Two days ago, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig called the A’s ballpark a “pit,” then a day later announced he’ll be retiring next year. No relationship between the events, unless you’re an A’s fan immersed in newstadiumology, practiced in dissecting all human events through the prism of where the team will end up playing, Oakland or San Jose.
Here’s what Selig said about O.co, as it’s affectionately known by no one, on “The John Feinstein Show” on radio:
“It’s a pit,” Selig said. “It reminds me of old County Stadium and Shea Stadium. We need to deal with that. I’ve had a committee working on it for two or three years, and there’s no question we’re going to have to solve that problem.”
Talking about the A’s long-desired and long-stalled move to Silicon Valley, Selig continued:
“Look, you have one team that wants to move and the other team doesn’t want them to move, and it’s a very complicated situation. Before I leave, I’m satisfied we’ll work out something.
Really? That “other team” he’s talking about is the Giants, to whom the A’s handed over South Bay territorial rights in the 1990s. The Giants have shown as much willingness to cede them back as Republicans have to embrace Obamacare. Here’s what Giants president Larry Baer said about the issue in 2011:
The South Bay was a core piece of our business model when we bought this team. We based much of our entire business strategy on Santa Clara County being a piece of our territory, and I don’t think it is overstating it to say that allowing another franchise into our territory would set a dangerous precedent and have a traumatic effect on this franchise.
If we were to go down to 2.5 million (in attendance), we’d be in the (expletive),” Baer said. “This franchise would be completely destabilized. So, for me, the question is this: Is baseball willing to have two teams receiving money from the revenue-sharing pool or one that is so financially healthy that it paid $30 million into it?
You see, it’s a priceless thing.
After Selig’s retirement announcement, A’s co-owner and noted Oakland pariah Lew Wolff, who last week publicly scolded the team’s absent fans, didn’t sound so sanguine about a resolution:
A’s owner Lew Wolff on today’s Selig news: “This is absolute conformation of what I was hoping might not happen.”
— Eric Fisher (@EricFisherSBJ) September 26, 2013
Maybe Wolff was just being polite. But on Thursday I asked Maury Brown, president of the Business of Sports Network and a writer for Baseball Prospectus, if he might actually mean it. Because hasn’t Selig been wholly ineffectual in bringing this issue to a close?
Brown said that whatever progress, if any, has been made on the issue might now be lost.
“It’s going to be cast into all kinds of turmoil,” he said. “In the midst of trying to get a new commissioner, this issue with the A’s will probably shift into the background. In speaking to some of my sources, it sounds like (the process for picking Selig’s replacement) is an internal move, and I asked if there were plans for a search committee. The reply was coy: ‘We’ll have to see down the road.’ Which led me to believe that Selig is going to try to handpick somebody and sell that individual, and then try to get the owners to approve it. So it’s cast an uncertainty as to what’s going on.”
A lame-duck Selig is even less likely to put the issue on the front burner, Brown said.
“I would think that Bud Selig has not been able to find a suitable solution that would address any of the particulars to make anything happen. If they’ve gone on for more than 10 years on this issue, I would think that between now and January 2015, this issue will probably continue to languish. Like most any difficult political issue, if you can pass that on to your successor and let them deal with that problem, that’s what will wind up happening.
“I think that Selig’s decision does not bode well for resolving this issue.”
I asked Brown why he thought the A’s were still having so much trouble drawing in the midst of a couple of terrific seasons on the field. (They drew 1.8 million this year, 23rd in the league despite being tied, currently, for the second-best record in baseball.)
“You get into almost a psychological discussion,” he said. “During the ’80s and the Finley era, there was a feeling that the A’s were a powerhouse. Now (with) the whole ‘Moneyball’ thing, fans think we’re going to just nickel and dime it on smarts. And any kind of star power we see, any players we want to hold onto and root for, will go the way of free agency when the time arrives.”
The boom-and-bust cycle created by the A’s brainy but moneyless approach can hinder long-term fan loyalty, Brown said.
“It takes time in periods of losing to actually get your fans to move toward this belief that, ‘Wow, it’s for real.’ Conversely if you’re a winning organization for a number of years, very rarely does your attendance die very rapidly. The Phillies are an example; They’ve stunk for a couple of years now, but their attendance is in the middle. It takes time for fans to go, ‘Oh, they really are in a rebuilding phase.’ It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the Giants, after having won two World Series in three years, and this year they just fell off the rails.”
The stadium issue
Brown thinks Wolff’s San Jose-or-bust mentality hasn’t helped attendance, either. “He has not endeared himself to Oakland by saying there’s no solution here, so (some fans) have grown apathetic.” Like many, though, Brown thinks the real solution to the attendance problem is a new stadium. Of the current O.co Coliseum, he said, “It’s the last facility in all of baseball that has both NFL and MLB games going on. The cookie-cutter design stadium that was so prevalent (in the 70s) does not lend itself to the ballpark experience anymore.”
