PAUL ALLEN is not Bill Gates. Long ago he resigned himself to this reality: He was destined to be known as Garfunkel to Gates's Simon, particularly in Seattle. As Gates was becoming the world's richest man and launching the world's largest charitable foundation and seeking to conquer famine and genocide and improve world health, Allen was, inevitably, "the other Microsoft founder." That was fine by him. But in 1997 he had the opportunity to do something for Seattle and boost his image, if not his profile, in the process.
The Seahawks were on the verge of leaving town. Their owner, Ken Behring, had already moved the team's training camp to Anaheim. A friend of Allen's suggested that he buy the franchise. Allen, shrewdly, secured an option, contingent on Washington voters' approving a referendum to finance a new stadium. Allen offered to put up $100 million of his money for construction and then contributed millions more to the lobbying effort.
Allen appeared at a press conference to announce his interest and, thrust into the public domain, cut as uncomfortable a figure at the podium as ever. He agreed to be interviewed afterward, at his offices in suburban Bellevue. When the reporters arrived, he had already removed his tie and untucked his shirt; he answered questions in his stocking feet. Eventually the referendum did pass. Allen bought the club for $200 million, and pro football continued to exist in the Pacific Northwest
Allen now attends most Seahawks home games at the team's luxe downtown stadium, Qwest Field. He cheers from a suite and sometimes stands on the field during the waning moments of games, but he will never be confused with, say, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones or the New York Yankees' George Steinbrenner. Watching Allen at a Seahawks game, one gets the sense that he is less a football freak than a casual season-ticket holder who—oh, what the hell—bought the team. Nobody suggests that the football players are his. The notion of him telling his coaches to, say, "Give Shaun Alexander more touches," is inconceivable.
The NFL's hard salary cap took away some of his "puzzle fun" too. "Over the years I've tried to educate him and get him excited about football, and I think I've been somewhat successful," says Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren. "But from my perspective I think his buying the team was a civic responsibility kind of thing."
YOU KNOW you've done well when you're worth $1 billion and then you really make it big. Hard as Allen sometimes appeared to be working to spend it, his fortune kept swelling. Microsoft's stock steadily gained altitude, eventually splitting nine times, and by the year 2000 Allen was, according to Forbes, worth $36 billion, making him the third-richest man in the world. He could have invested his fortune in a savings account and, on the interest income alone, still have made the Forbes list of the world's 400 richest people.
His spending habits didn't change. All that rock and roll paraphernalia? It grew into the Experience Music Project, a $240 million, Frank Gehry--designed complex that sits near the Seattle Space Needle. Allen collected residences—38 in all, according to a friend—as if they were Hummel figurines. He invested in scores of corporations, but, to traffic in understatement, his investment strategy was unconventional. In one case he pumped more than $500 million into a wireless data company, long before wi-fi hotspots made such a thing practical. Likewise, Allen made philanthropic gifts in an eclectic mix of fields (space travel and documentary films and brain research) for which he had a personal passion.
He also bought yachts. Not standard-issue rich-guy yachts but megayachts flush with trappings that befit a kid with a hyperactive imagination. The largest of the three ships, Octopus, measures 413 feet and is fully loaded with a basketball court, a glass-bottom lounge, a concert space seating 260, a submarine and helicopter landing pads. The yacht has a full-time staff of 60 that includes—potential pirates take note!—several former Navy Seals. It reportedly costs upward of $4 million just to paint.
Having invested an estimated $500 million in the DreamWorks movie studio, Allen often attended the Cannes Film Festival. He would dock Octopus offshore and host parties that quickly became part of Hollywood lore. "It would be easier to name which stars weren't there than which ones were," says Niall Harbison, who did a recent stint as Allen's personal chef aboard the yacht and now runs the website ifoods.tv. "It was no expense spared. Best music, best wine, fresh fish flown in from Japan. But you wouldn't see much of [Allen]. I'd finally find him watching sports, and he'd ask me to make him a cheeseburger."
This was typical Allen. His burgeoning wealth had a perverse effect: As it gave him entrée to the most high-profile clubs—he's played guitar with Jagger and taken meetings with Spielberg and partied with Hanks—it made him more reclusive and protective of his privacy. A membrane of guards and handlers enveloped him wherever he went. His employees were asked to sign nondisclosure agreements. Media requests were, almost uniformly, turned down. "Writers for other teams ask me, 'How often do you talk to your owner? Once a week? Once a month?'" says Clare Farnsworth, longtime Seahawks beat reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "I say, 'How about once. Period.'"