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Do The Seattle Mariners Have the Worst Owners in Baseball?

Do The Seattle Mariners Have the Worst Owners in Baseball?

Post last updated March 10, 2024

There’s nothing nicer in Seattle than going to a Mariners game on a sunny July night. While the Mariners have had a less-than-stellar history on the field, headed into 2024 they have one of the most exciting roster cores in all of baseball. So you’d think excitement headed into the season would be at an all-time high.

Yet, enthusiasm among the Mariners fanbase has been declining across a long offseason. A key reason is an ownership group that seems committed to merely being relevant rather than trying to win the World Series.

Let’s dive into the history of Mariners ownership and answer the question just whether the Mariners owners are the worst in baseball.

A Less Than Stellar History of Owners

Seattle Mariners with Ichiro
Nintendo owned the Mariners during some of their most successful season (Alan C. Heison/Shutterstock)

While the Mariners have had no shortage of iconic players in their prime like Ken Griffey Jr, Edgar Martinez, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, and Ichiro Suzuki, they’re the only Major League franchise to never make the World Series.

The franchise began in 1977 and suffered through a series of penny-pinching owners that never seriously competed. In fact, the Mariners had a losing record in their first 14 years of existence. In the early 90s majority owner Jeff Smulyan tried moving the team before Nintendo of America stepped in to keep them in Seattle.

Nintendo would go on to own the Mariners from 1992 to 2016. Nintendo would also spend money. The Mariners hold the very on-brand distinction of being the first steam to lose 100 games with a $100 million payroll. They had a top 10 payroll in baseball in 2010, 2008, 2007, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002.

The Goal is Not to Win the World Series

However, it was during this period that Mariners ownership began giving the impression it cared less about producing truly great teams and instead being good enough to just get fans into the stadium.

In 2002, the Mariners were coming off a 116-win season and trying to hold off a surging Oakland team for a shot at the playoffs. Yet, at the deadline, the team largely stood pat. The team chairman at the time, Howard Lincoln, would say:

“The goal of the Seattle Mariners is not to win the World Series – it is to field a competitive team year after year.”

Of course, this quote implied that the bottom line mattered more than winning a World Series, and rather than “push in its chips” with an exciting core, Mariners ownership was more content to merely keep consistent profits.

Fast-forward to today and the Mariners have new owners but seem to have the same focus on the bottom line above all else.

The Mariners Enter a Rebuild

After opening 2019 with the 11th-highest payroll in baseball, the Mariners embarked on a rebuild that saw their payroll drop to the 25th-highest in baseball in 2021. Undergoing a rebuild isn’t something to critique ownership over. Often, it makes sense to slash payroll and focus on a core of promising young players.

During this era the Mariners let many older players walk while getting more playing time for promising players like J.P. Crawford and an elite core of pitchers that includes George Kirby and Logan Gilbert.

The implied promise from ownership groups during a rebuild is that payrolls will come down (generally leading to higher profit margins) in the years the team is rebuilding, but when the promising core enters its prime years, they’ll spend more to fill in roster gaps and make the team competitive.

And the Mariners have seen incredible profits during this rebuild. Forbes reports their operating profits hit $86 million during 2022. That figure was the highest in baseball.

In the case of the Mariners, their exceptional pitching staff is now entering its prime and features pitchers on more “club-friendly” deals. So, you’d figure the team would be adding to a payroll that ranked 18th in baseball last season entering such a prime contention window.

New Owners, Same Focus On Profits

Yet, at the conclusion of last season (another season the Mariners didn’t make the playoffs), Mariners President Jerry DiPoto announced he operates with a 10-year plan to win 54% of the time. Then proceeded to double down by saying:

“We’re actually doing the fanbase a favor in asking for the patience to win the World Series while we continue to build a sustainably good roster.”

Of course, if you’re the only fanbase who has never seen a World Series and has an ownership group that’s made the playoffs just once since 2016, telling the fan base owners are doing them a favor by not spending money is particularly galling.

If you’re a long-time Mariners fan, the 54% quote from DiPoto looks like just another version of Howard Lincoln’s “Our goal isn’t to win the World Series” quote from 20-plus years before. A time span that has seen the team make the playoffs exactly once, which is the worst performance in baseball across that time.

A Terrible Offseason from the Mariners

DiPoto’s 54% quote started the Mariners’ offseason on the wrong foot, but it has only gotten worse since. Expectations from the fanbase were the Mariners would increase their payroll to somewhere in the range of $160 million to $175 million. That would likely put the Mariners above last season’s average payroll.

(The 15th highest payroll out of 30 MLB teams entering last year was the Colorado Rockies at $166 million.)

That seems like a fair expectation for a team that Forbes reports had the highest profits in all of MLB in 2022. Yet, the Mariners ended up embarking on a series of cost-cutting moves like trading promising left fielder Jarred Kelenic.

Fan Graphs now estimates the Mariners will have a slightly lower payroll in 2024 ($139 million) than where they ended 2023 ($140 million).

That’s right, after ownership collected windfall profits for years during a rebuild, they’re now cutting payroll during a prime contention window.

Why Are the Mariners Cutting Payroll?

The natural question you’re likely asking is “Why are the Mariners cutting payroll at this time?” It does seem pretty illogical!

By all accounts, Mariners ownership had planned on increasing payroll in 2024, but a dispute with local cable provider Comcast ended those plans.

