Flynn's Harp: Community key part of Leiweke philosophy (9-16-09)
Posted on 9/16/2009 by Mike Flynn
After leading a group to the top of Mt. Rainier in a symbolic accomplishment as fund-raising chair for United Way, and helping guide the Seattle Sounders FC to what may be the most successful-ever launch of a pro sports franchise, Tod Leiweke might well figure he’s at the top right now.
But as he enters his seventh season overseeing the Seattle Seahawks, and 18 months into his role as CEO of Paul Allen’s Vulcan Sports and Entertainment, Leiweke is also mindful of the humbling experience of a 4-12 2008 Seahawks season and the challenges of doing business in a hurting economy.
Taken together, the experiences of the past year are proof anew of what Leiweke learned early on in his career: what happens on the field, despite the best preparation, is too often in the fickle hands of the goddess of fortune while what happens off the field is almost always the result of preparation and planning.
He’d likely suggest that what’s unfolded with the Sounders, for whom he oversees the business side of the franchise for Allen’s minority interest, is a bit of both good fortune and sound planning.
Leiweke seems as excited about the Sounders, described by MSL Commissioner Don Garber to a Boston Globe reporter last month as “perhaps the most successful launch of a sports team in U.S. history,” as when he helped oversee the Seahawks’ most successful season in 2005 when they went undefeated at home and made it to the Super Bowl.
“We are the most relevant team in all of soccer in America,” he told a business group at a recent luncheon talk, referring to the average attendance of 30,000 fans in a league whose averages attendance is about half that.
In scaling the mountain in July, there was symbolism aplenty. The 49-year-old Leiweke, along with head coach Jim Mora and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, reached the summit of the nation’s third-highest mountain and planted the 12th man flag for the Seahawks and United Way of King County.
The obvious symbolism was in the fact that the climbing team (which included United Way CEO Jon Fine and chair Molly Nordstrom), in reaching the summit of the 14,411-foot peak, was celebrating the organization’s achieving its goal of an eighth-consecutive $1 million campaign.
But beyond the symbolism was the statement the climb made about the lengths (or heights) to which Leiweke, who chaired the campaign that wrapped up June 30, is willing to go to cement the impressive commitment to community support and involvement that he has brought to the Seahawks.
The mountain summiting apparently will now become a Leiweke legacy since, discussing the fund-raising success of the trip up the mountain and the nearly $400,000 raised to make a big step toward the United Way’s current fiscal year’s goal, he said “the ‘Climb for the Community’ will now be an annual event, with or without me.”
Of his chairing the United Way campaign in the Seattle area and a host of other community involvements, Leiweke sums it up as “Being part of the community is a big deal to us.”
And he considers proof of the value of building strong community ties the reaction he got in making the rounds of executive offices as United Way fund-raising chief following the dismal season last fall.
“With a season like that, the idea of building equity with your fans and sponsors was tested,” Leiweke admits. “But we were sold out this season, despite the economic challenges, due to our guys and the ownership that helps our fans and partners recognize that we do lots more than play games.”
A look at the Seahawks’ website lists a wide swatch of community involvements for the franchise, and for Leiweke in particular, who figures it was partly his belief in the importance of community commitments that prompted Allen to bring him to Seattle in 2003.
Leiweke had been president of the Minnesota Wild National Hockey League franchise, where in his final season the Sports Fans of America Association awarded its NHL Fan’s Quality Award as the league’s “Fan Friendliest” team.
From the time he arrived here, Leiweke has been a fan of the community and family focus that has been a hallmark of the Seattle Mariner leadership. He’s praised the Mariners and has sought to use them as a model. And he quickly reached out to restore relations between the two clubs, relations that had been testy.
Mariner president Chuck Armstrong admits that the relationship was “marked by friction” during the tenure of Bob Whitsitt, the basketball exec who was brought in to also run the Seahawks after Allen bought the team from Ken Behring to keep it from being moved to California. Whitsitt departed two years after Leiweke’s arrival.
Leiweke is fond of saying he thinks “both organizations have a common DNA, born out of a commitment to fans and community.”
As Armstrong, who recalls all the relationships since he arrived in Seattle in 1983 to run the Mariners for George Argyros, puts it: “Tod has made many extra efforts to ensure that the Seahawks and the Mariners have a friendly, cooperative and collegial relationship.”
“Things are so good today, that we are able to work together in many areas.,” Armstrong adds. And that fact only adds to the benefit the community derives from both pro franchises, who bring what may be the best tandem focus on the importance of public involvement in all of pro sports.