February 7, 1996 in Sports

Sweetheart Deal Leaves Sour Taste In City Of Seattle

Art Thiel Seattle Post-Intelligencer
 

The single most aggravating part of Ken Behring’s plot to pirate the Seahawks from Seattle is the fact that, no matter what, he wins.

However reprehensible his actions and conduct, he has nevertheless convulsed politicians in Seattle and Los Angeles, as well as the entire NFL, and put himself at least temporarily in control of all.

In an interview published in the Sunday Los Angeles Times, Behring revealed his strategy, although the disclosure was buried in the story’s last paragraph.

“You know,” said Behring, “it’s actually kind of fun being the free agent for a change after having dealt with free agents for so long.”

That’s it in a sentence. Behring claims he no longer has a contract in Seattle, and he has yet to sign a contract in Los Angeles. But he expects somebody in one of those cities to make a sweetheart deal for his free-agent franchise. He prefers L.A., but if he’s denied, he’ll probably get an L.A. price from a Seattle buyer.

This is a killer to write, but it’s a brilliant plan. It’s also ruthlessly diabolical, executed with a maximum of duplicity and a minimum of conscience.

His seemingly bizarre leap into the abyss is virtually unprecedented in sports. One prominent Seattle businessman acquainted with Behring and knowledgeable about the sports scene described it this way:

“He’s holding a pair of deuces, and he’s pushing it hard. It’s just like with a lot of his real estate deals: He doesn’t care what anybody thinks, he’s going to take his chances.”

Behring’s abrupt stunt has little legitimacy. His seismic concerns about the Kingdome are bogus, his declining club revenues are due strictly to mismanagement of the franchise by himself and his son, and failure to build political and business support are likewise self-inflicted wounds.

But the twin occurrences of an empty L.A. market and a local government exhausted from a previous sports-facility battle have conspired together to create an enormous opening to exploit. It doesn’t matter that Behring has no rationale. He will do it because he can.

The situation is so unusual that Behring’s lack of a firm relocation plan actually works in his favor. While the sports world stares dumbfounded at the moving vans in Kirkland and the painters at an Anaheim training facility, Behring is talking with at least three stadium proponents in the Los Angeles area.

He will play them off against one another, just as he will play them off collectively against Seattle.

That’s why he can’t lose. By breaking not only his Kingdome lease but the NFL embargo on moves to L.A., he took a calculated risk that his lawyers will outwit the league and the county. The litigation costs and the heartbreak would seem to be staggering, but if one has no heart and a lot of money, it makes no difference.

Even if he spends O.J.-level money on litigation, it figures to pale against potential income several years from now from a giant development project that will produce a sports theme park surrounding a state-of-the-art stadium.

The fact that no city has signed up Behring, and no developers are committed to such a project, is a risk he is willing to take for now, given the potential investor money in L.A. and the TV network pressure on the NFL to fill the void in a rich market.

To pull off the venture, Behring had to be the first NFL franchise to commit to L.A., regardless of the fact he signed a promise saying he wouldn’t. He came in second in the sports-facility race in Seattle. He isn’t about to make that mistake again.

If his gamble fails and the courts deny him L.A., Behring has a couple of fallback positions: To operate out of L.A. and play home games in the Kingdome, or to sell outright to a Seattle buyer.

“The most that could happen if everything goes bad,” Behring told the L.A. Times, “is flying up to Seattle a certain length of time for Sunday games in the Kingdome, but I don’t know how they can make us go in there.

“(Selling) would only be the last resort. I’m sure that’s what they would like to see happen, but it would be absolutely the last resort. I don’t need the money.”

What these statements mean is that Behring has well calculated the consequences of defeat in his maneuverings and can accept them. The risks are worth the potential rewards.

Of course, Behring’s words must always be accompanied by asterisks the size of Jupiter, since his dealings here suggest he would happily lie to a homeless person if it meant getting a buck from him.

But the fact that Behring acknowledged the possibility of a sale is a first. Until now, he has steadfastly insisted he would not part with the team. So it would appear that that if football life can be made wretched enough, he can be convinced to sell.

Besides the courts, Seattle’s hopes rest with the fact that L.A. politicians and business people negotiating with Behring will discover shortly his true colors, which are even more dismal than those of recently departed Al Davis and Georgia Frontiere.

After fires, earthquakes, floods, mud-slides and Mark Fuhrman, L.A. should have a discerning eye for natural disasters.


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