A’s To Escape Disaster of Their Own Creation

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, the Oakland Athletics revealed that they’ve taken a concrete step toward building a ballpark in Las Vegas. Well, not “concrete” in the literal sense, but the A’s have “signed a binding agreement to purchase” a place to put concrete, a 49-acre plot near Allegiant Stadium (home of the NFL’s Raiders) and the Las Vegas Strip. Pending approval of a “public-private partnership,” A’s president Dave Kaval told the San Francisco Chronicle, a stadium could be completed in time for Opening Day 2027.

There are still plenty of components to be juggled, but this is the biggest indication yet that the years-long effort to find a new home for the A’s in California is doomed to fail. Should the A’s relocate, they’ll become the first team to do so since the Montreal Expos moved to Washington in 2005, and the first team in the AL-NL era to move three times.

At this moment, I’m struck by the beginning of the statement Oakland mayor Sheng Thao gave the Chronicle. Said Thao: “I am deeply disappointed that the A’s have chosen not to negotiate with the City of Oakland as a true partner, in a way that respects the long relationship between the fans, the City and the team.”

The “relationship,” the partnership, between fans, city, and team is a foundational pillar of the American sports franchise model. And it’s a farce. Thao is savvy enough to know it’s a farce. Kaval and his employer, A’s owner John J. Fisher, definitely know it’s a farce. But fans get attached to local teams based in part on civic pride, and mining that pride is a lucrative grift for the likes of Fisher.

Fisher, 61, is worth north of $2 billion, gained not through any particular abundance of ingenuity or effort of labor, but through inheritance from his parents, who founded the Gap. In 2005, Fisher, as part of an investment group that included his real estate partner Lew Wolff, bought the A’s, who had just made the playoffs four times in the previous five years. Since moving to Oakland in 1968, they’d won six pennants and four World Series.

When Fisher and Wolff took over the A’s, the Oakland Coliseum was outdated, part of the concrete bowl generation of multi-purpose stadiums that almost every city with an NFL and MLB team adopted around 1970 and abandoned in the decade after the Orioles moved into Camden Yards in 1992.

It was reasonable to expect the A’s to plan for a new stadium when Wolff and Fisher’s group bought the team.

According to a 2021 SFGATE story by Alex Coffey, Wolff was interested in at least exploring the possibility of building a new ballpark on the Coliseum site, but the idea was a nonstarter with Fisher.

What’s happened since, and especially since Fisher bought Wolff out in late 2016, is a concerted effort to move the A’s. Where did not seem important: elsewhere in Oakland — the famous $12 billion Howard Terminal site — or San Jose, or most recently Las Vegas.

There are three great often-repeated premises in sports comedies. The first is, “What if Kevin Costner played sports?” The second is, “What if the player or coach were a child/woman/animal/alien/some other fish out of water?” The third: “What if managerial/ownership incompetence were actually managerial/ownership malfeasance?”

When Fisher bought into the team, the A’s had been regularly competitive, and occasionally high-spending. They drew at least 2 million fans in each of the four seasons before Fisher and Wolff’s arrival, and 2.1 million in their first season. Apart from 2014, when the A’s went all-in at the trade deadline and just barely scraped over the 2 million mark in attendance, the team hasn’t drawn more than 1.81 million in a season since 2008. Last year, just 787,902 fans went to the Coliseum to watch the first 100-loss A’s team since 1979.

Here’s a question: If Fisher were on some comical Major League-type mission to tank the Athletics’ future in Oakland, how would the team have been run differently under his tenure, particularly over the past five years?

The A’s haven’t run a $100 million payroll in team history. They’ve never been in the top half of the league in payroll under Fisher and haven’t been out of the bottom quarter since 2007. They’ve frequently transcended that lack of resources due to some borderline heroic efforts by groundbreaking front offices under Billy Beane and David Forst and then-manager Bob Melvin. But with Melvin gone and the front office starting to fall behind the times, the team’s medium-term outlook is among the worst in baseball.

How else could the A’s have intentionally reduced fan interest? Constantly trading away star players, perhaps. Roping off the upper deck of the stadium. Neglecting not only upgrades to the Coliseum but the kind of basic maintenance and upkeep that would, say, prevent the Great Sewage Flood of 2016. Or the possum infestation that just last week rendered the visiting broadcast booth unusable.

Everyone who works in a major league park should be able to do so without having to rassle with varmints, on this I think we can all agree. But a possum embodies a charming underdog resilience baseball fans can get behind. It’s a funny story, under certain circumstances.

