Everyone in Seattle knows how Paul Allen and his high-school pal, Bill Gates, started the most successful software company in history.
They also know that Allen left Microsoft early and went on to live a very rich life as a globe-trotting, music-playing, arts-loving bachelor billionaire.
But to understand Paul Allen, the enigmatic sports-team owner whose Seattle Seahawks face the San Francisco 49ers in today’s NFC Championship Game, you have to look back further — back 50 years to Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood.
There, you’d see a tall, thoughtful and not terribly athletic boy tossing a football to his father in the street outside their modest home.
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On Saturdays in the fall, they’d be at Husky Stadium, cheering from the grandstands and enjoying hot dogs in the rain.
You’d never guess that boy would eventually own the most feared team in the NFL, but it starts to make sense when Allen tells you about his early introduction to sports, his hopes for the Seahawks and his style of team ownership.
Like a steady bass backing up a soaring guitar, sports have been a constant presence through the remarkable life of the Seattle boy who became a software prodigy, a player in the dawn of personal computing and eventually an eclectic tycoon, real-estate baron and philanthropist.
No wonder Allen is putting on such a good show for fans.
The Seahawks’ stadium, for instance, was designed in part to re-create the aura of those Husky games he enjoyed with his late father, Kenneth, a University of Washington librarian and standout football player in high school.
“It’s just so much more real, a compelling Northwest experience to be out there in the elements,” Allen said. “You didn’t care if it was cold or the wind was whipping around or you were getting rained on. You were still completely into the game.”
Allen shared all of this — plus the backstory on the drafting of Russell Wilson — during an unprecedented interview last week in his opulent office overlooking CenturyLink Field and embellished with models of his yacht and space vehicles.
Through the conversation, Allen’s style and interests as owner emerged. He may call General Manager John Schneider mostly for player updates, and he’ll chat briefly on the field with coach Pete Carroll “to understand the mindset going into the game.” In general, he tries to ask rather than tell, and engages particularly when a business question arises or he’s concerned about a player’s health.
“In football and basketball I like to think of myself as more of a sounding board,” Allen said, “somebody that, especially with the general manager, will talk through some things, different options.”
Allen isn’t reclusive. He likes engaging with fans and freely shares his thoughts on games via Twitter. He just doesn’t want to be a sideshow.
That leaves Carroll and Schneider to run the team, and Allen to enjoy the games as the ultimate fan.
“I never want to be a distraction, I want everybody to keep focused — so [I] just go out there and talk to Pete for a couple of minutes,” Allen said, explaining his ritual before games. “There usually are a few fans who know I’m going to go past there, so they say hi to me. It’s a nice pregame. It kind of gets me jazzed up pregame and gets me into the flow. You can feel the energy down there.”
Asked if he can resist the urge to meddle, Allen said he mostly just asks questions, primarily of Schneider.
“From my perspective it’s so much about finding the right people — both to coach the team and help find the talent, the general manager,” he said. “That is your most important job as owner, is those two positions.”
Carroll said coaching for Allen has “turned out better than I could imagine.”
“He’s given John and I such tremendous freedom to run the program — couldn’t ask for anything better,” he said. “To me, it’s the best situation that you can have in professional sports.”
For his part, Allen brings an analytical, business perspective to the discussions.
“There’s two different aspects,” he explains, lightly tapping a can of caffeine-free Diet Coke on his office table for emphasis. “There’s thinking about what it’s going to do to your profitability as a team. And then there’s the, ‘OK, if we load up on a few guys right now, how much does it restrict our flexibility in the future if that guy’s no longer around?’”
Clearly, you can take the guy out of Microsoft, but you can’t take Microsoft out of him.
“There’s almost a mathematical aspect to it that I probably wrap my head around a little bit more than some owners do,” Allen admits.
Whatever Allen’s doing is working, at least for now. After a few up and down years, he’s the envy of sports owners around the country now that his multiple franchises are winning games and winning over their communities.
Three seasons after he overhauled the Seahawks organization, replacing its coach and general manager, the rejuvenated team enters today’s game with remarkable fan support and is the odds-on favorite to win a trip to the Super Bowl.
Allen simultaneously has been rebuilding his Portland Trail Blazers, turning the once-troubled basketball franchise into one of the most exciting teams in the NBA this year.
He’s also a co-owner of a Sounders team that has set attendance records and raised expectations for the future of professional soccer in the U.S.
That trifecta likely has other owners wondering about Allen’s “secret sauce,” said Andy Dolich, a former 49ers chief operating officer who is now a sports-management consultant in Los Altos, Calif.
“That’s the holy grail of most ownerships — nobody’s really been able to figure that out yet,” Dolich said.
Entering into sports
Luck is a big factor, as is the support of taxpayers who fund team venues. Allen also has a lot of experience.
The 60-year-old Mercer Island resident entered the world of pro sports in 1987, when a business associate let him know the Blazers might be for sale. That was a year after Microsoft went public and Allen held about 28 percent of the company’s shares, the foundation of a fortune that Bloomberg now pegs at $15.6 billion.
In 1988, Allen closed the deal, buying Portland’s beloved team for about $65 million.
Allen’s history with basketball also goes back to Wedgwood, where he was a self-described “benchwarmer on a Pee Wee team.”
“Supposedly it won some kind of city trophy, but I was like the kid they would put in with a minute left and up by 20 or something like that,” Allen said. “I have a vague memory of dribbling the ball, somewhere.”
Still, his love of the game continued. Allen was at Washington State University when coach George Raveling revived Cougar basketball hopes, offsetting a disappointing football team.
