For a sports marketplace that lost an MLB team in 1970, an NBA team in 2008, and lost temporarily its NFL team for a couple of weeks in 1996, the theoretical threat of relocation of the Seahawks in the wake of the death of owner Paul Allen provokes an understandable twitch. Especially given the random ruthlessness that appears to drive the business of American pro sports.
But no. Not happening. Fuggedaboudit.
Neither of Allen’s prime sports properties, the Seahawks and the NBA Portland Trail Blazers, are going anywhere. It’s simple: They are hugely popular in their markets, where they make money in lucrative buildings.
But as to the franchises’ operations, that’s another story. If I were Pete Carroll and John Schneider, I’d be a little worried.
Only a small number of people in Allen’s inner circle know his succession plan, although the NFL asks its team owners to provide confidential information about it. Absent a spouse or children, his principal heir is his sister, Jody, who has been active in some of Allen’s enterprises, including the Allen Family Foundation. She took what was termed a “sabbatical” in 2014 during rumors of tension between the siblings, returning recently to some tasks.
While her ambitions are publicly unknown, speculation by some who know brother and sister suggests that a sale is more likely than maintaining the sports operations. It’s also possible that the Allens already have designated purchasers.
In the event that the teams go on the market and are sold to the highest bidders, they will fetch premium prices — the most recent sale for an NFL franchise was the Carolina Panthers in July was for $2.3 billion, a U.S. pro sports record — and potentially significant changes in operations, simply because the football empire was a one-man show built around Allen’s wealth, personality and idiosyncrasies. It is unique.
Without him, no matter what is said by leaders at Vulcan Inc., the 32-year-old company that oversees his vast holdings, things will be different.
At an estimated value of $21.7 billion, Allen was the richest owner in the NFL, by a factor of two or three. He had the same status in the NBA until 2014, when his former Microsoft teammate Steve Ballmer ($38.4 billion) bought the Los Angeles Clippers in 2014.
Stupendous wealth frees up such owners to do anything they want to gain a competitive edge. For example, it allowed Allen to buy an industrial remnant of Lake Washington shoreline in Renton and build, for about $70 million, a team headquarters and practice facility that is the envy of the league and a recruiting tool.
Similarly, Ballmer wants to get his Clippers out of being the third pro sports tenant in Staples Center downtown and build his own hoops-only palace in Inglewood, funded privately.
Regarding their sports passions, Ballmer and Allen answered to no one, which can be good or bad, but at least eliminates the headaches of squabbling among heirs and/or boards of directors. Nor did either tycoon need to take distributions from annual operations to satisfy creditors, families or minority owners.
In the case of Allen, his Seahawks head coaches were thrilled with his stewardship, Mike Holmgren telling 950 KJR radio Monday that Allen was “the best owner I’ve ever worked for.”
Tuesday, Carroll echoed the sentiment.
“You couldn’t ask for a better guy to support what we’re trying to do here,” he said. “Paul had a great thought about (how) he wanted to put people in charge and give them what resources they needed and then he wanted you to go for it. He wanted, at all times, to be pushing ahead. That’s always what you hope for.
“He was not a hands-on owner. But his spirit was on everything that we’re doing. That’s why John (Schneider) and I were in such concert from the beginning. You couldn’t ask for a better format and a better set-up. That’s why I wound up finding my way here.”
Now, it’s anyone’s guess as to what’s in store long-term for the franchise, Carroll and Schneider. The 21 years of stability under Allen was a huge asset, and such a contrast to the nine years of mayhem, incompetence and palace intrigue under the previous owner, Ken Behring.
Change was inevitable, of course, but Allen’s relatively early death at 65 comes at a time when Carroll and QB Russell Wilson, the franchise cornerstones, are in the next to last years of their deals. Since the virtues of Allen’s wealth and hands-off leadership are no longer in the Seattle picture, they can’t help but stare into the void and wonder.
Regarding the pool potential buyers, on the 2018 Forbes list of global billionaires, there’s a couple of sports-mad West Coast billionaires richer than No. 44 Allen — No. 10, Larry Ellison (Oracle software, $58.5 billion) and No. 28 Phil Knight (Nike, $29.6 billion).
And of course, the top two guys on the list are from Seattle — No. 1 Jeff Bezos ($112 billion) and No. 2 Gates ($90 billion). Honorable mention at No. 924: Investment banker David Bonderman, pending majority owner of Seattle’s National Hockey League expansion franchise, at $2.6 billion.
Speculation in the coming months will be endless, particularly with Seattle’s prosperity and its rise in global technology eminence. What seems more knowable is that the franchise won’t end up with a better fit for the task than the son of of a librarian and a teacher, who grew up in the Wedgewood neighborhood loving hoops, Hendrix and code.