Peter McLoughlin dreamed of becoming a professional sportswriter. Instead, his story took a turn toward the business side of athletics. Now, he’s making headlines as the president of the Seattle Seahawks.
If all had gone according to plan, Peter McLoughlin would be a sportswriter now, perhaps even covering a team like the Seattle Seahawks. But don’t worry about McLoughlin. As president of the Seahawks since 2010, he’s well past any disappointment caused by his false start in journalism.
The main component of the life he envisioned came true: staying in the world of sports. That was a given from the start. He always loved being on teams, getting swept up in the thrill of competition, and the powerful sense of shared purpose.
He had been talented enough to earn All-New England honors in lacrosse as a prep, but at Harvard, lacrosse rather quickly relieved McLoughlin of his upper incisors. Better, he decided, to focus on sports from the press box. McLoughlin’s byline appeared for three years in a most august collegiate publication: The Harvard Crimson. Well into his senior year, he prepared for the next step, gathering his best clips and shipping his résumé to newspapers along the East Coast.
“I do not recall getting a response — at all,” he said. Those last days at Cambridge may have been the moment when the exigencies of rent and regular meals diverted him toward a more profitable Plan B.
But a deeper insight into McLoughlin’s mindset appeared four years earlier, with his decision to major in English literature. It wasn’t because he wanted to emulate Harvard’s Nobel and Pulitzer winners like T.S. Eliot or John Updike, but because, deep down, he really didn’t like to read.
“It was a kind of challenge to myself to have to read Chaucer and Shakespeare and Jonathan Swift, all the things I knew would be a struggle for me,” McLoughlin explained.
The logic was akin to someone deciding to enroll at Juilliard because he was bashful and couldn’t carry a tune. But it tells you a great deal about McLoughlin, and how he goes about identifying and attacking challenges.
Go back seven years, to September 2010, when McLoughlin was hired by the Seahawks. A foundation for success was in place. The team’s Seattle stadium and new Renton headquarters were top of the line, and most importantly, owner Paul Allen was fully committed and obviously well-capitalized.
But so much was unsettled. The team had gone 9-23 the two previous seasons, and was on its third coaching staff in three years. And the three franchise pillars beneath Allen’s ownership still were unproven.
For all the successes he helped bring to USC football, new head coach Pete Carroll had been unconvincing in two previous tries as an NFL head coach. His primary partner in the rebuild, new general manager John Schneider, was just 39, with zero experience piloting an organization on his own.
Tossed into the mix was McLoughlin, a rookie team president in the fiercely competitive NFL. But McLoughlin brought with him broad-based business experience, and had managed an impressive turnaround of the St. Louis Blues NHL franchise.
The Seahawks’ rebuild began on all fronts. Schneider made an NFL-high 284 roster moves in the first season, including the inspired trade for bullish running back Marshawn Lynch, whose suddenly totemic “Beast Mode” became an emblem of unrelenting toughness and laconic wisdom.
Lynch was the exemplar of the new Seahawks image. He certainly was the perfect cudgel for Carroll’s run-first offense, which complemented a defense committed to protecting every blade of grass on the field.
In 2012, Schneider spotted and conscripted the rarest of NFL jewels — a bankable franchise quarterback — in Russell Wilson. The result stunned the NFL: The Seahawks won one world championship in two Super Bowl appearances and made five straight trips to at least the NFC divisional playoff round.
The team was tough, sure, but also flashed a brash, competitive audacity. McLoughlin and his “team,” meanwhile, were prepared to handle the immense fan response with the same attitude. Entering the 2017 season, CenturyLink Field had sold out 122 straight times. Season-ticket sales hit the cap of 61,000, 12,000 more fans put down deposits to be on the “Blue Pride” waiting list, and 68,000 more have applied just to get on this coveted list. Local TV viewership rose 89 percent between 2011 and 2016, the largest growth in the NFL over that span.
Inside the headquarters, the triumvirate of Carroll, Schneider, and McLoughlin worked in concert, somewhat rare in the ego-rich NFL.
“Peter has a very, very aggressive approach, which, really, is similar to ours. Not just in negotiations, but how we touch the community, how we support the team.”
“He’s a real spirit of the third floor here,” Carroll said of McLoughlin. “He’s really the leadership of all the business parts, and we try to work in concert. He’s such a good partner for John and I to connect with, and (he) makes sure we’re staying on point with what’s important to our fans. He really does a marvelous job.”
As if providing a scouting report about a linebacker prospect, Schneider revealed this about McLoughlin: “Peter has a very, very aggressive approach, which, really, is similar to ours. Not just in negotiations, but how we touch the community, how we support the team. The players know there isn’t a division in this building; all the people are here for the right reasons.”