Regardless of the record, Allen and his pals from the Phi Kappa Theta house were regulars at both basketball and football games, recalled pledge brother Craig Buhl.
“We did a lot of cheering, hoping — not always the best of results, but we always had a lot of fun,” said Buhl, who now runs e-commerce sites from the Spokane area.
Buhl said Allen was most interested in computers, but they would play chess and have conversations about all sorts of things.
“He had just a wide range of interest, deep knowledge, of business, the stock market, arts,” Buhl said. “I was almost surprised at the level he got into sports because of everything else he was interested in.”
Allen and Gates started Microsoft in 1975 in Albuquerque, N.M., near a big customer that was sold a few years later. About 1978, they began wondering whether to move what was then a 15-person company.
“We decided — because our families were here, because we had so many memories of Seattle and we thought it would be a great place to stay inside and write code — that we should move Microsoft,” Allen recalled.
It was great timing for a basketball fan.
“I came up and that year the Sonics won the championship so I got caught up in watching the Sonics, on cable mostly,” Allen said. “Then I got tickets and every year … the team got worse after they won the championship. Because the team was getting worse, every year I was able to get better and better seats. Pretty soon I had floor seats and then I was really hooked on basketball.”
Friends took him to Seahawks games, “But at that point I was more into basketball.”
Taking the plunge
Later, as the Blazers owner, Allen immersed himself in the game and continues to be a more hands-on coach than he is with the Seahawks.
Being so immersed in the NBA he was initially wary about buying the Seahawks when he was approached in 1996, after then-owner Ken Behring threatened to move the team to Los Angeles.
“I knew this from owning the Trail Blazers; it’s a serious commitment of time, energy and care,” Allen said.
Owners also have to take a long view, knowing sports are cyclical and “you have feast and famine,” he said.
Allen took the plunge, paying about $200 million for the team, plus $130 million toward a new, $430 million stadium to replace the Kingdome.
As a Jimi Hendrix fan whose penthouse office goes all the way to floor 11, he wanted the stadium to be loud.
“Well, if you remember, even back in the Kingdome days, because that was such a giant, concrete pillbox, the sound in the Kingdome could be pretty intense, too,” he said. “I wanted to see if we could do even better in the new football stadium.”
In 2002, the team played its first game in what’s now CenturyLink Field, and in 2006 the team made its first trip to the Super Bowl.
Among the fans caught up in this year’s playoff run is Gates, who reflected on what his old pal has built.
“Looking around Seattle, you can see Paul’s influence in tons of places,” he said. “At the UW, in South Lake Union, at the EMP — and, this week, blue and green everywhere.
“Paul has been a real believer in the team and in the city, and it’s great to see that all coming together in such a cool way.”
Allen expected it would take three or four years to turn the Seahawks around after Schneider and Carroll were hired in 2010. The following season they went to the playoffs but the rebuilding had just begun.
Allen remembered a meeting shortly after Carroll and Schneider arrived:
“They had our roster up on a white board and they said, ‘We don’t really have a lot of the kinds of players we’re looking for, so we’re going to look at every possible trade, free agents, undrafted guys. We’re going to look everywhere to find the kind of players that fit our mold.’ ”
Fortunately, Schneider has a gift for seeing hidden gems.
“I call it the golden gut,” Allen said. “Some general managers have that talent for finding guys.”
That talent has landed standouts and given the team enough depth on its roster to weather injuries, plus a suspension here and there.
It also took regular guts to take a chance on passed-over players.
“You have to have the conviction and the courage to make those picks,” Allen said. “And then Pete — coach Carroll — is just so good at communicating and engaging and being positive with all of the players to get them to perform at an amazingly high level. That has, I think, really helped them increase their level of performance and just the fiber on the team.”
Russell Wilson is a great example.
“Oh yeah,” Allen said, recalling what it was like to draft the team’s franchise quarterback in 2012. “That’s a classic story where John just kept telling me: ‘There’s this quarterback I like and he may be there for us in the third round.’ ”
Allen sensed, though, that Schneider was holding back and not telling him everything:
“So I said ‘And? What is it?’ He said, ‘Well, he’s … shorter than your usual starting NFL quarterback, but he’s got it. He’s got those special qualities you look for.’ ”
The draft rolled on and Wilson was still unpicked and available. Allen kept asking Schneider if that was still his pick, and Schneider insisted on taking the 5-11 prospect out of Wisconsin.
“So, of course, we did and it’s been amazing having him as our quarterback,” Allen said.
The perfect situation
Allen personally approved last year’s blockbuster $67 million deal for wide receiver Percy Harvin. Schneider keeps him in the loop on any big personnel moves, but “anything of that magnitude, requiring that size of financial commitments, we have discussion about it for sure.”
“And, of course, we talked in the offseason about getting Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril and some of those guys,” he said. “The thing about football, as compared to basketball — there’s so much specialization. I can ask general questions like, ‘What is this guy going to bring to the team?’ But it’s not like I can watch tape of an offensive lineman or defensive tackle and say, OK, this guy is better than that guy.”
It’s a different story in Portland where Allen may urge the Blazers to a particular draft pick, like forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
With the Seahawks, “I don’t do that. I just ask, ‘What’s our strategy, what are we hoping for?’ ”
Carroll said it’s the perfect situation all around.
“He’s an extraordinary owner from our point of view and should be from the fan’s point of view as well,” he said, “because he’ll do whatever it takes to win.”
As for how the team will do against the 49ers, Allen said he’s “a little bit superstitious about predicting,” but is clearly excited about the possibility of winning another ticket to the Super Bowl.
“Just having been there once you dream of going back and winning it all,” he said. “So we’ll see.”