Following the death Monday of Paul Allen, the billionaire co-creator of Microsoft, from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, questions have been raised about the futures of the two sports franchises he owned — the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers and the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks.
While a succession plan appears to be in place in Seattle, the Blazers’ situation is less clear.
Allen bought the basketball team for $70 million in 1988 and became one of the NBA’s most influential owners. Despite the smaller market, Allen was willing to use his tremendous wealth to spend generously, leading to several good teams: the Clyde Drexler-led squads that began his tenure, reaching the NBA Finals in 1990 and 1992; the one led by Rasheed Wallace and Scottie Pippen that took Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers to seven games in the 2000 Western Conference finals; the Brandon Roy-LaMarcus Aldridge-Greg Oden core that was derailed by injuries to Roy and Oden; and the latest iteration, which initially featured Aldridge but has shifted to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
What happens next for the franchise? Allen is the second NBA owner to die in 2018, following New Orleans Pelicans steward Tom Benson in March. Unlike that situation, though — when Benson’s wife, Gayle, immediately took control of the franchise and indicated she wanted things to remain that way — the future in Portland is more up in the air.
Allen had no wife or children, and his sister, Jody, reportedly isn’t interested in controlling the Blazers. Even if she were, the possibility of getting more than $1 billion for the team could be too good to pass up. Relocating the team, however, would be easier said than done.
The lease agreement the team has with the city of Portland runs through 2025, a source confirmed to The Washington Post, making it difficult for the franchise to leave soon. Even at that point, the league would have to approve moving a team from Portland — and recent evidence, specifically the fight to keep the Sacramento Kings in California’s capital earlier this decade, indicates the NBA would be reluctant to do so.
That is, in part, because of Allen’s hometown team, the Seattle SuperSonics, being sold by Starbucks magnate Howard Schultz to Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett in 2006 — only for Bennett to move the team to his hometown two years later.
There are several teams the NBA would be interested in relocating before even discussing Portland — specifically the aforementioned Pelicans and the Memphis Grizzlies. And by the time Portland’s lease would become an issue again, the league will have entered into a new television contract, and potentially have even seen expansion take place — further cutting into potential new homes for the franchise.
So while there can never be a guarantee that a team will stay put in such a situation, there are enough things working in favor of the Trail Blazers remaining in the Pacific Northwest.
Allen left a more structured arrangement with the Seahawks, because each NFL team is required to have an ownership succession plan on file with the league and to keep it updated. But league officials declined to say Tuesday, as owners opened their two-day fall meeting in New York, what that plan entails for the Seahawks. The team is expected to make that announcement, perhaps within the next few days.
There was some speculation within the NFL that ownership of the franchise could go to Allen’s sister. But there also were suggestions by some familiar with the situation that Allen’s teams instead could be used to fund his charitable endeavors, perhaps meaning a sale at some point. Even if the Seahawks eventually were sold, people within the league stressed, they would be expected to remain in Seattle.
One person familiar with the league’s inner workings said he doesn’t believe that anything will necessarily be resolved soon but added of the eventual outcome: “I would guess they’ll be sold.”
The Seahawks did not respond to a request for comment.
Bill Hilf, CEO of Vulcan Inc., Allen’s company, said in a written statement released Monday that there are “no changes imminent” for the teams owned by Allen. He did not provide details.
“Paul thoughtfully addressed how the many institutions he founded and supported would continue after he was no longer able to lead them,” Hilf said. “This isn’t the time to deal in those specifics as we focus on Paul’s family. We will continue to work on furthering Paul’s mission and the projects he entrusted to us. There are no changes imminent for Vulcan, the teams, the research institutes or museums.”