Seattle Mariners owner John Stanton before a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels on Sept. 11 in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

Seattle Mariners owner John Stanton before a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels on Sept. 11 in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

Analysis: Mariners, Stanton need to be more transparent

Cost-cutting moves have drawn the ire fans. Meanwhile, ownership remains silent about the reasoning.

  • Ryan Divish, The Seattle Times
  • Tuesday, December 12, 2023 3:48pm
  • SportsMariners

It’s not enough for John Stanton to be present at games, walking through the concourse and checking in with employees, or perhaps conversing with fans who recognize him before heading to his front-row seat in the Diamond Club. There’s more to being the face of the ownership group.

It’s not enough to have Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais answer questions about decisions they didn’t make but still must endure. Dipoto tried to talk around the untenable situation that became obvious at the MLB winter meetings, using terms like “payroll flexibility” to discuss making trades that screamed of salary dumping and yet still refusing to discuss a budget that changed a few weeks into the offseason.

Meanwhile, Servais must somehow try to explain this mess to his team leaders like J.P. Crawford, Cal Raleigh and Ty France, who had already developed a healthy distrust of ownership, following years of wondering why they won’t do more to help them win. It’s not a matter of Servais providing justification. It’s about building acceptance for things out of their control.

“We’re trying to do the best with the cards that we’ve been dealt,” Servais said. “I guess is the best way to say it.”

A T-shirt with a sad-looking Servais holding a two of diamonds and nine of clubs and a few chips in front of him is probably being made right now.

For Servais, it was the only way to say it without openly questioning ownership’s commitment, especially when the person dealing the cards and the folks that own the deck aren’t talking.

It’s not enough to portray Comcast Xfinity as the evil, greedy corporation that ruined their offseason because, well, the company developed that reputation long before the decision to charge subscribers more to watch the Mariners, Kraken and Trail Blazers. Xfinity may have provided an impetus for their actions, but Seattle’s ownership still has ultimate culpability for either not anticipating it, or not having a better plan to offset it. And let’s not forget the previous three offseasons where there was maximum expectation and minimal investment.

It’s not enough to say you want to win a division title and bring a World Series championship to the city and then do so little that it appears the organization will remain the only franchise to never appear in a World Series until MLB expands to 32 teams.

Over the last 22 years, there have been so many unkept promises and one postseason appearance. Seattle has hosted as many All-Star Games as it has MLB playoff games in that span.

Benefit of doubt is earned not given.

The last remaining shreds of credibility the organization might have carried with the fan base have been decimated in a disastrous offseason. It started with Dipoto’s comments and tone in a highly criticized end-of-season news conference. The offseason went from bad to dreadful, skipping “worse” in the progression of failure with the revelation that the team’s payroll budget is so limited that Dipoto and GM Justin Hollander had to create payroll dollars just to add players.

It’s difficult to believe that it was just under 14 months ago that the Mariners lost to the Astros, 1-0, in an 18-inning marathon to lose the 2022 American League Division Series at T-Mobile Park. Even in defeat, optimism for a brighter future and more success in seasons ahead prevailed in the fan base.

And now?

It’s just murky and gray with uncertainty and unanswered questions.

It’s time for the Mariners ownership group, specifically John Stanton, who inherited these duties in his role as chairman, to address what is happening with this erstwhile franchise and what it means moving forward.

You can’t preach about providing organizational transparency and accountability when it’s going well and then remain silent when it’s not. You can’t continue to ask for patience from fans after it’s clearly run out.

You want trust? You want cachet? Start by building it and providing some clarity to this muddled mess of an offseason. After fans helped the Mariners draw 2.7 million fans in 2023, their most in a season since 2005, they deserve to know why the dollars they invested in increased ticket prices, which are going up again this season, and costly concessions aren’t being reinvested into the MLB product.

It starts with the team-owned regional sports network — ROOT Sports NW. When Xfinity, the largest cable provider, announced it was moving ROOT to its most expensive programming package on Oct. 10, ownership, concerned that many fans might refuse to pay for the upgrade or cancel subscriptions completely, decided to reduce the expected payroll budget for the 2024 team.

Was it another risk-averse decision or a prudent reaction to numbers projected or determined?

The Mariners’ “why” in all of this has been implied without anyone from the organization saying it on the record. Providing answers to some of these questions might offer up some understanding for their recent decision-making.

How many subscribers have committed to the upgrade?

What are the projections for subscriber retention or attraction moving forward?

Why is this so debilitating to their finances? Is it due to the cost of Kraken and Trail Blazers television deals and minimal ratings from those games? They’ve never released how much ROOT paid for four years of broadcast rights for the Blazers or the exact length and cost of the Kraken TV deal.

Perhaps more importantly, it should be asked how the Mariners weren’t ready for this situation. Should they have expected Comcast to do this after Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns 40% of ROOT, announced it was getting out of the RSN business?

It’s also fair to ask why the Mariners ownership group doesn’t reinvest more dollars into the organization to help offset the “unexpected” financial uncertainty.

With MLB still trying to figure out how to keep regional sports networks while embracing streaming, are the Mariners going to operate with this sort of payroll in the seasons ahead?

The goal of owning a professional sports franchise isn’t to make the most money. It’s to win the most games and championships. The Mariners didn’t invest enough in the 2023 team and they didn’t win enough games to reach the postseason. And the organization has never played for a championship.

Do they not see the window for ultimate success is closing faster than expected without investment?

Let’s be clear, the Mariners aren’t broke or leveraged. They have money. They make money. They have the potential to make money. It’s not as if ROOT is filing for bankruptcy like Diamond Sports Group, which owns Bally Sports Network, the regional sports network of 14 MLB teams. Sources said ROOT isn’t suffering heavy financial losses, it just isn’t generating as much revenue as expected or desired.

The Mariners are a profitable organization. While they have disputed the Forbes’ reports of their high revenues and valuations, they aren’t going to offer up any insight on their finances either. They have maintained financial viability even in years when the on-field product was abysmal. They know how to make money even under the worst conditions as their former president Kevin Mather once boasted.

But where are those revenues going? Former CEO Howard Lincoln often said that ownership didn’t pocket any profits generated by the team and instead reinvested every dollar back into the organization. Not every dollar should or would go to player payroll, but it seems like it’s been less than it should be.

The Mariners need to provide some clarity for the sake of a fan base that’s been patient longer than reasonably expected. And anything else, well, it’s not enough.

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