In the 1970s, when Mikal Thomsen ’79 was a budding business student at WSU, he earned his tuition by compiling the stats for the football, basketball, and baseball teams. The job not only let him parlay an interest in numbers and sports into an entertaining occupation, it gave him free admission to all the games. With primo seats. During the football season, he had a bird’s-eye view from the press box. During baseball, he travelled with the team as the official scorer.
Thomsen liked being in the thick of things, following the minutiae of the games, getting a sense of the players. Today, as a business leader and wireless boom success story, he has that again—with the Tacoma Rainiers, the Triple-A team he and a group of investors purchased last year.
Thomsen developed his taste for sports as a toddler, when his father brought him to one of the first-ever baseball games at Cheney Stadium in his hometown.
Thomsen’s parents Donald ’53 and Devena ’53 had met as freshmen at Washington State College in 1949. They married as seniors. His father’s enrollment through ROTC led to service at Fort Lewis, which brought the family to the Puget Sound region. They settled into University Place, at the time a developing suburb of Tacoma.
Donald Thomsen watched eagerly in the late 1950s as the town embarked on a project to woo the San Francisco Giants’ Triple-A club to Tacoma. Local business leaders Ben Cheney and Clay Huntington joined up with the local governments to build Cheney Stadium.
“Dad was a big sports fan,” says Thomsen. “He took me and my brother to many games.” As the Thomsen boys got older, they would go on their own, or meet their father at the stadium after he closed his pharmacy for the day.
The Giants stayed in Tacoma for five years, followed by the Cubs, the Twins, the Yankees, the Tugs, the Tigers, and the Rainiers.
While he loved watching sports, Thomsen wasn’t much of a player. He did find a role in high school taking stats for his classmates’ teams, which led to his job in college.
He worked for the teams at WSU for two years, then switched his focus to student government. As an ASWSU student lobbyist in Olympia in 1977, he fought to keep tuition rates at one spot. Then he tried to ensure that if tuition went up, state support wouldn’t diminish, he says, expressing sympathy for today’s students.
He followed his facility with numbers into a career, working at different times for two major Pacific Northwest industries. “I counted pickles for Nalley’s and logs for Weyerhaeuser,” he says. While working in a log export yard in Tacoma at nights, he found daytime work on political campaigns, finally leaving his job in 1982 to be campaign manager for Ted Haley, a Republican candidate for Congress.
Though his candidate lost, Thomsen left the experience with new friends, including John Stanton, who hired him to become a consultant for a small but promising industry—cellular communications. “Back in those days a cellular phone cost about $2,000,” says Thomsen. “It was a brand new industry. And it was a lot of fun.”
Stanton and Thomsen started out working with McCaw Communications, originally a cable TV company. In 1992 they broke away and formed what became Western Wireless (of which Thomsen was president), which later sold to Deutsche Telekom and today is known as T-Mobile USA, one of the four largest wireless companies in the country. In the meantime, Thomsen met and married his wife Lynn. They have two sons, Sam and Pete.
After selling off the wireless company, Stanton and Thomsen co-founded Trilogy Equity Partners, a Bellevue-based venture capital firm. He also followed Stanton into other endeavors, including joining him as one of a group of owners for the Seattle SuperSonics.
About that time the Tacoma Rainiers came up for sale. Thomsen wanted to be an owner of the team, no question. “It was such a wonderful part of my childhood,” he says. He went down to Cheney Stadium to “kick the tires.” But what he saw caused him to turn around. It wasn’t just that the stadium hadn’t been updated since he first visited it as a child, “but there was no sign of improvement on the horizon.”
In the meantime, he was in the thick of the saga of the Sonics. The NBA team had a really tough economic picture and what Thomsen describes as the “worst arena deal in the NBA.” They did what they could to support the team. “We bought seats, t-shirts, and hats, we helped recruit sponsorships, and find friends and relatives to buy seats. We became a big sales force.”
Their efforts weren’t enough. Instead, the major owners decided to sell, with the hopes the buyers would keep the Sonics in Seattle. But then they moved. “It was a very sad time for everybody involved,” says Thomsen. “The upshot is I now had some experience with owning a team, and with seeing what the worst that could happen to you was.”
His next sports experience came as part-owner of the Walla Walla Sweets. Stanton, who had attended college in Walla Walla, saw an opportunity to buy the amateur league team, which was made up of college players looking for a summer league. “I got to spend a year watching that unfold—starting the team, getting sponsors, selling tickets,” says Thomsen. “That served me very well when it came time to think about the Rainiers.”
So in the fall of 2010 when the Rainiers, with a newly-renovated stadium, went up for sale, Thomsen was ready. “Pierce County, the City of Tacoma, and some local folks had put about $30 million into the stadium there,” he says. There were three times the number of places to buy food and four times the number of bathrooms. “And great seats,” says Thomsen. “And more opportunities to attract fans.”
“Of course, the price was a little bit higher than before,” he says. Still, he liked the general manager. It was a package deal where he could buy the team and keep the management in place. He had just hired Isaac Wells ’07 at Trilogy, and quickly put him to work on organizing the purchase and getting through the bureaucratic process of buying a team. Wells came in thinking he would be focusing on Trilogy’s technology ventures. “Little did he know he was going to get a crash course in what it is to buy a team in minor league baseball.”
Wells was up to the task. “I couldn’t have a better mentor to learn from while going through it,” he says.
Particularly challenging was recruiting other owners. “We had to convince them to not only join, but to expose their financial lives,” says Thomsen. From the time the deal closed in March of 2011, they’d raised about $2 million in new investment.
Now Thomsen is enjoying the job of ownership. Last year, he went to 20 games. And 20 of the games were sell-outs, the most the team has ever seen.
“And the new stadium is beautiful,” Thomsen boasts. He also followed the team to away games at several other Triple-A stadiums. “I was able to steal good ideas from each of them,” he says, citing fireworks, fanfare, and food.
Because the Rainiers are where the Mariners keep their extra players, “We can provide a chance to see tomorrow’s stars today.” Minor league can be more engaging, more entertaining, easier. “It’s got kind of a slower pace to it,” says Thomsen. It’s the perfect way to spend a summer evening close to home.