The departure of the Seahawks for the Los Angeles area could be announced as early as this morning, King County officials indicated Thursday night.
As the Seahawks prepared to leave their home of the past 20 years, King County delayed filing a lawsuit to allow for a last-ditch effort to find a local buyer for the National Football League franchise.
“I’m really depressed,” said former team owner John Nordstrom. Nordstrom has led a business community effort to negotiate a Kingdome renovation package with Seahawks owner Ken Behring.
“We worked so hard to bring the team here. I’ve tried to work with Ken Behring and be a friend and not an adversary. We worked hard to get Ken on the same page, but it was all uphill,” Nordstrom said. “I couldn’t catch up.”
Behring has refused to comment on widespread reports that the team is moving to the Los Angeles area.
But reports of his intentions were confirmed Thursday by some county officials, business leaders and Seahawks employees. Word spread throughout King County government that the Seahawks were leaving.
At team headquarters in Kirkland, many staff members went to work Thursday expecting that it might be their last day on the job. They had been told earlier this week the team would be moved to Southern California and their offices would be closed, said an employee who asked not to be identified.
Behring has commissioned a study of seismic safety at the Kingdome. The study reportedly says it would cost $90 million to make the stadium safe and another $20 million to make it accessible to the handicapped.
Many Seahawks watchers had expected Behring to use the study as an argument that he should get a new stadium, rather than a renovated Kingdome, for the team to play in.
Instead, Behring is using the study to argue that the lease is void, because the Dome is no longer the first-class facility as promised. That would leave him free to take the team elsewhere. If Behring cannot break the lease, the team would have to stay here for 10 more years.
The team owner presented the study Thursday afternoon to King County Executive Gary Locke, Metropolitan King County Council members Jane Hague and Pete von Reichbauer, and Locke chief of staff Kevin Raymond.
After the meeting, the county representatives clammed up.
Locke and von Reichbauer refused to comment on their meeting with Behring other than that they “had a very frank and candid meeting,” they were to meet with the Seahawks owner again within 24 hours, and they would have something to say after that.
At Behring’s request, von Reichbauer said, “We all agreed to make no comment” until then.
Locke sidestepped when asked whether he was optimistic that the Seahawks would remain in Seattle, saying, “We’re meeting and we hope to have an announcement” today.
Von Reichbauer said the county in the interim is “seeking outside advisers to respond to the issues (Behring) raised” but refused to elaborate. Locke, however, said later that “we’re not bringing in any experts.”
Von Reichbauer characterized Thursday’s huddle as “an educational meeting where (the Seahawks) advised us of their issues and we responded.”
In Kirkland, Seahawks employees were instructed to report for work this morning. “It’s business as usual,” a team spokesman said Thursday afternoon.
Officials and staff members declined to explain the change in direction.
But it appeared to have less to do with a breakthrough agreement, than an effort to give county officials, particularly von Reichbauer, a chance to save face by making one last try to keep the team here.
“I want a shot at finding a local owner. And that’s what I’m aiming for,” von Reichbauer said before the meeting.”
He added, “I think we have a very strong position both legally and morally. I don’t think the league wants to be in the position of countenancing the move.”
“Pete’s trying to save a little face,” said a source close to the negotiations, whether with a local buyer, or a deal that would allow Seattle to keep the Seahawks name and history for an expansion franchise.
Behring has repeatedly said he will not sell the team.
If Behring moves the team, it would be in apparent violation of a July 1995 agreement, signed by all NFL owners that prevents any individual team owner from making a deal for a Los Angeles location without league approval.
“It was approved after the Raiders move back to Oakland,” said Joe Browne, NFL spokesman. “The approved resolution states that the league owns and controls any franchise that goes into the greater Los Angeles area.
“The resolution was OK’d and is without exception that no club could appropriate the opportunity to move into L.A. without approval from the league executive council,” Browne said.
And, he added, that as of Thursday, Behring had not sought that approval.
Browne cited the league’s limited ability to block a team’s move.
The league lost $50 million when it went to court in the early ‘80s to fight Raiders’ owner Al Davis.
Last year, league opposition to the Rams’ move from Los Angeles to St. Louis was in vain. The initial response was to block the move, but the threat of a $3 billion lawsuit against the league and its owners by the Missouri attorney general was too much. The owners approved the relocation application.
The Seahawks appear headed for Anaheim, where city officials earlier this month announced their intentions to build “Sportstown Anaheim” a 159-acre sports and retail complex near Disneyland. The project would include a new NFL stadium with luxury boxes in addition to a retrofitted Anaheim Stadium for the California Angels major league baseball team.
Although Anaheim officials would not confirm they have been negotiating with Behring, they did say they would welcome the Seahawks if a deal could be worked out.
An Associated Press report said the Seahawks would play initially at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., though Rose Bowl officials said they have had no talks with Behring.
The Seahawks have not said in any talks with King County that they have a deal with any city in the Los Angeles area, sources say.
As late as Wednesday night, key players in the Seattle Seahawks drama insisted that the team had no intention of moving.
At a hush-hush meeting Locke called with business and community leaders Wednesday night, Nordstrom reportedly assured attendees that he had Behring’s assurance he was not planning to move the team.
In recent weeks, while Behring’s representatives were attempting to hire a public relations firm to help develop his strategy for getting out of town, Nordstrom tried to hire public relations advice to help Behring improve the team’s image here.
Friends reported that Nordstrom was crushed by the apparent double-cross.
“If this (departure) happens, it will be a real hole in my life,” Nordstrom said Thursday night.
Von Reichbauer had insisted for at least two weeks that leaving was the furthest thing from Behring’s mind. Von Reichbauer, an avid football fan who spent part of Super Bowl weekend in Behring’s company, thought he was negotiating a settlement with Behring that would keep the team in Seattle for the long run.