The time has come to sell the Mariners

This article first appeared in the June 2012 of The Grand Salami.

By Jon Wells

There’s a fair amount of debate among sports fans about what kind of owner is best for their team. Some say they want a fully-involved owner with the passion to win a championship who’s a prominent fixture at all of the team’s games. Others claim the ideal owner is one who remains in the background and lets his baseball people make the decisions, but who cares enough to provide the funds necessary to build and maintain a top-flight organization.

Given a choice,very few fans would choose to have an owner or owners like the Seattle Mariners have, a dysfunctional group that has run the franchise into the ground for the last decade. While you were probably aware that the M’s have finished in last place in six of the last eight seasons,you probably didn’t know that the team now ranks 28th out of30 teams in attendance in Major League Baseball. In 2002 the M’s topped the list at #1.

POTENTIAL BUYERS IF THE MARINERS ARE SOLD

JOHN STANTON

The 59-year-old Stanton, a graduate of Whitman College and Harvard Business School, currently owns a minority stake in the Mariners and is seen by most as the likeliest current owner to have interest in taking over the team. An avid baseball fan,Stanton, who made his fortune in the mo-bile phone industry, prefers to remain out of the public eye.

MARK CUBAN

Cuban, 53, the sometimes controversial owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, is about as involved an owner as you’re likely to find ins ports, but you can’t argue with his track record of success, which includes 12 straight playoff appearances and an NBA title in 2011. Some might be surprised to see Cuban’s name on this list of prospective buyers for the Mariners since he lives in Dallas, a long way from Seattle, but he’s tried to buy the Dodgers, Cubs, and even the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates in recent years; when he finally manages to land an MLB franchise, expect him to be a passionate, hands-on owner, which would certainly be a welcome change from the absentee, profits over pennants regime now in place.

CHRIS HANSEN

Yes, we know Hansen hasn’t publicly expressed any interest in buying the Mariners, but he’s a Seattle sports fan and he clearly has more than enough money to build a new NBA/NHL arena in Seattle and buy the Mariners and operate them properly. Why not?

CITY OF SEATTLE

Sure, it would be revolutionary and would require MLB approval to overturn a long-standing prohibition against municipal ownership, but the City has proven its ability to turn a profit with a complex endeavor with customer-friendly, high-up-time service and low prices with Seattle City Light for many decades now. That utility knows how to invest in both the present and the future, something critical to baseball success and something the incumbents have struggled to achieve adequacy at. If the city hired quality management and personnel as they have with City Light, and maintained that kind of customer-first culture, the team could improve and even turn a small profit for the region.

At the top of the Seattle organization sits an octogenerean billionaire who’s never set foot in Safeco Field, Nintendo’s Hiroshi Yamauchi, who owns 55% of the team.While it’s always been clear that Yamauchi is not much of a baseball fan, we learned this March that unfortunately it isn’t just the distance between Japan and Seattle that keeps him from seeing the Mariners play in person; when the M’s opened the 2012 season in Tokyo, the first games the team has ever played in Japan, Yamauchi declined to make the two-hour trip from his home in Kyoto, keeping intact his status as the only majority owner in professional sports history never to have seen his team play.

Running the team for Yamauchi since1999 has been Chairman and CEO Howard Lincoln. Lincoln operates as the club’s de facto owner despite having had no experience in baseball when he got the job because he’d run Nintendo of America for Yamauchi. The 72-year-old Lincoln has on many occasions prioritized short-term profits at the expense of sustained on-field success, chasing away top-notch baseball men like Lou Piniella and Pat Gillick in the process and alienating the team’s customers. The curmudgeonly Lincoln cares so little about the team’s fans he once shockingly told the Seattle Times that it wasn’t the team’s goal to win the World Series. The only thing more foolish than having that belief is being dumb enough to admit such a thing to the media.

Directly beneath Lincoln in the Mariners’ hierarchy is 71-year-old Chuck Armstrong, who has been the team’s president and chief operating officer for 27 of the last 30 years. Originally hired in 1983 by then-Mariners owner George Argyros, Armstrong was summarily dismissed by Jeff Smulyan when Smulyan bought the team in 1989, but One Buck Chuck somehow managed to talk his way back into the job when Yamauchi and Co. bought the franchise in 1992. By his own admission, Armstrong, who also had no baseball experience when he was hired, has meddled in baseball matters on numerous occasions over the years, usually to the team’s detriment.

While the Mariners have not yet been put up for sale, many signs point to a sale of the team occurring in the next year or two. Yamauchi and the team’s largest minority owner, Chris Larson (who owns more than 30% of the club), are both in significant financial distress, with questions arising recently over whether Larson would have the ability to meet a “cash call” for liquid funds if any were needed to improve the team’s fortunes on the field. Despite a TV deal that currently pays the Mariners$45 million a year, ownership has pocketed most of that money while slashing the player payroll by $35 million the last four years—all so the owners can continue to turn a profit despite the negative impact a weaker team continues to have on a fan base that’s dwindling and becoming more and more apathetic with each passing year.

In a recent article, Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times wrote “The Mariners have positioned themselves perfectly for a sale,” pointing out that the lack of long-term contractual obligations to players other than star pitcher Felix Hernandez (signed through 2014), has created a “lean, mean fighting machine” that would be attractive to prospective purchasers. Additionally, with television rights fees exploding in the baseball world—the M’s division rivals in Texas and Anaheim both recently scored new TV deals worth $3 billion and $2.5 billion, respectively—and an opt-out clause in 2015 in Seattle’s current TV deal, a new owner could expect to break the bank either by renegotiating the team’s deal with Root Sports or by starting a new regional sports network.

