Vincent says business leaders must help

August 21, 1991|By Ron Judd | Ron Judd,Seattle Times

SEATTLE -- Two million fans are not enough to keep the Mariners in Seattle, according to baseball commissioner Fay Vincent.

Vincent met with local business and community leaders Monday and said he is encouraged by promises to boost support for the financially parched team. But he kept the relocation gun pointed at the head of corporate Seattle, refusing to rule out a franchise move.

"I have to be concerned about any franchise that's losing a substantial amount of money," Vincent said at the Kingdome before the Mariners victory over the California Angels.

The Mariners expect to top two million in attendance this season, projecting a home-game attendance average of 22,223 through their 21 remaining Kingdome dates.

"The problem here is different from problems elsewhere," Vincent said. Although attendance is strong in Seattle, corporate support and television revenue are far below major-league averages.

The issue, he said, is to convince team owner Jeff Smulyan that VTC Seattle has a future for major-league baseball.

The commissioner, facing questions on the Kingdome field, was given seven opportunities to rule out a Mariners move to St. Petersburg, Fla., or another baseball-hungry city. He wouldn't bite.

"I'm against moving franchises -- you know that," he said. "I'm hopeful and confident that if a community wants baseball, the team should not leave. The only thing that gets a franchise moved is if a community is saying, 'I don't care.'

"I'm not hearing that here. In fact, I'm hearing the opposite." But, he added, "It's not Fay Vincent that will keep baseball in Seattle. It's Seattle that has to keep baseball in Seattle."

If corporate Seattle doesn't support the team to Vincent's satisfaction, would he block a move?

"Sure I would [today]," he said. "But I can't say I always would.

"I'm never one to say never."

Vincent met with Mayor Norm Rice, King County Executive Tim Hill and other civic and business leaders before Monday's game. He said he encouraged them to work with Mariners owner Jeff Smulyan to boost the club's gross revenues, so the Mariners can "field a competitive team."

"The people here today told me they are determined to make baseball work in Seattle," he said.

"They said the right things. Now the only question is, will they come through?"

Hill called the meeting "very upbeat," saying Vincent appeared more convinced the Mariners would stay in Seattle than he has in recent interviews.

"But he did caution at one point that you can never rule [a move] out," Hill said.

Vincent cited other cities, such as Houston and Montreal, whose clubs were experiencing financial problems, as models for Seattle. In each case, corporate and civic leaders pitched in to prevent the franchise from moving, he said.

The team's box-office success this season indicates the club is on the right track, Vincent said. The commissioner visited the team on the night it set an all-time season attendance record of 1,533,297 fans.

"One of the best signs for success is attendance," he said. "It's a terrific asset."

With the record attendance, shouldn't the other pieces fall in place next season?

"Well, sure, that's certainly the way it ought to be," he said. "But whether it will, that's the question."

He acknowledged that the structure of major-league baseball makes it very difficult for a franchise to survive in a small market area such as Seattle's. But Seattle baseball fans would be foolish to expect structural changes such as revenue sharing among clubs, he added.

Such a radical change would take agreement of all major-league owners, he said, and that's about as likely as a sunny Seattle day in February.

"How do you take a man's profits away from him?" he asked. "It may not even be legal."

"Revenue sharing is a nice idea. But it's only an answer if there's consent from everyone involved."

In the meantime, Seattle is on its own, Vincent said.

"Seattle hasn't gotten to a stage where the totality of the community is fully supportive," he said. "That will happen here -- I think. . . . But it takes somebody to get it started."

Vincent indicated that somebody could come in the form of a group led by Jim Thorpe of Washington Natural Gas that is trying to boost corporate season-ticket sales.

"I don't think the Mariners have to leave Seattle," Vincent said, "if what happened [in meetings] today turns out to be something real."

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