The Seattle Mariners made it official Wednesday: Safeco Field is dead. Long live (25 years) T-Mobile Park.
The club confirmed the naming rights switch to the Bellevue-based telecom powerhouse matches the length of its recent lease extension with the Public Facilities District, the public entity that technically owns the building so that the Mariners don’t have to pay King County property taxes.
The change comes at a low point in a franchise history replete with low points. General manager Jerry Dipoto made the decision to be purposely non-competitive in 2019, jettisoning familiar, more expensive older players in order to acquire younger players with controllable contracts.
The strategy to tank has worked for clubs such as the Astros and Cubs, and is being deployed more and more throughout MLB. But none of the clubs currently have the Mariners’ historic resistance to postseason play, which dates back to shortly after an exploratory visit from British Capt. George Vancouver, when he asked his chief lieutenant, Peter Puget, what he would like for his birthday that wouldn’t cost anything.
So the arrival of the kids along with the new house name inspires a need for a nickname that captures the enterprise:
As with any parents, the hope is that the newbies will grow out of it.
The important thing is that the Mariners found a revenue stream. According to Forbes, the total value of the deal is $87.5 million, or an average of $3.5 million a year. The expiring 20-year deal with Safeco Insurance brought $40 million over 20 years.
The argument could be made that the new value merely keeps pace with inflation. But that isn’t a bad thing compared to no new revenue stream, or a much shorter length deal that would have the naming rights swinging from Oh Boy! Oberto Field, to Dick’s, to Stop Freakin’ Call Beacon Plumbing with unseemly frequency.
While a modest amount — $3.5 million is approximately the annual salary of a middle-innings reliever with a paunch and a limp — the money helps keep the Mariners ownership from curling up on the county doorstep begging for further morsels of public revenues.
You may recall that the Mariners last summer requested $185 million in public help to maintain the stadium’s condition over the next 25 years. The ask produced three long, contentious public meetings in King County Council chambers by those upset that tax money was going to a building that had no provision to house the homeless, and thus was no help in solving the long-standing social crisis.
The argument nearly worked. But by a 5-4 vote, the council approved smaller amount, $135 million. Had one vote flipped, T-Mobile have been asked for more money, and may well have said no.
The ballpark could have gone nameless into 2019. Which may have been OK in a year where there may more dust bunnies in the grandstand than men on base.
But in jumped John Legere (pronounced ledger), T-Mobile’s eccentric CEO, whose passion for magenta, hyperbole and Twitter (six million followers) might prove a helpful distraction from 60-102.
In a statement released by the club, Legere wrote, “The Un-carrier is always shaking things up for the better, and this time we’re going BIG with the Seattle Mariners for all their fans. T-Mobile Park isn’t just some corporate-branded sponsorship to us … this is about supporting the community and our hometown Mariners in building a World Series-caliber team!”
The company is sponsoring the T-Mobile ‘Pen, the popular standing-room spot beyond the left-center-field fence, which will open 30 minutes ahead of all gates to let fans watch batting practice, receive surprise giveaways (no dropped calls?) and a DJ.
On T-Mobile Tuesdays, there will be surprise seat upgrades and T-Mobile customers will get fast-track entry, discounted tickets and free or discounted merchandise.
You may ask what this has to do with baseball. Two answers:
— Almost no one enjoyed over the past 20 years the experience of reading insurance-policy fine print during games.
— Few will enjoy Mariners baseball in 2019.
The season will be about the ballpark, food, drink and distraction. Magenta is a splendid distraction.
Ownership and management have made a calculated gamble that a step back from competitive baseball is not the same as industry suicide. They are probably right, because as monopoly operators in a five-state area that also serves western Canada, they have cornered the major-league baseball market.
Even if it is T-Ball.
Art Thiel is co-founder of SportsPress Northwest.