For the past several years the Mariners and their fans have been forced to sit back as their competitors and relative contemporaries signed enormous television contracts with cable sports networks. Mariners fans set 2015 as a marker for when the team would be able to cash in themselves, they had an opt-out clause in their contract with ROOT Sports, and they have neglected to make substantial gains to their payroll in recent years.
That all may have changed today as the Mariners bought a controlling interest in Root Sports Northwest. Instead of waiting for their contract to end and auctioning their television rights off to another company, they’ve bought the right to write off a large portion of their television revenue from revenue sharing, effectively taking money out of their wallet and inserting it into their right-front pocket.
Perhaps the most important dynamic in this whole story though, is what is going on with Chris Hansen and his attempts to bring an NBA team back to Seattle. The Mariners have been against the return of the Sonics, but this may be a sign they’ve resigned to the return’s imminence, and are now looking to make a buck off it.
Purchasing a regional sports network (RSN) isn’t exactly risk free for the Mariners. The Pac-12 Network has removed a large portion of the network’s college coverage, and the city’s only other major professional sport is the Seahawks who are subject to the NFL’s national television deal. The Sounders have a substantial following, but their following combined with their relatively short schedule may not make them a viable partner to fill other air time.
The remaining options are the eventual Supersonics, and a prospective NHL team, both of which will have considerable influence from the Hansen-Ballmer-Nordstrom ownership group. The chances that the Hansen group holds a grudge are pretty slim, I mean, they’re negotiating with David Stern after all. That said, they’ve made no secret about their desire to profit from the ancillary revenue streams tied to a professional sports franchise. That may not have meant starting a sports network. They may not have expected expected to have to literally do battle with the Mariners. It may mean nothing material for the Sonics though, and only be aesthetically displeasing.
For the Mariners this figures to be more sustainable alternative to the multi-billion-dollar prayers being lobbed in front of other baseball teams in hopes that the television landscape and improved home-viewing willl translate to profits for the networks offering them. There is so much we don’t know about the future of television, and in the past decade television has been evolving like medical science.
Though this re-kindles the smoldering fire of what was a rumored eventual sale, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the team will be sold. We don’t have a ton of precedent to work off of as it relates to teams creating their own networks, but of the four MLB teams that have done it: the Orioles, Mets, Red Sox, and Yankees, none have changed majority owners for any reason other than the death of George Steinbrenner and his sons’ inheriting the team.
So for the Mariners, officially, this may not mean additional revenue. They also won’t have to share their soon-laundered revenue with the rest of the league, and as Dave Cameron and Marc W of U.S.S. Mariner have pointed out (seriously, Marc’s post is phenomenal), that may not be a bad thing.
For the Sonics, whatever. They’re getting pretty good at making tactical moves beneath the sheets with some odd bedfellows.