Final Analysis: The Business of Baseball

The Mariners are a bad team; are they a badly run company?
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Anyone who plays professional baseball will tell you it takes luck to get to the World Series. So the Seattle Mariners are one of the unluckiest teams in Major League Baseball, right? I mean, only two of the 30 current MLB teams have never been to the World Series—and one of them is the Mariners, now celebrating 35 seasons of futility.

Make that 36. The Mariners won’t be going to the World Series this year, either. At this writing—July 23, the day the Mariners traded Ichiro Suzuki to the New York Yankees—the M’s have 42 victories. To realistically have a shot at the playoffs and, thus, the World Series, they would have to win about 77 percent of their remaining games. It’s not gonna happen.

The only thing the Mariners seem to excel at is slipping on the banana peel and walking into the open manhole. At the same time. But can bad luck explain everything? Or are the Mariners a textbook example of a poorly run organization?

Jim Collins, one of the go-to leadership gurus among today’s CEO crowd, says, “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness is largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline.”

When the current owners of the Mariners rescued the team from Jeff Smulyan in 1992, greatness wasn’t part of the equation. Geography was. Smulyan had threatened to move the team to Florida. Seattle needed a white knight, and Nintendo of America rode to the rescue with a posse of hometown investors. Ironically, a few years later, these new owners played the good old coercion card. Former Mariners CEO John Ellis famously wept during a news conference in December 1996 to announce that the M’s would be put up for sale because the organization had failed to get the terms it wanted for a new stadium.

The ploy worked. The Mariners got the stadium in 1999, and the organization seemed destined for greatness by 2001, with a team that won more than 70 percent of its games. Since then, the Mariners have failed spectacularly—eight different managers, four winning seasons, no playoff appearances—but the organization has remained mostly profitable, save for a small operating loss in 2008 and another one last season, when it spent $9 million on new scoreboards and other stadium improvements. Not bad, when you consider the Mariners’ record from 2002 to 2011 was 758 wins and 862 losses—a dismal 45 percent winning percentage.

The Mariners pride themselves on providing a wholesome entertainment experience that almost makes the final score irrelevant to a lot of patrons. The ballpark is one of the most beautiful in baseball. The food options are among the best. Ushers and other stadium representatives are helpful and pleasant. It’s a Disney-esque approach that works with many families and casual fans. It would never work in New York or Boston or Philadelphia without a demonstrated commitment to winning every year. But Seattle fans aren’t nearly as passionate, and Seattle’s media coverage isn’t nearly as breathless.

The surprising trade of Ichiro to the Yankees (for a couple of minor leaguers) is an interesting side note. Ichiro asked to be traded so the team could build for the future. It’s a selfless gesture, but you can be certain Ichiro asked to be traded to a team with at least a shot at the playoffs.

As it happens, he joined a team with the best record in baseball at the time of the trade, and a pretty fair track record. In stark contrast to the Mariners, the Yankees have been to the World Series 40 times. They must be very lucky.

JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.

Final Analysis: The Sporting Life in 2017

Final Analysis: The Sporting Life in 2017

Three predictions for the coming year on a new arena, an old arena and the Mariners.
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As every first-year business student knows, a city’s economy is not considered “world class” until said city has erected at least four shrines to professional sports and these shrines remain empty and unused most days of the year. Seattle is knocking on the door of world classiness because it already has KeyArena, Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field up and running. Occasionally. Just one more monument to appease the great mass of athletic supporters and we’re there. Hallelujah!
 
It’s only a matter of time because Chris Hansen, the San Francisco rich guy who wants to build a new arena on First Avenue South and bring pro basketball and pro hockey to Seattle, is this close to getting his way. In October, Hansen revealed that he and his investors are now willing to pay the whole honkin’ bill for plopping a new arena into the SoDo neighborhood a block from Safeco Field. He still wants a piece of Occidental Way vacated and also expects some tax breaks from the city, but that’s how rich guys are. (See: Trump, Donald.) Besides, the people who believe we’re not world class until the NBA returns to Seattle are salivating over this deal because it’s the best deal we’re ever going to get
 
Of course, these same people said Hansen’s previous offer, which would have required that $200 million in public money be plowed into a new arena, was also the best deal we were ever going to get. 
 
Hansen’s decision to pay more for his arena places the sports economy clearly in the local spotlight this year. Heaven knows we could use more opportunities to pay $9 for a beer and see millionaire athletes selling Jaguars and BMWs on TV. It’s the kind of economic shot in the arm that only comes around whenever a sports league is in a coercive mood. 
 
And so, in the spirit of this January issue’s “looking ahead” theme, we offer three predictions relating to the regional economy as the Hansen arena intrigue continues to unfold.
 
Prediction 1: Hansen, who has already spent more than $120 million buying up property in the area of his proposed arena, will persuade the Port of Seattle, his arch nemesis in this melodrama, to fold up its tent and send all cargo-handling operations to Tacoma. That decision will pave the way for so many trendy bars and restaurants with names like Kale & Kumquat or Cobblestone & Wingtip that Hansen will be persuaded to create a private streetcar system to connect Pioneer Square with the burgeoning Stadium District. 
 
Prediction 2: The city-owned KeyArena, whose very future is clouded by the Hansen proposal, will announce plans to house up to 10,000 homeless persons every day. Even on days when the Seattle Storm and Seattle University basketball teams need the building, the city believes the Storm and the Redhawks could use the attendance boost, so it becomes a classic win-win.
 
Prediction 3: The Seattle Mariners, who still don’t like the arena proposal, will channel their hostility onto the field of play — and still not win the World Series. (This is called pattern-recognition analysis.) However, always mindful of improving the fan experience — because it’s not whether your team wins or loses, but whether you’re inclined not to press charges for being gouged by a vendor — the Mariners will introduce several new fan-friendly food items, plus mani/pedi stations in the pricey seats and roving loan officers to assist anyone trying to finance the purchase of hot dogs and sodas for a family of four. 
 
JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine. Reach him at john.levesque@tigeroak.com.