Final Analysis: Don’t Follow the Money

If the Mariners were smart — which isn’t a club tradition — they’d forgo the big payday and name their stadium Niehaus Park.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Don’t do it, Mariners! Reject the big payday the way you’ve assiduously rejected sports supremacy.

That’s right. Take a pass on that fat check for $50 million — or whatever amount some corporate entity is willing to shell out for naming rights to Safeco Field. Leave it all on the table and strike a blow for nostalgia, for baseball, for tradition.

It’s not as if bestowing the name Safeco Field on the place has been a good luck charm. In 19 years, the Mariners’ win-loss record at Safeco is barely above 50 percent. Now that Safeco Insurance has decided to bail after next season, what makes anyone think Starbucks Grounds or Boeing Field or Amazon Web Services Stadium will bestow better fortune upon the most maladroit franchise in baseball?

Please don’t give me that line about teams being able to invest all that naming-rights cash into acquiring better ballplayers who will pave a path to playoff glory. Aside from three or four good years in the early 2000s, the Mariners have pretty much made mediocrity their thing. And yet they have a loyal fan base primarily because of one man: Dave Niehaus. During the Kingdome years, when the Mariners were mostly awful, the Hall of Fame broadcaster was their best pitchman, sending optimism along the airwaves in bursts of hope and hyperbole. In 1995, the season that saved major league baseball in Seattle, Niehaus was magnificent. And in 2001, the Mariners’ second full season at Safeco Field and the best year in the history of the organization by far, he was on fire.

Yes, there’s already a Dave Niehaus statue inside the stadium. And outside, a portion of First Avenue South has been named Dave Niehaus Way. But that’s not the same as putting his name on the place he consecrated with his loyalty and energy. Niehaus has been dead almost seven years, but I’ll bet more than 90 percent of Mariners fans would still cite him as a major link to their interest in the team. 

Look, the selling of stadium naming rights isn’t a heinous thing. More like odious. Sports teams do it because they like making money, and they know no one is going to start picketing to complain that some business is paying millions to turn a ballpark into a billboard. 

Teams also don’t tend to take the long view. A 20-year naming rights deal may seem “long term,” but plenty of 20-year deals have gone south prematurely when the sponsoring company got acquired, went bust or engaged in unsavory behavior. Enron Field, anyone?

The truly long view would embrace the notion that a stadium’s name is key to establishing and nurturing a sense of tradition. (The Boston Red Sox could make a killing if they sold naming rights to Fenway Park, but the current owners have the sense to know some things are just wrong.) Without Dave Niehaus, the Mariners have about as much “tradition” as a sitcom canceled in its first season. Their heyday, like it or not, is now 15 years in the rearview mirror, and while some people think this year’s edition has playoff potential, I reserve the right to remain skeptical.

What would make me stand up and cheer, though, is Mariners CEO John Stanton making this announcement: “After thoughtful consideration, the Seattle Mariners have decided not to sell naming rights to their stadium. We will instead name it Niehaus Park in honor of the man who did more than anyone to create a fan base for this organization. We want to start a new tradition.”

The chances of that happening are about the same as my being called up to play left field. But, my oh my, we can certainly dream of catching a game at The Dave. Wouldn’t that be sporting?

JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine. Reach him at john.levesque@tigeroak.com.

 

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