Labor negotiations in sports are forever confounded by an imbalance of knowledge. The name of every player on an MLB roster is available with two to three taps of a mouse. Their near-exact salary can be found with just a few more clicks. We know their story, we know the game they play to earn their keep, and for many fans it is a love of that game that can spur feelings of indifference when labor strife arises. Paid to play a kid’s game, and it’s true, in a sense. MLB is the pinnacle of performance for a game that the kids I work with play during recess, that I played in my backyard and with my friends, that my father played in the streets of the Bronx as a child, that many of you may have played or partook in as a youth. But that familiarity can breed contempt, while the figures on the other side of the bargaining table remain (save for the Atlanta Braves) obscured in shadow. We do not know what the 30 owners nor their boards of directors or minority ownership groups make on their investments in the sport. Their salaries and valuations are guessed at by Forbes, with only faint glimmers when a major sale is conducted, yet the sources of their wealth are varied, their portfolios diversified, their scrutiny and availability completely at their own discretion, and typically minimized.
The 30 men who own majority shares of MLB’s franchises come from varied backgrounds, most likely sharing some level of enthusiasm for the sport. Seattle is, in some ways, a lucky club. Instead of rolling the dice on the capability of a child born and raised in ownership and wealth like the Ilitch family of the Detroit Tigers or the Steinbrenner family of the New York Yankees, the M’s are owned and managed by a local kid named John Stanton.
The Bellevue-bred, Newport High School grad-turned-Whitman-College-alum was the first employee for McCaw Cellular after completing his time at Harvard Business School in the early 1980s. Around the same time that the Seattle Mariners were transitioning from the Kingdome to what was then called Safeco Field, the founder, Chief Executive Officer, and director of VoiceStream Wireless PCS bought into his local MLB team’s ownership group. Over two decades later, John Stanton now sits as the Chairman and Managing Partner of those Mariners, having used the profits from his consolidation of his numerous cellular service brands and companies into a handful of larger providers, including a $35 billion acquisition of VoiceStream Wireless by international telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom, a sale which led to the founding of a new Bellevue-based brand that Stanton took the helm of: T-Mobile US, Inc. In essence, if you’ve used a cell phone or some variation thereof over the past 40 years in the Western United States, odds are you’ve been putting some cash in Stanton’s pocket.
Seattle sports are no strangers to local magnates of high-profile national companies taking on a leadership role, albeit with widely disparate results. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s purchase of the Seattle Seahawks in 1997 from Ken Behring likely kept the team in the Pacific Northwest instead of a heavily-threatened move to Anaheim. By contrast, of course, longtime Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz remains persona non grata throughout Seattle and Washington State writ large for his shortselling of the SuperSonics and Storm to Clay Bennett, sealing their fate for relocation (though the Storm were mercifully saved).
Stanton’s route to inconceivable wealth and subsequent sports ownership is, like that of many billionaires, a tale wherein success begets success. Now the Chairman and co-founder of Trilogy International Partners Inc., a venture capital firm which invests communications operations internationally, Stanton also serves on the Board of Directors at both Microsoft and Costco. Even among MLB owners, Stanton’s business reputation placed him in a position of authority, as he served on the league’s Business and Operations board in his first few years as a majority owner, heavily involved with MLB Advanced Media, which has been the source of much of the league’s massive revenue and value growth in the past two decades. In fact, as of just one month ago, Stanton is one of the newest members of MLB’s Executive Council, a group of eight club owners and/or managing executives who heavily advise and guide the league’s commissioner, and who direct the league’s action if and when there is a vacancy in the commissioner’s seat.
Every brushstroke of this background paints a picture of a man who has capably navigated systems to reap massive financial success time and time again. The steady magenta glow of T-Mobile Park, with its annual off-season upgrades of bells and whistles, seems to stand as a monument to Stanton’s ability to navigate the baseball world as nimbly as the business world. Like the Baby Bells of the late 20th century U.S. or Vodafone in modern-day New Zealand, the MLBPA is simply another rival vying for a piece of a financial pie that Stanton could slice more of if he plays things right. Since the outset of the lockout, Stanton has been completely absent from the public eye. Hiding from scrutiny is unsurprising tactically from MLB’s owners during negotiations, as even terminally online New York Mets owner Steve Cohen seemingly has set aside his Twitter as a New Year’s resolution. But it has its own consequences
While Marco Gonzales, Mitch Haniger, J.P. Crawford, and several other Mariners make clear their feelings on the state of the game and negotiations via public statements, Stanton is nowhere to be found. It’s the hollowness ringing in his annual diatribe about “hating to lose”, that following the most successful season the club has had in nearly 20 years and ahead of what could reasonably be a drought-quenching 2022, Stanton has nothing but crickets for M’s fans nor his club as he and his fellow owners continue their unanimously instituted lockout and threaten further cancellations of games. Stanton’s silence helps buy every other owner cover to do the same, projecting a veneer of unity even as reports hint at significant discrepancies between some owners and others on key issues in negotiations such as the Competitive Balance Tax.
Three of the four owners (Bob Castellini of the Reds, Chris Ilitch of the Tigers, and Ken Kendrick of the Diamondbacks) named in the Athletic’s article as hardliners holding negotiations in flux with particular vigor are fellow members of MLB’s Executive Council, as too is infamous spendthrift Rockies owner Dick Monfort, who has been one of the primary owners involved directly in negotiations with the MLBPA. Whereas Stanton needed, in some capacity, to stake his name on his private business ventures with which he’s built his wealth, in silence he now lurks again. Long content to see disgraced former team president Kevin Mather do the dirty work in his organization as long as the money continued rolling in, Stanton once again seems content to watch Rob Manfred take the (much-deserved) scrutiny and keep a freshly-ironed collar protecting his own neck and seeing his investment continue to pay dividends. We are left only to piece together his intent from his history and present absence. What it leaves us with is something truly miserable.
A lifetime of building unfathomable wealth, and for what? Amassing wealth and power is typically portrayed as a goal that begets a grander design, and yet there appears no deeper purpose in Stanton’s stockpiling of resources as he skirts the spotlight. There is nothing unique among MLB owners in Stanton’s seemingly singular fixation with extracting financial gain in lieu of offering proactive stewardship of the sport, but the Mariners are unique in that they are our team. He is the head of our team, so his silence is most galling to me, but if you’d prefer to levy these critiques at any of his 29 brothers-in-arms, be my guest.
Of all the Pollyanna aspirations I’ve lofted into this article, the final one is perhaps the rosiest of all, and also the one I hold most dear. Owning a MLB team may outperform the S&P 500, but it should be treated as a civic good first and a business second. When I allow myself to consider the ways in which the Mariners squander their potential as a binding agent in the city and region both John Stanton and I have called home our entire lives, it makes my blood boil.
Why bother becoming so rich you could actually own your hometown team, just to take the sport away from everyone who loves it? With the sport of baseball in a brilliant position, brimming with young stars, and the city of Seattle and the entire Pacific Northwest primed for a slate of über-prospects coming off a season that re-invigorated long dormant fandom for so many, what amount of money is worth spoiling and despoiling that all? To go down in ignominy alongside Schultz and Behring and Jeff Smulyan on the Mount Failmore of hated Seattle sports owners? What is the point?!
Sadly, I know the answer. It seems, as always, to be the simplest, dullest one. If you’re an old dog who has become a billionaire, you’re not liable to learn new tricks. And yet, as we stare down another MLB-proclaimed “deadline”, all I can do is gnash my teeth with exasperation, disappointment, and rage.
What is the point?