Around the Horn

Unearthed Mather video shows intent for M's to screw fans

Kevin Mather may be gone, but he won't be forgotten for a while yet. The former President and CEO of the Mariners was fired for saying the quiet part out loud one too many times last February, but a newly-uncovered recording of Mather speaking in the months between last year's World Series and the talk to the Bellevue Rotary Club that got him canned spilled the beans about some plans he had that will further alienate the Mariners' fanbase.

In the video, first publicized by and available to see at Dome and Bedlam, Mather reveals that the Mariners' upper management—for the sake of clarity, I will call this group the People Who Make the Rules (PWMR) simply to distinguish the management of the ballpark business end of things from the management of the baseball on-the-field side of things—intended to use the coronavirus pandemic as a convenient excuse to enact policy changes at T-Mobile Park that are decidedly fan-unfriendly.

Mather stated that the PWMR would "blame COVID" for the policy changes but never rescind them after the pandemic is over. The changes in question are already familiar to those who have been to a game at TMP this season—cashless transactions only throughout the ballpark and no one will be permitted to bring a bag to the game. What is not mentioned one way or another is the troublesome issue of digital-only ticketing. The video is incomplete and digital tickets may have been mentioned (or not) later in a portion of the recording we've yet to see.

Even though the rationale of preventing COVID transmission for these changes never really passed the smell test, we now have open admission that it was a lie. Instead, these changes are due to greed and convenience. Not the convenience of the patrons, mind you. For us, it's decidedly inconvenient. Very much so. But for the PWMR it's quite painless.

No-cash transactions remove the need for staff to handle money and make change, which theoretically speeds the process, but the time involved is negligible and cashless overall does more harm than good (sort of like Commissioner Manfred implementing the no-pitch intentional walk and extra-inning free baserunners). Though credit and debit cards are more common than ever, they're not universal and there are very good reasons for some people to avoid using them. Others may not have one. Most kids don't have them, and those that do might be severely restricted in their use. But the PWMR don't care about that because of the real reason for doing it. Quoting Mather: "Cashless allows us, on that five dollar hot dog, it’s now $5.50 because we’re charging sales tax, or $5.53. We don’t care. We used to care because we didn’t want to slow the lines down while we were digging out quarters and pennies and dimes to make change." Meaning, in the before-time sales tax would be factored into the advertised price so concessionaires could always work with round figures. Now, they can set a round-figure price that doesn't include the tax and thus get more for each sale and hope people don't notice they're paying more than the posted amount because it's all electronic.

He goes on to say this, which is somewhat unclear: "The simple answer is we’ll just add ten percent to everyone’s cost of their concessions" and in the next breath says "we’re going to lower concession prices and come up with all kinds of value propositions." The generous interpretation of that is that he meant the end-cost to the customer will be ten percent more because of the sales tax now being an add-on and as a sort of compensation the PWMR will come up with various discount promotions on some items. Another interpretation is that going all-cashless will add fees to the merchant end of things and therefore "we'll just add ten percent to everyone's cost" means they intend to pass on the cost of those fees to the customer and camouflage it with "value bundles" or some such ploy on some basic concession items. Either way, the ultimate purpose is to be less transparent about what fans are expected to pay for ballpark fare and soak more out of us each time we buy anything there. They can call it "convenience" to the fan because no change needs to be made, but it's really convenience to the PWMR because they can ignore tax in their pricing and charge more invisibly.

The no-bags thing is a much, much bigger issue. That's "convenient" for the PWMR in theory because it will supposedly make entry to the ballpark faster and can be cloaked in the bullshit of "security." Mather complains that people bringing bags creates security concerns: "[If] we let people carry backpacks into the ballpark, of course, we [would] go through them, we’d have magnetometers and search through them; [therefore,] you won’t be able to bring a backpack into the ballpark." The video cuts off shortly after that remark, as Mather is saying that instead they would have "a clear bag" policy similar to what the Seahawks now have for football games.

Security isn't the real reason. Greed is. The list of prohibited items one can bring in (aside from the bags themselves) will, apparently, be unchanged, so a clear bag still will require a security person to check for things. A bag might be transparent, but its contents are largely not, so there will still be a potentially rude asshat there to poke through your sweater and magazines to make sure you don't have a knife or an air horn. Imposing the restriction is instead intended to discourage people from bringing anything with them to the games.

