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Puget Sound SportScape: Seattle Mariners

The Puget Sound SportScape is intended to be a series of stories about the changing dynamics of the sports entertainment dollar in the Greater Puget Sound. After several decades as a three sport town, our landscape is changing.

Sports fans are losing the Sonics, gaining Sounders FC, the economy at best isn't great. All of the major sports are having their worst seasons in recent memory and oddly enough minor league sports are in transition/expanding recently as well.

This series will talk to people in Business, Marketing, Media Old and New about how the changes in the Puget Sound SportScape will effect the coverage of sports, their marketing or their gameday experience.

The first in this series is from a phone interview with Bob Aylward, Executive Vice-President of Business Operations for the Seattle Mariners. This was just 24 hours before the announcement of their new General Manager, but Mr. Aylward's position/role should not change with a GM switch, just as the President and CEO's positions remain the same.

I figure why not start at the top of the heap.

The Seattle Mariners are without a doubt the pre-eminent local sports franchise when it comes to marketing of sports entertainment. Their TV and Radio ratings are amongst the best in the league, yet they compete in only the 15th largest US market in the USA. They also have managed to sell at least 2.3 Million seats despite 101 losses last year and last appearing in the playoffs in 2001.

So what is it about the Mariners that enables them to keep the interest of fans both from the metro area and around Cascadia? Quite simply they keep a consistent core brand message that goes beyond the gameday experience to include community activities, their fun advertising campaigns, players who are good people as well as an enjoyable time at the park.

Despite more than 100 losses we gave fans opportunities to connect to the game. Be it an emotional tie for whatever reason - family tradition, the love for a particular player like Felix Hernandez or as a distraction from life ... baseball is a complex and interesting sport that connects with society in so many different ways.

That sums up the Seattle Mariners really. With the potential for just under 4 Million tickets sold they have to connect to a much wider audience than the Seahawks, and especially more so than niche sports like the Storm and Sounders FC.

But there will be a new team across the street, a street named after a baseball player. Sounders FC expects its fans to combine the chanting and singing of the English footie fans with the drums and horns of Latino futbol lovers and of course Drew Carey's marching band. Will the potential vibrancy of the new stadium tenant effect how the Seattle Mariners gameday experience is handled?

The simple answer is no.

Our fans love our in-game entertainment and I don't foresee us changing what we do.

So don't expect to see USSMariner's suggestions on how to improve SafeCo. Except for maybe the part about going green, because the Mariners have already started, in fact earlier than most give them credit.
As part of my efforts to get elected to the Sounders FC Membership Council I have been quite clear about my desire to see SSFC fully engage the green in their Rave Green color and so I asked Mr. Aylward about the Seattle Mariners green efforts, particularly mentioning both the San Fransisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates having installed some solar panels in their stadium roofing.

We've been as active, or more active than other teams, with extensive recycling efforts including Captain Plastic - he's been around four or five years now. We have also had a 15-30% reduction in fuel and electricity usage ... this last year we had a carbon neutral baseball game [April 20th/Earth Day].

They expect to repeat the Carbon Neutral ballgame and expand their efforts in efficiency because "the Pacific North West is more attuned to environmental issues than most areas of the country." The Seattle Mariners' efforts towards the environment have earned them a 2008 Washington CEO Magazine Green Company award.
The last area that Mr. Aylward and I discussed was the changing nature of sports media, oddly it was also the first.

For one of the first things that he said was "So Dave, how is this blog thing going for you?" Followed up shortly by the statement "one of the things that we are doing is figuring out how to relate do new media."
This openness and candor out front definitely set the tone for our conversation, and even if feigned I appreciated his interest in my efforts on this fledgling blog.

But for Sports Media in this market the blogs are not what define success, but instead the presence of a Hall of Fame announcer makes a statement. Sounders FC made their grab by keeping Kevin Calabaro local signing him as the voice on their TV package, and of course with the Seattle Mariners they have a name synonymous with baseball in six states and a Canadian Province.

If you were worried about Dave Niehaus not being with the broadcast as Mariners Radio moves to KIRO, part of Bonneville Radio Seattle, don't be. The "actual announcing team will continue." There will be changes in some of the pre and post game format, but these decisions are still under discussion with Bonneville, but the Mariners organization is trusting them to radio, so the Mariners can concentrate on the baseball.

Sounders FC shouldn't expect the Mariners to be competition per se. The Mariners, due to the nature of the baseball schedule, have to appeal to a broader audience. But there are some areas where the Sounders could make efforts at brand identification as something a little different over the summer. It could be as an event (MLS plays just over 1 game a week during its March to November season), or by its vibrant atmosphere (Rave) or through efforts to be even Greener. Seattle Sounders FC even with the entirety of the stadium and a CONCACAF Champions League title contender would still have at most 35 home games in a single calendar year for over two million potential tickets sold.

In its first year those numbers aren't even a thought.

Come back to Sounder at Heart for upcoming looks at the sports business and sports media changes coming to Seattle in the 2009 calendar year throughout our Puget Sound SportScape series.

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