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April 4, 2012 at 12:54 AM

Mariners actions regarding arena proposal make you wonder what their long-term vision truly is

Don’t miss our AL West live preview chat with myself, Larry Stone and beat writers Bill Plunkett in Anaheim, Evan Grant from Texas and John Shea from Oakland at 11:30 a.m. PT right here.
Plenty of discussion last night over the news that Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln had sent a letter to city and county leaders expressing concerns about plans to build a new arena for NBA and/or NHL in the SoDo area.
It’s not so much the content of the letter –pretty benign stuff — that makes one scratch their little noggin. No, it’s the fact a letter was even written at all that has to leave people wondering what the long-term plan of this team truly is.
We’ve written before about the 2015 opt-out clause the Mariners have in their TV deal with ROOT Sports and how there are several avenues the team can pursue in trying to max out on that deal. Will they settle for the minimal amount of new money they’ll get simply by asking for the current market rate pro-rated to their market’s size? Or will they try to score more money by doing something unique and creative? Like starting their own regional sports network with the proposed NBA and NHL teams as content partners?
Well, needless to say, if you plan on teaming up with these guys, sending out a letter opposing their arena location probably isn’t the foundation upon which to build a lasting friendship. But that’s just me. Maybe I value trust a bit too much.
Photo Credit: AP

Anyhow, assuming the M’s aren’t going to team up with the NBA/NHL guys, what would their motivation be for sending out such a letter and generally — if we can get real for a second — trying to thwart this whole thing before it even gets off the ground? Well, considering the obvious fan backlash that would — and has — come about, you’d have to think the Mariners are pretty desperate to keep things exactly the way they are in the short term.
Blocking a new arena and effectively stalling the addition of NBA/NHL teams in Seatte — yeah, I know the M’s say they’re not opposed to those teams coming, but again, we’re getting real for just a second — keeps the playing field in the M’s advantage short-term. It means that, for the time being, they won’t have to compete with additional teams for season ticket sales, luxury suite rentals and general fan interest.
The obvious thing to do would be to put a great team on the field. If the M’s were great, they could hold their own and not really care about what the newbies do. But it’s tough to be great when you keep cutting payroll and losing 95-to-100 games per year. When the best you have to sell is a rebuilding plan you hope will bear fruit in two or three years against opponents starting to massively outspend you while developing their own talent at the same time.
Don’t worry, the Mariners aren’t going broke. Their rise in franchise value over the past 12 months — according to Forbes — was the second-highest in major league baseball. So, we know the Mariners will have some money around if they ever decide to cash out.
What else has happened lately?
Well, as we’ve told you going on three years, the Mariners keep trimming expenses. They keep waiting for long-term salary commitments to run out. They just extended their spring training lease for 20 years starting in 2014. They recently put some renovations into Safeco Field. And they’ve got that whopping TV deal about to land on their doorstep by 2015. Whether they max out on it or not will still mean big money for the owners, even if it doesn’t make the Mariners any more competitive in regards to the Angels and Rangers — who both scored TV deals that will probably wind up bigger than what the Mariners settle for.
Sound like something might be in the works? Like, maybe, a sale of the team?
Again, what do I know? It’s not my business whether Hiroshi Yamauchi goes to see his team play in person or not. But it does make a guy wonder.
Chris Larson, who did go to Japan, is clearly a huge baseball fan. He just doesn’t have the financial resources to take over the club any more. Or to contribute any significant new capital to its existing operations.
So, again, what is the long-term plan of this team? The real long-term plan, not just a rebuilding phase where no real timetable for contention is ever set? Why does this team keep paring down its bottom line while franchise value soars to record levels?
Why do the Mariners say they support the NBA/NHL movement in Seattle while opposing the most tangible steps needed to make that a reality?
It says here, you block a new arena if you’re trying to protect your turf short-term. Could a new NBA/NHL team potentially affect the sale price of the Mariners? You bet it could. Any buyer will look at that landscape and worry that a new NBA/NHL group could potentially steal revenue away. Again, we’re not talking about buying the Yankees. The Mariners have done very little in recent years to boost fan interest in their product. They would be cashing-in big on any sale based solely on market conditions, great timing with their TV deal and the fact Seattle taxpayers helped build them a state-of-the-art stadium.
Brand building? Not so much. Though the Mariners do manage some funny TV commercials. I will give them that.
So, that’s why, in my very humble opinion, the Mariners would be writing a letter such as this one. To safeguard whatever turf they have ahead of a sale. Otherwise, trying to start fights rather than build bridges and show the kind of business innovation Seattle is famous for (Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft) doesn’t make all that much sense.
If you’re in it for the long haul, you’re asking how this NBA/NHL group can help you make even more out of a TV deal that’s coming.
If you’re ready to cash-out, you protect your turf at all costs and take the PR hit that comes with it.
There really is no middle ground. If the scenario isn’t what I’ve described, this team is getting really bad PR advice, or not listening to good PR advice. Either way, it should stop. The Mariners as a team aren’t good enough to stand on their own any more. They should not be starting fights they can’t finish.
Unless, of course, the plan is for somebody else to finish the fight for them.



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