Their value keeps growing, while revenue skyrockets from new local and national television deals.
Inside sports business
The enthusiasm that accompanies every young baseball season helped the Mariners attract some larger-than-usual crowds last week.
It was a welcomed reminder of what a filled Safeco Field feels like, given the team lately hasn’t been much of a draw. Fan interest and trust had eroded amid slashed payrolls and losing seasons.
And yet, despite those struggles, the Mariners today find themselves in the best financial shape of their 37-year history.
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Their value keeps growing, while revenue skyrockets from new local and national television deals. Even with long-term commitments of $240 million to Robinson Cano and $175 million to Felix Hernandez, the team’s moneymaking shows no signs of slowing.
Given all that, it’s fair to ask whether the Mariners can afford a payroll much higher than their current $92 million.
They’ve cooled since a surprising start, which initially helped them avoid deeper scrutiny. Injuries and spending limits have created issues in the rotation, outfield, designated hitter and elsewhere that now are becoming more glaring.
Unlike the thriftier Oakland Athletics, the Mariners enjoy ballpark and television infrastructures similar to big-payroll division rivals like the $155-million-payroll Angels and $136 million Rangers. Despite prolonged losing, the Mariners likely doubled their franchise value the past five years and might already have joined baseball’s billion-dollar clubs.
They just don’t spend like them.
The Mariners’ growth coincides with a Major League Baseball revenue jump from $1 billion to $8 billion the past 20 years.
It initially came from new ballparks, like Safeco Field, where taxpayers funded most construction costs while teams kept most revenues. More recently, regional sports network (RSN) deals have given teams unprecedented local television rights fees for games where advertisers know viewers still would rather watch live instead of recording.
Some teams, like the Mariners, acquired their own RSN to directly pocket premium TV ad money and carriage fees. Their reported 71 percent acquisition of ROOT Sports NW last April also lets them potentially shield some TV income from MLB revenue sharing by declaring it part of a separate network business.
Forbes reported the deal at $2.5 billion over 18 years, saying the Mariners doubled previously estimated local TV rights fees to an average $103 million annually. New national TV deals also give each team approximately $25 million more annually, funding mega-contracts for Cano, Hernandez, Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, Clayton Kershaw, Prince Fielder and others.
Oh, yes, teams can afford them.
Even with Cano and Hernandez, Seattle’s payroll climbed only modestly from the $84 million of last year. It’s less than they opened 2011 with and is dwarfed by their 2008 high of $117 million.
It’s worth noting that, right after 2008, Forbes valued the Mariners at $426 million. But in its latest valuations last month, Forbes put them at $710 million.
The Mariners likely are worth even more, because yearly Forbes valuations don’t include team-held RSN stakes like ROOT.
Bloomberg began its own team valuations last October and did include TV stakes. It valued the average team-held RSN stake at $360 million and — not surprisingly — listed 10 clubs worth $1 billion or more, compared to only five named by Forbes.
The Mariners have long dismissed such valuations as guesswork. But recent sales of the Dodgers, Astros and Padres suggest previous Forbes estimates actually undervalued teams — a disparity Bloomberg’s new methodology attempts to address.
Bloomberg didn’t include the Mariners as a billion-dollar team — putting them at $720 million — because calculations were based on figures from 2012, before the ROOT acquisition.
“If the Mariners were to hit the open market, they could get a billion dollars,’’ said Maury Brown, founder of the Portland-based Biz of Baseball website and a frequent Forbes contributor.
A $1 billion valuation would be tenfold the $100 million paid for the team in 1992 by current owners.
Besides the RSN stake, Brown says the Mariners boosted value by eliminating debt.
They let multiyear deals expire on Ichiro, Chone Figgins, Adrian Beltre, Carlos Silva, Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista and Kenji Johjima, replacing them with cheaper prospects and journeymen. The Mariners kept losing, but spent less doing it and pared other debt in the process.
They also finalized their RSN deal, then waited for the cash to roll in.
“From a flexibility standpoint,’’ Brown said, “the Mariners are in a financial position where if they have a need and free agency can fill that, there should be no limits on them.’’
As staggering as $415 million for Cano and Hernandez seems, it’s barely altered payroll dynamics.
Two seasons ago, the Mariners spent $47 million on franchise faces Hernandez and Ichiro and overpriced utility player Figgins. This season, they’ll spend $49 million on Cano and Hernandez and utility man Willie Bloomquist.
In other words, they’ve swapped a declining Ichiro for Cano, maintained talent levels at the other two spots and costs barely budged.
Bigger payrolls don’t guarantee winning. But right now, Cano and Hernandez could use a deeper supporting cast. Over 162 games, quality depth can separate true contenders from sub-.500 teams.
This is, after all, a cash-drunk sport with only a vague notion of its financial ceiling. And these increasingly valuable Mariners, even with Cano and Hernandez, still can’t spot their ceiling with a telescope.
Geoff Baker is a sports enterprise and investigative reporter who will write columns on the business of sports.