The Seattle Mariners say they won't sign a long-term lease to remain at Safeco Field unless they receive $180 million in taxpayer funds.
The ballpark is a public facility owned by the Washington State Major League Baseball Stadium Public Facilities District (PFD). The Mariners rent it from the PFD, but their current lease is up at the end of the year, and negotiations for a new long-term agreement have hit a snag.
The team said on May 23 that it had agreed to terms on a new 25-year lease. The same day, King County, Washington—which encompasses the Seattle metropolitan area—proposed setting aside $180 million of taxpayer funds for "Safeco Field upkeep and capital improvements," according to Seattle Weekly. Now, the Mariners are saying they won't sign the lease unless the money is approved. Seattle Weekly reports:
According to emails between representatives from both the PFD and the Mariners obtained by Seattle Weekly through a public-records request, the team was explicit about its position that receiving the $180 million from taxpayers was part of the deal even though it was not specifically spelled out in the language of the lease's contract. "As confirmed and set forth in prior communications with the PFD's lease negotiation team, final lease agreement is conditioned on King County's approval of an allocation of a portion of the county's lodging tax revenues," wrote Fred Rivera, Seattle Mariners executive vice president and general counsel, in an early June email to PFD board member Virginia Anderson.
The $180 million wouldn't come out of nowhere. The county currently uses revenue collected from a lodging tax to pay off other publicly owned stadiums, including CenturyLink Field, home of the Seahawks. Once those debts are paid in 2020, state law allows for up to 25 percent of the lodging tax income to be used for tourism promotion. And according to King County Executive Dow Constantine, Safeco Field is a big draw for tourists.
The Mariners are justifying their demand by arguing that since King County owns the stadium, it should help pay for the upkeep. "This [stadium] is owned by the county, and the question is how much should the county pay for its building?" Rivera said to Seattle Weekly. "The discussion [between the Mariners and the PFD] was 'What's a fair amount for the club and for the PFD to contribute to make sure that those nuts-and-bolts items are appropriately taken care of over the next 25 years?' and that's what resulted in this financing plan."
The King County Council will officially hear the proposal on Monday, with a vote possible by the end of August. If they don't get the money, the Mariners aren't planning to leave the city. Instead, Rivera says the team will likely sign a short-term lease and then try to negotiate a better long-term agreement later.
Of course, it's ridiculous to fork over $180 million in taxpayer money to a team worth at least $1.4 billion. But this wouldn't be an issue had the Mariners paid for their own stadium in the first place. There are a lot of reasons not to hand out massive government subsidies to sports teams, and King County is finding that out the hard way.