MLB CFO talks business and baseball

Nothing grabs the attention of a baseball fan quite like a World Series ring.

About 40 Yale students were able to see one at a Berkeley College Master’s Tea with Jonathan Mariner, the Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Major League Baseball in the Office of the Commissioner.

Mariner began the discussion with talk of his life and career before joining the MLB, noting that he himself did not know much about baseball growing up in Norfolk, Virginia.

“I did not grow up a baseball fan,” Mariner said, describing how he was more of a basketball fan, idolizing Julius Erving who played for the Virginia Squires of the ABA.

Mariner graduated from the University of Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in accounting before receiving his MBA from Harvard Business School. He emphasized the fact that he started his career in a traditional business way: first working at a boutique consulting firm before becoming a financial analyst at MCI.

Mariner’s career took its first turn when he moved to Miami to take a job as the CFO for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“It was not the safe choice,” he said. “It was a public entity, and it was losing money. But it was a huge turnaround opportunity.”

Turnaround is exactly what happened at the private, non-profit group under his leadership, as it transformed from an indebted operation to one that ran surpluses.

The experience served as a stepping stone for Mariner to become the CFO for the Florida Marlins, his first dab into baseball. Mariner said that when he first interviewed with the franchise, he knew he really wanted to work for the team — despite the fact that he could not have named five baseball players if asked.

Mariner did get the job, but things did not run so smoothly, as the 1994-’95 Major League baseball strike led to the cancellation of hundreds of games amid a labor dispute.

“It was just a huge, huge rollercoaster for us,” Mariner said.

Yet just as he had done with the Greater Miami Bureau, Mariner guided the Florida Marlins, then still a young expansion franchise, from rock bottom to the ultimate goal in baseball: the World Series.

Mariner described the 1997 World Series, a long, grinding seven-game series between the Marlins and the Cleveland Indians. When talking about Game 7, Mariner expressed the nervousness of everyone in the Marlins organization on that October day in Cleveland. Down 2-1 in the 9th inning, the Marlins tied the game and wound up winning the game and the World Series off a game-winning single from Edgar Renteria.

After illustrating the joy of that final play, Mariner awed the students gathered in the Berkeley Master’s House when he removed his World Series ring, which has his name carved into it, and put it on his finger.

“When he pulled his ring out, everyone kind of gasped,” Jungwon Byun ‘14 said.

“The World Series ring is insanely cool,” David Swensen, Yale’s Chief Investment Officer and good friend of Mariner, said. “I am insanely jealous.”

Following his talk, the MLB CFO opened up to the audience for questions on a number of issues. When asked what exactly he does as CFO, Mariner explained his job with a number of projects he has recently worked on: helping the L.A. Dodgers with financial troubles, managing the sale of the Chicago Cubs, negotiating TV deals with Fox and TBS, making licensing deals with vendors and making presentations to franchise owners on financial matters.

“Basically, I pay the bills and collect the money,” Mariner said.

Mariner was also asked about the antitrust status of the MLB, the lack of the salary cap in baseball and overall competitive balance. The MLB executive each time responded in defense of the MLB, highlighting the league’s measures to promote competition and encourage parity. In one particular example, Mariner said that the MLB’s revenue sharing process shifts $400 million from the top teams to the bottom teams. In contrast, he said that the NFL’s revenue sharing only shifts $100 million, despite the NFL being a bigger enterprise than the MLB. Mariner also mentioned that salary caps have minimums as well as maximums, citing the NHL as an example of a league where many small-market teams lose money trying to abide by the salary cap.

In answering another question, the MLB CFO also praised public funding for ballparks by expounding on the effects of ballparks on communities.

“Ballparks can bring communities together and encourage civic pride,” he said. “I definitely noticed this when I was with the Marlins, seeing the whole city get behind the team.”

Five students interviewed expressed great interest in Mariner’s discussion, describing the conversation as interesting and enlightening.

“I thought it was very informative,” Alexa Chu ’11 said. “I had never heard of the financial side of baseball, and his career development was fascinating.”

If nothing else, Mariner left the audience with perhaps a different frame of reference when looking at baseball.

“At the end of the day, this is a business,” Mariner said. “I try to bring that perspective.”

The 2011 MLB season begins on March 31.

Comments