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updated 10:27 PM CDT, Sep 8, 2016

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Cellular icon Mikal Thomsen lives 'dream come true' as owner of Tacoma Rainiers

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When Triple A baseball returned to Tacoma in 1960 after a 55-year absence, one of the fans in attendance that opening day to watch the team then nicknamed the Giants was 3-year-old Mikal Thomsen, there with his father, seeing his first professional baseball game. 

That ignited a life-long affection of a kid, then a man, for his hometown baseball team.

Mikal ThomsenMikal ThomsenAnd thus, although he grew up to make his name and fortune over two decades as he became a leading figure in the cellular-mobile phone industry, Thomsen's "dream come true" is played out each year as CEO and, with his wife, Lynn, the major investor in the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League baseball. The Thomsens put together a team of investors prior to the 2011 season to join them in owning the team.

The home season ends next Thursday. The Rainiers are on the road for the Labor Day weekend wrap up, far out of first place in the PCL's Pacific Northern Division and far back in attendance, playing in the smallest market in the in the far-flung 16-team league and in one of the smallest ball parks.

But he says "we've been highly successful in every way I can imagine, for the city, for the fan base, and for the investors. We have made stadium improvements each year, on our dime, and the Rainiers have been embraced by the city and the whole South Sound community."

That's a conviction likely buttressed this year by the fact that Tacoma, for the first time ever, played host last month to the Triple-A All-Star game at Cheney Stadium, a game won, 6-4, by the PCL all-stars over the stars of the International League. The satisfaction was in not just having the game for the first time but to the fact, the selection of Tacoma was made by the other AAA owners.

And Thomsen disclosed during an interview a few days ago that after the 2016 season ended "the team offered to buy out any of the owners at twice the amount they had paid for their share in 2011, but no one took us up on it." The Rainiers made the playoffs last year and came within 1,000 fans of equaling the best attendance mark of Thomsen's tenure.

Thomsen's team of 15 investors includes his longtime business partner, John Stanton, the CEO and majority owner of the American League Seattle Mariners, for whom Tacoma is the Triple-A franchise and a major piece of the Mariners' baseball operations.

Stanton and Thomsen, both in their early 60s, have what is likely the most unusual business relationship in professional baseball, and maybe in all of pro sports.

Their desks are 20 feet apart in the offices of Trilogy Partnerships, the Bellevue-based venture fund where they share responsibility, as they have for much of the 35 years since they joined the fledgling McCaw Cellular and went on to become two of the icons of the wireless industry in which they made their fortunes.

I asked Thomsen if he's ever tempted to complain to Stanton over major-league, minor-league issues, as when the Mariners call up key Rainiers players to the majors when the Tacoma team is winning, as at the start of this season when the Rainiers were in first place before several top players headed for Seattle.

He laughed as he replied: "We are in the unique position of being an organization that sells tickets, popcorn and hotdogs but doesn't have to pay for performers," reminding me that the Mariners pay all the costs, including salaries, of the players they sign and assign to Tacoma.

"They want a strong Triple-A presence and we have provided that," Thomsen adds.

Thomsen and Stanton's office interactions are likely fewer these days with Thomsen spending about what he estimates as about 20 hours a week during the season in Tacoma while Stanton has the CEO's office at Safeco Field that he visits as often as possible.

Although Thomsen is the Tacoma boss he is quick to credit others for contributing to the team's success, particularly team president Aaron Artman, who was in place as president when they bought the team.

"Inheriting Aaron was a godsend," Thomsen said.  "He is a very creative guy with a wealth of knowledge running minor league baseball operations, and we paired him up with a great CFO, Brian Coombe whom we hired the first summer we owned the team. Together they are a phenomenal leadership team for the club."

I asked Thomsen, for a column I did several years ago if the fact Tacoma is closer to Seattle than any Triple A team's proximity to a major league city has an impact on attendance. He replied: "Most of the Rainiers fans are Mariners fans who enjoy keeping up with both teams and hearing about the players they saw in Tacoma now performing with the major league club. I think the nearness of the M's cuts both ways."

Indeed Thomsen's ownership group, which includes Brad Cheney, president of the Ben B. Cheney Foundation (named for the lumber magnate and community leader for whom the ballpark is also named) has created a community's love affair with its professional baseball team, not unlike the relationship that used to exist in cities across America.

The Rainiers have added a new left field deck, whiffle ball field and playground, which Thomsen says "is now a fixture, and drawing tons of kids," noting the idea was Cheney's who he says "is on the board, is very supportive of the team and the area through his foundation."

Cheney threw out the first pitch at the All-Star game after Thomsen went on the loudspeaker to tell the fans about coming to the park for games since he and his brother were kids, then said "This is for Tacoma. And this is for the South Sound."

The Stanton-Thomsen baseball-ownership ties extend beyond the Rainiers. In fact, the announcement of the Rainiers' purchase followed their successful launch a year earlier of a college-player amateur league team in Walla Walla.

It was Stanton, a Whitman grad and past chairman of the school's board of trustees, who convinced Thomsen that he should become part of the ownership team that was buying and bringing to Walla Walla an expansion team in the West Coast League, a summer league for college players, competing just below professional ball.

So it was appropriate that Thomsen approached Stanton to be part of the Tacoma ownership team.

A focus on business beyond baseball remains for both Thomsen and Stanton, however, as they continue to manage their Bellevue-based wireless venture and investment firm formed by a collection of long-time wireless partners after the sale of their Western Wireless to Alltel Corp. in 2005.

Thomsen met his wife, Lynn, and Stanton met his wife, Terry Gillespie, at McCaw Cellular in the mid-80s, which they joined at about the same time in the early '80 and are now on the team of co-owners of the Rainiers, though the oversight of the franchise, including attending many games, falls to Thomsen.

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