BY Art Thiel 11:21AM 06/02/2018

Thiel: Wilson joins Portland’s bid to get played

In joining investors seeking to get an MLB team for Portland, Seahawks QB Wilson again takes on a long-shot proposition. But who’s better at third-and-forever?

Do these people look like baseball owners? / The White House

Apparently having clanked a dunk off the back rim trying to help bring NBA back to Seattle, Russell Wilson is stepping up to bat for Portland to help bring Major League Baseball to the Rose City. Yes, he’s keeping his day job too.

The news Friday that the Seahawks quarterback and his wife, Ciara, are investors in the Portland Diamond Project came as a small surprise because no word had leaked about his interest. But in the big picture, Wilson always has had aspirations to mogul-hood.

He wants to turn his sports celebrity and his wife’s music celebrity into some kind of post-football empire. What that will look like isn’t clear yet, but he has time. At 29, he’s said he’d like to play 10 to 15 more years, which would seem to coincide with the likely timeline of getting Portland a ball club.

“We believe Portland is the next great Major League Baseball city, and that’s why Ciara and I are excited to announce we are a part of the Portland Diamond Project,” Wilson said in a release by the PDP management group that is leading the pursuit. “It is time for MLB in Portland.”

A retired executive from Nike, Craig Cheek, is leading the group and cheered the arrival of a brand name for the project, even if the play is more hood ornament than engine.

“Having Russell and Ciara sign on as owners and investors in PDP is game-changing, and has elevated our campaign significantly,” he said in the news release. “I got to know Russell and Ciara when we signed Russell to his Nike endorsement deal. I saw firsthand their passion, pursuit of excellence and impact they bring to every endeavor. We know they will bring that same energy, sense of legacy and entrepreneurialism to the Portland Diamond Project.”

Wilson remains a partner in Chris Hansen’s arena project in Sodo, a six-year effort that  has been eclipsed by the Seattle City Council’s endorsement of a rival project to renovate KeyArena. Wilson had wanted to be a part-owner of the Sonics, but picked the wrong horse. So now he’s being given a similar shot in Portland for MLB.

Hansen’s group still owns the 12 acres in Sodo. He has said he hasn’t given up, waiting to see whether the Oak View Group can pull off its audacious plan to spend more than $600 million in private money to create a world-class music venue in a dense urban village that will also accommodate an NHL team perhaps as soon as 2020 — and the return of the NBA sometime before rising seas swallow Seattle.

Unless the Oak View group’s renovation plan is thwarted by the pending environmental impact statement, or by some as-yet-unknown opponents, Hansen’s plan is likely dead-ended.

But whether Portland’s plan will deliver an MLB team any sooner than Seattle will get back the Sonics (best guess: 2025-26) depends on whether a 32,000-seat, baseball-specific stadium can be sited and built with mostly, if not entirely, private funds.

When it comes to environmental priorities, as well as public investment in private enterprises that need stadiums/arenas, Portland’s civic vibe is nearly identical with Seattle’s: Hell to the yes on the first, hell to the no on the second. That makes for an exceedingly difficult project, as Hansen will testify.

Portland now shares with Seattle a similar role in the municipal extortion game played by the sports monopolists: Suckers.

The Seattle NBA vacancy created in 2008, when the prairie pirates from the Dust Bowl absconded with the Sonics, helped get new arena deals that included public money for existing NBA teams in Sacramento, Milwaukee and Minneapolis.

In baseball, Portland, Charlotte, San Antonio and two non-U.S. cities, Montreal and Mexico City, have been targeted for sucker-hood by MLB to help failing teams get public money for new stadiums in Oakland and Tampa Bay.

MLB can make the argument that they would like to award franchises to two expansion cities to create the 32-team format that makes for balanced scheduling. In fact, Commissioner Rob Manfred made that point during a recent visit to Seattle.

“Portland would be on a list, yeah,” he told reporters. “If we were going to go to 32, we would need a western time zone team. We’d need at least one more.”

But Manfred knows what NBA Commissioner Adam Silver knows: It’s always better to have 30 franchises making money in prosperous stadiums before asking the owners to give up two slices of the future revenue pie.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman knows the same thing, but since his shop is more precarious financially, the owners are more eager to take a lump-sum share of the expansion fees from Las Vegas and Seattle than worry about a cut in future revenues that may not produce numbers in the black anyway.

Gerard Mildner, an associate professor of real estate finance at Portland State University and a baseball fan, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that Portland is being played.

“In practice, what’s happening is that Portland is being used as a strawman to get these other two franchises better stadium deals from their local city,” he said. “We’re stadium bait for the Tampa and Oakland franchises.”

Manfred, in an interview in Chicago in 2016, all but confirmed the view that extorting existing cities is the priority.

“In terms of sequencing the issues, it’s important to get Oakland and Tampa resolved before we move ahead with expansion,” he said. He also said his preference is to go outside the U.S. to larger markets ahead of smaller U.S. cities that lack an abundance of Fortune 500 companies.

“My personal sort of front-runner would be either Montreal or Mexico City,” he said. “I think it would be great for the growth of the game. Mexico City in particular would be new ground for us.”

