Editor’s note: Buoyed by a promise that a new stadium in Seattle could be used to get an MLS team as well as save the Seahawks, soccer fans are credited by all involved for helping push the 1997 stadium tax vote over the top.
It took five years to get the stadium built and another five years before Seattle finally earned an MLS expansion team, which was done with direct involvement by the Seahawks.
After some struggles in the early 2000s (four of the first nine games in the new stadium were blacked out on Seattle TV due to sluggish ticket sales), the Seahawks in 2007 were a strong business again. They were in the middle of a long stretch of playoff appearances and always sold out.
New CEO Tod Leiweke knew the stadium owed part of its success to Sounders fans. Through his Los Angeles-based brother, Tim, also a sports-business executive, he met Hollywood film producer Joe Roth, who wanted an MLS team. Leiweke arranged a meeting between Roth and Seattle businessman and minor league soccer owner Adrian Hanauer, who was also interested in an MLS team. Leiweke made a plan that would get the Seahawks involved in the deal and manage the new team.
An excerpt from Mike Gastineau’s recent book “Sounders FC: Authentic Masterpiece” explains how the Seahawks eventually thanked area soccer fans for their help in winning that 1997 election.
Tod Leiweke considered ways the Seahawks organization could participate in the deal. He knew that his boss, Paul Allen, was interested in fulfilling the promise made to soccer fans — a yes vote in the 1997 stadium election meant an MLS team would be sought for Seattle. But he also knew Allen, who owned the NBA Portland Trail Blazers since 1988, already had plenty of financial investment in pro sports, Getting him involved would take a little creativity.
The idea Leiweke hit on was not only creative, but would give the new franchise a foundation upon which success would be built.
Leiweke proposed that Allen own 25 percent of the team, but instead of putting up money, he would provide business infrastructure in the form of the Seahawks marketing, sales, promotion and media staff, as well as use of the team’s stadium rent-free for home games.
Pitch for the pitch
Leiweke had convincing to do on both sides. He had to convince Allen that the Seahawks staff and management could handle the extra responsibility of a new soccer team. Allen’s only concern was whether top executives would get distracted from duties with Seahawks. Leiweke assured him that wouldn’t happen. Meanwhile, Leiweke convinced Roth and Hanauer that what they really needed from Allen was the Seahawks organization’s expertise. Roth and Hanauer wouldn’t get any capital in the deal, but they instantly had an office staff trained in how to run a professional sports team.
“What they got,” Leiweke says, “couldn’t have been bought with dollars.” Roth’s pragmatic side helped him instantly see the wisdom of the deal.
“Paul Allen came on as a minority partner mostly for the staff. Because what do I know?” Roth said. “I don’t know how to run a team and I don’t have any people here and I don’t live here. I needed someone who could run the team, who had the people to sell the tickets and run the stadium.”
Deal in place, Leiweke began the task of convincing the Seahawks office staff that they should be enthusiastic about the added workload: Managing the daily business of an expansion franchise playing a sport many of them didn’t know much about.
He had several meetings with the Seahawks executive team to discuss a strategy that would make the deal work. Leiweke noticed he had one executive more than any other who was consistently able to speak fluently and authoritatively on the subject of soccer.
The striker: Gary Wright
Since his trip to Spain in 1998 when he made his 180-degree turn toward soccer, Seahawks Executive VP Gary Wright immersed himself in becoming an educated soccer fan. Subsequent European vacations built around major matches afforded Wright the opportunity to experience the game at the highest level in legendary venues.
As 2007 unfolded and the Seahawks executive team began discussing the eventual arrival of an MLS team, his expertise allowed him to take a larger role in soccer discussions. No one was more surprised than Leiweke, who had didn’t imagine Wright to be such a knowledgeable (and suddenly valuable) resource.
“Tod was shocked,” Wright says. “He likes to say I came out of the closet. I know I’m on my way out, retirement-wise, but I’m participating in the meetings and I’m giving my opinion on what we should do and how we should do it. There weren’t a lot of people in that room that knew anything about soccer.”
Wright harbored no thoughts about working for the MLS team and spent part of his time pondering life after retirement: “Soccer was on my radar to the degree that I’m going to retire, and I’m going to go watch soccer games in Europe.”
But Leiweke realized he’d struck gold with Wright. For the first time he noticed that Wright’s office contained an amazing array of soccer art, books and memorabilia. The cultural barometer of the Seahawks organization wasn’t going anywhere. He would play a critical part in establishing the culture of MLS in Seattle.
“He was ready to retire,” Leiweke said, “but this was such a unique and interesting opportunity that intrigued him. He became fundamental to the whole thing.” His partner Roth concurred. “I spent some time with Gary,” he said, “and I said, ‘Oh, no, you’re not retiring. If I’m coming up here, you’re going to be there.’”
Wright first would take on the challenge of convincing the Seahawks staff to buy into the organization’s new commitment to soccer. Preaching with the kind of zeal found only in the newly converted, Wright began working desk to desk to build enthusiasm for the project.
Double duty for staff
The benefit of a rear view mirror makes it appear an easy sell. In fact, it was anything but easy. The bulk of the organization’s marketing, ticketing, sales, media relations and office staff had to somehow be sold that doubling their workload (without a corresponding doubling of their pay) would end up being a positive. Wright’s longevity with the organization gave him well-earned credibility with everyone in the office. When he talked, people listened.
Wright says he felt his role was “to help influence where we were going and to help paint the broad picture. The big stuff Tod was going to do. When it came down to putting the details in there, that’s where I had some expertise.”
The job the Seahawks did convincing people to commit to soccer was not lost on Hanauer.
“Friday afternoon, everyone in the Seahawks office left and they were just focusing on football,” he said. “Monday morning, they came in and they had another job piled on their desk. People could have taken that as, ‘Now I have more work and more events to go to and I’m not getting paid any more money . . . this is total bullshit. And by the way, I don’t even like soccer.’”
Reaction was the exact opposite, Hanauer said, because of Leiweke and Wright: “Tod set the tone, and Gary carried the torch.”
Allen’s involvement also meant the Sounders would play games at the Seahawks stadium. “Some felt using a big stadium was a potential franchise-killer,” Leiweke says. “The league wanted us to build a soccer-specific stadium as part of the team launch, because they weren’t convinced it would work. And it did defy all logic within the league at that point.”
Leiweke’s motivation in the argument was twofold. He reported directly to Allen, and as such didn’t want to try to explain how a potential revenue stream had been diverted away from Seattle’s new stadium to an even newer (and smaller) soccer stadium.
He also was sincere in fulfilling the promise the Seahawks made to soccer fans: Help us get our stadium built and we’ll use it for MLS games. He took the argument back to what he calls a patriotic place. “The plaque on the side of the stadium says it is a ‘football/soccer stadium’ and if we build a new stadium just for soccer, people are going to be mad. That’s not what they voted for.”
There was amother reason Leiweke had for not wanting to even think about a stadium in the suburbs. It came as a result of confidence, with perhaps a slight dash of bravado.
“I remember telling (MLS Commissioner) Don Garber,” he said, “that if we build a 20,000-seat stadium, it won’t be big enough.”