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Wireless icons Stanton, Thomsen focus on baseball

John Stanton and Mikal Thomsen were in their late 20s when they teamed up at McCaw Cellular to become part of the birthing of a fledgling communications technology whose growth globally they helped guide through several major companies over the next 20 years, becoming iconic figures in the wireless industry.

Now just into their 60s, both have parlayed their business success into owning and guiding professional baseball teams, what they might well agree is a passion that rivals their business focus.

A business focus remains, however, as they continue to manage their Bellevue-based wireless venture and investment firm, Trilogy Equity Partners, formed by a collection of long-time wireless partners after the sale of their Western Wireless to Alltel Corp. in 2005.

Thomsen once told me that the opportunity six years ago to create the ownership team that bought the Tacoma Rainiers was like his “dream come true.” He would be owning his hometown team that he had grown up rooting for from the time his dad took him to his first game at age three. That was the year that the then-Tacoma Giants returned after a 55-year absence.

Stanton, who will soon assume the role of CEO of the Seattle Mariners after the ownership group he leads completes its purchase of the team from Nintendo of America, also recalls attending the games of his hometown team with his father. That was in 1969 when, as a teenager he became a fan of the Seattle Pilots in their first and only year of existence and recalls crying when they left town for Milwaukee.

Thomsen would undoubtedly echo Stanton’s “I am first and foremost a baseball fan” comment  that he made to the media gathering at Safeco Field when he was introduced as the leader of a 17 member local group that would become 90 percent owner of the team and he become the CEO, once Major League Baseball owners bless the deal.

Thomsen and his wife, Lynn, and Stanton and his wife, Terry Gillespie, are all alums of McCaw Cellular in the ‘80s and are now on the team of co-owners of the Tacoma Rainiers, though the oversight of the franchise, including attending many games and spending about 10 hours a week in the office during the season, falls to Thomsen.

The owners are fortunate that the baseball team acquisition included Aaron Artman as club president, a former Microsoft executive who oversaw the $30 million renovation of Cheney Stadium and remained with the new owners in the role of president.

Stanton’s and Thomsen’s baseball involvement extends across the state and all the way down to the West Coast League, an amateur collegiate summer league, where they are among owners of both the Walla Sweets and the Yakima Valley Pippins.

But it was when Thomsen had the opportunity to put together the purchase of the Tacoma Rainiers in 2011 that he turned to Stanton and his wife, an avid baseball fan herself, to become part of the ownership group.

Thomsen has immersed himself in his hometown baseball team and has enthusiastically committed to its increasing success, despite being the smallest market in far-flung Pacific Coast League and being the closest Triple-A team to a major league city.

In fact, the Seattle Mariners and the Rainiers are not only geographically close, which Thomsen admits may sometimes cost the Rainiers attendance of fans heading for Seattle, but close in that the Rainiers are the Mariners’ triple-A farm team.

As Thomsen puts it: “Most of the Rainiers fans are Mariners fans who enjoy keeping up with both teams and hearing about the players they saw in Tacoma performing with the major league club. I think the nearness of the M’s cuts both ways.”

In addition, the relationship is good for the Rainiers’ bottomline since the Tacoma roster is determined by and players’ salaries paid by the Mariners.

A lot of the changes brought about since Thomson’s group bought the team relate to community things, but he is pleased about what has happened in the stands and on the field.

At this point, atop PCL pack, the Rainiers seem headed for their first playoff appearance since Thomsen’s group bought the team, though Thomsen cautions that “it’s a long way from certain. We are only three games up on Fresno.” Plus the team appear on the way to another franchise attendance record, though beating the 352,000 attendance mark of last season is well behind the nearly 680,000 of the Sacramento River Cats.

In addition, Thomsen notes that the decision by the ownership group three years ago to build a new set of stands in left field “has been a stunning success,” adding that he celebrated his 60th birthday there in early May this year “with a couple hundred friends.”

He says the change of the team’s logo two years ago to “the now somewhat iconic ‘R’” has helped drive merchandise sales “through the roof.”

In terms of community involvement, he says the Rainiers “teamed this past off season with Tacoma Parks, the Cheney Foundation and Mary Bridge Hospital to add a playground behind the right field berm that includes a whiffle ball stadium,

“It is packed for most games and open as a public park when games are not going on in the stadium,” he adds.

“The community views this as a partnership and we go out of our way to be great partners,” Thomsen says with obvious pride.