Mexico City is also a leading candidate for the NBA when it gets around to expanding. The TV market for what would amount to the national team of a country of 130 million people is almost irresistible for the pro sports leagues.

That likely leaves Portland (a market size of around 3.3 million, larger than only St. Louis and Kansas City in MLB) to fight with Montreal (about 3.9 million) and other mid-size U.S. cities to be MLB’s 32nd team.

The baseball dreamers will almost certainly have to do the stadium with minimal to no public money, for the same reason the Sonics were lost in 2008 and the NFL Chargers were lost in 2017 by San Diego: The big, liberal West Coast cities have too many other funding priorities.

When asked recently about a state subsidy for baseball, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown laughed.

“I think we have really limited state dollars at this point,” she said. “We will be focused on critical infrastructure with those limited dollars, like roads and bridges, making sure we can move forward with affordable housing.

“I love baseball, and I look forward to seeing what the private sector can do to put together a package.”

In other words, a long shot. Then again . . .

Phil Knight, who demon-spawned Nike, has a net worth of more than $32 billion, or $10 billion more than Seahawks/Blazers owner Paul Allen. One check and, well . . . swoosh. Baseball in Portland. And PDP chief Cheek worked for Knight.

The Portland Diamond Project also has Wilson, one of the greatest fourth-quarter comeback artists in NFL history. It may be third-and-forever for MLB in Portland, but Wilson has a lot of clock.

 


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YourThoughts

  • jafabian

    Don’t see this happening any time soon. DangeRuss sure does seem to want to explore his post NFL options at a young age. It does seem as though the shine on the Hansen group is beginning to dim.

    • art thiel

      The consolation prize for Hansen is that he owns 12 acres next to the fastest growing downtown in America.

  • Husky73

    I don’t know about Tampa/St. Pete. But, having recently returned from five years in the Bay Area, I think the A’s are at wits end. They got nixed at Laney College, when that looked like they had FINALLY found a solution. They don’t want to build at Howard’s Terminal and they don’t want to build at the gawd-awful Coliseum site (even with the Raiders and Warriors leaving). They have tried for 20 years to find a suitable site from San Jose to Fremont, and get continually kicked in the cajones. Portland, or elsewhere, may be their landing spot.

    • Trygvesture

      If enough people watch The Battered Bastards of Beasball, the Pland frenzy would be stoked, certainly. They do love their underdogs with a passion. Plus, the A’s do seem to be entirely out of options, and sewage in the clubhouse just isn’t a feature of a sustainable MLB venue . Toilets work well in Portland– no tide flat fill from the Denny Regrade issues to deal withdown there. I really hope it happens– Portland A’s just sounds like a grand rivalry for the foot-shot M’s.

      • art thiel

        A grand rivalry for your great grandkids.

    • art thiel

      All the Cali cities except Sacramento are refusing to subsidize sports facilities. The A’s have to do what the Giants did — pay for the joint themselves — or do what the Chargers did — move.

      • jafabian

        I have always liked Oakland Alameda Stadium as a baseball facility. I remember Dave Niehaus always marveling at “the rolling green hills of Oakland” in the view over the outfield. It’s when it returned to being a dual purpose facility when it really went downhill. The A’s should work with the city in refurbishing the stadium. Probably the best option for them.

  • Alan Harrison

    Something tells me that unless the A’s are asking for city money, they’ll be playing at the Howard Terminal/Jack London Square site in 2023. They’ve offered to pay off the $135 million debt at the Coliseum in exchange for that land, which they’ll presumably sell off to pay for the new stadium site. With no Raiders or Warriors to worry about, that shouldn’t be a problem. St. Pete is another story – they’ll certainly use the Seattle/NBA, Los Angeles/NFL model to leverage a stadium, because East Coast and South cities tend to be more needy (and ready to give public money to owners). Expansion becomes a higher possibility if some sort of revenue sharing comes forward (which the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, etc. don’t want). Great article.

    • Trygvesture

      I thought the Howard Terminal land for debt payoff was already rejected as was Laney College– and that the rejections were not expected by the A’s.
      Did I hear right about that?

      • Alan Harrison

        Laney College was rejected by Laney College. The city would prefer Howard Terminal and so would Rob Manfred. The “purchase” is for the Coliseum site (with the team offering to pay off the $135 million combined debt currently owed to the city of Oakland and Alameda County for both the Coliseum and Oracle Arena construction/renovations). The team owner was suspicious of the Howard Terminal site, but is feeling more optimistic if he doesn’t have to build a BART station there (all this is from the “gondola” article in the USA Today, which is usually dubious, but rings true.) I don’t really think Portland is a part of their conversation, unless this deal falls through.
        https://usat.ly/2qqu9eY

        • art thiel

          Thanks for the link. Portland’s eagerness would have to overwhelm MLB to agree to relocation, and expansion as it stands today is a ruse.

    • art thiel

      Thanks, Alan. It’s not impossible in Oakland, just really hard.

  • woofer

    Lots of aspiring politicians and celebrities having an apple pie and motherhood moment in front of the cameras. Harmless fun, nothing of substance. You’ll know things are really getting serious when PDP announces that Wally Walker is on board.

    • art thiel

      So far. I haven’t heard of an Oregon pol willing to risk his/her political capital for the project. It’s all on Phil Voldemort.