NEW YORK — Colts owner Jim Irsay said he was once out-bid by Paul Allen for a drum set used by Ringo Starr, and the two men shared lamentations about humans not yet having traveled to Mars. While many of his NFL owner peers didn’t know Allen well, they had a great respect for the Microsoft co-founder’s extensive philanthropic work for causes such as combatting the Ebola outbreak in Africa.
In his role as owner of the Seahawks, Allen’s lasting mark was keeping the team in his native Seattle when he purchased the team in 1997, saving it from a brief sojourn in Anaheim and investing in the construction of one of the best stadiums in the NFL. After Allen’s death this week, at age 65 from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple NFL owners expressed confidence that part of his legacy would not change.
Said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, “I can’t imagine the Seahawks not [being] in Seattle.” Added Irsay, “I have to believe his wishes are going to be, whoever buys it, will retain that market.”
But Irsay’s comment hinted—even so much as stated as an accepted fact—that the Seahawks will be put up for sale. The succession plan Allen put in place has not yet been made public, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said it would have been inappropriate to discuss it at this week’s fall league meeting so close to Allen’s passing. The Seahawks were represented at the meeting by chief financial officer Karen Spencer.
If the Seahawks are sold, the team would draw a great deal of interest, given that the team has a strong fan base, an excellent stadium and a hometown flush with tech money. One obvious name the league would no doubt be interested in bringing into the fold is Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. He’s the world’s wealthiest person and is based in Seattle, and the NFL is already in business with him, through its Thursday Night Football streaming partnership with Amazon Prime Video.
“Someone like that,” Jones said of Bezos, “I’d carry him piggyback to get him to the NFL.”
At this point, with the succession plan unknown, many owners said discussion of what could happen with the team would be pure speculation. But league insiders floated a few names that could make sense, given their net worth, location, ties to professional sports teams and/or the NFL’s desire to have them join the ownership. Along with Bezos, also mentioned were Steve Ballmer, former Microsoft CEO and current owner of the Los Angeles Clippers; Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle Corporation; Joe Lacob, owner of the Golden State Warriors; and Marc Benioff, co-CEO of Salesforce.
Allen never married and had no children. His younger sister, Jody Allen, reportedly does not have interest in running either the Seahawks or the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, both owned by her brother, but she has not shared her wishes publicly. If the Seahawks are put up for sale, criteria No. 1 for potential buyers is having the requisite funds, which given the Panthers’ $2.3 billion price tag earlier this year, includes a small pool of individuals. A new controlling owner would have to hold at least 30 percent of the club’s equity. A second criteria may be identifying a buyer who would want to keep the team in Seattle.
“I have no idea what his estate is, but my thought would be that he would want it to always be the Seattle Seahawks because he contributed so much; he loved Seattle; it was big deal to him,” Jones says. “He’s a unique owner relative to this situation because of his enormous wealth. He and his estate can do whatever they want to do here.”
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Indeed, Allen was the wealthiest NFL owner, worth more than $20 billion. Jones’ implication is that purchase price might not be the most critical issue to Allen’s estate, which makes sense particularly given speculation that the proceeds from the sale may be committed to the charitable causes about which Allen was so passionate.
When teams are up for sale, the new owner needs to be approved by three-quarter's of the league's owners, and it’s not uncommon for other club owners to encourage businesspeople they think would be a good fit to make a bid. Asked specifically about Bezos, Jones gushed that he is a “very, very” attractive candidate to be an NFL owner, and added that he is a “tremendous, tremendous American.” Said Giants co-owner John Mara, in a typically more muted tone, “pretty talented people, a talented company, so I think that would be a great partner for the NFL.”
“If you are in my shoes, and you have the background that I have, Jeff Bezos is one of the top guys in the country,” Jones says. “When someone of that kind of stature, Paul’s stature, decides to become involved in the NFL through ownership, I throw a party, because I have such respect for them, and I know they are going to make a serious contribution to our sport and the NFL.”
Of course, Jones added that he has “no idea” if Bezos would be a candidate or if he would even be interested. But the potential web of interested buyers could be wider than in previous sales thanks to a rule change passed at this week’s meetings. The NFL voted to eliminate its cross-ownership rule, which prevented team owners from owning non-NFL professional sports teams in other NFL markets.
That means, for example, that the Clippers and Warriors owners would be permitted to bid on the Seahawks if the team goes up for sale. The policy change had been discussed for months and even years, and was not related to Allen’s passing, but it could have an impact on what happens with the Seahawks. The one thing that does not seem to be in doubt is the team's roots in Seattle, which Allen did so much to preserve.
Said Jones, “One of the things I appreciated the most about [Allen] was how he was unequivocal in his love for Seattle and what the Seahawks were as a part of Seattle.”
With reporting from Albert Breer.
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