Jeffrey August, who has written for the blogs Athletics Nation and Newballpark.org, agrees. “I think the Bay Area can support two teams, but they both need to be in situations that are similar to what the Giants have now, which is a world-class stadium that people want to come to regardless of how well the team plays.”
August, who lives in Pleasanton, has been an A’s superfan since he can remember. He goes to between 20-40 games a year, occasionally checks them out on the road, and even made a Cooperstown pilgrimage to see Rickey Henderson inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He’s way into the current team. “I happened to meet Josh Reddick’s dad at one point,” he said excitedly, “and he and I have been texting each other every day.”
Interestingly, August doesn’t much care if the A’s move to San Jose. While he thinks Lew Wolff should probably quit yapping to the press about his troubles, he’s also of the opinion that the owner has gotten something of a bad rap, and that the vitriol of the team’s fans isn’t merited.
“If he thinks that a (new stadium in Oakland) isn’t viable from a business perspective, then he knows a lot better than somebody who’s in the right-field bleachers. To hear people say he hates Oakland because he doesn’t see a workable business plan, it’s histrionic and not really based on fact.
“I’m an Alameda County taxpayer. I’d actually be happy if Lew Wolff built a stadium in Alameda County on his own dime. But if I have to pay more taxes for him to build his stadium, I don’t want to sign off on something like that. Look at the Raiders situation; the city of Oakland and Alameda County bent over backwards, and now they’re paying money from their general funds that should be going to services, to pay for Al Davis’ mortgage. If Lew Wolff avoids that, I’m his biggest fan.”
Another big A’s fan, Mike Headley, agrees. “They are not having problems selling tickets because of Lew Wolff,” he said in an email. “They’re having problems selling tickets because the stadium doesn’t attract the casual fan like the gem across the bay. The true hardcore fans cannot support a team alone, regardless of how awesome they are.
“I want a team that has long competitive windows and shorter lean years,” Headley continued, echoing Maury Brown’s analysis. “If Billy Beane had $10 or 20 million to work with every year, he could continue to use his genius to create the base team and plug the holes with free agent stars who aren’t just trying to rebuild their careers. I don’t see this as being possible in Oakland, and I’m frustrated that Bud Selig still hasn’t forced a solution to the territorial rights to allow the team to go to San Jose.”
Many A’s fans do not agree, of course. See here and here. And when I attended the “Moneyball” Oakland premiere in 2011, more than a few audience members booed at the mention of A’s ownership. Someone booed really loudly when Billy Beane/Brad Pitt remarked on screen that the A’s stadium was a “dump.” City of Oakland boosters think Wolff hasn’t given Oakland’s new stadium proposals enough consideration. The city’s had a rough few years, and many do not want to see the team move under any circumstances. Here’s an editorial in the East Bay Express that argues, in essence, that the A’s are Oakland and Oakland is the A’s:
The A’s franchise … benefits greatly from the people, character, and history of Oakland, not to mention their intelligent, loyal, and outrageously passionate fans. The distinct Athletics brand would not be as resonant throughout baseball had the team not been nested for nearly fifty years in a city defined by values like tenacity, initiative, ingenuity, spirit, resilience, and originality.
This, however, does not seem like an argument that is going to sway a baseball team owner. As KQED’s Nina Thorsen reported in her 2012 series on the Oakland vs. San Jose issue, these days, a corporate clientele is more relevant to a team’s revenue stream than the people cheering in the bleachers. Which makes San Jose, in the heart of Silicon Valley, a much more attractive location.
John Vrooman is a sports economist on the faculty of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He says corporate clients are the most important ticket buyers. “It’s true for the Sharks, it’s true for the Warriors, it’s true for the Raiders, and it’s going be true for the Athletics,” Vrooman said. Corporate clients are valuable in sports because they commit to — and pay for — their season tickets and luxury suites months, or even years, in advance. And those sales don’t depend on how well the team is playing, who the opponents are, or the weather at game time.
I know. Not something your average A’s fanatic, bidding on that collectible Vida Blue bobblehead doll on eBay, wants to hear.
More revenue on the way?
Maury Brown, of the Business of Sports, said whether the A’s current on-field success will translate into more working capital will depend on how far the team advances into the postseason.
Brown said if the team goes out in the first round, as has been the case for many A’s playoff appearances, then they’ll only see a “slight uptick” in revenue. But “if they go very deep, then I would suspect something pretty substantial.” A pennant or World Series, he said, would goose season ticket sales for next year. The amount of extra money coming the A’s way also depends on how long each series goes.
“The first games, almost all of the proceeds go to the players,” Brown said. “If they go past that, games 5, 6, 7 in best-of-seven series, that all goes to the owners and that’s where the real gravy comes in. There are potentially $10, 20, 30, 40 million dollars to be had per team. It depends on how many games are played and who they’re matched up with. If it’s an A’s-Dodgers series, and the Dodgers charge a premium, they would be beneficiaries of that.”
So, A’s fans, maybe you want to root for your team to win, but not to sweep.