by Chris Foss
Now that the Super Bowl has ended, the only game the NFL plays is musical chairs. The St. Louis Rams (re)became the Los Angeles Rams after the season ended. The San Diego Chargers will likely join the Rams in Los Angeles, albeit—oddly—after playing the 2016 season in San Diego. The Oakland Raiders were rumored to be exploring a $1 billion stadium deal with a Las Vegas casino magnate, then suddenly opted to stay in the Bay Area—at least for one more season. This comes just after the San Francisco 49ers moved 50 miles down the road to the posh new Levi’s Stadium, the site of Super Bowl 50. Sports franchise relocation seems to be an almost constant threat, and occasionally, even in this era of multi-million and even billion-dollar teams and stadiums, a reality.
Sometimes teams don’t move, however. The city of Seattle has experienced the gauntlet of threatened team desertion. On the one hand, fans of the Supersonics still loathe owner Clay Bennett for packing up and moving to Oklahoma City in 2008. At 1.76 million “TV homes”, according to Nielsen, Seattle-Tacoma is the nation’s 14th-biggest television market, second only to Phoenix in the non-California West. But a big part of the problem there has been the stadium situation. The Sonics renovated the dank Seattle Center Coliseum into KeyArena in 1995, but just a decade later the building was considered antiquated and unsuitable for basketball. Meanwhile, as the Kingdome prematurely aged and crumbled, the city survived two close calls in the 1990s with the Seahawks and the Mariners.
You’re probably wondering how Nintendo fits into all of this. Nintendo of America is headquartered in Redmond, a suburb of Seattle. You may remember the Ken Griffey, Jr. baseball games for Super Nintendo that were popular in the mid-1990s. You may also remember the Nintendo ads that used to run on the billboards behind the players as they stepped up to bat, and the occasional appearance at Safeco Field by the famous mustachioed plumber Mario. Nintendo is more than just a corporate sponsor of the Mariners: they essentially own the team. The Japanese company, along with a curmudgeonly U.S. Senator known by some as “Slippery Slade”, and a motley crew known as the Baseball Club of Seattle saved the Mariners from being shipped out of town almost a quarter-century ago. This is the unlikely story of how they did it.
How did Nintendo come to the Pacific Northwest in the first place? In the early 1980s, businessman Minoru Arakawa came over from Japan and settled in the Seattle area. Unlike the majority of immigrants to the area who tended to be of modest means at best, Arakawa was from a rich family and was looking for a new market for his family business. Arakawa was the first president of Nintendo of America (NOA), the U.S. subsidiary of Nintendo. The company got its start manufacturing playing cards in the late 19th century and went through many phases—even at one point dabbling in sleazy short-term hotels—but it was now entering the fledgling video game industry under the leadership of its Kyoto-based president, Hiroshi Yamauchi.
NOA was initially based in northern New Jersey, even though Arakawa and his wife lived near Seattle. The original Nintendo warehouse in New Jersey did not work because Nintendo headquarters in Kyoto was fourteen hours ahead of Manhattan, and, according to author David Sheff, “any conversation with the home office required one party to stay up very late or wake up very early.” According to author Jeff Ryan, “Moving the warehouse from New Jersey to Tukwila, Washington, would save two weeks per shipment” and keep the Arakawas closer to their Japanese homeland.
NOA thus went to work in the Northwest. In 1981, Arakawa “set up a Seattle-based ‘distribution channel’—really just two truckers…who had been importing used Nintendo arcade cabinets from Hawaii, and reselling them locally.” These truckers were Al Stone & Ron Judy, who formed a trucking company in Seattle, then formed Far East Video in order to sell Nintendo games, which were making “‘obscene profits’” when they joined up with Arakawa.
