PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The difference between Paul Allen and Howard Schultz is the difference between the Seattle Seahawks playing in their second Super Bowl and the Seattle SuperSonics playing their sixth season in Oklahoma City as the Thunder.
Both Allen and Schultz built their respective empires in the Seattle area, but there's a reason one is seen as a benevolent oligarch and the other still hasn't been forgiven by the city's sports fans. Allen began building his $15 billion fortune as co-founder of Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., while Schultz stuffed his $1.6 billion coffers during his tenure as chief executive of Seattle's own Starbucks. In 1997, Allen took $194 million of that fortune and purchased the Seahawks from previous owner Ken Behring, who had threatened to move the team to Southern California.
Allen argued that the Seahawks would never be profitable in the 21-year-old Kingdome, but had to pay $130 million and cover potential cost overruns just to secure an extremely close vote on $300 million in public financing. The Seahawks not only got their new echo chamber of a stadium, but got former Green Bay Packers coach Mike Holmgren to lead the team in 2009. The combination, plus an influx of talent including NFL MVP running back Shaun Alexander and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, led the franchise to its first Super Bowl appearance in 2005.
Just around that time, Schultz was nearing the end of his tenure as the Sonics' owner. The team struggled mightily under his tenure, trading away All-Star and face of the franchise Gary Payton during the 2002-03 season after a feud with Schultz (who Payton still loathes for making him leave Seattle) and making the playoffs exactly once: During a Ray Allen/Rashard Lewis-driven run in 2004-05 that would be the franchise's last playoff appearance as the Sonics. Viewed as a miserly business man with woefully little sports acumen -- a depiction not helped by former Sonics employees' takes of trophy scrubbing and $3.50 Starbucks' gift cards and only bolstered by the franchise's postmortem documentary SonicsGate -- Schultz was already less than popular among Sonics fans.
When Schultz pressed for tax dollars to update the Sonics' Key Arena, fans scoffed and accused him of being too cheap to field a competitive team, never mind maintain a building. When he sold the team to Oklahoma City businessman Clayton Bennett in 2006 for $350 million, fans had absolutely no faith in his early -- but withdrawn -- lawsuit attempting to prevent the team from moving or the "good-faith best effort" stipulation he'd coaxed out of Bennett in a last-ditch effort to keep the team in Seattle.
Thanks to Schultz, a franchise that had just drafted Kevin Durant as its last, best hope for an NBA Championship in 2007 had to watch him leave forever in 2008. He took 41 years of the town's NBA history and its only major sports title -- the Sonics' 1979 NBA Champtionship -- with him.
With Schultz's profile in Seattle -- and particularly among its sports fans -- at its lowest, Paul Allen again took his cue. In 2007, Allen joined the ownership group of the United Soccer League's Seattle Sounders in petitioning Major League Soccer for a Seattle franchise. The Sounders dated back to the North American Soccer League of the 1970s and, at their peak, drew baseball-game-sized crowds to the Kingdome. The entire state of Washington developed a thriving soccer culture as a result, and Allen capitalized on it by promising to use his new football stadium as a soccer venue.
Though he'd hosted the Sounders during their USL days, an MLS franchise would be a coup. The Sounders' longtime rivals, the Portland Timbers, were awarded one in 2008 and the groundwork was already laid. In November 2007, the franchise was awarded and the team was given a 2009 date for its MLS debut. Since then, the Sounders have led the MLS in attendance by averaging more than 40,000 fans per game and outdrawing their Major League Baseball neighbors, the Seattle Mariners, on a per-game basis.
The Seahawks had slid a bit, but still weren't doing so shabbily. Holmgren's departure and a disastrous season for his replacement, Jim Mora, gave the Seahawks consecutive losing seasons in 2008 and 2009. In 2010, the team hired embattled former University of Southern California coach Pete Carroll as head coach and drafted cornerstone players including left tackle Russell Okung, safety Earl Thomas and wide receiver Golden Tate. In the middle of the season, they made a trade with the Buffalo Bills to bring in much-maligned running back Marshawn Lynch. The team would go 7-9 that year, but that was a good enough record to not only make the playoffs, but upset the reigning NFL champion New Orleans Saints in the first round with help from a run by Lynch that produced enough crowd noise to measure on the Richter scale.
They'd go 7-9 again the next season and miss the playoff, but would pick up cornerback Richard Sherman in the fifth round of the draft. By 2012, they'd not only stockpiled talent, but drafted a quarterback from Wisconsin named Russell Wilson in the third round who'd not only help the team to an 11-5 record and a playoff spot that year, but would tie Peyton Manning's record for most touchdowns thrown by a rookie quarterback with 26.
When things start looking too good in Seattle, that's when a little rain inevitably starts falling. Schultz's folly had inspired Seattle hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to pony up more than $500 million to finance an arena in Seattle's SoDo district near CenturyLink Field, with Seattle kicking in only for infrastructure improvements. The City Council took that deal, but everyone involved still needed a team to fill the place. By January 2013, Hansen and Ballmer had convinced the owners of the Sacramento Kings to sell to them and move the team to Seattle.
But that's not how the NBA works. The NBA's Board of Governors advised against the move in April, owners voted 22-8 against it in May and, later that month, the Kings' owners were forced to sell to a Sacramento-based group that got the lion's share of its cash from public financing. Seattle still doesn't have an NBA franchise, NBA owners now has a great bargaining chip in Seattle's proposed arena and taxpayers in NBA cities everywhere now have to watch their wallets every time a team finds so much as a scuff mark on one of its cheaper seats.
With the Kings deal dead, the arena in limbo and Ballmer leaving his gig as Microsoft's chief executive, there's still plenty of hate to go around for Starbucks' Schultz. While Allen gets a nice, warm seat at the game in New Jersey and prepares to watch the team he saved and helped build go for its first NFL Championship, Schultz was hissed at by Seahawks fans in Seattle for offering them 12-cent cups of coffee. They don't like the idea of him trying to cozy up to the team's "12th Man" fans while the former Sonics seem poised to make their second run to the NBA Finals during their second life as the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In a year when the University of Washington managed to hire accomplished coach Chris Petersen away from Boise State and even the annually awful Mariners managed to make headlines by signing All-Star free agent Robinson Cano away from the New York Yankees, Seattle is on a bit of a winning streak. It looks at Allen and realizes all its sports teams have gained in the last decade or so.
When Seattle fans are forced to acknowledge Schultz's existence, it's still just a bitter reminder of what they lost when the coffee man decided to dabble in sports. On one of their happier weekends, Seahawks fans don't need his coffee. They still have that slightly burnt taste in their mouths.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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