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September 1, 2004

Breaking Balls

Out of Center Field

by Derek Zumsteg

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How much for the striking view of downtown Pittsburgh at PNC Park?
What about the fountains at Kauffman Stadium? What do you want for those?
The ivy at Wrigley...half-a-million bucks?
What's a unique element of a stadium worth?

It seems like it's an absurd question. It's not. In Seattle, the cluelessness of the front office is far outweighed by the often short-sighted revenue-at-all-costs desires of the club's business minds. This time, the Mariners were only too happy to make a short-term money grab, even if the move has longer-term consequences.

Safeco Field was built with a center field landing. A beer garden, essentially, where you could stand in the sun, enjoy a cool beverage, watch the game. The view wasn't that great, and the people were generally college-aged, which isn't everybody's thing. Still, it was cool to drop past on the wandering tour around the concourses, and the stadium had this whole atmosphere thing going, where you could stand and watch the game from the rail above the center-field concourse, or wander down past the bullpens where, uh, lively exchanges are sometimes heard between fans and players, of both the autograph and heckling kinds, to a set of the better food stands in the park, and the landing. It was a great place to be.

Last year the team decided to put up temporary bleachers in the center-field landing for certain high-demand series: Boston, New York, the late-season collapse matchups. They were awful seats, but people walking to the ticket window on the day of the game still bought them--outfield seats, row 7? Sign me up!

This season, the Mariners will tell you the bleachers are still temporary, for high-demand games...which in Mariner-speak means all of them. If you take the Safeco Field tour, the guide will still tell you that those bleachers are temporary seats, only used for high-demand games--like they did last week, when the Mariners welcomed Tampa Bay and Kansas City to town.

Of course Mariners tickets aren't in high demand at all this year. You can walk down Occidental Ave. before a game and find any number of well-dressed season-ticket holders offering their pairs up, hoping to get face value but ready to negotiate lower.

That's not what the Mariners thought would happen, of course. They probably thought that they'd continue to run over 40,000 a game, like last year. And they did a little math. Even if they missed the post-season, they reasoned:

240 seats
$24 per seat
$20 per person/seat/game on parking/concessions/souvenirs
81 games
profit

...To the tune of creating $855,000 in new revenue over the course of the year, assuming they sell every seat and don't get to the playoffs. They probably figured too that attendance would be slow early in the year, maybe everyone doesn't spend so much...and in the worst-case scenario, they only make $300,000.

So this is what they decided: "The center-field landing is not worth $300,000, and it's definitely not worth a million dollars." They put the permanent seats in there, and the beer garden is gone. And of course, having sold at least some tickets there for every game, they won't remove the seats, even though they often run below half-full.

If the Mariners sat around a conference table and made that call--a big part of the atmosphere of our stadium is worth, at most, $300,000--that implies some other, more disturbing ideas. It means they figured the lost goodwill, bad PR, whatever negative repercussions they might face...that all of those things together were worth less than the extra money they would make.

Now I'm all for teams finding creative ways to make more money. Ideally a team makes more money, funnels that extra revenue into on-field operations, and the result is a better team, a better product. But the small, marginal gains to be had here, vs. the harm done in terms of lost atmosphere and botched aesthetics doesn't add up. Add the decreased concessions sales lost from scrapping that whole row of food stands to potential fan backlash, and the result may actually be decreased revenue, the ballpark's looks, atmosphere and other ideals aside.

Meanwhile, no one has said a word. The Mariners lease Safeco Field from the Public Facilities District, which is tasked with overseeing the stadium and the Mariners' day-to-day operations of same--looking out for the public's interest after taxpayers invested $340 million into the park. The PFD did nothing, said nothing, didn't put up the slightest bit of a fight. Didn't lose an argument and make an appeal to the public...they didn't do anything. If you think you have safeguards in place to prevent your team from swapping seats in for your favorite cool park feature, you're wrong.

Here's why this is bad for you, the fan laughing at our crappy team that's laughing at us chumps with season tickets: You're next.

The Mariners are way ahead of almost every team in baseball in terms of business acumen and fan knowledge. They spend more on market research than nearly any other team. They survey fans all season long, and not just at the stadium. Seattle's had a run of winning teams, but there are three million people in the Seattle-Tacoma metro area, over a million and change fewer than in, say, Boston, yet the Mariners run just behind the Red Sox in annual revenue.

In addition, the team's rabid about protecting their marketing image as family-friendly entertainment, to the point that their business sense trickles down to on-field moves. It affects the kind of players the team pursues in free agency, for instance, and has played a part in keeping around particular fan favorites--Dan Wilson, for instance--for much more money, and longer, than their performance deserved.

It means that now that the concept of tampering with unique park features has been pulled off successfully in Boston (seats on the Green Monster) where it was lauded, and in Seattle, where it didn't make much money but the team got away with it, every team in the league will look around their home park and think "You know, if we put stands on top of the bullpens, we could get another hundred seats out there..."

When the current crop of beautiful baseball-only ballparks has been retrofitted with enough seats to turn into a 70s-style multi-use ashtray to squeeze an extra thousand ticket sales out of your interleague rivalry matchups, I'm sure all of baseball will look to the Northwest and glare, and we'll say "I'm sorry...it didn't seem like a big deal at the time."

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