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We Hardly Knew Them : Seattle / L.A. / Seattle Seahawks Still Looking for a Permanent Home

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eight months ago, the Seahawks pulled out of Seattle, the pedals on their moving vans pushed to the floor, owner Ken Behring figuratively in the driver’s seat, daring everybody from angry fans to disapproving league officials to stand in his way.

Following the trail blazed by that renowned conqueror, Al Davis, Behring planned to invade the suddenly pro football-free paradise of Southern California with his Seahawks.

He envisioned a reception from the natives somewhere between that received by Gen. George Patton when he was liberating Europe and that received by Walter O’Malley when he brought major league baseball to Los Angeles.

Instead, Behring proved to be about as popular as Don King at a hairdressers’ convention. The Seahawks were greeted in Southern California by yawns and sneers. Angered and burned twice in one year by the departure of both the Raiders and the Rams, and licking their chops at the thought of more NFL games on TV on Sunday, local fans were not ready to break out the pom-poms.

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As it turned out, there was no need to. With league owners unwilling to approve the move, officials in Seattle unwilling to let Behring out of the remaining 10 years of his Kingdome lease and Southern California stadium officials unwilling to risk legal repercussions by signing a deal with the Seahawks, Behring had no choice but to go back to Seattle.

Forty-eight days after announcing he was headed for Anaheim, Behring and his Seahawks were on their way back, with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue in the driver’s seat.

The briefest franchise move in the history of professional sports was over before the shoulder pads were unpacked.

Behring had nothing to show for his bold move except a bill from the moving company, a lawsuit from King County and a public image rivaling that of Albert Belle.

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“You have to develop a thick skin in this business,” said David Behring, Ken’s 41-year-old son, who serves as team president. “But the people down there [Southern California] made my father look like Attila the Hun. It was unwarranted, inaccurate and painful. It affected our whole family to have our name vilified on a constant basis.

“It took an emotional toll. It was a difficult time. You have to be prepared to deal with this kind of stuff, but I don’t think anybody expected the level of vilification to be as high as it was. It’s not easy to fight back.”

The younger Behring, however, seems ready to fight back. The Seahawks are preparing for their 21st season in Seattle. Ken Behring has been in Africa on a hunting trip. And billionaire businessman Paul Allen is poised to take control of the team.

So is the mad dash to Anaheim and back a faded nightmare? Can the Seahawks and Seattle live happily ever after?

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Perhaps, but there are no guarantees. The perception that Allen’s $7.5-billion net worth will solve all of the Seahawks’ problems is not accurate.

The clock is still running on this team and there are only 10 months left.

Allen has merely obtained a window to purchase the Seahawks at an estimated cost of just under $200 million, including $32 million of debt. That window closes on June 30, 1997. Allen has made it plain that he will not buy a team that does not have a suitable place to play. And in Allen’s mind, the Kingdome, in its current shape, is not suitable.

In order to make the deal more attractive to Allen, King County executive Gary Locke offered this week to shorten the Seahawks’ lease to three years, cut the rent paid by the team and give it a bigger share of stadium revenue.

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The common perception is that money is not Allen’s major concern.

“Someone with $7 billion can do anything he wants to do,” said Pete von Reichbauer, a King County councilman and chairman of the county’s Budget and Fiscal Management Committee. “His bond rating is better than that of King County.”

But Allen, the eighth-wealthiest man in America, has no intention of paying for a new stadium, estimated to cost anywhere from $200-$250 million, solely out of his pocket.

What he would like is an arrangement more along the lines of the one he forged in Portland, where he built the $262-million Rose Garden for the Trail Blazers. Allen put up $46 million of his own money, raised $155 million through private investors, got the city to kick in $34.5 million for the surrounding streets, a public plaza and parking facilities, took $16 million in bank loans and added $10.3 million in interest income.

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Such complicated deals can take time and that is a commodity in short supply if Allen is to make his decision by the end of June.

Especially since there is a wide array of possibilities for a home field for the Seahawks.

They could:

--Renovate the Kingdome. It has already cost $70 million to fix the problems with the building’s tile roof, problems that temporarily shut it down two years ago. Estimates on the cost of modernizing the Kingdome enough to enable it to compete with the new state-of-the-art stadiums range from $200 to $300 million.

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--Build a new stadium on the site of the current Kingdome or nearby on the property. Each possibility has its negatives. With plans already underway for a $320-million stadium for the baseball Mariners near the Kingdome, there may not be room for a football stadium as well. Just to tear down the Kingdome would cost $40 million.

--Remodel Husky Stadium, where the University of Washington plays. That would cost at least $100 million and could also involve a battle with homeowners who might fight the additional disruption in their neighborhood. It is also questionable how close Husky Stadium could be brought to current NFL standards.

--Construct a stadium on one of five potential sites in the suburbs.

To determine which of these possibilities is the best to pursue, Allen and county officials are splitting the $300,000 cost of the Seahawks’ Kingdome Renovation Task Force, which is exploring each option in depth. There is even a web page on which fans can e-mail their preference.

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If all goes according to schedule, according to Bert Kolde, vice chairman of Allen’s Football Northwest organization, the study will be completed in November. The final proposal would then go to the state legislature in January.

“Because we know Paul’s option is going to expire, we are putting on a full-court press to get this done,” Kolde said.

“We are not ready to say it is going to happen. It will be interesting to see how it comes out. We will certainly give it our best shot. The people are receptive, so we are encouraged. We know we have a long journey ahead of us, but, by the time the option is up, we want Paul to at least be able to say, ‘I gave it my best. Does anybody else want to try?’ ”

That the Mariners have a $320-million stadium project awaiting final approval, with all that money coming from public funds, cannot help the Seahawks’ cause. After all, no matter where you look for additional tax money, it all comes, in the end, from the same public.

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And the populace is unlikely to approve funds for a team that ranks only fourth on the popularity scale right now in the Seattle area. The Mariners, the NBA SuperSonics and the Huskies’ football team would all have to be ranked ahead of a Seahawk team that is better remembered for driving down the street in a moving van than driving down the field in football gear. Seahawk season-ticket sales, which were cut off at 66,400 in the peak years, are now at 36,500.

“If we can play well on the field, I think you’ll see public support galvanize around this team,” David Behring said.

If not, and Allen doesn’t exercise his option, the next sound you hear might be the engines on those moving vans revving up again.


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