RENTON – When failures forced reconstruction in recent seasons, heads were sent rolling at the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers. The changes were not always handled with great finesse, but things sometimes get messy in pro sports.
However, as Tod Leiweke leaves the front office of those teams (and the Seattle Sounders), he should be loudly hailed for having grasped a fundamental reality that is stunningly rare among professional sports executives: The most important component of the entire enterprise is the fan.
Leiweke, Paul Allen’s right-hand honcho for Vulcan Sports and Entertainment, is leaving the Northwest to become CEO and minority owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL.
In almost a half-hour of explaining his decision to move on – with the ownership opportunity being the key – Leiweke told one story that reflects the value of his perspective.
Back in 2003, when Leiweke came into a vacancy created by Bob Whitsitt’s firing, he made a crucial decision. He became a fan … to see how it felt.
“One of the first things I did was I bought season tickets and I lived life as a fan,” he said at Seahawks headquarters on Monday. “It wasn’t so easy, even in that beautiful stadium. There were things that, as a fan, I didn’t like. I bought seats up the Hawks’ Nest, and I sat in the stands, and I made it a point not to sit in a suite.”
And the most important view from there had nothing to do with sight-lines, but with the unsatisfactory quality of the experience.
“I didn’t see us connected with the community; I didn’t see our game presentation being what it could be. I didn’t see a brand that reflected what had been here from the fans.”
The first game he saw was not a sellout. A good portion of the crowd in the lower bowl on the visitors’ side was filled with fans who had come to root for the other team. And the stadium environment “was less than perfect ... a place where women and children didn’t always feel good going.”
He took the message to Allen, who was drawn to Leiweke in the first place because of the fan-friendly environment he’d help establish while president of the Minnesota Wild of the NHL.
Leiweke started nurturing the concept of the fans as “The 12th Man,” and it took root and flourished.
“Now the 12th Man is one of the coolest things around,” Leiweke said. “(It’s) really the essence of the franchise, and it’s bigger than one person. When you start to understand that, you can create it again, and I think we have done that in soccer (with the Sounders).”
Leiweke also shepherded the construction of the new headquarters and various charitable arms of the franchise.
But some of his largest contributions went unseen by the common fan. When he arrived, he was a bit of a stealth executive, and it wasn’t until he had to start firing coaches and execs that his name became common in headlines.
And that stable, behind-the-scenes force was exactly what the Hawks needed. When he arrived, the franchise had suffered from the splintered wills of Whitsitt and coach Mike Holmgren. Some insiders questioned whether Allen was getting a clear message about the franchise’s direction, wondered if he was too insulated.
Leiweke became a reliable conduit to ownership.
On a more personal basis, word occasional seeped out that Leiweke was far more involved with The 12th Man than most fans could know.
While I was researching a column a couple years back on a young married couple from Graham – fanatical Seahawks followers – who had been murdered in their home, a source mentioned how Leiweke had jumped in to raise funds to help the victims’ families.
Leiweke let the father of the male victim wear his NFC championship ring during a game later that season.
Even amid his grief, the friend of the slain couple said that it was clear that “the 12th Man thing is not just about marketing for the Seahawks; it was just a really, really great thing to see how much they cared.”
To a large extent, that was Leiweke’s doing. The caring for the fan. And it was the most important thing he could have brought to the franchise.
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 firstname.lastname@example.org