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John Stanton expects Mariners to be active in trade market despite ROOT Sports’ woes

Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais, chairman and managing partner John Stanton and president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto look on during batting practice at T-Mobile Park last summer in Seattle.  (Getty Images)
By Adam Jude and Ryan Divish Seattle Times

Despite what he says are “substantial” financial losses surrounding the uncertain future of ROOT Sports, Seattle Mariners managing partner John Stanton said the front office will have his support to be active in the trade market this summer.

“We’ve got the resources to be able to do the things we need to do to put a good team on the field,” Stanton said in an interview with the Seattle Times.

And what he hasn’t said publicly before, Stanton is embracing now: He expects this Mariners team to win the AL West.

Seeking to win the division for the first time since 2001, the Mariners are better positioned to do so than they have been at any point over the past two decades, even with a flawed lineup that has ranked as one of MLB’s worst hitting teams through the first two months of the season.

At 34-27, the Mariners entered the week with a four-game lead atop the AL West, and Stanton said he has regular conversations with front-office executives Jerry Dipoto and Justin Hollander about how to keep the team there.

“I look at the talent that we’ve got on the offensive side, and I think we’ve got the ability to hit,” Stanton said. “That said, we will look at the (July 30) deadline. I’ll spend time with Jerry and Justin as we approach the deadline, and we’ll talk about where we are. …

“Jerry and Justin are 10 times smarter about what it takes to have a successful baseball team. My job is to make sure they have the resources available to get there. And I get up every day to try and do that.”

Team-building philosophy

The Mariners are operating with a player payroll of about $140 million, roughly the same as it was in 2023 – and about $100 million less than what the division rival Houston Astros are spending this season.

The Mariners’ finances – and, specifically, the lack of spending in the offseason – were a source of consternation for a fan base eager to see the club supplement its roster around a talented core that had helped the franchise end a 21-year playoff drought in 2022.

Stanton contends the moves last winter speak more to the organization’s overall team-building strategies than it does to the greater financial outlook.

“I feel great about where we are,” Stanton said. “And, you know, there are a whole bunch of things that go into the decisions we make, and clearly finances are a factor. But the loss of revenue from ROOT isn’t the reason we’ve made any decisions over the last couple of years.”

When he was appointed the club’s chair and managing partner in April 2016, Stanton said his goal was to win a World Series. That goal, he said, hasn’t changed.

“My objective for us is to have a sustainable product on the field, meaning a team that is consistently competing every year,” he said. “We’ve grown payroll each of the last three years. Maybe not as much as you would like us to … but we all deal with constraints, right? But we are doing everything we can to put a competitive product on the field.

“I think we’ve got a terrific team and we built it the right way. And the most important thing to me is, is it sustainable over time?”

Pointing to Julio Rodriguez’s megacontract, signed in August 2022, as an example, Stanton said he’s open to similar contract extensions for some of the Mariners’ young core players.

“We have had conversations, and we’ll continue to have conversations with young players that we think can make a difference for the team to be Mariners for a long period of time,” he said.

ROOT Sports’ future unclear

Stanton declined to provide specific figures on the lost revenue surrounding ROOT Sports and the larger decline of the regional sports network (RSN) media-rights model, one of the Mariners’ primary sources of revenue.

The losses began after the 2021 season, he said, largely because of a rapid decline in cable television subscriptions as viewers move to streaming platforms.

In 2013, when First Avenue Entertainment (FAE), the Mariners’ corporate entity, took over the majority share of ROOT Sports, Comcast Xfinity had about 3.4 million cable subscribers with access to Mariners game broadcasts. By 2023 that number had fallen by 65%.

Uncertainty around ROOT Sports’ future grew late last year because of two developments:

1. Comcast, the largest distributor of ROOT Sports, announced in October it was moving the RSN to its most expensive subscription tier.

2. On Dec. 31, Warner Bros. Discovery, the Mariners’ production partner, exited the RSN business, leaving FAE with full operational control of ROOT Sports at a time when the live sports broadcasting industry is as chaotic as ever.

Stanton, with assistance from new ROOT Sports general manager Kevin Martinez and his Mariners executive team, largely took on the responsibility himself to navigate a path forward for the Mariners’ local media rights. He’s continuing to explore options to find a new production and/or distribution partner for ROOT Sports.

In December he met with Rob Manfred at the MLB commissioner’s office in New York, and at the time Stanton spoke optimistically about MLB’s efforts to “nationalize” its media rights under one umbrella, a plan the league hopes can provide it with greater leverage in negotiations with broadcast distributors (such as Comcast).

There is less optimism now around the sport that the MLB plan could work in the near future, but Stanton hasn’t ruled that out as an option for the Mariners in the future.

In January, Stanton and the FAE board chose to remain with the current setup for broadcasting Mariners games on ROOT Sports, with some notable budget cuts. A handful of ROOT Sports employees were laid off in the first half of the year, and there has been a bare-bones approach in programming (the network, for example, is no longer producing a Mariners magazine show and ROOT Sports reporters are no longer traveling for road games).

As things stand, Stanton said “the plan” is for ROOT Sports to continue to operate independently – status quo, that is – for the 2025 season. He stopped short, though, of committing to that plan fully.

“There is a lot of uncertainty,” he said.

Last month, the Kraken walked away from their media-rights deal with ROOT Sports, providing some financial relief for FAE. The Kraken’s departure was described as a mutual decision; both parties walked away from the contract with no money owed to either side, per sources.

ROOT Sports also has a media-rights deal with the Portland Trail Blazers, who are exploring their broadcasting options and, like the Kraken, could choose an exit from ROOT Sports this summer.

Hanging over MLB is the ongoing bankruptcy case involving Diamond Sports Group, which owns the Bally’s RSN, which owns the media rights for 12 MLB teams (but not the Mariners).

How that case plays out – and how many of those 12 teams eventually jump on board with MLB’s “nationalize” plans on MLB Network – will help determine the future of the Mariners’ local media rights.

“We are clearly looking at a bunch of different options,” Stanton said. “There’s no doubt that it is tied to what happens with Bally’s and Diamond. …

“If there is a larger group of teams that are a part of MLB Network, that gives them more leverage with distributors and makes it more attractive to us. So that would be a possibility for us.”

The Mariners have the largest geographic footprint in MLB, with broadcasting rights stretching from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska, and ROOT Sports has contracts with 35 broadcast distribution partners.

And though Stanton said the team has explored “over the air” broadcast options – that is, free broadcasts on local stations, something the Kraken will do on KING 5/KONG beginning next season – ROOT Sports’ existing distribution contracts make that an unlikely choice for Mariners games.

More streaming options could be on their way.

Apple TV reached an agreement with MLB in April 2022 to broadcast one Friday night game each week around the league, and Stanton predicted other big streaming services – Apple, Amazon, YouTube, Netflix – will get involved in MLB broadcasts down the road.

“Eventually,” he said, “we will see most customers on streaming services of some description. I don’t know when ‘eventually’ is, but between now and then we need to look at every alternative.”