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Mariners Opposition of Arena Ridiculous

If you read the Musings and live outside the Pacific Northwest, you might be unaware that there is an arena deal brewing in Seattle. Long story short, private investor Chris Hansen has bought property mere blocks away from Safeco Field with the hope of building a new arena to bring back the Seattle SuperSonics.

The deal has already made it rather far. The King County Council signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between them and Hansen's group. If the Seattle City Council also signs the MOU, then Hansen's group is basically only an NBA team away from building the arena*.

*One condition of the MOU is that the arena is not built until a professional basketball team is secured.

The arena deal would have nothing to do with the Mariners if it weren't so close to Safeco Field. It is though, and they have spoken. The organization wrote a letter to the city and county in early April stating that the arena-building process should include consideration of multiple sites. They note that it took a year to decide where Safeco Field would go. The letter, when read literally, seems innocuous. However, reading between the lines, would the Mariners really bother to write the letter if they didn't have some concerns about a new sports venue setting up shop next to them?

This morning, Q13 sports anchor Aaron Levine wrote a three-tweet-series reporting that the Mariners have hired the public relations firm Pacific Public Affairs. It just so happens to be the main PR firm for anti-arena efforts.

Again, April's letter does not flat-out say that the Mariners oppose the arena site, and there is no stated reason the Mariners hired Pacific Public Affairs. The lack of details leave room for bad assumptions. However, it would not make much sense for the Mariners to go to the extra effort they are at the moment if they supported the arena plan.

What I can't figure out is why the Mariners are so worried about the arena.

Attendance can't be the issue. The Sonics were in town before the Mariners even existed. The Mariners "glory years," 1995-2001 or so, all happened with the Sonics in town. The M's drew big crowds in the past even when they had to compete with the NBA. That was before the meteoric rise of the Sounders though, and perhaps a new NHL team would be an issue too. However, it would be logistically impossible for the NBA and NHL to simultaneously play in the same arena, and I bet there would never be a time where the Mariners, Seahawks or Sounders, and Sonics or NHL all play at the same time. We already know basketball and baseball can co-exist just fine, football and baseball can co-exist just fine, and soccer and baseball probably can co-exist just fine. Mariners attendance has gone down since the Sounders arrived, but I haven't heard anyone say that the Sounders are to blame. The string of awful seasons from the Mariners are a much more likely culprit. I highly doubt added competition will impact Mariners attendance much.

Transportation shouldn't be an issue. The announced attendance at last night's Mariners-Rays game was 17,065. Traffic impact statements assume the new arena will have a seating capacity of 20,000. Hypothetically, if there was a sold-out basketball game last night at the same time as the M's game, there would have been 37,065 fans in the area. Safeco Field's seating capacity is 47,116 for baseball games. The area should already have the infrastructure to handle current M's crowds and new arena crowds.

Let's take the hypothetical a step further though. The Mariners are on the cusp of a World Championship just as the NBA season opens up. Both Safeco Field and the new arena sell out. That would be 67,116 fans in the area. Century Link Field, home of the Seahawks and literally across the street from Safeco, seats 67,000 normally and can be expanded to 72,000 for "special events." The area already has to support enough traffic to accommodate a simultaneous Mariners and Sonics sell-out.

Finally, how about taking the hypothetical to apocalyptic levels? Let's say all three venues hold events at the exact same time and they all sell out. That would total to 134,116 fans in the area which would likely be a huge traffic problem. However, the new arena would only account for 15% of the fans. Or, put differently, the arena would create an 18% increase in fans, and ostensibly traffic, in the area. Four out of five cars in the SoDo area would be going to something besides the arena, and that's assuming 100% of traffic goes to the arena and stadia. The percentages would be smaller if we assume anyone goes through the area to do something besides attend a sporting event.

I understand the transportation concerns, but I don't at the same time. The problem seems very easy to mitigate. In particular, I don't see how the Mariners could have concerns with traffic because of Century Link Field's presence. Safeco Field and a new arena almost exactly add up to Century Link's capacity. If traffic with the new arena is a major concern, then it should be a major concern right now without an arena.

Plus, even if the Mariners have some valid concerns, I question the ground they stand on. Have they forgotten the breaks they got from the government with Safeco Field? Voters rejected a tax increase to fund a ballpark, but local government found a way to get it through anyway in the wake of the M's famous "Refuse to Lose" run to the ALCS in 1995. The financing plan called for $340 million in public funds and $75 million from the Mariners. There ended up being a $100 million cost overrun, which the Mariners fought against paying (despite promising in an agreement that they would cover any cost overruns) but ultimately had to pay.

In comparison, Hansen's proposal for the new arena calls for $200 million in public funds. Adjusting for inflation, that's roughly like asking for $150 million in the mid-1990s, when the Mariners got their $340 million. Additionally, Hansen's plan features ways for the public funding to be replenished through monies which will be generated by the new arena, which is something the Mariners did not do. There is no arguing that Safeco Field received much more government support than what Hansen is asking for in his arena proposal.

The Mariners look like they are poised to make complete fools of themselves. I am not convinced that a new arena blocks away from Safeco Field hurts them at all. Even if it does, they seem to have no awareness for how bad their opposition will look. Lots of Mariners fans are likely to be basketball and hockey fans too. The Mariners could alienate part of their own fan base by resisting a movement for more pro sports in Seattle.

Furthermore, and even more troubling to me, the Mariners seem to have forgotten the support they needed to make Safeco Field a reality. They would not have their field of dreams without local government support well beyond what could be reasonably (and some might argue legally) expected.

Hiring a PR firm rubs me the wrong way. I would like to see the Mariners show gratitude and respect for what they were given - and to me that looks like honoring public discourse and local government decisions, given how key those have been to the M's growth. Lobbying and campaigning would make it look like the Mariners would prefer to leverage the public for their own gains no matter the circumstances, especially given the way Safeco Field was built. I'd like to believe the Mariners are better than that, and maybe they are. We don't know what they have asked Pacific Public Affairs to help them with.

If the Mariners really are as invested in resisting a new arena in SoDo like it looks like they are, then they are about to make their worst decision since moving into Safeco Field. That's saying something when we are talking about a franchise that doled out nearly $100 million to Miguel Batista and Carlos Silva. Arena resistance makes no sense for the Mariners on multiple levels. In fact, I'm still looking for a level where it does make sense.