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Allen Has Option to Buy Seahawks

Pro football: Deal should knock out Behring and end chances of move to Southern California.

April 21, 1996|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Seahawks, who were going to play in the Rose Bowl before moving on to Anaheim in owner Ken Behring's disorganized scheme to strike it rich here, have been grounded in Seattle.

Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder, signed an agreement late Saturday giving him a 14-month exclusive opportunity to purchase the Seattle Seahawks and guaranteed the team will play in the Kingdome this season.

Bob Whitsitt, Allen's advisor and president of Allen's newly formed Football Northwest Inc., announced the transaction Saturday night at the team's Kirkland headquarters and said the signed deal is contingent upon all franchise-moving lawsuits being suspended. If Allen exercises his option to buy the team, then all lawsuits must be dropped.

"This option is the first step toward ensuring the Seahawks remain in Seattle," Allen said in a statement.

Behring, who was disappointed by Los Angeles' lukewarm greeting, had sued King County seeking release from the final 10 years on his team's Kingdome release in an effort to move to the Los Angeles area. Behring, also the target of a recent sexual harassment suit by a former employee, did not make an appearance at the team's news conference.

"This is not about Ken Behring," Whitsitt said. "We have an opportunity over the next 14 months as a community to control the destiny of this football team."

The signed agreement, which is also contingent upon the NFL changing its cross-ownership rules and allowing Allen to initially purchase 25% of the team, is also contingent upon Allen gaining county assistance for a new football stadium in Seattle.

Allen has until July 1, 1997 to exercise his option to purchase the team. Although Whitsitt declined to detail any financial terms of the deal, NFL sources indicate that the team that Behring paid $80 million for in 1988 is probably now worth more than $170 million.

Whitsitt, also president and general manager of the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers, which Allen owns, said Behring will continue to be the majority owner of the team. But, he said, all decisions will now be mutually made between Behring and Allen.

Such an agreement runs contrary to NFL rules, which prohibit minority interests from becoming involved in the day-to-day operation of a team, and which will undoubtedly cause further clarification in the coming weeks.

But for now, the NFL is thrilled with the possibility of replacing Behring with Allen and thus keeping the Seahawks locked in Seattle.

"We congratulate Ken Behring and Paul Allen on today's agreement and look forward to working with them on their mutual goals for the Seahawks," the NFL said in a statement. "Today's agreement will enable the Seahawks to focus on success in the 1996 season and provide an opportunity to develop stadium options enabling the Seahawks to remain in Seattle."

Behring announced on Feb. 2 he was moving his team to the Los Angeles area because of earthquake concerns with the Kingdome. The announcement, greeted in many quarters by laughter because of L.A.'s earthquake reputation, drew jeers later from fellow NFL owners after Behring's attorney failed to impress them with a complicated engineering presentation.

Behring came to Los Angeles, he said, with no specific plans on the Seahawks' long-range future, although NFL officials suspected Michael Ovitz, Walt Disney Co. president, of being Behring's strategist.

A Washington-area judge immediately granted King County an injunction restraining Behring from completing a deal that would allow the Seahawks to play temporarily this season in the Rose Bowl. Behring insisted, however, that he was committed to moving to the Los Angeles area and focused his attention on Anaheim.

Plans to conduct daily business at Rams Park in Anaheim collapsed after the NFL threatened to levy a $500,000 fine and additional $50,000 a week unless Behring agreed to shift his operation back to Kirkland. Behring complied, and the moving vans that had brought the team's practice gear to Rams Park, were reloaded and returned to Washington.

Ripped by Jackie Autry, wife of Angel owner Gene Autry, for disrupting negotiations for the sale of the baseball team to Disney, Behring began to get pummeled in a variety of different ways.

Behring confidants said he had become increasingly distressed by negative media coverage in the Los Angeles area and appeared disheartened a few days before a gala cocktail party in his honor in Orange County. Those close to Behring let it be known to Allen's people then that he would be agreeable to selling the team.

At the same time, the Washington State Supreme Court declined to grant Behring's request for a trial outside King County on the grounds that he could not get a fair hearing, and a subsequent request for a change of venue was also denied. Disney also announced it had struck a deal with the Angels, thereby hurting Behring's long-range chances for a financial deal with Anaheim.

On the heels of such disappointing legal news, Behring was tagged with an embarrassing lawsuit, which suggested he had fondled a female employee. Los Angeles had all-but disappeared in Behring's rear-view window.

"Over the next year, I will be thoroughly evaluating the financial performance of the team, the level of support within the business community and the stadium options available to us," Allen said in his statement. "As a business person concerned with our local community and as a serious football fan, I'm thrilled to be helping establish long-term local ownership of this team."

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