by Keith Aksel
As I explained in last week’s introduction, the American pro sports world is almost exclusively based on a franchise model of ownership, a fundamental principle that few observers fully comprehend. When events like the Rams’ move to Los Angeles occur, debates over relocation cover issues like ownership greed and self-interest. I argue that the enemy is not ownership, but rather the franchise model itself. It may seem obvious that franchises in pro sports are common, but sportswriters never stop and address the big picture. “Franchise” is a deeply important concept to grasp for American sports fans, and it’s time we dive in.
Because it shares the same lexicon as the business world, it is helpful to describe sports franchising through comparison with an overlord of American franchise businesses: the McDonald’s Corporation. This comparison is a simplification of the franchise model, but not an over-simplification. The principles supporting both pro sports franchises and fast food franchises are the key similarities for making my bigger points in this article.
3/22/2016 0 Comments
by Keith Aksel
As the American sports world deals with another NFL team relocation (Rams to LA), the typical hand-wringing has been seen across the viewing spectrum. League leaders in favor of the Rams’ transition out of Saint Louis cited the lack of fan support and the long term viability of Los Angeles as the team’s new home. Opponents noted the loss of community ties and ownership’s “gaming” of the system to leverage a new stadium out of taxpayers. Regardless of the side one falls on in the debate, relocation is unquestionably a contentious issue in pro sports.
I argue that people are actually arguing over pro sports’ franchise model. The franchise has been deeply ingrained in the American sports landscape for almost as long as American pro sports themselves. However, there is another model of sports operation rarely seen in the United States. Sports clubs have flourished abroad for generations, with more visibility and global commercial success than any American pro sports franchise can claim. Ask any Sudanese if they know a Real Madrid striker, then ask if they know the New York Yankees’ shortstop- their responses would be telling.
A random photo of a Mexican soccer match from the perspective of the stands. Get the tie in?
by Chris Foss
Last April, the Baltimore Orioles played a home game in an empty stadium. This was out of concern for public safety in the wake of urban rioting following the suspicious death of an African American man while he was held in custody. This was an extraordinary event, but Florida Marlins games were often played in front of non-existent crowds before their new ballpark opened. The Denver Nuggets can hardly get a thousand people to a Monday night game. In the last five years we have seen the proliferation of high-definition TVs screens at home and at restaurants. Anxieties about random gun violence and terrorism have increased, making sports arenas targets, as we saw in Paris last November. Recently Keith’s dad, a life-long soccer fan, skipped the Major League Soccer cup final between the Portland Timbers and his beloved Columbus Crew because he found the home experience to be easier and more comfortable. Certainly he’s not alone in voicing those sentiments.
Is there still value left in the live sporting event? In February, the Golden State Warriors came to Portland to play the Trail Blazers. I could have stayed at home to watch the game, but my friend Jeff asked if I wanted to go see it live. I thought the night would be a good test case for an article about the value of seeing sports live, versus staying at home.
Screen grab of Lakers great Magic Johnson from the 2010 edition of NBA Jam
by Keith Aksel
We learn about sports in a number of different ways. We watch and listen to contests, play them ourselves, and read about them in books and other media. As someone who does a ton of the above, I argue that there is another method of learning about sports that has taught me equally as much: video games.
I think if this was written fifteen or twenty years ago, a grown man admitting this may have been viewed as a liability to his professional career- especially as an academic. But today likely every one reading this knows exactly what I’m talking about. People of my generation have played video games since we emerged from the womb, and most of us never really put down the controller for good. Whether that meant Tecmo Super Bowl at age six or FIFA 16 at age 29, playing sports video games has always held a central role in making us smarter sports observers.
To illustrate my point, I will discuss the 2010 edition of NBA Jam.
by Chris Foss
When we last left off, Nintendo’s bid to save the Seattle Mariners seemed likely to run aground. But the Mariners, Nintendo, and Seattle sports fans gained an unlikely ally in the personage of Slade Gorton. The former Washington Attorney General and U.S. Senator was known as “Slippery Slade” by critics who disagreed with his politics. To boot, he was also regarded by some as having a terrifying countenance. But Mariner fans have him to thank in large part for their team not being in St. Petersburg, Florida.
In 1980, Gorton accomplished one of the great upsets in U.S. political history by defeating the incumbent living legend Warren Magnuson for the latter’s Senate seat. Magnuson had championed all manner of public works in Seattle and throughout the country during a nearly half-century long career in public service, and he supported the arrival of the Seahawks and the Mariners in 1976, as well as the construction of the Kingdome. In a decade in the Senate, Gorton chaired the Senate’s Merchant Marine Subcommittee and established himself as “an annoyingly independent thinker” in the eyes of the White House.
Seattle is consistently more dependent upon international business with Asian companies like Nintendo than any other city in the U.S. Nearly 25% of the state’s jobs were considered export-dependent, tops in the U.S. Imports to the Seattle customs district had increased from under $1 billion in 1970 to $10 billion in 1981, while exports went from just under $2 billion in 1970 to $13 billion in 1981. Gorton thus had a lot riding on being friendly to international trade. Gorton pushed an Ocean Shipping Act through the Senate Commerce Committee in 1983 to give U.S. cargo carriers limited antitrust exemption and to deregulate the ocean shipping industry. He went on to support most-favored nation trade status for China, supported the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA), and helped local airplane manufacturer Boeing make deals with foreign customers for its aircraft.
