Owner scapegoat in Mariners' financial woes

August 25, 1991|By Larry LaRue | Larry LaRue,McClatchy News Service

SEATTLE -- If Jeff Smulyan didn't have more important things to do with his head, he could shake it.

For months he has been saying the Seattle Mariners were in financial trouble, that as a business, baseball wasn't close to being viable in the Northwest despite increased attendance.

The columnists and analysts in Seattle made him out to be an impatient villain.

Now Security Pacific Bank has called in $39.5 million in loans to the team -- due in February -- implying that baseball is not viable in the Northwest and won't survive until the loan was initially due (1996).

The response? In Seattle, Smulyan is still the villain. Isn't anybody listening?

Major-league baseball has hung on a tenuous thread here for years. Before Smulyan. Before Argyros. Before the Mariners. And year after year, the city, the county and the businesses of the region acted as if it were the game that was on probation in the Northwest.

The opposite has always been true: It's been the region on probation. No one ever doubted the franchise could be successful elsewhere.

When the Mariners went public with their problems a month ago, the media response in Seattle was to counsel patience, criticize ownership for being short-sighted and accuse Smulyan of ulterior motives -- like wanting to skip town and head for the promised millions in Tampa Bay.

If nothing else, Security Pacific has proved two things: The Mariners are, indeed, badly in the red and -- according to bank analysts -- baseball isn't likely to generate the money to get them out.

And still, the majority of people in the Northwest believe this to be Smulyan's problem. Or baseball's.

Believing that is easier than facing the truth. Baseball works elsewhere, generating millions in revenues for the team and the host cities, despite many of the same problems Smulyan faces.

If it doesn't work here, whose fault is it? Smulyan's? George Argyros? Danny Kaye and Co.?

The Northwest has taken turns blaming all of them, never accepting the reality that everyone who has ever owned the Mariners could have taken the same franchise anywhere else and succeeded handsomely.

We ridicule the Kingdome as a baseball facility, but has anyone ** in the Northwest noticed that the Chicago White Sox have a new ballpark? That the Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers, Milwaukee Brewers, Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers are all getting new stadiums?

Here, we seem to think drawing 2 million fans in a season proves commitment. Just as newspapers don't survive on the 25 cents a day readers plunk down, ticket sales alone don't save franchises.

When Smulyan and his group bought the Mariners, their studies projected 1.8 million fans could be drawn through the gates in 1991 if the team improved, and the Mariners pumped money into marketing. They pumped in the money and should exceed those expectations.

But they also believed that with increased attendance and buoyed television and radio ratings, corporate sponsorship and business ticket sales would rise accordingly.

That hasn't happened.

They believed huge ratings jumps would produce increased TV packages, a cable deal. Yet late this season, two of the five Northwest television stations didn't bid at all, and those who did offered contracts similar to those of 1985.

The only cable offer would have required the Mariners to hire a staff to market their own television ads, produce their own

broadcasts -- and pay major league baseball for broadcast rights.

They thought someone in government would step forward with an idea rather than continually rejecting those the Mariners offered.

To blame this situation on Smulyan, to imply that if his pockets were deeper the huge losses of the past two years wouldn't matter, is to close your eyes to reality.

Smulyan and his partners expected to lose money and stay the course. No one anticipated breaking even the first two years.

Then baseball's collusion fine was double what everyone expected -- $10.1 million per team, payable immediately.

Today's Mariners payroll, $16 million, is double what it was in 1989. Next year it will be more than double the $11 million it was in 1990 -- and will still be among the lowest in the majors.

The California Angels stole Seattle's spring training site with a low-ball offer, and no Arizona community has come up with an offer that would allow the Mariners to break even.

Patience? Should Seattle's revenue grow by 50 percent this year, an impossible task, it would still be more than $10 million below the major-league team average.

There will be no revenue sharing in baseball. Every team will have to take care of itself. Which is why when the White Sox explained their financial problems a few years ago, Illinois built the team a new stadium and promised millions in additional revenue.

And this month, after breaking their all-time attendance record, Chicago announced a $2 price jump per ticket, saying the club was afraid 1992 salaries would be more than the Sox could afford.

Season ticket sales for 1992 increased immediately.

Smulyan must shake his head. He has become the whipping boy of those who think baseball ownership should foot the bill in the Northwest until such time as the Northwest deems it appropriate to invest its own money.

For 15 years, the arguments have been the same. If only this was a winning team. If only ownership would promise to stay forever and stop whining about money.

Baseball doesn't work that way anywhere else, and if it is to survive here it cannot work that way. It may take a miracle to keep this team now, and the Mariners won't be the ones to produce it.

They've been trying for years now, while the money to make it work has been invested in pork bellies and indoor soccer.

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