BY Art Thiel 03:53PM 08/23/2019

Thiel: Were Sounders moving? Oh, hell no, Russ

Russell Wilson said his investment was to help keep “the Sounders in Seattle.” Wait a minute. They weren’t going anywhere. The team was already saved by fans.

Seahawks QB Russell Wilson and his wife, Ciara, were greeted by throngs of Sounders fans celebrating some new club owners, including him, at Seattle’s Yesler Terrace Park Monday. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

Far be it from me to tell Russell Wilson how to drop a dime on a receiver 40 yards downfield. But when Wilson steps off the the field and moves into the world of Seattle sports business, I’m a bit more comfortable in clearing my throat for a rousing, “Ahem . . . ” when he throws into coverage.

After practice Thursday, he answered some questions about joining a group of local wealthies in a minority ownership share (about 32 percent) of the Seattle Sounders. Generally speaking, it’s a cool thing to get broad engagement of local people who have something more than ROI in mind when they invest in a pro sports franchise.

And if Wilson wants to invest some of his spare change (no amounts were revealed, but my guess is, as the NFL’s highest paid player, he’ll have covered his share by early in the fourth quarter of the season opener with the Bengals), what the heck. The endeavor is a whole lot more community-worthy than smuggling cocaine in Safeway bananas.

Wilson was already acquainted with Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer, who told him partner Joe Roth, the Hollywood producer, wanted to be cashed out of his Sounders shares. Terry Myerson, a former Microsoft executive now with the Madrona capital venture group, was introduced to Hanauer by Mariners CEO John Stanton.

After Myerson, who charged himself with rounding up partners, received an email from Wilson — “hey, it was an email from Russell Wilson; who wouldn’t respond?” he said — a dinner for prospects was held at Wilson’s home in November.

“Took a cool selfie photo and said, ‘Let’s do this,'” Wilson said of the dinner’s outcome. “We were in, and that’s all she wrote. Seattle is a special place for us, and we wanted to make sure (the Sounders) didn’t move anywhere else.

“Really just tried to say, ‘Hey, let’s keep this in Seattle.’ Let’s keep the Sounders in Seattle.”

Wait. What?

Where were the Sounders going?

Nowhere. At all.

Nothing in the conversations I had with people around the transaction, including Hanauer, suggested that a threat of relocation was anywhere in the discussion. Hanauer did say a group of Californians, perhaps connected to Roth, apparently raised hands to signal interest in Roth’s share.

It certainly didn’t hurt Hanauer’s leverage to let it be known there were other bidders. But the idea of relocating the Sounders, the most successful team in MLS during its decade-long existence, is nearly as absurd as moving the Space Needle to Enumclaw to make Mt. Rainier bigger in the photo background.

Whether Wilson actually was told the Sounders might move isn’t known, because he wasn’t asked the follow-up question.  But even downgrading his remark merely to rhetorical over-reach doesn’t keep the klaxons from going off in the ears of long-time sports skeptics.

Not only did Seattle lose the Pilots in 1969 after one year and Sonics in 2008 after 41 years, the Seahawks were moved for a couple of weeks in 1996. All of this happened before Wilson’s time in Seattle, but if he aspires to mogul-dom, as he most certainly does, he needs to study history in the manner that he studies opponent defenses.

Especially regarding the Sounders.

As adoring as have been the 12s, and as were Mariners fans and Sonics fans back in the day, no fan base as been as integral to franchise success as Sounders fans.

Not only did they lead MLS in attendance for the first nine seasons, the broader soccer community played a significant role in helping rescue the Seahawks and building the stadium, back when Hanauer was barely out of knickers.

Ahead of the June 1997 statewide ballot measure that proposed tax funding to help Paul Allen build the stadium and events center, the soccer community obtained a commitment from Allen’s camp to pursue a pro soccer franchise to share the stadium. Political pundits and civic affairs observers were unanimous in the belief that the groundswell from soccer fans was crucial in getting the ballot measure its skimpy 50.1 percent plurality.

The equation is simple: No soccer support, no Allen-funded NFL success.

It took 12 years before the MLS promise was delivered in 2009, but the wait was worth it, given the subsequent success.

The Sounders’ 2-1 win at Portland Friday night in another Cascadia Cup disputation was another reminder of virtue and value of sports legacy.

Soccer has the region’s only pro rivalry, with 107 meetings across all competitions back to 1975, Seattle now holding a 53-40-14 advantage. It is the sort of sports history and meaning that is otherwise absent here, because Seattle is so geographically disconnected from the rest of the sports world.

That legacy resonates for long-timers but may not register for Wilson and others in the new group. Many are relatively new to the area. Most came for the tech boom, including Myerson, who graduated from Duke and came here 23 years ago to work for Microsoft.

Everyone in the new group is saying and doing the right things about family, racial/gender inclusiveness, and affection for Seattle. But soon enough, capital calls will begin that will help pay for a bigger, better, privately funded practice facility than the current Starfire shop in Tukwila.

Hanauer said the project is “at the top of the (priority) list” for the new group. So no owner should be surprised. Still, there’s nothing like a couple of bad seasons following capital calls to sour the enthusiasm for check-writing. Which is traditionally followed in pro sports ownership by grumbling about how the public fails to appreciate all the sacrifices that were made, then a look for new owners/city.

There’s no indication that this group is predisposed to bailing in tough times. Then again, there was no similar indication in 2000 when Howard Schultz and 56 partners bought the Sonics.

So, yes, it was nice of Wilson to help “keep this in Seattle.” But he and his new colleagues need to keep in mind that it was the soccer community that did the saving here, as well as the sustaining. Ownership’s mission, then, is simple but formidable:

Don’t screw it up.


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YourThoughts

  • Husky73

    How in the world did the NBA ever approve 56 partners with Schultz?

    • art thiel

      With the NBA, there’s no limit on spreading the blame.

  • jafabian

    IMO DangeRuss had a rare moment where his words got ahead of him. He meant well. I’m still impressed he’s a part of the Sounders ownership. He’s certainly making his mark on Pacific NW sports in as big a way as he can.