Since he purchased an option last April that allows him to buy
the Seattle Seahawks for an estimated $200 million, billionaire
Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen has been boosting the fortunes of
the long-struggling Seahawks as if he already owned them. In
mid-February he gave the green light to sign former Pittsburgh
Steelers linebacker Chad Brown, the best free agent on the
market, to a $24 million contract. Before last weekend's NFL
draft he gave the front office a thumbs-up to spend big, and the
Seahawks wheeled and dealed their way into position to make two
of the first six picks, selections that will cost more than $10
million in signing bonuses alone. All the while Allen has been
jousting with the Washington State government over a plan to
build a $425 million stadium. He has even offered to contribute
as much as $200 million to help get the place erected.
But if legislators don't clear the way for the stadium, which
would be funded mostly by tax dollars, here's what will happen:
Allen will not exercise his option to buy the Seahawks, will
write off the $25 million or so he will have spent on the team
and will walk away. Seattle owner Ken Behring will look
elsewhere for a buyer, and in all likelihood Cleveland or Los
Angeles will pick up an NFL franchise that will have been richly
enhanced by a mere passerby.
If that grim scenario comes to pass, pro football in the Great
Northwest will at least have gone out in a blaze of glory on
draft day 1997. At a time when most teams were looking for ways
to avoid spending big money on rookies (page 100), Seattle was
the most aggressive team in the draft, and the Seahawks came
away with two players they desperately needed: Ohio State
cornerback Shawn Springs and Florida State tackle Walter Jones.
In February the Seahawks, who by virtue of their 7-9 record in
1996 held the 12th draft choice, dealt quarterback Rick Mirer to
the Chicago Bears for a first-round pick (No. 11), then traded
that selection and their second-, third- and fourth-round picks
to the Atlanta Falcons for the No. 3 choice and the Falcons'
third-rounder. The third overall pick would be used to select
the 6-foot, 200-pound Springs, a gifted cover guy.
But Seattle coach Dennis Erickson and his staff also wanted the
6'5", 301-pound Jones, a junior who played two years at Holmes
(Miss.) Community College and only 12 games at the major college
level. Jones was projected as a low first-round pick until he
ran the 40 in 4.6 seconds for NFL scouts last month, causing his
stock to soar. Nonetheless, on the eve of the draft, Seahawks
vice president of football operations Randy Mueller sold Behring
and Bob Whitsitt, Allen's go-between in the Seattle front
office, on the idea of trying to jockey into position to select
Jones. Then Whitsitt called Allen.
Aware that anti-Seahawks sentiment at the state capital was
running high, Whitsitt warned his boss, "You could be out of
this in three days. Dennis and Randy think they can move up and
get this great tackle, but it could really push your costs up.
If they get Springs and this tackle, it could cost $13 million
in signing bonuses alone."
"What did we say when we got into this?" Allen replied. "If
we're involved, we're involved. Are we still involved?"
"Yeah," Whitsitt said.
"Then we have to do it," Allen said.
Last Saturday, Ohio State tackle Orlando Pace went on the first
pick to the St. Louis Rams, and then the Oakland Raiders took
Southern Cal defensive tackle Darrell Russell. Seattle got
Springs, and when Florida State defensive end Peter Boulware and
Texas cornerback Bryant Westbrook went to the Baltimore Ravens
and the Detroit Lions, respectively, the Seahawks thought they
had Jones. Seattle had tentatively arranged a deal with the New
York Jets, whereby the Jets would send the sixth pick to the
Seahawks for the No. 12 and Seattle's third- and sixth-round
picks. Or so Mueller thought.
But then Jets director of player personnel Dick Haley called
Seattle, saying New York couldn't risk dropping to 12th.
Instead, the Jets swung a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in
which they moved down only two spots, to No. 8.
Crestfallen, Mueller hung up. He expected the Bucs to take
Jones. Why else move up? "It was like I got kicked right in the
groin," said Seahawks offensive line coach Howard Mudd. But a
minute later the phone rang again. It was Tampa Bay general
manager Rich McKay, who was looking to deal the pick he had just
acquired. Mueller asked McKay what he wanted for it. "Your
three," McKay replied. In other words, the Bucs would give up
the No. 6 pick for the Seahawks' choice at No. 12 plus Seattle's
third-round pick, No. 63 overall.
Stunned that he could move up so cheaply, Mueller accepted. The
Seahawks had been prepared to throw in their fifth-round pick to
get Jones. "It's the kind of luck you get maybe once a decade in
the draft," Mueller said later. He then selected Jones, and
Seattle, with no picks in the second or third rounds, was
finished for the day 45 minutes after the draft had started.
"Mr. Allen has made it all possible," says defensive end Michael
Sinclair, noting that in addition to Brown, the team has signed
three other free agents: quarterback Warren Moon and defensive
backs Bennie Blades and Willie Williams. "The man doesn't have
deep pockets. He has an abyss. Until this year the most we've
done in free agency is take backups. Now we're loaded on
defense, and defense wins championships. For the first time I
truly believe we'll go to the Big Game."
Assuming Sinclair has the gift of prophesy, the question then
becomes, When he goes to the Super Bowl, will Sinclair be
representing Seattle, Cleveland or Los Angeles?
That's because Allen says he won't exercise his option if an
acceptable stadium plan isn't in place by July 1. Governor Gary
Locke and the state Senate have approved taking a
stadium-funding plan to the voters--a referendum that Allen has
volunteered to pay for, at a cost of $3.4 million--but as of
Monday the House of Representatives was leaning against putting
the issue to a June vote. Apparently some politicians hadn't
gotten over how, after voters had narrowly defeated a proposal
for a $320 million baseball stadium for the Mariners in a
September 1995 measure, the deal was ramrodded through the
legislature just after the team clinched the '95 American League
West title. "The taxpayers got raped the last time," says
Representative Helen Sommers. "Why do it again?" Also, some
politicians aren't crazy about giving aid to a man whose net
worth is an estimated $11 billion.
However, there are no other potential owners in the area. As NFL
commissioner Paul Tagliabue said last Saturday, "Pro football in
Seattle would be in a long, dark tunnel, with no light at the
end. There is no Plan B without Paul Allen."
Allen has offered to pay $100 million of the tab for the
proposed stadium-convention center on the site where the
Kingdome stands. Although he will retain no ownership in the
complex, he has offered to pay for all construction-associated
cost overruns. He has offered to cover as much as $100 million
in losses that would be incurred by the Seahawks and King County
after the Kingdome is demolished, probably in 1999, and before
the complex opens in 2002. Throw in the cost of the franchise
and the referendum plus the $21 million or so he has committed
to contract bonuses this year (under terms of his agreement to
buy the team, Allen pays for 80% of all new expenditures, such
as salaries and bonuses, and Behring the other 20%), and Allen
would be in for about $425 million.
"Well, California would be O.K., I guess," says Sinclair, whose
NFL career spans Seattle's current streak of seven seasons
without a winning record. "But Cleveland? I'd have to drag my
wife kicking and screaming."