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Canadian Jeff Mallett applies Giants ownership lessons across sports business

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Canadian Jeff Mallett applies Giants ownership lessons across sports business

SAN FRANCISCO — The American League’s 1977 expansion presented Jeff Mallett and his baseball-loving friends in Victoria, B.C., with a difficult decision — root for the new team across the country in the Toronto Blue Jays, or the new one some 150 kilometres south, albeit across the border, in the Seattle Mariners.

“I remember it vividly, I was 12 years old, went to the B.C. Little League championship that year, we were split and I chose the Mariners,” he said. “Of course, I still followed the Jays, but in that moment, I went closer to home.”

Along with the Mariners, Mallett also followed the San Francisco Giants, and in 2002, the former president and chief operating officer of Yahoo! Inc. became one of the club’s principal partners, the first of his forays into sports ownership. The late Peter Magowan, then the team’s managing general partner, wanted a younger, Silicon Valley-connected owner for the group and a connection to long-time club executive Larry Baer paved the way.

Two decades on, Mallett Sports & Entertainment LLC also includes Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps FC, English League One side Derby County FC and the fledgling Northern Super League, a Canadian women’s soccer loop set to open in 2025.

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“I’ve been in school for 23 years as a Giants owner, meaning I’ve got to learn a ton about entertainment, sports, facilities, media, go on down the list,” said Mallett, who is missing this week’s series with the visiting Blue Jays while attending Canada’s Copa America semifinal versus Argentina and Vancouver’s Canadian Championship semifinal against Pacific FC. “Though the majority of my time is spent on Major League Soccer, as chairman of the Whitecaps and on the board of Major League Soccer, my Giants have been a great education that continues to this day.”

A lesser known but pivotal course that Mallett also continues to draw upon is that of the ill-fated Canadian Baseball League, an eight-team loop that was initially slated to launch in 2002, failed to get off the ground, lifted off in 2003 but didn’t survive the season, suspending operations after its All-Star Game.

Originally the brainchild of co-founders Tony Riviera, a former scout and restaurateur, and Charlton Lui, a former Microsoft executive, the initial business plan seemed sensible enough, with all teams owned by the league and working under a salary cap of $60,000 a month, with players earning a minimum of $1,125 a month.

There were two divisions — the Calgary Outlaws, Kelowna Heat, Saskatoon Legends and Victoria Capitals in the West, the London Monarchs, Montreal Royales, Niagara Stars and Trois-Rivieres Saints in the East — a 72-game schedule for each club, and a weekly game broadcast on The Score, then an all-sports TV network.

But there were issues well before the games started, most notably an inability to find Montreal a place to play, forcing it to essentially barn-storm without a permanent home.

Mallett bought into in the league about six weeks before the inaugural game May 21 and took over as chairman June 6. By the time he seized control of the operation, trying to save the league “was like trying to change the fan belt with the engine running.”

“The short version is they were undercapitalized and were really up against up against it in regards to some player commitments, they didn’t have the media established, etc., and so I made a pretty quick decision (to invest),” said Mallett. “Obviously, in hindsight, I’ve learned, I probably made that decision too quickly, didn’t do my usual due diligence, the proper due diligence, and I led with my heart — and my wallet — instead of my head. Got the funding in there, I don’t give a number, but it was several million dollars, to prop the league up, get it in a position to throw a pitch. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, I might have not invested in something that was (the way it was) proposed and it might have been a little more challenging than I was able to see beyond my Canadian love for baseball.”

The July 23 All-Star Game, a 5-5 tie decided by a home run derby, was the CBL’s final game, with Calgary, at 24-13, crowned champion for owning the best record at the time. While Victoria, Kelowna and, to a lesser extent, London were relatively stable, other key markets were far from, which made the initial talk of a relaunch moot.

“By the time we got to the All-Star break, it was just clear there was no way out,” said Mallett. “I believed there was more investment from the current people in the group, and there wasn’t, so there was no capital from that group. It was all on my shoulders. The original plan was a time out, literally a pause, to regather. But clearly even regathering that August, September, October, November, there was no there there, unfortunately, and it needed a longer-term plan, multiple people to come in, like I did with the Whitecaps. You need a 10-year plan. I have this expression that unfortunately plays well with the Canadian Baseball League, which is, it’s not the down payment that’ll kill you, it’s the mortgage.”

That realization is ever-present in Mallett’s work these days, especially with MLS Next, the league’s youth program, and the women’s Northern Super League. On a regular basis, “I’ve literally pulled things from the Canadian Baseball League experience of how to make these second leagues or smaller leagues work and get moving,” he said. “So there are some, I guess, positives to (the CBL experience) 20 years on.”

Another one is the way shuttering the Canadian league allowed him to focus on the Giants. At that time, he’d been asked to take on more and more responsibilities with the club, which in 2002 lost the World Series in seven games. Barry Bonds was tearing through his tainted peak then, too, while the World Series rings eventually came, too, in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

It’s been a wild ride.

“You’ve got to be super thoughtful,” Mallett said of his approach to sports management. “It’s been 16 years in Major League Soccer and that continues to be an investment. It really does. And you have to have the wherewithal, thought process, commitment to really make it last, and unfortunately did not have that at the Canadian Baseball League.

“I put that disappointment in my back pocket. I focused on doing the best I could because I was asked to come into the Giants, and that’s where I use my baseball energy.”

Energy well spent.

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