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
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:
$24 per seat
$20 per person/seat/game on parking/concessions/souvenirs
…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
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
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.”