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Better Hate An Owner

Ken Kendrick Is Just Another Rich Guy

Illustration by Jim Cooke

Welcome to Better Hate An Owner, a recurring feature in which we learn more about all those awful old people who get to hold the trophy first at championship ceremonies. Today’s entry is about Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick.

How much of his soul did he lose in making his money?

Ken Kendrick didn’t make his money doing anything illegal. He founded a software company called Data Technology company which merged in 1979 with another company called Datatel. Essentially, he was an early tech bro in the rise of computer technology, and then worked as president of a Texas banking company. Datatel sold to General Motors for $511 million in 1988 and set Kendrick for life after that. He made more money by investing early in Woodforest National Bank, which now has more than $1.7 billion in assets. Woodforest National Bank is Walmart’s largest retail partner so that’s not great, but what’s worse is that they offer bank accounts with some of the highest fees in the country and long probation periods to people. 

Is he a fail-child?

No! He grew up in Princeton, West Virginia and his dad owned a two-pump gas station and later a clothing store. He attended WVU, and seems to have grown up middle class before making his money in software development. 

How much public financing has he sucked out of the community?

The Diamondbacks built the first retractable roof stadium in MLB with a grass field in 1995 with the help of $253 million dollars in public financing through an increase in sales tax in Maricopa County. The original estimate for the stadium was $279 million, so public financing was supposed to pay for almost all of the stadium. But the final price ended up being $364 million, and the team was responsible for the over budget cost.

Kendrick was a part-owner from the foundation of the Diamondbacks that year, so he can be held partially responsible for this egregious use of public funding. That obscene amount of money, however, was not enough for Ken Kendrick. In 2016, the Diamondbacks decided that the stadium needed about $65 million worth of repairs, and estimated that it would need a total of $187 million of upkeep costs over the final 12 years of its lease with Maricopa County. And of course, they wanted the taxpayers to pay for it.

Maricopa County, already having paid a ton of money to build this stadium, pushed back. Why should taxpayers, who had never been consulted in the first place, pay for this team? Shouldn't the profitable baseball team pay for it? Maricopa County Supervisor Andy Kunasek described the Diamondbacks as “evolving into a parasitic enterprise.” It makes sense that county officials were hesitant since a woman was literally shot by a constituent over taxpayer funding of the stadium.

Since no one would give the Diamondbacks all the funding they desired, the team sued Maricopa County in an attempt to get out of their lease. Here's what Kendrick said:

"We have made a promise to our fans, who have been partners with us on the building of this stadium and our franchise, to provide the best experience in all of baseball in a safe and welcoming environment. The inability of the Maricopa County Stadium District to fulfill its commitments has left us with no other option.”

"No other option," he says, as if the Diamondbacks are not a business that should be expected to pay for their own expenses. That lawsuit cost taxpayers half a million dollars in legal fees. In 2018, the two sides agreed to a deal that said the Diamondbacks could leave their stadium in 2022. Since then, designs have leaked for a new field. The new plans showed a smaller stadium, since the Diamondbacks struggle to fill the one they have now.

The Epstein Degree: How many degrees removed from Jeffrey Epstein is he?

Many. We found no obvious connections between Ken Kendrick and Jeffrey Epstein.

What are his political affiliations?

Kendrick appears to be a Republican. In 2020, he donated $237,400 to Republican causes including the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Republican Parties of South and North Carolina and Kentucky, and Kelly Loeffler's campaign. In 2019 he supported Susan Collins, Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, and Tom Cotton. He did not donate to the Donald Trump campaign at any time and in 2016, instead donating to Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio’s campaigns. More recently, he donated money to psychotic QAnon congresswoman Lauren Boebert's campaign.

He also held fundraisers at Chase Field for Arizona politicians in support of the harsh anti-immigration law Senate Bill 1070 in 2010. 

No one outside of Arizona thinks all that much about Ken Kendrick. The Diamondbacks aren’t a good enough baseball team to attract a lot of outside attention, and their own fanbase isn’t very large. The only time their stadium really makes the national news is when a bunch of fans are jumping over the barricades to rush at Dodgers players and get scooped up by security guards. It would be easy to ignore Ken Kendrick, then. He hasn’t been accused of murder or made his money by selling off people’s childhood dogs or even posed for a photo with Jeffrey Epstein. As far as owners go, he’s taciturn. But everyone knows it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for. Kendrick is lauded in every profile I could find for being business first and no-nonsense, for not forgetting where he came from (West Virginia), and for not flashing his (immense) fortune. The problem is that, while these characteristics may make Kendrick a successful businessman, they have made him a pretty crappy sports owner.

