Buchan: Marketing keeps M’s relevant despite poor play

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WALLA WALLA — You’ve got to hand it to the Seattle Mariners, they know how to market their product.

Despite just two winning seasons — and no playoff appearances — in the last 10 years, the team is still averaging nearly 22,000 fans per home game and is well on its way to another adequate year at the turnstiles.

Adequate, that is, for a team that is nine games under .500 at the All-Star break and on track to lose 88 games this season and win just 74.

True, Seattle’s average draw this season, 21,890, ranks 26th among the 30 big league teams. But when you compare the Mariners’ fan base these days to that of the organization’s first couple of decades, you get a better appreciation for what the club’s marketing department is achieving.

The Mariners drew fewer than a million fans in six of their first eight seasons playing in the Kingdome. And it wasn’t until 1991, their 15th year of existence and their first winning season, that the M’s cracked the two million mark.

The turning point came in 1995 when the M’s won their first division title and defeated the Yankees in that memorable five-game playoff series. Home attendance in the strike-shortened season (145 games total) was 1,643,203, but the success that team enjoyed paved the way for a new stadium and set in motion a string of 15 consecutive seasons in which the M’s never drew fewer than two million.

Four consecutive seasons beginning in 2000 saw the Mariners draw in excess of three million fans, with the high-water mark coming in 2002 when 3,539,938 fans clicked through the turnstiles.

Nine of the organization’s 11 winning seasons were recorded during that period. But it was also in 1996 that the club introduced a series of television spots that connected with fans in a big way.

You Gotta Love These Guys was the slogan, and the clever ads were focused on individual players the likes of Dan Wilson and Jay Buehner and Edgar Martinez. And we did love them.

Then, midway through the 1999 season, the club moved across the street from the stale, stuffy Kingdome to spectacular Safeco Field, still regarded as one of the most pleasant venues in all of baseball. And the stadium became a marketing tool in its own right as fans from across the state and beyond made the pilgrimage to Seattle for a firsthand look at the Mariners’ classy confines.

The signing of Japan’s Ichiro Suzuki to a long-term contract in 2001 and making him the face of the franchise for the next decade was yet another smart move, especially considering Seattle’s abundant Asian population.

These days, Felix Hernandez is the toast of the town. His growing personal fan base shows up every fifth day in the left field bleachers, and the pitcher’s popularity as much as his considerable mound skills led the Mariners to sign him to a seven-year $175 million contract during the off season.

That said, most Mariners fans will never be mistaken for baseball purists. They are, shall we say, unsophisticated. They are at Safeco Field to have a good time, and they don’t let winning and losing get in the way.

I was one of the 21,372 in attendance at a recent game at Safeco Field, and I couldn’t help but notice how so many fans got just as excited during the between-inning video games — hydroplane races, etc. — as they did when Raul Ibanez was launching home runs.

Strolling the stadium concourses, I spotted fans seated in lounges where they sipped drinks, visited with friends and occasionally checked out the game on one of the dozens of TV monitors located throughout the stadium. Very laid back.

And then there were those who spent the entire game trying to attract the television cameras their way so they could see themselves demonstrating the latest dance steps on the stadium’s jumbo screen. At 11,425 square feet (more than a quarter of an acre), the screen is wider than an Olympic-size swimming pool and taller than a five-story building. With HD clarity to boot.

Finally, in what now seems like a never ending effort to rebuild a winning product, the Mariners keep their fans tuned to the present with promise for the future.

As far back as 2004, Jose Lopez was destined for stardom. Kenji Johjima came along in 2006 and Jeff Clement in 2008. Justin Smoak and Michael Saunders arrived on the scene in 2010, Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager in 2011 and Jesus Montero in 2012.

So far, the only player in that group to live up to expectations — and in his case exceed them —­ is Seager, the team’s everyday third baseman.

This season the M’s are selling their fans on another cast of rookies: Catcher Mike Zunino and infielders Nick Franklin and Brad Miller.

Franklin, who was called up in June, is hitting .268 through his first 42 games in the big leagues with six home runs and 19 runs batted in. Zunino, through 24 games, is batting .230 with one homer and seven RBIs. And Miller, after his first 16 games, has a .246 average with five doubles, two triples and a pair of stolen bases.

It remains to be seen if this trio of youngsters will develop into star-caliber players, join the likes of Ackley, Smoak and Saunders as sometime-contributors at the big league level or wash out completely like Lopez, Johjima and Clement.

It is interesting to note, however, that the M’s are 11-9 in their last 20 games, including a three-game sweep of the Angels leading into the All-Star break. If that snapshot is an indication of what is to come in the season’s second half, look for Safeco Field attendance to escalate.

Because of all the marketing tools management can dream up, nothing works better than winning.

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