Transcript: Mariners’ execs tell the bigger story behind arena opposition
by Art Thiel
Many of the state's tax and trust challenges date back to the tax package for the construction of Safeco Field. Credit: Paul R. Kucher IV/Wikimedia Commons
I sat down this week with Howard Lincoln, CEO of the Mariners, and Bart Waldman, the club’s legal counsel, to ask questions about the club’s objections to Chris Hansen’s proposed basketball/hockey arena that abuts the team’s parking garage in SoDo.
The city and county councils are expected to vote Monday to approve a memorandum of understanding with Hansen, a little more than six months after the Mariners wrote a letter to all parties saying the project “will not work” so close to their stadium and other businesses.
Here is the full transcript of the interview:
Q: Isn’t the primary reason for your opposition to the arena the threat posed by one or two more sports teams crowding the market?
Lincoln: I don’t think we’ve done as good a job as we should have in explaining our position to our public and our fans. I think our only issue is the ability of our fans to get to Safeco Field because of the worsening congestion in this area.
We’re not concerned about competition. The Sonics were here before we were. When they were here, we never even thought about competition. Our view is there is room in this market for the NBA, and the NHL as well.
This ownership group is the steward for major league baseball here. We felt an obligation to speak out and alert political leaders of our concern. It’s strictly about fans getting here. If they can’t get here, then baseball doesn’t work.
I was an NBA fan long before I was a Mariners fan. I saw Lenny Wilkens play at Seattle Center. My heroes were Freddy Brown, Dennis Johnson, Lonnie Shelton, and Jack Sikma. I was at those games before the 1979 championship. I remember (Golden State All-Star) Rick Barry almost running over my head when somebody threw beer at him.
The idea of the Sonics coming back is great. We don’t think an NBA arena works next to our parking garage. We are very pleased the way this is going — an environmental impact study that addresses fully the traffic and scheduling issues.
The one thing we didn’t make clear in the April 3 letter is we have a problem that is unique regarding scheduling. MLB announces its schedule in August each year and we have no ability to change the schedule. Other sports have more flexibility.
Q: Why do you think your position is misunderstood and denigrated?
Lincoln: Sports fans are pretty emotional. There’s a ton of people emotionally involved in getting the Sonics back. It’s easy for them to say the Mariners shouldn’t say anything, and that the Mariners have problems other than the one we expressed [congestion].
To the extent they have misunderstood what we’ve tried to say, I’d be the first to apologize.
Q: Isn’t the problem of seasonal overlaps something that can be negotiated and managed?
Waldman: We’ve looked at NBA and NHL master schedules. Depending on playoffs, you’d typically have six to 12 conflicts annually if both teams were here and made the playoffs. Roughly half the teams in each sport make the playoffs, so that would occur roughly half the time. We think it would be on average three regular season games and three playoff games for each sport.
The only place in the country that has all four teams in buildings close together is Philadlphia. They also have 22,000 surface parking spaces there, and the sports sites are not near their port, it’s away from downtown traffic, and is served by two major freeways and four major on and off ramps. Nor does Philadelphia have railroad tracks on one side and water on the other.
You can always deal with a one-off event a couple of times. We have done that with the Sounders, and we work like crazy to make it happen. We just did that recently (by changing a Saturday start time to reduce the conflict). You don’t want it to be a regular condition.
The difficulty is other events. The traditional wisdom on arenas is that you need 200-plus events to be successful; Chris Hansen has been saying 200-250 events a year. [Note: In an April interview with SPNW, Hansen said the arena, in the absence of an NHL team, could work financially with 120 event dates.] It’s the concerts, circuses, ice shows, trade shows and everything else that is typical to most arenas that’s the biggest problem. As many as a third to a half of our games can be conflicted. You start to get in a fight every Friday night with a concert versus a ballgame.
What volumes can SoDo handle on a weeknight?
Waldman: Our experience is that over 40,000, it’s gets tough. There’s no cliff, but a gradual accretion, both parking capacity and traffic, because they go together. When people don’t find parking, they circle, not sure where they’re going, which makes almost a compounding effect on traffic.