Like other cable providers, Comcast has seen a wave of cord-cutting that’s lowering cable revenue. Cable providers are fighting back by removing channels with large “carriage fees” that cut into margins. This has caused numerous bankruptcies across Regional Sports Networks that carry local baseball, basketball, and hockey games. As their channels get dropped from standard cable packages, they lose huge sums of money.

The Mariners bet big on their Regional Sports Network – ROOT Sports. They not only have an equity position but also paid large sums to acquire the rights to Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle Kraken hockey rights. Late last year Comcast moved ROOT Sports to their ‘Ultimate’ tier which costs an extra $18.50 per month.

The bottom line of this scenario is it craters revenue the Mariners are receiving from local broadcasts (its channels now have far fewer subscribers). The Mariners organization bet big on Regional Sports Networks, and they bet the wrong way.

But, it’s now Mariners fans who are paying for this mistake.

Mariners Ownership Has a Choice

Mariners Stadium
Mariners ownership is prioritizing profits over building a true World Series contender

Mariners ownership is clearly losing revenue, but did they need to slash payroll projections?

The simple answer is no.

Yes, RSN revenues are down, but not likely enough that the team will lose money in 2024. What we’re seeing is a prioritization of keeping profits over maximizing the prime contending years of their current roster.

If the Mariners were concerned about this overall brand and fanbase reactions, it would be wise to spend during this window. After all, even if they went into a slight loss this season, that would have been offset by recent years when the team was among – if not the – most profitable teams in baseball.

And the alternative of missing a prime contention window is that in the years to come we’ll likely see another rebuild that will ask fans for another 5-plus years of patience from a franchise that’s been the most inept in baseball throughout its long, torturous history

The sad reality is the Mariners likely do have the worst ownership group in baseball outside of Oakland’s current situation. Other teams will spend less (Miami, Tampa), but have proven an ability to create contention windows throughout their history. The Baltimore Orioles risked wasting their own prime contention window but recently were acquired by new owners who immediately proved a commitment to winning.

Mariners owner John Stanton isn’t the least wealthy owner in baseball, but he’s close. Estimates vary, but net worth projections of Stanton stand at about $1.1 billion which ranks him 23rd in baseball. In addition, Mariners minority owner Chris Larson is believed to own the second highest amount of the Mariners and has reportedly had financial difficulties (including a divorce) in the past. The Mariners are owned by First Avenue Entertainment, but the exact ownership amounts of the 17 members is opaque by design.

It could simply be there’s just not a lot of appetite to lose money in any season from influential minority owners and not just John Stanton, even if it means the high risk of wasting the best contention window the Mariners have had in 20 years.

Boycott the Mariners

What options do fans have given the situation? Sadly, the only real power Mariners fans have would be is to vote with our wallets.

The Mariners have long delivered a subpar product and gotten average to above-average revenues and incredible profitability.

And it’s not that the Mariners will be bad in 2024. They’ll likely win 85 to 90 games – about 54%! The problem is that with a push to just average Major League spending levels, they could likely have gotten the added depth and bats to make them true World Series contenders instead of a team sportsbooks have with the 10th best odds (an implied 5% chance of winning the World Series).

The Mariners organization is intentionally wasting their contention window over $20 or $30 million dollars, just a couple seasons after they recorded an estimated $86 million in profits.

If you’re a fan, it’s simply inexcusable and I’ll be voting with my wallet by not giving the Mariners a cent of revenue (after normally spending thousands each season).

If we want accountability, the only thing Mariners ownership cares about is whether fans will actually respond to their indifference to delivering a World Series contender.

Thank You, Mark from Maple Valley

I’ll end with a call from a Mariners fan into Brock & Salk’s radio show after the conclusion of last season. you can listen to it here, but I’ll post an edited transcript below:

“Hey, this isn’t going to be popular, but I’m going to speak the truth. The problem with the Mariners is the fans, and here’s why.

John Stanton dangles fireworks and bobbleheads in front of their faces and runs the team like it’s the Oakland Athletics instead of one of the most profitable teams in Major League Baseball, and tells you to your face they’re going to challenge for the World Series.

Then throws out a lineup that has Caballero, Sam Haggerty, Dylan Moore, and Mike Ford at the bottom of the order. A bunch of scrap heap guys… And then tells you that we’re going to challenge for the World Series.

And yet we come out in droves, because we get to go with our families on a sunny day and watch fireworks and get bobbleheads and draw over 3 million people a year and this guy is sitting there with a cigar thinking we’re the biggest idiots in the world.

If we were in Philly or New York, this wouldn’t even be acceptable. But we do it every year! And then we come out and say “Oh you gotta love these guys” because they almost made it to the playoffs.

Are you out of your mind? It’s unacceptable! But yet 3 million come every year. It’s a joke and until somebody holds this guy accountable… Then maybe we’ll make the playoffs.”

Ashleigh on ferry Island hopping.

Hi, I'm Ashleigh! Welcome to Seattle Travel, my little piece of beautiful PNW. This is home and I'm here to share all my experiences so visitors and locals alike can find the best experiences this part of the country has to offer. I started Seattle Travel in 2012 as a way to journal my experiences and over the years have been encouraged by family and friends to open up my adventures to everyone. I actively seek out the best food, activities, and day trips and give you a local perspective.  The Pacific Northwest is one of the most beautiful areas in the world and my goal is to let you explore it to the fullest. 

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