 

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Life-long fan Mikal Thomsen pleased with how his Tacoma Rainiers' ownership has evolved

 Mikal Thomsen's Tacoma Rainiers will miss the Pacific Coast League playoffs this year and are among the lowest in attendance of the 16 clubs in professional baseball's most far flung conference. But winding up his third season as leader of the ownership team, Thomsen enthuses that "things have turned out great."

 

The guy who attended his first Tacoma baseball game with his dad in 1960 at the age of three to watch the triple-A team then called the Giants and grew up rooting for his hometown team, which went through many nicknames, now finds himself living "a dream come true" as part owner of the triple-A team.

 

Mikal Thomsen
Mikal Thomsen

More than just a "part owner," it was Thomsen who convinced his business partner at Trilogy Partnerships, John Stanton, to join the ownership team he was putting together to buy the Tacoma PCL franchise prior to the 2011 season.

 

No less a baseball fan than Thomsen, Stanton was already part of the Seattle Mariners' ownership team and a year earlier had convinced Thomsen to partner with him in the purchase of the Walla Walla Sweets, a West Coast League expansion in a league for college players just below professional ball.

 

And although Thomsen's regular business card denotes his role as a managing partner in the wireless venture and investment firm populated by icons of the growth of the wireless industry, he prefers to pass out the card identifying himself as the CEO of the Baseball Club of Tacoma.

  

Tacoma's population of just over 200,000 makes it the smallest market in the league at about 40 percent the size of the largest PCL markets and its attendance this year that will wind up at about 270,000 is just over half of the nearly 500,000 of the Sacramento River Cats.

  

But despite the challenges to financial success, including being the AAA franchise closest to a major league city (close enough to lose some fans every game who opt to head north to watch the Mariners) with two years of learning under his belt, Thomsen says things have fallen into place in this third season.

  

"The first year was a learning experience and I felt a little like a depression-era child waiting for another shoe to drop," Thomsen said. "The second year was mostly positive and this year has been great. We're fully capitalized with 20 partners, new investors, and we've started expanding beyond the baseball model."

 

"We originally had to put more money in than we anticipated, but we have more than enough money at this point," he said.

 

"I believe our revenue per fan is higher than most franchises because we do a better job of packaging products together," Thomsen said. "And I believe, though I am somewhat biased, that we offer the best food in our concession stands, the best merchandise in our team store, and the nicest park in minor league baseball."

 

Thomsen says he's "very happy" with Aaron Artman, the team president retained from previous ownership. "He has been able to add a new head of revenue and a new controller who have helped tremendously on the revenue and cost control sides of the business.  And everyone is working hard to make a visit to the park a lot of fun for the fans."

 

Thomsen, a businessman even more than a baseball fan, isn't being Pollyannaish in his enthusiasm for the ownership and management teams he has assembled.

 

Despite its small-market status and lower attendance numbers, Thomsen says Tacoma, which does not release its financials, "is doing better than many of the PCL teams in both revenue andoperating income."

 

And while success on the field is mostly in the hands of Tacoma's major-league affiliate the Seattle Mariners, the fifth-place finish has added to the fan appeal.

 

And he said they're realizing that "we have the stadium for 365 days a year and only need it for 72 days for baseball. So we looking for other ways we can add to our revenue by adding to our use of the stadium and doing other things with our resources."

 

"We need to find other things we can do with the ballpark and there's not really much of a model out there," he added. "We have to start looking at the things we do that groups would pay for, like using our groundskeepers to work with parks or schools."

 

"A couple of things that have really developed well this year are merchandising sales out of our team store, where we're making significantly more money this year, and concessions, which we contracted with Ivar's for this year after two years of misfires," he said. "They're doing a great job for us."

 

That first game with his dad was actually the first Triple-A game in Tacoma since the original Tacoma Tigers departed for Sacramento 55 years earlier.

 

So one idea that Thomsen shared when I interviewed him for a column two years ago was that he might restore the Tigers nickname. With that in mind, the team had fans sporting Tiger hats at some games, as well as hats with the other nicknames the team has had, including Cubs, Twins, Tugs, Yankees and Tigers until the Rainiers nickname in 1995 stuck.

 

But he says now that the new-name idea quickly went by the wayside as a survey of fans indicated "they love the Rainiers."

 

Noting that the Giants' hat was the only one his dad ever wore and recalling the growing-up days watching the team, Thomsen says: "I only wish my Dad, who was a big baseball fan and passed that attribute on to all three of his kids, could have been around to see the new ballpark. He would have gotten a big kick out of it."

 

And likely as well out of the fact that his son now owns the team.

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