The original response from some political leaders was that the area handles Seahawks games that typically draw more than 65,000. But most are on Sunday. If you look at Monday or Thursday (NFL) games, it’s a real nightmare down here. Businesses close early and we send our [Mariners staffers] home at 3 or 3:30 in the afternoon so they can clear the area. You can’t get out of here after 5.
It’s the kind of thing when it happens once or twice, we adjust and pitch in because we all want what’s best for the community. But you don’t want to see it happen every week. It becomes very difficult.
Our crowds are different from Seahawks crowds. We hired a traffic consultant in December when we learned about the arena plan, we hired a traffic consultant. First thing we asked: How do we make it work? We weren’t trying to kill it. What we found was it was a lot more challenging than we anticipated.
The Seahawks crowd spreads out and comes in over many hours for tailgating. For the Monday night game, there were people putting up tents at 9 in the morning. By noon, I bet 25 percent of their crowd was in the vicinity, having lunch and making a day out of the game that night.
Baseball crowds come in the hour before a game, and basketball even closer. Baseball will always get some for batting practice, but most come in the hour before a game and basketball even closer. A very different pattern.
Also, rush hour comes through here because it’s one of downtown’s major routes to I-90. First Avenue South and Martinez Way is one of the busiest in the city. We saw information from an agency that rates intersections (for safety and traffic flow), which graded it as an F, a fail, the lowest rated intersection in the city.
There’s a lot of talk about this area as a transportation hub. That’s more at Union Station. Nice for the football stadium, but it’s a long walk to here and a longer walk to the Hansen site. Because of how bad traffic already is on First, Metro has moved all its buses off the street and moved the route to Fourth Avenue. That’s hard for seniors who take buses to our games and have to go home late at night all the way to Fourth.
You have been lumped together with the Port of Seattle and the Manufacturing Industrial Council. Do your interests diverge?
Lincoln: The port and MIC concerns are in many ways bigger than ours because they’re concerned about losing (permanent) customers like shipping companies high paying jobs here and elsewhere — they really should call it the Port of Washington.
Our common concern is making certain that these issues are looked at and considered thoughtfully. We think that’s going to happen with this EIS. That’s one of the biggest things we sought in the April 3 letter.
How many direct conversations have you had with Hansen?
Lincoln: Three. A breakfast meeting in early December with Chris and Wally Walker. Then we asked for second meeting in May in this confrence room, and then I also gave Chris a stadium tour and lunch in the owners' suite.
We made it very clear at breakfast that this (arena location) isn’t going to work, asking them if they understood what the traffic issues are. Quite frankly, they hadn’t even thought about it; at least, that’s the impression I got. If they thought about it, they didn’t think it was any big deal. I told them we’d be happy to talk more about this.
Did Hansen respond?
Lincoln: I’m not going to say they said no, but I don’t remember a response. When we met in May, his attitude was that he doesn’t see it the way we do. I’m not bad-mouthing him, he just doesn’t see it the same way.
A Seattle Times editorialist said we were arrogant for not meeting with Chris, but we met on three occasions. All have been pleasant, candid, and informative. But at the end of the day, he wants the arena at the end of our parking garage, and we don’t think it will work. There’s nothing to negotiate.
Waldman: When they came in December, they had already bought, or had the right to buy, the land. We didn’t know he had bought property until he told us.
Rumors say that the Mariners at some point had ambitions to some of the land Hansen bought, and feel thwarted. True?
Lincoln: No, we’re not a land acquisition business, we’re in the baseball business. If someone had said you (Mariners) ought to buy that warehouse next to the garage because someone might put an arena there, I would have said, “You’re crazy.” Why would we want to buy more land? That thought has never come up with our ownership group. If fans are upset with us now, imagine what it would be like if we were spending money on something besides payroll.
Another rumor: The Mariners fear the arrival of the NBA and NHL would damage their chances for a rights fee windfall in 2015, when your TV contract with [regional sports network (RSN)] ROOT Sports can be opened.
