On the morning of July 18, Seattle Sounders part-owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer was reading the newspaper at his home in the Leschi neighborhood of Seattle when a call came from Todd Durbin, the MLS executive VP in charge of negotiating player deals for the single-entity league.
"Adrian, there's a chance you could get Clint Dempsey," Durbin told him.
Durbin explained the situation: Dempsey, the U.S. captain who's still in the latter prime of his career at age 30, had decided he was interested in returning to MLS from Tottenham Hotspur -- but only for the right price. Tottenham, moreover, was interested in working out a transfer deal -- but only for the right price. Hanauer was floored. "I kind of stopped in my tracks," he said. "It was one of those memorable moments where you thought, holy crap, this might happen."
At the same time, MLS commissioner Don Garber sent an e-mail to Seattle's majority owner, the Hollywood studio chairman Joe Roth. "Call me," the email read. "It's important."
Roth called Garber. "Clint Dempsey is interested in Seattle," Garber told him. "Are you interested in him?"
At first, Roth thought Garber was playing a practical joke on him. But Garber wasn't laughing. This was no joke. "Absolutely we're interested," Roth told him. "I'll convince my partners, and you guys do the negotiations."
For two years, whenever Roth and Hanauer had conversed about dream scenarios for the Sounders, Roth would bring up the possibility of landing Dempsey. Roth, the brash studio exec, liked to think big. But usually Hanauer, a more conservative realist by nature, would bring Roth back down to earth. Still, Hanauer would check every so often with Durbin and Dempsey's agent, Lyle Yorks, to gauge the player's interest.
"The answer was consistently: No chance, no chance, no chance," said Hanauer, who circled back to Yorks in early July when reports surfaced that Tottenham was willing to sell Dempsey. "The answer was still: No chance," Hanauer said.
"I've wanted Clint Dempsey since the day we started, but there's only one Clint Dempsey," said Roth. "I just resigned myself to thinking we probably wouldn't get a Clint Dempsey until he was 35 years old, and I didn't want to add to the perception, which is mostly right, that we don't get European [club] stars when they're in their prime."
But Dempsey's perspective had changed by July 18. He was up for coming back to MLS, but the only teams he was interested in playing for were Seattle, Los Angeles and Toronto. What's more, Dempsey's side was asking for a huge financial commitment: $40 million at first. According to a source with intimate knowledge of the deal, Seattle countered with a first offer of $30 million -- $20 million of its own money and $10 million from the league -- including the transfer fee to Tottenham.
Los Angeles and Toronto were also interested in ponying up for Dempsey, multiple sources said, but Toronto (which is working on its own Designated Player deals) accepted that it was better for the league if Dempsey were playing in a U.S. city. Moreover, Los Angeles is expected to announce soon that it has filled its maximum three DP slots with the extension of Omar González's contract.
"I think it was important that [Dempsey] ended up ... how do I say this politely? ... not in Los Angeles," said Roth. "Because from a perception standpoint it would make MLS look essentially like a one-team league when it came to important international players. The Red Bulls are probably in there as well. But if not us, who? We double the attendance of everybody else [in MLS]. We're in the top 25 in the world in attendance. I had promised the team if there was an available star player we would get him, and I thought he was a perfect match for Seattle."
From July 18 to July 20, Seattle's owners put together their best possible offer, and with Durbin handling the negotiations a deal took shape that involved a total commitment of $33 million. The transfer fee for Tottenham would end up being $9 million, and Dempsey's three-and-a-half year playing contract with Seattle would end up paying him a total of $24 million -- or $6.86 million per year, breaking David Beckham's MLS record salary of $6.5 million. (Keep in mind that Beckham also earned a percentage of ticket and jersey sales.)
"Needless to say, the numbers were enormous for MLS and for our organization," said Hanauer, who did not provide specifics on the contract numbers. "Joe was fantastic. He is a no-guts, no-glory kind of guy. So he jumped to the point where he was all-in quicker than I did. From a playing standpoint it was a no-brainer, but it's a lot of money. 35 percent of it is Joe's, 32.5 percent is mine. We're partners, so it was a huge decision for us." Roth and Hanauer also got buy-in from their other partners, the comedian Drew Carey and Peter McLoughlin, the CEO of Vulcan Sports and Entertainment (representing Paul Allen).
There were some important wrinkles to the contract. A source connected to Seattle with detailed knowledge of the deal said Seattle's owners are paying Dempsey's $24 million in salary (at least the lion's share above the normal $368,750 covered by the league), but the league is covering the $9 million transfer fee. (A league official disputed that characterization without providing details.) What's more, there is a stipulation in the contract that Dempsey is allowed to go on one off-season loan to a European club during the length of the deal. (Thierry Henry, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane have gone on similar loans.) It's expected that Dempsey will do that in January and February 2014 to help prepare for the World Cup.
Hanauer felt like the Dempsey deal was really starting to come together last Wednesday, the day of the MLS All-Star Game and a league Board of Governors meeting in Kansas City. Hanauer spoke directly to Dempsey that day for the first time in a 10-minute conversation in which they talked about Dempsey's family, Seattle and the logistics of getting him there later in the week while keeping as much secrecy as possible.
The next day, last Thursday, Dempsey boarded a plane in London headed to San Francisco and then to Seattle. And then the secrecy plan started to unravel a bit. Users on Twitter posted photographs of Dempsey at Heathrow Airport early in the day. Then a Seattle resident named Jorge Perea posted a picture of him with Dempsey at the San Francisco airport that night. But Perea also added that Dempsey was not on his flight to Seattle, causing many to wonder if Dempsey was instead joining Everton, which was training in the Bay Area at the time.