The financials are crucial, McLoughlin quickly conceded during an interview in his office at the VMAC, the team’s Renton practice facility/headquarters. But owner Paul Allen also charged him with overseeing a franchise that represents the community and the region — relying on the loyalty of a legion of fans.
According to the 2016 NFL Voice of the Fan Survey, the Seahawks offered the No. 1 game-day experience in the league. The study weighs a number of variables, such as the quality of stadium comfort and services, food and drink, game entertainment, and safety and security. The Seahawks have rated in the top four league-wide over the past four seasons after ranking sixth in 2012, the first year of the survey.
That’s the business-side’s equivalent to Super Bowl appearances and division titles.
“I feel my responsibility to our owner is to deliver profitability, that’s our business,” said McLoughlin, a deceptively youthful-looking 60. “We know what our mission is: to provide the resources for our football team to be successful. There’s a fine line between winning and losing, and if we can provide some competitive edge with resources, then that’s what we’re all about. But we can’t do that without our fans being satisfied.”
Yet to the typical fan, McLoughlin is the one main cog in the Seahawks’ success who is largely unknown.
In the first half of the twentieth century, McLoughlin’s grandfather, John, left impoverished County Roscommon in Ireland for a better life in the United States But after his wife died in child birth he was left to raise their five children in a cold-water flat on the upper East Side of New York City. One of the sons rising from that depression-era privation also was named John, and was so gifted in math that he earned a scholarship to Harvard and graduated magna cum laude in 1936.
That John McLoughlin’s youngest son, Peter, obviously faced high expectations. So he wasn’t going to allow being stiff-armed by newspaper editors to keep him from finding his way in sports. He quickly landed an entry-level position with NBC, serving as a unit manager for live broadcasts of sporting events.
He booked hotels and travel, and handled many of the fundamental logistics before shifting to advertising sales to learn even more facets of the business at NBC. Those experiences set him up for a 21-year career in various roles with Anheuser-Busch. Over time, McLoughlin discovered his job was less about selling beer than it was building business relationships.
His key? “You have to be honest and fair and do things the right way,” he said.
But would that be enough to correct the sorry state of the St. Louis Blues franchise he took over in 2006? The team had finished in last place, with a scrawny base of 5,000 season-ticket holders the previous season.
By the time McLoughlin left after the 2009-10 season, season-ticket sales had more than doubled and average home attendance was up to nearly 19,000.
“It was a great opportunity to learn the business of managing a sports team and generating revenue,” he said. “That was really powerful to be a part of that, and a great learning experience.”
When McLoughlin was introduced as president of the Seattle Seahawks on Sept. 23, 2010, he told reporters that everything he’d done to that point had prepared him for this opportunity.
McLoughlin immediately won over the Seahawks’ rank-and-file employees with his understanding of the symbolic value of scrambled eggs and orange juice.
The cafeteria at the Seahawks’ headquarters is a beautiful facility, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking across Lake Washington to Mercer Island’s east shore. When McLoughlin arrived, lunch was provided for all employees. But only those in football operations were offered breakfast.
“(Peter) said, ‘Wait a minute, we’re all working hard, working toward the same goal … everybody should get breakfast,’” Cindy Kelley said. As senior vice president/human resources, Kelley knew this stance was about more than biscuits. “It was a message that everyone is valued, everyone is important.”
McLoughlin laughed when told the “free breakfast” anecdote, but cited the practical effects of it. “It’s good for morale and shows we’re all together. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for players to go through the (cafeteria) line to see all of us who are working so hard on their behalf.”
It’s an insight, too, into the Seahawks ethos promoted by Carroll and Schneider. “All this can only happen when you’ve got Pete Carroll and John Schneider saying, ‘We’re all in this together, there’s no division between the second floor and the third floor, it’s not a football team cafeteria, it’s the Seahawks’ cafeteria’,” McLoughlin said.
Although extolled for his aggressiveness, McLoughlin knows he can’t go all-out Beast Mode in the board room or in meetings. His senior management staff tout his business prescience and the effectiveness of his Socratic questioning in meetings.
“He doesn’t do it as a leader barking directions; he does it by listening and asking questions — he’s really open and fair like that,” said Chuck Arnold, the Seahawks’ chief operating officer. “So he challenges you to be as prepared as he is.”
Karen Spencer, the team’s chief financial officer, sees McLoughlin’s strengths in balancing the goals of profitability with fan connection. “I think (Peter) feels our greatest accomplishment of the past year is that we’re No. 1 in game-day experience, and that’s equally important to us as achieving our cash-flow budget for the year,” Spencer said.
