As if the Mariners didn’t already have ample motivation to turn around their fortunes – pride, waning attendance, television ratings – now along comes a potential arena deal in Seattle.
If this project flies, the competition for the disposable income of the sporting public in the Seattle area is going to be ramped up considerably. And for the Mariners, stuck in a nearly decade-long down cycle, that’s a particularly daunting prospect.
It’s not impossible – the Mariners have already shown they can thrive with an NBA team in town. They set their attendance record of 3.54 million in 2002, when the Seattle SuperSonics were very much alive and well at Key Arena.
But if all this goes according to Chris Hansen’s plan – and it sure sounded promising at Thursday’s press conference — then the sporting landscape in Seattle will be more crowded than it’s ever been. In fact, one of the most hotly debated issues will soon be this: Can the greater Seattle area sustain so many teams?
This is a question I’m sure all the franchises, and prospective franchises, are asking themselves. But since I follow MLB and the Mariners, I’m looking at this from a Mariners prospective. I absolutely believe they can, and will, survive in the new market place. Baseball is too firmly entrenched here, even with the M’s current rough times. Their following, disenchanted as it is right now, is too large and passionate to envision a catastrophic outcome.
But attracting fans is going to be a bigger challenge than ever if an NBA and NHL team join the fray. Seattle is the 14th or 15th largest metropolitan area in the country, depending upon which survey you look at; yet if the NBA and NHL come here, it would be one of just four cities in the country to have all four major sports as well as an MLS and WNBA team. The others are New York, Chicago and Washington D.C. (with Boston getting an asterisk; you can throw them in if you count the WNBA team in Connecticut as theirs). Oh, yeah – there’s also a major college in our town that has a huge following for its football and basketball teams. In the competition for ticket buyers, the Huskies are most definitely in the mix.
So the Mariners – like the Seahawks, Sounders, Storm and Huskies – have a right to be wary of the impending competition. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t welcome the new teams on the theory that a heightened sports consciousness helps all franchises — which, ultimately, it does; but everyone is going to have to work that much harder to make their team palatable. I’m hopeful that a spirit of inclusion will inform their outlook, both in private dealings as well as publicly. There have been rumblings of Mariner concern about parking and traffic, which shouldn’t be a surprise. If two new tenants are opening up virtually next door, with some potential overlap in dates, it would be only natural – and prudent – to vet the ramifications for their own business, and their own fans.
I would be surprised and disappointed, however, if the Mariners, whose own beautiful stadium was the beneficiary of public financing, became in any way an impediment to this new arena project. I have no reason to believe they will be. They are not tone deaf to the fact that people are watching keenly to see how they come down on this, in action as well as words. I would fully expect their stance to ultimately be a supportive one, as indicated in yesterday’s statement.
As I said initially, this movement for an arena and two new pro teams ups the ante for the Mariners to start winning again, for The Plan that’s currently in place to work. The ballclub is already facing a season in which their attendance is almost certain to fall again, as it has almost every year since that 2002 peak. They are down 1.6 million fans in 10 years. There are no official season-ticket figures available, but I’ve been led to believe they are down, not surprising considering the team’s record the past few seasons. If you add two new franchises to compete for fans, yes, it will get dicey for the Mariners if they continue to struggle.
And yet if they become competitive again, the fans will be there. Fans in this area have shown repeatedly that they will support a winner. Does that make it incumbent upon the M’s to spend more money than they might have otherwise foreseen for player acquisitions in the coming years? If that’s what it takes to win, and to rally the base. Spending doesn’t guarantee success, but it can certainly accelerate the process, if done wisely. And if there continues to be a perception that the M’s aren’t willing to pay the price of success, there will be ramifications. Particularly if new ownership of a hockey and basketball team comes into the market, teeming with new plans and enthusiasm and just itching to make their mark, as so often is the case with new owners. No team in this potential new world order in Seattle wants to be perceived as less than fully committed to winning.
Again, this doesn’t have to pre-ordain a dire outlook for the Mariners. If their rebuilding plan takes hold this year, the ballclub could be on the forefront of a new era of contending, with exciting young stars – one they could augment with some well-conceived additions. In this happy scenario, the team wins, the fans flock, and the franchise thrives, even amongst the new competition.
But If they continue to flounder, the possible arrival of two new teams will be problematic for the Mariners. The pressure to win is getting thicker.