Editor’s note: Credit for the Seahawks’ surge to elite status in the NFL goes to many, but 17 years ago there was a constituency in the state that played a role largely overshadowed, or unknown to newcomers – soccer fans.
Were it not for the soccer community’s support in 1997 of a statewide public vote to build a stadium that would house futbol as well as American football, the Seahawks may well have completed a move to Los Angeles under the hugely unpopular owner at the time, Ken Behring.
Behring’s attempt to fill the market void in Los Angeles was thwarted temporarily by the NFL, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen was recruited to buy the team. But he made his purchase contingent on getting a public tax contribution to build a stadium and exhibition center to replace the Kingdome.
In June 1997, the state-wide vote passed with a 51 percent majority. The promise made to soccer fans to bring Major League Soccer to Seattle was considered critical in the success of the single-issue election – a promise fulfilled in 2009 with the creation of Seattle Sounders FC.
Seahawks accounts show that most season ticket holders are not Sounders FC season ticket holders, so we can deduce that most Seahawks fans are not passionate about soccer. But as you pull on your “12” jersey on before the game, take a second to call a friend who is a Sounders FC fan and thank him or her. Without soccer, it’s likely the Seahawks wouldn’t be in Seattle.
An excerpt below from Mike Gastineau’s recent book, “Sounders FC: Authentic Masterpiece” explains how it came to be.
Paul Allen eventually settled on the idea of building a new stadium, but he wanted the public’s help in paying for it. He offered to buy the team for $200 million and pay an additional $100 million in stadium costs. The public would pick up the remaining $300 million estimated cost for construction.
The public contribution could be made only after what was going to be a very difficult, two-stage fight. The second stage would be a statewide election in which voters would be asked to tax themselves. But there was an even trickier challenge before that could happen.
First, Allen had to get his proposal through the Legislature and onto the ballot. This would not be easy. Some angry voters were still blistering state lawmakers over the 1995 deal that authorized construction of a new baseball stadium in Seattle. The Mariners owners said without a new home, they’d be forced to sell the team to out-of-town interests who would no doubt move it away.
The original plan for the baseball stadium was to fund it through an increase in the general sales tax in King County only. That proposal in September 1995 was narrowly defeated at the ballot box. But in a Hollywood-style twist, the Mariners (for the first time in their history) were actually playing great baseball. In the season’s final weeks, improbable victories stacked up like lumber at a sawmill. On the final day of the season, they caught the Angels and made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Caught up in the fervor, state legislators put together a new tax package that abandoned the sales tax increase, instead spreading the burden for the stadium over several other taxes. This package was not subject to a public vote, but was passed by a special session of the Legislature called by Gov. Mike Lowry.
Many voters howled at the subsidy for a pro sports team, and were still howling two years later when Allen made his decision to make purchase of the Seahawks contingent upon taxpayer help. Legislators still being pilloried for their baseball stadium decision would need to be convinced the football stadium was worth risking additional political capital.
Life-long sports fan and Seattle attorney Fred Mendoza read the news of Allen’s proposed deal with interest. He was in favor of doing what was necessary to save the city’s NFL team, but he also recognized the huge political mountain Allen had to climb. He had some ideas that could help make the stadium a reality.
Mendoza worked for a few years with other interested parties to put together a plan to obtain a soccer team for Seattle in America’s latest try at a national soccer league, Major League Soccer. He worked primarily with Michael Campbell, chairman of the Seattle Sports and Events Council. They ran into the same problem: With no facility deemed worthy of playing host to MLS in Seattle, there was no ownership interest for a team.
Mendoza’s idea was obvious: build the new stadium for a potential soccer team as well as the Seahawks. He and Campbell set up a meeting to discuss their proposal with Allen and Bert Kolde, who had been named vice president of Football Northwest, the company that had been formed to purchase the Seahawks.
Mendoza and Campbell were a few minutes into their pitch when Kolde interrupted them. “Gentlemen,” Mendoza remembers him saying, “that is a great idea.”
Kolde recognized that adding soccer would add political clout of an estimated 300,000 Washingtonians who played the game. This would make it easier to get the proposed plan through the Legislature, and presumably would make it more likely to pass at the ballot box, too.
“We had found on our own research that the public wanted to know that the stadium was going to have a wider use than just 10 football games a year,” Kolde says. “We knew soccer resonated in a special way in Seattle, particularly in the suburbs. We felt that could become a really important base for us.”
There were only a few weeks left in the 1997 legislative session, so Mendoza’s plan was quickly put into action. With a required sense of urgency, he suddenly found himself spending time at the state capital in Olympia.
“They said, ‘Thank you, you’re on board now,’ and within a matter of days, I was working with a team of consultants, lobbyists, and political advisors. We had to convince the Legislature that it was a good thing to do, but I’m just a volunteer. I’m still trying to practice law and my partners kept asking if I was ever coming back to work.”
Their efforts to get the bill passed and create the election, which required that Allen pay for its costs, were successful. But the special election would be in June, just two months away. That meant Mendoza would continue dividing time between his law practice and his new job as a soccer stadium evangelist.
“We had April until June to go pound the grass, and that’s when we really went to work. Every Monday morning I’m getting a schedule of events I’m supposed to be at as a representative of soccer. I drove all over the state speaking to soccer leagues. They had a portable PA system and they’d set up a little stage. I’d get up on this soapbox and preach the gospel.”
As he spent time crossing the state with Kolde and other Allen representatives, Mendoza came to an obvious conclusion. “They decided, ‘We can’t win this without soccer.’ They knew it.”
They were right. The campaign squeaked by with a 51 percent yes vote. Mendoza’s response, when asked if the proposition would have passed without adding soccer is doubtless and declarative.
“Oh, God no. No way. It doesn’t even come close. If it had not been for the soccer moms and dads, this thing would have died.”
“It was a squeaker,” Kolde agreed. “We needed soccer. It powered this thing through. We wouldn’t have won it without that. Not at all.”
Part II: After futbol saved football in Seattle, football eventually paid back futbol.