Ticket prices have gone up an average of 6 percent annually in recent seasons, reflecting demand. But some $70 million also has been put back into CenturyLink Field upgrades. And the recent move to bring the stadium food services in-house, in the form of First and Goal Hospitality, was not a financial decision,” according to Spencer. Rather, “it was to improve the product for fans.”
Ed Goines, the Seahawks’ general counsel, has watched McLoughlin negotiate deals, and says that it’s not about one side winning and the other losing. “It’s more about the integrity of the relationship being as important as the result,” Goines said. “The authenticity is refreshing, to be honest with you. We’re an authentic organization.”
From the start, McLoughlin pushed his staff to “recognize the value we’re providing and charge the right price for that so we could grow revenue over time.” If the team could contend, he wanted the franchise to be ready to effectively commodify the product. “We were positioned on the business side to improve our profitability in conjunction with the excellent team performance.”
After the Super Bowl XLVIII win, McLoughlin gave a quantitative example of how the Seahawks were gaining purchase in the national consciousness — four Seahawks’ jerseys were in the top 10 in NFL sales.
“When I got here, the Seahawks weren’t seen as a national commodity,” All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman said. “Pacific Northwest region, at best. But now we’re a national brand, and Peter has a lot to do with that.”
Yes, the brand. The all-important brand. Every team has one, and it’s got nothing to do with a team logo, such as the green-eyed raptor on the Seahawks’ helmet. It’s more ephemeral and fragile, a variable image conjured in the minds of fans when they hear the word “Seahawks.”
“Branding is kind of a new concept,” said John Nordstrom, managing general partner of the original Seahawks ownership group. “You hear the word ‘Seahawks’ and what goes through your mind? I’ll tell you this, the way that name reverberates in this town these days is amazing.”
McLoughlin and his crew recently negotiated a naming-rights extension that will keep “CenturyLink” on the stadium through the 2033 NFL season. Brian Stading, CenturyLink’s Northwest region president, says the sponsorship connection with the Seahawks is so strong that many times when he tells people that he works for CenturyLink, they assume he has a job at the stadium. “It’s a business deal, but it’s also an emotional relationship we try to establish between two great organizations,” Stading said.
McLoughlin said the perception of the Seahawks’ brand starts with owner Paul Allen, listing his intelligence, philanthropy, and global consciousness as factors. “I think doing things the right way reflects a sense of integrity. You want to respect people and you want them to respect you,” McLoughlin said.
A huge part of the image is the on-field product, of course. “To use John Schneider’s words, we’re smart, tough, and reliable on the field,” McLoughlin said. “I think we’re dynamic and I think there’s an expectation that the Seahawks are also going to do things the right way in the community, and with their partners and with their fans.”
McLoughlin used to show up at the office every day in a blazer, wool pants, and a button-down shirt. He looked every bit the Ivy League-minted business executive. He laughs about it now, confessing that he recently went out to practice in a pair of workout shorts and a Tshirt — West Coast assimilation complete.
Maybe he’s more casual, but never entirely off-grid. After telling an idyllic story of his joy of fishing the Ruby River in Montana, describing the float of the fly across the river riffles and the thrill of the trout strike, he admitted that he carries his phone with him while fishing.
He played recreational hockey into middle age. And he golfs to an 18 handicap. But there isn’t much time for those things now, given he is the club’s representative at NFL owner meetings, and also serves on four NFL committees.
So much more of what McLoughlin does goes unseen, such as working with a “fan council” of season-ticket holders, taking feedback on their experiences and soliciting advice on ways the Seahawks can improve. The council, for instance, told him that stadium bathrooms that are clean and well-stocked in the first quarter of the game often need custodial attention later in the game, and behavior in them can be unruly at times.
McLoughlin’s response was to assign a staffer to be a present at each of the stadium’s 69 bathrooms, where they are able to order more supplies or clean-ups when needed, and discourage any disorderly conduct.
“Simple fix,” he said.
Some conditions don’t come with simple fixes, but warrant attention anyway. This season, the Seahawks are instituting a program giving game-day work opportunities to the needy and underprivileged.
“You see it every day, there are a lot of people who are really struggling and homeless,” McLoughlin said. “To be able to provide people a chance to get back on their feet is hugely important.”
Is that about branding? Not intentionally. It’s more being a part of the community. And that counts a great deal to McLoughlin.
“You walk into a grocery store on a Friday, and two-thirds of the people are wearing Seahawks jerseys; everybody wants to be associated with the Seahawks,” John Nordstrom said. “That’s a very powerful thing in a community. Peter understands that, and he’s done a marvelous job building that here.”