It was thus perhaps inevitable that Gorton would involve himself in the Nintendo of America controversy on the side of the Pacific Northwest. During Gorton’s first term, he had helped Nintendo by prodding U.S. Customs and the FBI to crack down on Donkey Kong counterfeiters. He was a “tireless protector of their intellectual property rights” from his position on the Senate Commerce Committee. Furthermore, NOA was a major local employer, with 1,400 jobs in the Redmond area. Gorton sought Japanese investment in the Mariners as early as 1987 during another ownership change. In 1991, he met with NOA chief Minoru Arakawa, who was not interested, but Arakawa was overruled by Hiroshi Yamauchi. The Nintendo president acknowledged that Gorton had long been a friend of Nintendo and thus, even if the Mariners proved to be a bad investment, he thought he had to help out his Congressional ally. He offered $100 million toward the purchase price for the Mariners.
Gorton knew he had to work against anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S. The Senator was thus instrumental in cobbling together the American elements of the new Mariners ownership group announced on January 23, 1992. When MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent continued his complaints about Yamauchi, the Nintendo chief reduced his stake in the team in an attempt to mollify the MLB commissioner. Gorton said he thought the thinly-guised anti-Japanese veneer put on by Vincent was “shameful.” In addition to Gorton, the Washington State Senate, Governor Booth Gardner, and Seattle Mayor Norm Rice all opposed Vincent.
Public opinion also rallied to defend the sale to the Baseball Club of Seattle. The Oregonian vigorously defended the sale in a Jan. 26 editorial. The paper noted the number of local jobs provided by NOA, Minoru Arakawa’s local residency, and the diversity in the Baseball Club as plusses in the company’s favor. Furthermore, they argued, “the new owners would eliminate the team's escape clause in its lease with the Kingdome, extend that lease beyond the current 1996 termination and give local buyers first shot at the team if they should ever decide to sell.” The editorial called Vincent’s pro-North American policy “outdated.” Furthermore, it argued, Gorton’s involvement “was no accident,” hinting that the senator might launch an investigation into whether Vincent’s attempts to block the sale constituted a violation of MLB’s antitrust exemption.
“The Yamauchi-Arakawa ownership would be good for Seattle baseball fans,” the editorial concluded. “It would be good for baseball, too. Their plans to build Japanese interest in the game and develop a lucrative Japanese cable-TV market could benefit other baseball teams as well.” In a similar vein, Seattle resident Steven L. Kendall wrote a letter to the sports editor at the New York Times arguing that Vincent should “quit his public, crypto-racist posturing about the inclusion of Japanese money in the $100 million offer and present the plan to owners for approval, without public or private interference” or face a lawsuit in federal district court for violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “for discrimination based on color and national origin.” In addition, Time, the Washington Post, and influential conservative columnist George Will all backed the sale.
Gorton, meanwhile, worked behind the scenes to save the deal. Texas Rangers owner and future U.S. President George W. Bush convinced MLB that the purchase was good for the game after Gorton told the Seattle Times that if Bush did not back the purchase, he might be reluctant to aid his father’s presidential reelection campaign. The senator also threatened to open a review into MLB’s tax exemptions if it did not approve the Mariners’ sale.
According to Gorton biographer John Hughes, the senator also had to reassure George W. Bush that the sale was not part of a Japanese plot to take over baseball. Gorton later believed this was a decisive factor in gaining the support of both Bushes on the matter. To sell a still-skeptical MLB, however, Yamauchi’s ownership stake was reduced to 49%, Gorton’s friend John Ellis was named team chairman, and NOA’s Howard Lincoln became CEO. On June 11, 1992, MLB owners voted 25-1 in favor of the deal.
When the Mariners sale finally went through, “Nintendo was viewed as a savior in a town that had been frustrated by the large company’s lack of involvement in local society and philanthropy” up to that point. For Nintendo, it was a rare positive contact between the company and a U.S. Senator in an era when Congress regularly questioned video game violence, to say nothing of trade with Japan. The Mariners went on to a number of successful seasons with huge American stars like Ken Griffey, Jr. and Japanese stars like Kazahiro Sasaki and Ichiro Suzuki, helping to power the regional economy and increase economic synergy between the Northwest and the rest of the Pacific Rim. In large part due to Gorton’s intervention, Nintendo and the Mariners remain mainstays of the Pacific Northwest and brand names worldwide.
The Mariners case clearly showed the benefits of keeping franchises where they are. Now they play in one of the best ballparks in MLB. The Seahawks retained regional ownership when Paul Allen bought the team and saved them from a move to Los Angeles in 1997, then behind a new stadium deal and a reinvigorated front office, saw the club become a model franchise and a Super Bowl winner. As unrealistic as it may seem at times, the Seattle cases show that pro sports leagues should strongly reconsider before allowing teams to leave cities. Imagine what Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would have brought to Seattle had they been Supersonics? As the late Mariners broadcast legend Dave Niehaus would have said: “My, oh my!”
 According to an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, when Gorton threw out the first pitch at a Mariners game in April 1993, reporter John Keister of KING 5 TV’s “Almost Live” was said to have made the tongue-in-cheek remark, “His throw was accurate but his face scared some of the younger children.” (For the record, I interviewed Slade Gorton a couple of years ago, and I found him to be a really nice man.)
 John C. Hughes, Slade Gorton: A Half-Century in Politics (Washington State Legacy Project, 2011), 167. Gorton lost his reelection bid to former Seattle Congressman Brock Adams in 1986, but returned to the Senate in 1988 by defeating former congressman Mike Lowry for Senator Dan Evans’ vacant seat.
 Stephen H. Dunphey, “Trade Wars”, Seattle Times, Feb. 27, 1983.
 Hughes, 181.
 Ibid, 289.
 Hughes, 268.
 Ibid, 270.
 Ibid, 272.
 “Put baseball first,” The Oregonian, Jan. 26, 1992.
 Steven L. Kendall, “The Easy Way Or The Hard Way,” New York Times, Mar. 8, 1992.
 Ryan, 141-142.
 Hughes, 273.
 Sheff, 406-407.