Seahawks fans returning to Seattle from London dazzled by the reception they and the team received need to know that 21 years ago, the franchise was about to be toe-tagged, the remains likely sold to swells from Hollywood. After seasons of 7-9, 2-14, 6-10, 6-10, 8-8, 7-9, 8-8 and 7-9, no local rich guy wanted to be within a mile of the stink created by the franchise’s cretinous owner, Ken Behring.
“I went from Eugene to Vancouver, B.C., looking for someone to step up, and no one would,” said Pete von Reichbauer, then and now a King County Council member. “Old-money Seattle didn’t want to touch it. Remember, the Nordstrom family sold the team because (its poor fortunes) were affecting their retail business.”
Paul Allen, a hometown kid, and his new money were the only hope.
“There was,” said von Reichbauer, “no Plan B.”
Allen was reluctant. He already had a pro sports team, the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, which he bought for a then-outrageous $70 million in 1988 after Microsoft went public. Allen had a hundred other interests and no appetite for media attention, as did bloviating team owners such as Jerry Jones and George Steinbrenner.
He also suspected Behring wanted an offer to use as leverage against a bid by Michael Ovitz, president of the Disney Co., who wanted to own a team in the empty market of Los Angeles.
But von Reichbauer and Allen’s inner circle persuaded Allen that a $200 million offer would be accepted. Allen had a condition — he wanted a partnership deal with King County that would create a stadium and events center to replace the county’s failing Kingdome. The deal included a $300 million public subsidy. Allen would pay $130 million and cover cost overruns.
King County and the state wanted cover — a public vote, a single-item special election. Allen agreed to pay for the staging expenses, as well as violate his then-extreme desire for privacy by appearing in a TV commercial touting the plan’s virtues.
Against all odds, the statewide measure to subsidize a billionaire won by a 51-49 margin. It remains one of the most preposterous stories in Seattle’s sports history.
The Seahawks are now worth $2.58 billion, according to Forbes’ annual valuation survey. They have been to three Super Bowls, winning one, and apparently have become a bit of a global darling.
“There’s not a team in the sports world that has more avid fans,” said Tod Leiweke. “It was an outpost in the NFL and now it’s one of sports’ most vibrant teams.
“He created that.”
Leiweke is a little biased. From 2003 to 2010 in Seattle, he was Allen’s sports prime minister, running the Seahawks, taking over the Blazers, launching the Seattle Sounders of MLS.
He’s back now, head of Seattle Hockey Partners, about to land a National Hockey League franchise for a made-over KeyArena — another preposterous moment pending in Seattle sports. He’s back in part because he shares a thing that drove Allen — a love of Seattle.
“He has places all over the world — he could could have lived anywhere,” Leiweke said. “But this place always would be home.”
As he talked by phone Monday of Allen’s death at 65, a victim of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a blood cancer that haunted most of his adult life, Leiweke’s voice began to crack.
“Besides losing a guy who I had great affection for, we all lost a dreamer,” he said. “He was a very competitive guy who always wanted to win, and he gave his teams every resource to do that.
“He was a guy who delivered, for his partners, businesses, employees, his fans and his town, more than he was asked. And he kept dreaming — brain science, sports, music, arts.”
Allen’s reach in Seattle touched many.
“No one had a bigger impact than Paul in culture, sports and real estate,” von Reichbauer said. “I valued him as a fan and respected him as an elected official because he never abused his position.”
Allen also dreamed of a world without cancer, Leiweke said. That dream was more difficult to realize than building a national sports champion.
I’ve written before that a fundamental aspect of sustainable success in the salary-capped NFL is a high-functioning vertical alignment from owner to coach to quarterback. The Patriots have it under Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. The Seahawks have it under Allen, coach Pete Carroll and QB Russell Wilson.
That has changed. I do not know what is next.
In the shortest term, Leiweke knew what was next for him. He and Allen live on Mercer Island.
“I’m going to take out a paddleboard and go over in front of his house,” he said. “I’m going to say a prayer.”
Yet now Seattle is sadly different without the hometown dreamer.
Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com