I typically go to around 25-30 games a season. Almost every time I have with me a messenger bag, which I bought for the express purpose of taking to the ballpark, as the backpack I had previously used had become too much of an annoyance with ballpark security being too invasive and opening each and every little pocket in the thing to look for the very few prohibited items (booze/beverages, weapons, noisemakers—all of which would not fit in most of the pockets anyway). My messenger bag contains my scorebook, a few writing implements, my glasses case so I can switch from sunglasses to my regular specs, and a sweatshirt or light jacket layer. If I go to the game early, it'll also contain a section of newspaper or a magazine or other reading material. Depending on my seat's proximity to potential foul balls, it may include my first-baseman's mitt. If I travel by bicycle, it also has my bike headlamp and accompanying battery, since I don't want to leave those on my bike to potentially get stolen. My seatmate will generally have, depending on who it is that night, a canvas tote or a shoulder bag with a similar inventory (though usually minus anything bicycle-related). These things do not demand a lot of time at the gate, it's pretty quick (unless I get one of the more asshatish bag-checkers who want to make sure I know they have power over me).

The problem, so far as the PWMR are concerned, is that sometimes there's something else in my messenger bag: A can of peanuts, or a piece of fruit, or a package of wasabi rice crackers, or a sandwich. Now, the PWMR don't want to overtly prohibit outside food, that would be too honest. Instead they want to make it as inconvenient as possible; even if the more determined fan still works the system to bring in something to eat, more will not, and thus (the theory goes) will buy concessions from the cashless stands inside. Even better, as a secondary goal, vendors outside of the ballpark will lose business as fewer people will by hot dogs and peanuts and popcorn and such from them because it's now a cumbersome exercise to get it into the ballpark with no bag (or only preapproved clear vinyl mini-bags already crammed full with your fleece jacket and what you might normally carry in your purse).

Another "benefit" to the no-bags policy will be the encouragement of people to park closeby. If you want to bring your scorebook, your fleece jacket, your cumbersome ziplock bag of snack food, newspaper, glasses, whatever else, without a bag to carry them, it's going to be a pain in the ass to carry them all in your arms several blocks from the cheap/free parking or to take some other form of transport. You're now incentivized to both drive and to pay to park in the Mariners' garage or nearby lots that the club gets a cut from.

The idea that a no-bag policy will be fast and "convenient" for patrons does not factor in (a) the casual fan that does not know about the policy ahead of time; (b) families that need to bring things with them to manage young children (even if an exception is made for "diaper bags," that still leaves people bringing older-than-toddler children unable to carry in basics); (c) anyone who travels to the game without a vehicle from, say, a job or other locale and has some everyday stuff with them; or (d) the general alienation factor that the prohibition will create. All in an effort to manipulate patrons into spending more money when they're already shelling out a lot just for tickets.

I'm OK with cashless transactions as an option. I ran into the phenomenon for the first time a couple of years ago at Nationals Park in DC—some concession stands had just one till set up to accept cash, the majority were cards only. It was a nuisance trying to find someone who would be willing to, you know, take my actual money, but once I sussed out the situation I could get what I wanted even if there was a slightly longer wait time.

Likewise, I'm good with the idea that a portion of the gates will be dedicated to people with no bags. Have 25% of the gates be "express lanes" for patrons with nothing for security to check. If things trend one way or another, adjust the percentage from series to series or day to day.

But by making these things mandatory, an across-the-board ultimatum, the PWMR are effectively giving a giant middle-finger salute to the very people they depend on for their success. Which, admittedly, is not new for the Mariners or other pro sports franchises; one need only look as far as the "dynamic pricing" scheme and the walk-up surcharge to see that.

Kevin Mather is gone. Maybe, just maybe, whoever ends up taking his place running the non-baseball end of the business of the Mariners will see that the Mather agenda is counter-productive and change course. But I'm not holding my breath—the PWMR have been screwing over fans for 15+ years in the name of short-sighted greed.

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