Could the Mariners really leave Seattle in 2018?
Ah, Seattle sports fans have not always had it that easy.
We lost the Seattle Pilots Major League Baseball (MLB) Franchise to Milwaukee in 1970. Of course, in this more modern era, we lost the Seattle Supersonics in 2008 to Oklahoma City in a notorious relocation battle. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there was constant discussion about the Seattle Mariners MLB franchise leaving town, as the team was saved thanks to a last minute political push following the miraculous 1995 Refuse to Lose season. We cannot forget the Seahawks actually left Seattle in 1996 and were based in Los Angeles, until the Paul Allen lead ownership came in and saved the franchise. Yes, the Seahawks nearly 20 years ago almost left Seattle; I know, quite hard to believe in this Super Bowl 12th Man era! Seattle has also come up short in efforts to bring the NHL to Seattle over the years and to bring the NBA back this decade.
So, in light of this history, Seattle sports fans certainly want to keep our existing pro sports franchises without too much drama. Seattle fans may not be able to stomach another potential relocation battle. We are a bit uneasy.
This brings us back to the Mariners. Despite high expectations, the M’s are not playing very well in this 2015 season, and the fans are down. Fans naturally ponder the long term future of the Mariners on and off the field. And there is the ultimate question: Could the Mariners ever attempt to leave Seattle again? Before getting into that specific question, it will help to take a look and see what the applicable Mariners Safeco Field lease agreement states.
In this blog, I will not get into all details of the 100-plus page Mariners Safeco Field lease agreement. Details in the lease about such subjects as concession sales, rent, profit sharing, and parking, while important, will not be addressed in this blog.
I will address here the length of the lease, how the current lease can be enforced, and some thoughts about the how to address the future of the lease.
Some brief history: Safeco Field, which opened in July of 1999, was built and is owned by the Washington State Major League Baseball Stadium Public Facilities District (PFD).
The PFD was created in 1995 by the Washington State Legislature and the King County Council. A municipal corporation, the PFD is run by a seven-member Board of Directors. Four directors are appointed by the King County Executive, subject to confirmation by the King County Council, while the remaining three directors are appointed by the Governor based on one recommendation each from the Speaker of the House and the Majority leader of the Senate. The PFD has several staff members.
The PFD has a mission statement that regards the Stadium and professional baseball has an asset to the community.
The current Ballpark Operations and Lease Agreement Between The Washington State Major Lease Baseball Stadium Public Facilities District And the Baseball Club of Seattle, L.P. was signed on December 23, 1996.
Q: How Long Is The Lease?
2.2 Term. Subject to the provisions of Article 24.1, and subject to other specific terms of this Agreement providing for earlier termination, the term of this Agreement shall commence upon execution hereof by the Parties and shall continue through and expire on December 31, 2018.
So, in plain language, the current Safeco Field lease expires after the 2018 MLB season.
Q: Can The Lease Be Renewed?
2.4 Renewal Periods. The Term of this Agreement may be extended by the mutual agreement of the Parties for up to three (3) renewal periods each with a term of up to five (5) Lease Years. All the terms of such renewal periods are subject to negotiation and the mutual agreement of the Parties. Neither Party shall be obligated to enter into any such renewal period or otherwise extend the Term of this Agreement, and no extension shall be inferred in the absence of an express written agreement of the Parties.
Yes, the Agreement can be extended by the parties. It is interesting that the Agreement states that the Agreement can be extended only up to three times for five years for each period –– a total of fifteen (15) maximum years. Does this mean that the Mariners will only be playing in Safeco Field for a maximum of another 15 years past the 2018 season? Not necessarily.
I would assume like many contracts, this contract could be re-negotiated between the parties, and the renewal periods could be extended. If the parties were to, say, renew the contract three times, while it could take a separate negotiation to renew the contract again, it does not seem to be impossible for the parties to sign a lease extension keeping the Mariners at Safeco Field past 2033.
Q: Is there a mechanism to force the Mariners to at least stay through 2018?
Here we get to the legal concept of Specific Performance… a rather esoteric legal doctrine that has become well known among many Seattle sports fans! Specific Performance came up heavily in the Seahawks relocation battle during the Ken Behring years and also during the Sonics relocation battle in 2008.
Specific Performance is an equitable remedy in contracts law which can require a party to perform a specific act, usually what is stated in a written contract. Specific Performance is an alternative to awarding monetary damages to a party. Specific Performance generally applies to contracts that are unique in nature and cannot be replaced by the payment of money.
In pro sports leases, Specific Performance can be a way to try to force a pro team to play in an arena, or to force a municipality to honor its promises to a team.
19.2 a. Specific Enforcement states that the PFD can enforce various covenants in King County Superior Court including those made in article 14.1 that require the Mariners to play ninety (90 percent) of their home games in the Ballpark during the Operating Term.
It seems highly unlikely that the Mariners would try to leave Seattle and bolt Safeco Field before the 2018 season. However, if the Mariners tried to do so, the Agreement provides strong remedies for the PFD to go to Superior Court and obtain an Order forcing the Mariners to play at Safeco Field at least through the 2018 season.
Q: What is the future of the Mariners at Safeco Field?
Well, I certainly do not have a crystal ball! As noted, the Mariners will almost definitely be in Seattle through the 2018 season. It seems to make the most sense for the Mariners, the PFD, and all of the powers that are involved to work out an extension of the current Safeco Field lease that is allowed under article 2.4 of the Agreement. I am not trying to be an alarmist here––Safeco Field has worked out well for the city, county, state, pro baseball, the franchise, and all involved––it does not seem that really anybody would want the Mariners to leave Seattle. That said, stranger things have happened. Remember back in 2005, five years before the Sonics Key Arena lease was suppose to expire, the subject of the Sonics lease was being heavily discussed? Yes, a different situation than the Mariners now. It must be considered, though, that we are now only three years away from the original Mariners lease from expiring, and the years go quickly. So, it is time to get the lease renewal discussions moving, if they are not already actively going on, and get the Mariners future at Safeco Field locked in for many years past the 2018 MLB season.
As a loyal Seattle sports fan, I look forward to many generations of Seattleites enjoying the Mariners, Seahawks, Huskies, Sounders and Storm, and hopefully we can bring back the Sonics with a Seattle NHL team as well.