But listen to SNY play-by-play man Gary Cohen tell it.

“[O]ur tech people walked into the booth… and were immediately met by the stench of the possum having, you know, done his business in the booth. Apparently, the booth reeked so badly of possum leavings that an executive decision was made to move us to this booth, which is somewhat smaller and has a few impediments. There’s a pole right in front of me.”

That’s the kind of neglect that sends a message. We need a new stadium because the fans won’t come. We need a new stadium because this one’s toilets back up and flood the clubhouse when it rains. We need a new stadium because the visiting TV guys have to sit in obstructed view seats due to their normal workspace being so full of possum crap it’s unfit for human habitation. And most of all, we need a new stadium that’s not near the old one.

Why?

Consider the $12 billion price tag on the now-likely-defunct Howard Terminal project. The newest ballpark in the majors, the retractable-roof Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, cost a little more than $1 billion to build. And the A’s planned to spend no more than that on their new stadium, had that plan gone through. The other $11 billion would have gone to a new mixed-use development around the ballpark, $855 million of which would’ve come from public funding for infrastructure and development.

That’s the angle now. Real estate. That’s why the Braves moved out of Turner Field and into a new, less accessible park hewn out of the woods off the highway in Cobb County, so they could build and profit from a new $400 million hotel, retail, and entertainment district in the surrounding environs. That $400 million figure is roughly what the county committed to subsidies in stadium construction.

Fisher didn’t want a new ballpark so the team could draw more fans, he wanted a new ballpark so taxpayers could underwrite his real estate development project. That’s not a partnership in any meaningful sense. It’s a shakedown.

In Las Vegas, appropriate enough, he seems to have found a new and more lucrative class of marks. Kaval told Evan Drellich of The Athletic that once the land is bought, it would cost an additional $1.5 billion to develop the site, a third of which would come from a “public-private partnership,” by which he surely does not mean that the city government would purchase a one-third stake in the stadium or the team, or take in a third of the revenue from either.

Could the A’s have thrived in Oakland under different ownership? We’ll never know. Fisher never gave the team a chance, and now he’s off to fence off the commons somewhere else.

Las Vegas is an interesting venue for a major league team. As recently as a decade ago, it was viewed as a nonstarter. Too small, too hot, too remote. (Here I recall the axiom expressed in Ocean’s Eleven: “I’m sure you can make it out of the casino. Of course, lest we forget: Once you’re out the front door you’re still in the middle of the [expletive] desert!”) Too close to gambling. Too heavily peopled by transplants and tourists to develop a devoted multigenerational fan base.

One by one, those concerns are slipping away. MLB’s discomfort with gambling evaporated overnight once it became clear how lucrative legal sports betting could be. Las Vegas itself is one of the country’s fastest-growing urban centers. The city has been a going concern long enough now that there’s a growing multigenerational cultural identity. Bryce Harper, who got really into hockey when the Golden Knights got started, is the most notable of a group of Vegas-area natives that includes Kris Bryant, Joey Gallo, Amir Garrett, Bryson Stott, and Tyler Anderson.

Just last month, Harper stumped for his hometown as a potential site for a new big league team, though he specifically stated a preference for an expansion team, not the relocated A’s. Well, you can’t always get what you want.

Climate remains an issue. The average daily high from June to mid-September in Las Vegas is at least 95 degrees, which is why all the outdoor scenes in Las Vegas movies are either set at night or way out of town, where someone (usually Joe Pesci) is either yelling at or killing someone. Temperature can be mitigated by putting a roof over the ballpark, but altitude can’t. Las Vegas is 2,000 feet above sea level, lower than Coors Field but roughly twice the elevation of any other ballpark. And having the ball fly out of the yard has been a persistent problem for the city’s Triple-A team.

(Said Triple-A team, ironically enough currently affiliated with Oakland, just opened a brand-new 10,000-seat, $150 million park west of the city in 2019. I wonder what that investment is going to look like once a big league club blazes in and posts up on the Strip.)

The other open question is fan interest. Las Vegas itself has almost as many residents as Boston and Washington, and more than Detroit, Baltimore, Milwaukee, or Atlanta. But each of those cities have dense suburban populations to draw paying fans from. The Vegas metro area, while growing, would be on the small end among MLB markets.

