For those new to Seattle, it can be hard to imagine that the Seattle Mariners were once successful and an important part of the community. Rewind to 2001 and the team led the league in attendance, matched a century old record for wins in a single-season, and was the talk of the town for sports fans and non-sports fans alike. Now a decade later, things could not be more different. In fact, a recent study showed the team having the biggest 10-year drop in attendance in all of the 4 major sports.
Much of the decline seen by the Mariners can be tied to poor results on the field. However, as teams like the Cubs, Twins and Rockies have shown, it is possible to draw well despite losing. I have been a fan for over 25 years and last season did not attend a single game. The biggest reason for this was not the team’s performance, but was instead some of the actions by the team’s management that made them impossible to support.
Not one to let a learning experience pass by, I decided to identify some of the actions the team has taken and see if they have parallels elsewhere. As part of that process, I identified five reasons why the Mariners have declined that can also offer lessons to the business world:
- Too many comparisons to the past: Over the past few years, the Mariners have not been shy about reminding people of successful seasons in their history. Last season and the one before it featured multiple special events related to 2001, while the season before that commemorated the 1995 season. While some fans may enjoy reminiscing, I find this a painful reminder of how far the team has fallen. A business with a once strong product would be wise to learn from this and not remind customers of how great they once were. I can’t imagine Microsoft, for example, giving away a Windows XP tribute magnet with every purchase of Windows 8. A better approach would be to focus on what the current version brings instead of inviting comparisons the past.
- Using a different risk premium than the rest of an industry: One of the fundamental concepts in business is setting a discount rate that allows a company to compare payouts that happen in different time periods. A company that uses a different rate than its industry peers will find itself taking unnecessary risks (with a discount rate too low) or playing it too safe and not taking chances that could lead to future success (with a discount rate too high). A similar process occurs in baseball when deciding when to trade players with high values in the present for those with uncertain values in the future. Routinely the Mariners have done poorly at this, as they seem to overvalue prospects and undervalue players performing well in the present. Trading a solid Doug Fister for prospects who have done nothing is one example, as is not being willing to trade prospects like Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen who might turn into something, but also carry risk of not succeeding at the major league level.
- Becoming distracted by products outside of core: As a casual observer of the Mariners these last few years, it seems like they have been putting an increasingly large amount of marketing resources into promoting events like bobblehead giveaways rather than promoting their core product of professional baseball. While I was not able to gather data into the resources behind their marketing tactics, the data did show a 4x increase in the number of bobblehead nights with 2002 having one bobblehead night, while 2012 had 4 of them. Furthermore, a Mariners representative felt it more important to mention fans coming for a bobblehead night, rather than to see the product on the field when discussing transportation concerns with a potential new arena nearby:
“My nightmare scenario is we have Felix Hernandez bobblehead night against the Red Sox at the same time they’ve got a playoff game and people are sitting on I-90 trying to get here for two hours,” Waldman said.
I have no problem with a company marketing ancillary products to their core, but when one goes as far as the Mariners have by making this the key tactic it can call into question their dedication to their primary purpose.
- Lack of accountability in leadership: On the heels of one of the worst seasons in MLB history, team President Howard Lincoln very publicly put himself on the “hot seat” if the team’s fortunes didn’t turn around. For fans like myself, this seemed justified as the team had finished last in 3 of the past 4 seasons and having a President put himself on the line could have been a motivating tactic to the rest of the organization. However, since that time the team has been in last place 3 additional times in 4 years and Lincoln remains in charge. The lack of accountability is very discouraging as a fan of the team and makes it very hard to support them. Leaders of businesses would be wise to hold themselves accountable for performance, particularly when stating publicly that they would do so.
- Alienating your best customers: The most obvious lesson for business from the last decade’s Mariners is to be aware of your customers and not take actions that they would find reprehensible. Sadly, the Mariners acted this way with their short-sighted opposition to the new Sonics arena. I have no statistics on this, but there must be significant overlap between the fan bases of the Mariners, the Seahawks, and the Sonics. With the die-hard fans like myself, the overlap is even greater. By funding opposition and opposing the return of the Sonics, the Mariners are showing ignorance to who their customers are and what they care about. The stand the Mariners are taking is equivalent to a fast-food chain (like McDonalds) funding public opposition to other unhealthy foods that their customers enjoy (like donuts). No business would do something like this and I am still amazed the Mariners would do something this harmful to the relationship they have with their customers.