The Mariners explain their case against a new SoDo sports arena
by Art Thiel
Site of the proposed new arena in SoDo. First Avenue South is the western boundary; the Safeco Field garage is to the north. Credit: Sportspress Northwest/City of Seattle
Six months after the Mariners wrote their infamous "it won't work" letter opposing proposed basketball/hockey arena in SoDo, the Seattle city and King County councils are set to approve a deal with arena developer Chris Hansen on Monday.
But the club has not openly answered lots of questions about its rationale for the opposition that has generated such contempt and ridicule from Seattle sports fans seeking the return of the NBA — until now.
In an exclusive interview this week, CEO Howard Lincoln, along with Bart Waldman, executive vice-president for legal and governmental affairs, answered questions, dispelled rumors, and, yes, even apologized for inadequate explanation of their position.
In the hour-long interview, the entire text of which can be by clicking on the story in the Related Contents box, Lincoln said the Mariners are pleased to get what the letter sought — a full environmental study that will include a serious look at alternate sites — but are no less convinced that putting an arena so close to Safeco Field on the doorstep of the Port of Seattle is a bad idea that will work against the best interests of all.
The biggest issue for the Mariners is not the conflicts presented by NBA and NHL seasons, which may be between six and 12 dates annually, but all the other events that need to fill the arena to make it work financially.
"It’s the concerts, circuses, ice shows, trade shows, and everything else that is typical to most arenas that’s the biggest problem,” said Waldman. “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.”
The Mariners believe that a reasonably full house at Safeco will take up all of the rapidly shrinking pool of available parking — a pool that has lost 4,000 spots to development since Safeco’s opening in 1999 — and will need to find 7,000 spaces to accommodate a sellout crowd at the 18,000 seat arena. A garage at the arena will help, but it won’t be nearly enough.
Lincoln and Waldman dispelled three rumors that have made the rounds about the real reasons for their resistance:
- That the Mariners fear the competition for the sports dollar with NBA and NHL teams: “We’re not concerned about competition,” Lincoln said. “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.”
- That the Mariners fear NBA and NHL teams will dilute their opportunity for a windfall when their TV contract with ROOT Sports can be re-opened in 2015: “Most media experts will tell you the opposite,” Waldman said. “In most media markets where there are baseball and basketball, they often form their own regional sports networks. 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.”
- That the Mariners wanted to develop the adjacent property themselves: “No, we’re not a land acquisition business, we’re in the baseball business,” Lincoln said. “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.”
Lincoln did own up to the fact that his April 3 letter to political leaders led to misunderstanding and criticism by the public and the principals in the deal:
“To the extent they have misunderstood what we’ve tried to say,” he said, “I’d be the first to apologize.”
Lincoln also tried to put to bed another, related rumor that has the Mariners selling the franchise this off-season, perhaps to minority owner John Stanton, at least partly due to the threat posed by the potential arena. "I’ll say the same thing I said before," Lincoln said, "pure nonsense.”
As far as the the outcome of the environmental study, if the study and the politicians conclude that SoDo is the best spot for the arena, “We’ll be good citizens,” he said. “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.”
After listening to Lincoln and Waldman, I have three opinions:
- The sweat over congestion and parking is legitimate, because no other metro market is attempting to cram so much activity — port, sports, and a downtown core — into such a tight space limited by water on one side and railroads on the other.
- The intense competition for the sports dollar posed by six major sports enterprises in Seattle should cause apprehension in any franchise operator; to say otherwise doesn’t pass the snicker test.
- Often, something big and important is never for sale until it is sold.
If you care about this issue, and are a fan of light more than heat, please read the transcript of the interview.
The subject will be Topic A here for the next year — or at least until Sunday, should the Seahawks stuff Tom Brady and the Patriots.