“There’s always speculation in times like this,” Lincoln told the Puget Sound Business Journal Sunday afternoon. “I think I can speak on behalf of Nintendo of America and say that Nintendo has no plans to sell its majority interest in the Mariners.”
Yamauchi, who died last week, held 55 percent of the Mariners, although for estate purposes Nintendo of America, headquartered in Redmond, is the owner of record since 2004. Lincoln, a member of the board of directors of NOA, was on vacation in Alaska with his son and did not hear the news until Thursday.
Another losing season in 2013, the eighth in the past 10, has renewed clamor among many fans for a change at the top, in part because change has occurred everywhere else with no good outcomes. The dismal finish to the season has increased speculation that manager Eric Wedge and general manager Jack Zduriencik won’t return, even though Lincoln and club president Chuck Armstrong hired both and presumably would hire their successors.
However, the fact that Lincoln said the club has no plans to sell doesn’t mean the club won’t be sold. A lawyer, Lincoln parses his public words carefully. There is no business reason for Lincoln to publicly suggest the club is for sale, when the team’s minority owners, which include wealthy members of the Seattle-area tech community, reportedly have the right of first refusal on a potential sale.
NOA in April had a change in leadership, when Satoru Iwata became CEO, replacing Tatsumi Kimishima, who returned to Nintendo headquarters in Kyoto to take a promotion. Kimishima has been NOA CEO since May 2006. Iwata is CEO of Nintendo of Japan and Nintendo of America.
“I can tell you I have spoken to Mr. Kimishima in Japan and there are no plans to sell (Nintendo of America’s) majority interest in the team,” Lincoln told PSBJ. “I can’t tell you what’s going to happen in the future, but now Nintendo feels very strongly that Nintendo wants to maintain its ownership interest in the Mariners.”
Yamauchi and his American minority partners bought the franchise in 1992 for $120 million from Jeff Smulyan. Since the opening of Safeco Field in 1999, the franchise has steadily appreciated in equity value and almost always turned an operational profit no matter how wretched the baseball and despite losing more average annual attendance than any major pro sports franchise in America over the last 10 years.
In 2011, a King County judge presiding over the divorce case of the largest minority owner, Chris Larson, pegged the value of the Mariners at $641 million. But that was before the sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers at $2.1 billion, and before the Mariners bought a majority share of Root Sports, the regional sports network owned by satellite operator DirecTV.
Both developments increased the value of Mariners, perhaps close to $1 billion. The likeliest member of the minority group owners to pursue a purchase, telecom billionaire John Stanton of Bellevue, already has a 10 percent share, acquired in 2002. But the value Nintendo assigns to its asset, and whether Stanton would pay it, are unknown.
Lincoln began doing work for Nintendo as outside counsel in 1982, and developed a strong personal friendship with Yamauchi and his family. By the 1992 Mariners purchase, Lincoln was senior vice president and general counsel of NOA, then promoted to chairman of NOA in 1994. He became Mariners CEO in 1999. Lincoln was the primary contact between Yamauchi and franchise operations, although Yamauchi admitted he was not a baseball fan and made the investment as a courtesy to Sen. Slade Gorton and Seattle.
“There’s a flood of recollections,” Lincoln told PSBJ. “I’ve known and worked for him (Yamauchi) for more than 30 years. More than 2,000 people came to his (memorial) in Japan on Saturday, I was told. He was a man of small stature and commanding presence. People liked him. I saw him in action in Japan and the United States, and he was always very warm. He was a visionary. We need to think about and never forget all he did for Seattle and for the Northwest.
“He was always very kind to me and I really appreciated the fact that he had confidence in me from 1982 when I first met him to now. I can still see him sitting in the conference room in Kyoto with that kind smile. It’s really a sad day.”