Waldman: Most media experts will tell you the opposite. In most media markets where there are baseball and basketball, they often form their own regional sports networks (ROOT Sports, the former Fox Sports Northwest, is owned by DirecTV). Generally there’s a sense that the two sports augment rights fees, not diminish them. It brings more to the party.
So we’ve been bullish on an NBA team coming back. We’ve tried to say that, how excited we are. It’s a positive to us from a media rights standpoint and from a standpoint of sports excitement.
There is a belief among some in the media industry that the sports-rights-fee explosion we’ve seen in Anaheim, Dallas, and Houston is actually a bubble, like real estate and dot-coms. What’s your view?
Lincoln: We’ve heard the same thing. It’s hard to say what will happen. We’re waiting to see what happens with the Dodgers [who have a new rights-fee deal].
Waldman: It’s fair to say we don’t think adding basketball is a negative. It’s also important to say that in-house attendance is, to us, more valuable than media-rights fees. We’re still a gate-driven business and anticipate being so.
Are you considering operating your own RSN?
Lincoln: I can answer that: No.
Waldman: We aren’t a made-for-TV sport. We don’t want an empty house and all our fans sit at home.
Regarding the MOU that the city and county councils appear ready to sign with Hansen on Monday, will you advocate for sites other than Hansen’s choice and Seattle Center?
Lincoln: We look at it as this site as a negative for us and won’t work. We’ll focus during this process as to why this site doesn’t work and leave to others to look at alternatives. It’s not our job to say Bellevue or Seattle Center is better.
Waldman: The simple solution is for the arena people to agree they won’t schedule anything when we have a home game. That won’t happen, that can’t happen. So how do you find ways to make it happen? We don’t have the answers. That’s why we want this to go through a full and complete study, because you drill down into all issues. Maybe someone will have a brainstorm that finds a way to balance scheduling. We’re willing to participate in the process.
Are you also willing to put money in? The city council finance committee talked Hansen into diverting $40 million of tax revenues, which would have gone to debt retirement, into an infrastructure fund to help mitigate congestion problems, with some expectation that beneficiaries such as the Mariners would also contribute.
Lincoln: We haven’t been approached. I’ve read the port’s reaction and they said they don’t have any money. That’s basically the same with us. We have no intention of making any contribution. And frankly, our political leaders know that $40 million is a drop in the bucket. Let’s get real.
There is a list of shorter-term, smaller fixes that the city has suggested. Are any of them difference-makers?
Waldman: I’ve seen the list, and those are really focused on moving freight. I don’t think they have a measurable diffrerence for the fans coming off the freeways. Changes to East Marginal Way are a marginal difference for our fans.
The Lander Street overpass would help. It would encourage our fans who come in on Martinez Way, which gets totally backed up toward I-90, to go further south on I-5 and exit at Sixth Avenue South and Forest Street (exit 163B), and come west across Lander. They can do that now, but the difficulty is, if you reach a train crossing with a train in it, you can sit there for 15 minutes.
Lots of things that can help, but there’s no silver bullet. Having said that, there are things that would help [reduce] the truck traffic we get out here.
Were traffic mitigation commitments made to you by city in 1998-99 unfulfilled?
Waldman: None to the Mariners. Lander was a commitment to the industrial sector. Our impact moving here to Safeco, there wasn’t a lot because we were already here (from the first season in 1977 atthe Kingdome) a block north. Our fans were already here.
Can you outline the differences now in SoDo from the time the Kingdome opened in 1976?
Waldman: There’s a cumulative impact of development. All the development around Union Station wasn’t there — the buildings Paul Allen built [in and near the International District]. It’s a positive impact for the economy, but they stress the roads more.
The biggest change since we moved to Safeco was parts of Terminal 46. When we moved here (in 1999), we and the Seahawks had convenanted to us by the port 1,525 parking spaces operated by Doug Fox Travel. On the day of the 2001 All-Star Game, we had an afternoon party there with hospitality tents. In 2002, our parking was reduced to a few hundred spaces. And in 2003, we lost it entirely.