It’s not unreasonable to expect that this market could support a major league team. The Raiders have a small stadium by NFL standards and were just 26th in percentage of ticket sales in 2022. The Golden Knights, on the other hand, are one of the highest-spending and best-supported teams in the NHL. This season, the Golden Knights spent more against the salary cap than any other team in the league, requiring nearly $14 million in injury exceptions to get under the cap threshold. And over the regular season, they achieved 103% attendance at T-Mobile Arena, also tops in the NHL.

There are three things worth considering when it comes to cross-sport comparisons of financial viability. First, the normal rules of economics don’t apply to football. The NFL prints money, always has, and always will. I’m not sure I understand it, but it’s true.

Second, the Golden Knights became so successful and popular so quickly for two reasons. Reason A is novelty. They were the first big four franchise to go to Las Vegas, validating it as a big league city. Reason B is team success. The Golden Knights spent money quickly, and made the Stanley Cup Final in their first season. In six seasons, they’ve made the playoffs five times and finished first in their division four times.

The iron law of fan attendance is this: If the team is good, fans will show up. If the team isn’t good, fans might show up, or they might not. Who wants to bet that Fisher, who in nearly two decades of ownership has made Dick Monfort look like George Steinbrenner, is going to outbid the Mets and Dodgers for Adley Rutschman in 2028?

Already, you can see the contrast between the Golden Knights and Raiders. That first mover advantage played a part in the NHL awarding that expansion franchise in the first place; the Las Vegas market might not have been so willing to embrace hockey had it not been so starved for major league sports when the Golden Knights arrived. Not only is MLB going to be the last of three leagues out of Oakland (after the Raiders and the NBA’s Golden State Warriors left in 2019), but it’ll be the last of three leagues into Las Vegas. Will the novelty of high-level pro sports be enough to draw fans with two other teams already in the city?

Third, sheer population volume matters for baseball attendance in a way it doesn’t for football and hockey. Let’s give the Athletics a new ballpark on the small end of normal for a big league team:

Las Vegas Pro Sports Attendance
Team Stadium Capacity Home Games Total Potential Attendance
Golden Knights 17,500 41 717,500
Raiders 65,000 to 71,835 8 or 9 520,000 to 646,515
Athletics 35,000 to 40,000 81 2.85 million to 3.24 million

The A’s would have at least four times as many tickets to sell as either the Golden Knights or the Raiders. They wouldn’t have to sell all of those tickets in order to be financially viable, and baseball tickets — expensive though they might be — are still way cheaper than NHL or NFL tickets. But drawing 20,000 fans per game would still require more than twice as many fans in total as either current Las Vegas team. Hitting last year’s median average attendance, a hair over 28,000 per game, would require three times as many people to buy A’s tickets as Golden Knights tickets.

If they’re good, that’s doable. If Fisher keeps running bottom-third payrolls and the A’s lose 90 games a year, probably not.

The last note to make about this potential move to Las Vegas concerns expansion. Pro sports leagues love to leave at least one attractive and hungry relocation market vacant so they can use the threat of moving to convince local government to fork over hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize owners’ real estate investments. For 20 years, that’s what MLB and the A’s have tried to do to Oakland. For the NFL, the threat city was Las Vegas. For the NHL, it was Seattle, Quebec, Hamilton, or Kansas City, depending on the year, the franchise, and the commissioner’s mood.

Actually putting a team in Las Vegas would eliminate that threat for any other team with designs on a new ballpark. And while a few owners are angling for a new facility with better amenities and/or location (the Royals and Diamondbacks are two examples that spring to mind), the A’s and Rays (or at least, half of the Rays) are the only ones agitating for a move to a different market.

That’s an indication of stability among the 30 teams, that while the Diamondbacks might like to have a roof that works or the Rays might rather be in Tampa proper, everyone’s in a good place. In other words, it’s a good time to expand into new markets. Given the huge noise in recent months about Nashville, Salt Lake City, and Portland, the league and owners would seem to agree that the time for expansion will soon be at hand.

As an ardent proponent of expansion, that’s my silver lining. We might get to see the league shake things up and add two more teams. All it will cost is the neglect and dismantlement of a once-successful team, the betrayal and abandonment of a unique and devoted fan base, and half a billion dollars that could otherwise have been used to fund public services in Nevada.

Apparently, that’s the price of salvaging the sacred bond between the team, the fans, and the body politic. The price of partnership.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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TribeToTheEndmember
10 months ago

Great article – both insightful and well written as always. Calling a publicly financed stadium a “partnership” is an utter farce and it’s good to see it called out.

El Burro
10 months ago
Reply to  TribeToTheEnd

Yeah man. Heck of an article. Great job.