Arakawa chose Seattle not just because it was convenient to Japan, but also “there was a high-quality labor pool because of Boeing and the many high-technology companies.” The Spot Tavern in Tukwila, the suburban home of NOA’s first warehouse, was the first place the arcade game Donkey Kong was installed, and it was soon a huge hit, as consumers lined up to play the game there and eventually across the country. The games’ motherboards, power supply, and unassembled cabinets came from Japan; NOA assembled the consoles, re-crated and loaded the games onto trucks, and sent them to distributors who distributed the games throughout the country. Eventually Arakawa bought 60 acres of land in the suburb of Redmond, which was once an old timber town. Its logs had been clear-cut long ago, but now it served as home to NOA, Microsoft, and other high-tech companies.
NOA dominated the U.S. video-game market in the 1980s and 1990s. The company was criticized, however, for its use of arguably predatory tactics against competitors in court, and for alleged racism against African Americans on the shop floor in Redmond. NOA faced its toughest public scrutiny when, early in 1992, it joined the Baseball Club of Seattle in its venture to purchase the Mariners from owner Jeff Smulyan, who sought to relocate the team. After a dreary first decade-plus of existence, the Mariners were finally developing a core around Ken Griffey, Jr. and pitcher Randy Johnson, and so it might have seemed like a no-brainer to figure out a way to keep the team in Seattle. But in an era in which Japan was considered a feared competitor of the U.S. in the global economy, “Nintendo would become a tennis ball in the election-year face-off between the United States and Japan, with epithets volleying back and forth,” as MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent would argue that “we had to keep something sacred, out of the grips of Japan.”
In his bid for the Mariners, Hiroshi Yamauchi agreed to have Pacific Northwest natives as co-investors, including Microsoft executive Chris Larson and Boeing CEO Frank Shrontz. But Vincent held firm not to sell to Yamauchi despite the latter’s offer to give “an irrevocable proxy” of his voting interest in Nintendo to Arakawa, by then a 15-year resident of the Seattle area (in sharp contrast with Jeff Smulyan, who had never lived in the Northwest). The citizens of Seattle were “furious” with both Smulyan and Vincent, while the Japanese press believed NOA was the victim of Japan-bashing in America. Seattle New York Times correspondent Timothy Egan wrote that “many fans and civic leaders here were angry at what they said was a snub from the baseball commissioner. Some people said it was racist to allow Canadians to own baseball teams but not Japanese.” According to Egan, “a majority” of television and sports radio call-ins supported the team’s sale to Yamauchi and his co-investors, but Vincent nonetheless “said that baseball had ‘developed a strong policy against approving investors from outside the United States and Canada.”
The situation seemed dire for NOA. Ultimately, it would take the intervention of a U.S. Senator to overcome the Bowser-like Fay Vincent and save the Mariners. More on that next time.
 “Local Television Market Universe Estimates,” http://www.tvb.org/media/file/2015-2016-dma-ranks.pdf
 “NBA commissioner David Stern says KeyArena renovation not an option for Sonics,” Seattle Times, Mar. 26, 2008, http://www.seattletimes.com/sports/nba/nba-commissioner-david-stern-says-keyarena-renovation-not-an-option-for-sonics/
 Even after the Mariners’ ownership situation was clarified in 1992, the Kingdome was a problem. On July 19, 1994, ceiling tiles fell into the seating area just before a Mariners-Orioles game, forcing the remainder of the Mariners’ schedule to be played on the road, and the Seahawks to temporarily move to the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium. Two construction workers died in accidents during the subsequent $51 million roof repair. On May 2, 1996, a 5.6 magnitude earthquake shook Seattle during a Mariners game, and although the building held up, the situation rattled the nerves of those anxious to get rid of the already dilapidated building.
 David Sheff, Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children (New York: Random House, 1993), 94.
 Ibid, 14.
 Jeff Ryan, Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America (New York: Penguin, 2011), 13.
 Ibid, 13.
 Sheff, 97-98.
 Ibid, 105-113.
 Ibid, 262, 279-280.
 Ibid, 404-405.
 Timothy Egan, “Mariners Fans Angered By Vincent’s Response,” New York Times, Jan. 25, 1992.