That part of the terminal was not as active a container terminal. Now it’s one of the biggest container terminals on the West Coast. (Note: A Port of Seattle spokesperson said a part of the closure was because of security measures limiting public access to the port after 9/11, as well as an increase in container-port business.)
Our traffic consultant said that in the 12 years at Safeco, we’ve lost 4,000 parking spots within a half-mile radius. Some of that was Terminal 46, some of it the Kingdome’s north lot, and an awful lot of it was under the viaduct, pretty much free parking. Home Plate Parking (a lot across the street from the main Safeco entrance) is another example. The development is positive for the city but it doesn’t necessrily help the fan.
If Lander Street overpass received a commitment to get built, would that change your mind about participating in the infrastructure fund?
Lincoln: No. It’s not our job. Our job is to build a winning baseball team. If the fans are upset at us now, they would be more upset if we’re spending money that would go to payroll.
Waldman: Lander would be very helpful to everyone. If fans come to the arena via Holgate, they’re going to have to walk across all those railroad tracks. They will have the same dangerous experience we had before the Royal Brougham flyover was done (between the ballpark and Qwest Field). We had a pedestrian coming to the game struck by a train. He was hit after one train had passed and didn’t know a second train was coming, despite the lights and bells. That was when there were only two or three tracks. Now there are six.
Have you mentioned the pedestrian safety issue to Hansen and has he responded?
Waldman: We have brought it up. We had litigation over that incident, and I learned a lot, including that at-grade crossing (now beneath the Brougham overpass) was the busiest in the United States. Lots of trains there, and we’ve been told there’s been a two- to three-fold increase in train traffic in the last 10 years, and to expect the same in the next 10 years. It no longer affects Brougham, but it affects Lander and Holgate.
It was explained to me that we are almost an island here: Puget Sound to the west, train tracks to the east, and only a couple of crossings over the tracks. We asked our consultant where could you put the arena, and she said get it on the other side (east) of the railroad tracks.
What if the EIS recommends Hansen’s land as the best site for the arena, and the councils concur?
Lincoln: We’ll be good citizens. We’ll roll up our sleeves and try to do the best we can. But we will continue to think it’s the wrong place. Our dealings with Chris have always been cordial.
What about the sports fans’ general sentiment that says the Mariners are being obsrtuctionist?
Lincoln: If that’s the case, we haven’t done as good a job as we need to in getting our messasge out. I don’t think alerting political leaders to a problem or concern should be viewed as obstructionist. We are trying to make sure our fans can get to Safeco. That’s our obligation. We’re not trying to be obstructionist.
Besides the baseball team, what are your fans telling you about your position on the arena?
Lincoln: Once we’re able to talk them, they understand the concern. I have to tell you, I have emails and letters that are off the wall. They accuse us of everything. It’s clear there are sports fans who think we’re trying to block this. We’re not.
Waldman: When we have a reasonably full crowd here, we take up essntially all of the available parking. Then you add 18,000 people (a full house at the arena), you have need for another 7,000 parking spaces that don’t exist right now. We have to figure out where those are coming from.
Hansen wants an entertainment district between the stadiums, but has deliberately left plans vague because he wants input from neighbors and the public. What are your thoughts?
Lincoln: He drew on our white board some ideas, but it’s pretty hard to respond because it’s so vague. He put on a white board what he wanted.
Waldman: He’s generally described it as comparable to the Kansas City Power & Light district, and there are mixed opinions on how well [that is] working. Adding entertainment and retail here, we see as a net positive. More foot traffic, and encouraging people to come earlier and stay later. But the vacating of streets (primarily Occidental Avenue) are a problem.
Closing Occidental . . . you have to replace that somewhow. I think everyone has conceded it helps to be replaced by a two-lane service road on the back of his propety. About 30 percent of our garage traffic goes out the south end, and it can’t only go out on to First — it’s already jammed. We need [a version of] Occcidental for that. I think that can be done.
Last question: Is the club for sale to outsiders, or is it for sale among the current owners via selling of shares to a new majority owner?
Lincoln: I’ll say the same thing I said before . . . pure nonsense.