Leadership in Finance: Baseball’s Jonathan Mariner

The CFO of Major League Baseball fields questions about debt, labor costs, and the steroid problem.

What are the bright spots?  What are you seeing out there that is creative and gives you hope that there will be an upside?

What Commissioner [Bud] Selig always talks about during this time of the year, in spring training, is that hope and faith are what baseball is about.  Every single team is a contender in March.  Some people think that there’s no way my team is going to win.  But then there comes a Tampa Bay —  Tampa Bay had never had a winning season before last year.  And so hope springs eternal. 

On a business level, our clubs have already shown signs of being very innovative this year in light of what we might be facing.  In San Diego they’ve got a really unique promotion.  It’s called the “5 for $5 promotion.”  You can come to a Padres game and at certain concession stands you can buy a hot dog, a soda, peanuts, popcorn, and cookie a game program and a fifth item — all for $5 total.  Five items for $5.  And if you want to substitute a beer for the soda, it’s an additional $5. 

That’s the kind of promotion about which I say, by gosh, that might get more people to the ballpark.  You always think, if I take my family it will cost an arm and a leg when I get there. 

 As a reflection of the economy, might we be seeing lower player salaries?

Clubs are much more nervous about how they’re spending their money.  I spoke to one of our owners the other day who was trying to get a bank loan done, and the bank was being particularly tough about some of the collateral. Banks are guarding their balance sheets now.  When they make a loan they’ve got to have a reserve against it, and their equity on the balance sheet is so important.  It’s something that they’ve got to protect.  Our clubs are taking the same approach to this. 

 Do you see the steroids problem as a risk to the reputation of the game?

My view of steroids, and I think it’s shared by a lot of my colleagues in our office, is that it is a fascination on the part of the media but not a true reflection of what’s happening in our game.  We think we have the toughest steroid testing of all sports. If a player tests positively the first time he’s examined, it’s a 50-game suspension.  Two positives, it’s a 100-game suspension.  The third positive, you’re out of the game.  It’s essentially a life-time ban.

For some perspective, the debate surrounds something that took place in 2003.  Drug testing had been an on-going debate between labor and management for some time.  We were finally able to prevail upon the union to accept testing. Under the collective bargaining agreement, you cannot implement it unilaterally — you have to bargain for it.  Finally, in 2002, we were able to get an agreement in place to test for performance-enhancing drugs. 

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