Perhaps most importantly, the value of baseball franchises has skyrocketed of late, with each of the last three Major League teams sold—the Los Angeles Dodgers (April 2012, $2.15 billion), the Houston Astros (November 2011, $615million), and the Texas Rangers (August 2010, $561 million)—all bringing in significantly more dollars than the estimated valuations of those teams by Forbes Magazine. Another factor that would make the Mariners attractive to potential purchasers is that the M’s are the only team in MLB with no debt, as they’ve used the incredible profits they’ve made since Safeco Field opened to pay off the $100 million in cost overruns the club incurred in the building of the stadium.

Maury Brown of Baseball Prospectus wrote in an April article, “Why the Seattle Mariners Could Be Sold,” that he believed if the M’s went on the market that the sale price could end up being close to $750 million, well in excess of Forbes’ recent estimate of $585 million and the valuation of $641 million set last December by the judge in Larson’s contentious divorce case.

So what are the Mariners waiting for? Why hasn’t the franchise been put up for sale? The longer ownership waits to officially put the team on the market, the more risk there is that the team’s value might drop or TV networks might wise up and stop handing out these multi-billion dollar deals. If the TV rights merry-go-round stops and the M’s aren’t able to cash in on a deal like their division rivals have, the Mariners will be at a significant disadvantage in the A.L. West for another two decades.

It seems that all that may be standing in the way of a sale are Lincoln and Armstrong accepting their fate, that it’s time to move on from the jobs they love so much and do so poorly, jobs that provide them with so many great perks 81 times a season. Whatever it takes, the Mariners need to make the bold move and put the team up for sale—and do it ASAP.

WORST BASEBALL OWNERS

1. LARRY DOLAN, CLEVELAND INDIANS
Shortly after purchasing the Indians in 2000, Dolan began tearing down, trading away star players from a team that led the Majors in attendance and was in the middle of a streak that saw the club sell out 455 consecutive home games. Within two years, Indians’ attendance fell from 3.4 million to 1.8 million. The exodus has continued, as this year the Tribe has the worst attendance in all of baseball, averaging barely 14,000 per game.

2. BOB NUTTING, PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Nutting, who’s owned a controlling stake in the Pirates since 2007, is the tenth-wealthiest owner in MLB, but continues to pocket significant revenue-sharing funds from other teams instead of spending those dollars to improve his team. During his family’s 14-year involvement in the team’s ownership, the Pirates have yet to have a season in which they’ve finished over .500. In the wake of Nutting’s 2010 rejection of substantial offers to buy the team by former NHL star Mario Lemieux and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote an open letter to Nutting, urging him to sell the team.

3. HOWARD LINCOLN/CHUCK ARMSTRONG, SEATTLE MARINERS
This dastardly duo has presided over the decline and fall of a once-proud franchise that set an American League record with 116 wins in 2001 and led the Major Leagues in attendance that year and in 2002. Even when not being stingy, they’ve fielded infamously underachieving squads—in 2008, the Mariners became the first team in history to lose more than 100 games with a payroll above $100 million.

4. PETER ANGELOS, BALTIMORE ORIOLES
When Angelos bought the Orioles in 1993, Camden Yards was in its infancy and the team was on the rise, with the O’s appearing in back-to-back American League Championship Series in 1996 and 1997. Since 1998, when Angelos’ meddling chased away manager Davey Johnson and GM Pat Gillick, Baltimore has had fourteen straight losing seasons. The team denied rumors this February that said Angelos was quietly shopping the team.

5. FRED WILPON, NEW YORK METS
Wilpon became a partner in the ownership of the Mets in 1986 and assumed full ownership in 2002. Facing big losses from investments with his close friend Bernard Madoff, Wilpon had to borrow $25 million from MLB in 2010. Wilpon subsequently sold off minority stakes in the team to pay off the loan and cut payroll by $50 million for the 2012 season.

BEST BASEBALL OWNERS

1. ARTE MORENO, LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM
Longtime baseball fan Moreno became the most popular man in Anaheim when he cut ticket and beer prices shortly after purchasing the team in 2003. Relentlessly fan-friendly, his popularity hasn’t waned, as he’s managed to keep prices reasonable—the average Angels ticket this year is $19.70, 34% less than the $26.40 cost of the average Mari­ners ticket (before dynamic pricing increases). Not only has the team done well, with five A.L. West titles from 2004 to 2009, but average attendance at Angels games hasn’t been below 39,000 since he bought the club.

2. JOHN HENRY, BOSTON RED SOX
Henry will forever be revered in New England for being the owner behind the amazing Red Sox turnaround that ended the Curse of the Bambino, resulting in World Series titles in 2004 and 2007. Boston hasn’t won fewer than 89 games in a season since Henry bought the team in 2002.

3. NOLAN RYAN, TEXAS RANGERS
Ryan pitched the last five seasons of his Hall of Fame career with the Rangers and has been running the team since 2008. He’s been smart enough to give a free hand to Jon Daniels, the youngest general manager in baseball. The result has been World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011 for a franchise that has some exciting pros­pects on the way and looks to have a bright future.

4. STUART STERNBERG, TAMPA BAY RAYS
Since taking over as the Rays’ general partner after the 2005 season, Sternberg has guided the once-moribund Tampa Bay franchise—which had finished last in seven of its first eight seasons of existence—to three playoff berths and one World Series appearance.

5. HAL AND HANK STEINBRENNER, NEW YORK YANKEES
Sure, it’s fashionable to hate the Yankees, but it’s hard to argue with the team’s record of success, which includes 16 playoff appearances in the last 17 years. George Steinbrenner’s sons may not have the cha­risma or the bluster of their late father, but the passion to win is still there and the Yankees franchise appears to be in good hands.