"It sounds funny, but I saw the tweets that he was at Heathrow on Thursday," said Hanauer, "and I'm like, O.K., cool, he made it to the airport. Now I just have to hope he's on the right flight. Then people saw him in San Francisco. O.K., we're two-thirds of the way home! [The Everton confusion] was a huge break for us, because it threw some question into the whole thing again."
By Thursday night, Seattle's passionate fanbase was in Twitter meltdown mode as the hashtag #DempseyWatch started trending. Some fans even went to Sea-Tac airport to try and locate Dempsey, but the Sounders had a plan. When United Airlines flight 1621 arrived at 11:13 p.m. PT, the passengers all came through Terminal A, Gate 9 except for one. Dempsey was being re-routed through a different door.
"We have really good contacts at the airport, so we were able to sneak him off the flight and down onto the tarmac into a van," says Hanauer with a laugh. "Then he went back around to a baggage claim area that wasn't for his flight. He jumped in my car. His associate James [Skelland] went and got the bags. We picked him up and then away we went."
From there, things were pretty straightforward on Friday. Dempsey checked in at the Westin hotel in Bellevue on the east side of Lake Washington, where fewer people might recognize him. After sleeping in until noon on Friday, he passed his physical that afternoon. Dempsey then went with Yorks and Skelland to Hanauer's house, where Roth, McLoughlin and Seattle coach Sigi Schmid would join the group for a sushi dinner.
But Hanauer was still uneasy until Dempsey signed the contract that night. "We kept getting sidetracked to actually signing the documents," Hanauer said, laughing. "Finally, I'm like, 'You guys are driving me nuts. Go up in my office and sign the damn contract!' So just as we were having dinner, Joe got to my house as they were going upstairs. That was another sidetrack. I'm like, 'Joe, I know you haven't had a chance to say hello and talk to these guys, but they're going upstairs!'" Only then did Dempsey finally sign on the dotted line.
For Roth, the dinner was his first chance to spend some time with Dempsey, and he came away impressed with Dempsey's cool, low-key approach and his desire to win championships in Seattle. With Seattle's Designated player signings this year of Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, the Sounders have vaulted to the top of MLS when it comes to ambition, and a lot of that is coming from Roth.
Deeply disappointed by Seattle's playoff loss to Los Angeles last year, Roth had vowed to increase his team's spending on players this year, and he has now done that. But he also wants other MLS owners to step up to the plate. At one Board of Governors meeting, he told his brethren that someone needs to sign Mexican star Javier (Chicharito) Hernández sooner rather than later.
"I did," Roth said. "Listen, our [national] television ratings are not good. And any observer of any sport in this country knows television drives the ratings. The only two things that can drive the ratings are overall better play and star power. If you can get both, then our ratings will go up. It's not the networks' fault. They've gotta have something to sell. And I think this signing will be helpful to everybody in the league."
While most MLS owners appear to be happy that Dempsey has joined the league, not all of them were satisfied with the process in which Seattle got him. "The league wanted Dempsey in Seattle," said one rival league executive. Some MLS owners were confused by the mechanism of Dempsey's arrival, thinking that like other returning U.S. national team players, he would be part of the allocation process. (Seattle rival Portland is No. 1 on the allocation list.)
But the league emphasized that Designated Players do not go through the allocation process, citing Claudio Reyna's DP move to New York in 2006 as the precedent.
Asked where Dempsey's signing ranks in league history, MLS commissioner Don Garber didn't hesitate. "This signing ranks right at the very top," Garber said. "We have been going through a process that started almost 10 years ago to try and find the players that could really make a statement about our league and our plan to be a legitimate player on the global stage. That really started with Landon Donovan. MLS isn't what it is today if Landon hadn't spent a majority of his career here. Then it kicked to a higher gear with David Beckham, which was a statement that MLS was serious about having well-known international players who'd perform for us on and off the field."
"You follow from that Thierry Henry and Cuauhtémoc Blanco, who were able to make a difference for us," Garber continued. "With Clint, it takes all of this to an even higher level. For the first time we have a world-renowned player who has international experience who's saying I want to come to Major League Soccer in my prime. We hope that's the beginning of a new wave of players like Clint who will make the same statement. I do believe over time our business will grow to the point where you're going to see players like this in every market."
Garber has said he wants MLS to be on the world's top soccer leagues by 2022, and Durbin said the Dempsey signing is one big indication of that ambition. "I can think of no better way of saying we're making good on this promise," Durbin said. "You'll see signings like this and commitments like this, not just player signing but player development and [improved] quality of our environments. We are absolutely committed to getting to that place in 2022."
There will be high expectations in Seattle now, of course, expectations of championships. But on Saturday night, as Joe Roth introduced Dempsey to more than 40,000 cheering Seattle fans, Joe Roth said he got as big an adrenaline rush as he's ever had doing a lucrative Hollywood movie deal.
"When we turned the corner and it was the first time people in Seattle had seen him, there was a wave of excitement like Babe Ruth had shown up," Roth said. "Grown men were hugging and crying. All the rumors had turned out to be true. Then when we did the national anthem and he's standing there in a Sounders shirt with his hand over his heart, it struck me for the first time. I said, 'Oh my God, that's Clint Dempsey, and he's a Sounder!"
Yes, he is. And MLS just got even more interesting.