Kendrick has been the majority owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks since 2004, and since then he has operated the team with seemingly one goal in mind: Make as much money as possible while keeping team payroll lean. His predecessor, Jerry Colangelo, created a World Series-winning team that cost a lot of money that the Diamondbacks didn’t have. Kendrick’s great claim to success is that he dug the team out of that financial hole, but he hasn't done much else since.

Colangelo left Kendrick with almost $250 million in deferred payments to players. Colangelo’s argument was that this debt was worth it: Arizona needed to be competitive to secure a fanbase. But it’s not like Colangelo operated in a vacuum. "The partners were aware of all the financials, of all of the decisions, all the way," he told AZ Central in 2014. "We approved budgets and we approved individual contracts. There was always full disclosure because that's the only way it works.” That of course included Ken Kendrick, who forced Colangelo out of the front office after he took over majority control of the team.

People who made millions of dollars very quickly through some combination of immense luck and good timing often claim that they have obtained their wealth through a keen understanding of business. For his entire tenure, Kendrick has claimed that he is only being rational. He bought majority ownership because he wants to own the team. He fired Colangelo because he wasn’t financially responsible. He cut budgets and slashed player salaries because that’s what a good businessman does. In a 2004 profile by Craig Harris in the Arizona Republic, written right after the transition of power, Kendrick is quoted as saying, "I think we made the right decision for the future of the team. What will ultimately be the test here is what happens in the future." 

Here's how that future has unfolded so far: The team has made it to the National League Divisional Series three times (2017, 2011, 2007) and the National League Championship Series once (2007) in 16 years. Before Kendrick took over, the Diamondbacks won two Divisional Series, a Championship Series, and a World Series in six years. According to Baseball Reference, average attendance at Diamondbacks games has also dropped over the last 16 years, from over 31,000 in 2004 to 26,000 in 2019. 

Meanwhile, Kendrick's focus has been trained on off-field issues. Last year, he began the process of trying to squeeze out several of the team's minority owners, which led to three of those owners filing a lawsuit against him. According to The Athletic, Kendrick sent a memo to the team's minority shareholders telling them that unless they decided to purchase a larger stake in the team, they would be bought out automatically. An attorney representing the three minority owners who sued Kendrick told The Athletic that there was no reason for Kendrick to do this other than to consolidate his own power:

Their attorney, Roger Cohen of the Phoenix law firm Jaburg Wilk, said there is no legal basis for such an act and that all three are within their rights to continue their involvement in the Diamondbacks’ ownership group at their current level of investment. In an interview with The Athletic, Cohen said he can “only speculate” as to Kendrick’s motives but he thinks “it had to do with consolidating and increasing the ownership stake of the remaining owners.”“Why they would want to do that, why they would treat our clients that way, to be honest, I can’t imagine,” Cohen added. “It doesn’t make any sense. There is no logic to it.”

And then there's Kendrick's long, ugly fight Maricopa County detailed in the section above. Things got so heated that County Supervisor Andy Kunasek sent a letter to the D-backs' president Derrick Hall, saying the baseball business was doing “irreparable harm” to taxpayers. “Take your stupid baseball team and get out,” the Arizona Republic reported Kunasek as saying to Kendrick. He followed that up by telling him to go back to “fucking West Virginia.” 

Once it became clear that the team wasn't getting any more money from the county or the city of Phoenix, the Diamondbacks took back ownership of the stadium and ... did not do the repairs they claimed they needed. “My image of that stadium, as the fans would see it, is like a classic automobile,” Kendrick told USA Today this February. “In a stadium of that age, you have some of those things. How we’re going to be able to manage all of those long-term is really very challenging. We won’t be able to.” His argument is one baseball owners love to trot out whenever it's time to try and steal more public funds: That routine stadium upkeep is an immense expense that should be shouldered by the taxpayers, and if it isn't then the team will have no choice but to start looking for a new home. It’s very similar to the one the Texas Rangers used as an excuse to suck up millions of dollars in public financing to build an uglier, shinier new stadium next door to their old one.

None of this makes Kendrick all that special. He's just one of the many sports owners who refuse to think about owning a franchise as anything other than an exercise in profit-chasing. I watch a lot of baseball and never think about the Diamondbacks. You probably don’t either. That’s because of Ken Kendrick. That’s because they aren’t a baseball team. They’re a business. 

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