Kleinman is a former partner at Accenture.
— Chee/Christine Chew: Chee is chief product officer for Twilio. Christine is president of the Bellevue School Board.
— Joe/Kristina Belfiore: Joe is Microsoft VP of Experiences and Devices.
— Mark/Tomoko Agne: Mark is a managing partner at Softbank Investment Advisors, and formerly of Goldman Sachs.
The apprehension around ownership expansion is because it calls to mind the debacle of Sonics ownership led by Howard Schultz.
In 2000, Schultz rounded up 56 wealthies, mostly from the Seattle tech community, to buy the Sonics from Barry Ackerley. They all had noble ambitions too, but without going through the anguish of details, six years later the club was sold to out-of-towners because Schultz and partners didn’t have the guts to deal with steady capital calls, or to commit to an arena solution.
All Sounders fans can hope for is this group is better at keeping to civic stewardship.
The plan was devised by Myerson, whom Hanauer described as the driving force in rounding up like-minded Sounders fans of means.
“He quickly put together this rock star — literally and figuratively — group of owners.” Hanauer said. “I had known several of them over time and met some new ones. I guess it was humbling to know how much passion there was, how much connection there was to the club that we all have built together.
“People were enthusiastic for all the right reasons.”
One of them was Wilson, whose post-career ambitions to mogul-dom was increased by participation in another pro sports franchise. Earlier he joined a group in Portland seeking an MLB expansion franchise, and he remains part of a group led by Chris Hansen that has yet to give up on the return of the NBA to a proposed arena in SoDo.
Wilson wasn’t on hand Tuesday, but did send out a statement.
“When I got here in 2012, Seattle was a place that I felt I could call home forever,” he wrote. “And obviously because of the Seahawks, and now because of the Sounders, it makes that really come to life.
“We’re really excited about building that winning culture. This city is a special place. The Pacific Northwest is a place we love and we get to raise our kids here and have a lot of fun while doing it.”
That’s the sort of enthusiasm Hanauer was seeking among his new partners. He doesn’t need any second-guessing on his soccer decisions. And if Wilson did rise to speak, Hanauer could always ask him to explain about throwing from the 1-yard line.
Art Thiel is co-founder of Sportspress Northwest.
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