Baseball, it seems some believe, is one of the very few businesses in the world where a failure to sell the product is the fault of the consumer. National outlets publish pieces on a regular basis that assail fan support in Oakland and Tampa Bay.
“Look at all those empty seats!”
The logic that follows is something akin to “That market just doesn’t care about professional sports.” As if the Tampa Bay Rays novel idea of splitting the season between two cities will resolve the team’s inability to capitalize on a market with more than three million people by giving them two markets with three million people each to blame for their lack of market penetration.
To their credit, MLB ownership groups far and wide called this canard for what it was. The Tampa Bay Rays are the Tampa Bay Rays for the time being. No Montreal half season experiment for you, Mr. Sternberg. A similar debate, though, is playing out in Oakland and the same logic reigns supreme.
“People in Oakland don’t care about professional sports. If they did, they would be in the stands every night.”
This is a lazy way of looking at things. For example, if a Hollywood studio releases a big budget film that critics love, but audiences don’t show up… How many articles are written that blame the movie going public?
I was born in the shadow of three World Series trophies in Oakland, CA. It was 1975 and parades were commonplace near Lake Merritt, on the sunny side of the Bay. This fact means I have grown up, my entire 47 years, attending baseball games at the Oakland Coliseum. This would lead some to question my ability to be objective on the subject.
In preparation for our fan driven “We Are Here” reverse boycott on June 13th, where these two teams that defy conventional wisdom of how to sell a product will meet, I’d like to enter some evidence to rebut this logic. I feel like baseball fans, MLB ownership groups, the Oakland A’s ownership group, and the City of Oakland all deserve an objective look at things they should be thinking about ahead of any potential relocation. And, yes, I have some objectivity to share with the good City of Las Vegas and State of Nevada as well.
The Fisher Legacy
Starting with the Oakland A’s and principal owner John Fisher, let’s run through some crucial facts.
The A’s are notable amongst many baseball fans as an equivalent of the little engine that could. This is primarily based on their stellar record of making the playoffs, 11 times from 2000-2022, on shoestring budgets. Most commonly referred to as “Moneyball.”
I loved the Moneyball era. It was fun in 2000-2003. But rather than romanticizing this time as a “David v Goliath” sports story we should think about this for what it really is. As Moneyball adherents like to say, we have the data.
Moneyball became the management approach that ruined baseball. We know this now in 2023 because MLB had to implement rule changes in order to try and get fans to care. Moneyball resulted in long, boring games. Essentially beer league softball played by millionaires.
MLB attendance peaked in 2007 with 79,503,105 people passing through the turnstiles in the 30 parks across the country. This was around the time that all MLB teams were racing to catch up in the analytics arms race.
As that arms race played out, attendance across the league started a long trend downward. By 2019, the year before we could blame a pandemic for lack of people paying for MLB’s product, MLB reached its lowest point in the modern century. In 2019, 64,556,678 fans passed through the turnstiles. That is the lowest fan turnout since 1997 when 63,168,689 people paid to see MLB in person.
To put this another way, MLB lost more paying fans than the entire Chicagoland Area has people. It brought attendance to levels not seen since the sport was struggling to recover from a canceled World Series.
This is what Moneyball has truly wrought. It was never a “David v Goliath” story, it was a lack of investment and misunderstanding that all fans cared about was wins and losses in the grand scheme. It was pennywise and pound foolishness passed off as revolutionary.
Oakland A’s fans were caught on the bleeding edge of a movement that would eventually suppress fan engagement in every MLB market. Is it any wonder that we aren’t excited to pay hard earned cash to watch an inferior product with a documented lack of investment?
This is Fisher’s legacy, for now. He can change it.
MLB Owners Angle
For years there have been rumblings that members of the MLB Ownership Club have had misgivings about how some small market teams spend Revenue Sharing checks. It is true that these concerns led to the A’s being removed from Revenue Sharing. This is because the idea of what “small market” meant evolved, officially.
Oakland is not a small market. The A’s are a lower revenue team, because of how they have failed to exploit that market. MLB reversed course in the most recent collective bargaining agreement and the A’s were returned to Revenue Sharing recipients with the knowledge that they had to have a new stadium deal in place by 2024 to remain recipients.
This is all the proof I need to know that in their heart of hearts, most MLB owners understand that my fellow A’s fans and I are not the problem. But if I could sit in a room with them and share one idea about why they should not, under any circumstances, allow the A’s to move to a new market… I wouldn’t even talk about baseball. I’d talk about America’s fastest growing professional sport, a new stadium and the richest market in America.
What does that have to do with John Fisher? Well, he is the owner of the San Jose Earthquakes Major League Soccer Club. They play in the heart of Silicon Valley. They have a new stadium. They are consistently in the bottom of MLS per game attendance.
What does this have to do with the other MLB owners? In order for an MLB team to relocate, 23 MLB clubs must approve the move. We have already heard MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred say that an A’s move would result in no relocation fees. Manfred has also talked of expansion once the A’s and Rays stadium situations have been resolved. The A’s have targeted the Entertainment Capital of the World as a fallback option.
If you were an MLB Owner and you thought of all of these things in one paragraph… would you really be willing to give up, first, an interesting market like Las Vegas for nothing? Second, to a guy who has taken your Revenue Sharing checks and padded his profit instead of investing in the shared product you all run together? Third, limit options for an even larger payday from expansion? Fourth, all of this on behalf of an owner that has shown his lack of investment in the on field product has dampened fan engagement in two different sports?
To put it plainly, circling back to the discontent around how John Fisher spends Revenue Sharing checks. Las Vegas is smaller than any existing MLB market. Do the other owners really want to put a Fisher led team in a market that will always be a Revenue Sharing recipient? Is that a sustainable solution?
I’d love to ask each owner of an MLB club this question: “Do you really think the people who run a business that couldn’t find a way to drive engagement in a nearly 13 million people strong Megaregion will be better at serving a market with just over 2 million people?”
I don’t think for a second that I will ever be in a room with all of MLB’s owners. I hope they read this and think it through. Especially when we all know that the league just vetted at least two potential buyers of the Los Angeles Angels.
And one of those potential buyers has taken a moribund, losing sports franchise in the Bay Area and turned it into a dynasty. All because he invested in the on court product. Which led to him investing in the premier arena in the NBA. Joe Lacob can get it done in Oakland and bring positive investment to the brand of MLB. Why wouldn’t you just encourage John Fisher to get it done where he is, or sell to a man who has proven he can and will get it done?
You lose no expansion market. You leave a potentially attractive market open for maximum expansion fees. You lose no relocation fee. You gain a successful business in a very large market. What is not to like?
One last thing to consider. Oakland is home to a vibrant African American community. You all say you want to grow the game amongst the African American community. It is embarrassing how much African American participation has decreased over the years. Is moving a team many African American people root for away from those African American people serving that goal?
I think some may point to the Oakland City Council as an obstacle. I think we should take an objective look at that.
Oakland City Government
I do believe that it is completely fair to question the effectiveness of elected leaders in Oakland and their ability to make a deal on a professional sports stadium. You have the Raiders recent departure to Las Vegas as Exhibit A. You have the Warriors recent departure to San Francisco as Exhibit B. Though, Exhibit B is a little flimsy if you consider the Lacob ownership started with a press conference in San Francisco, that was always his plan. But, it doesn’t end there.
Exhibit C is the denial to engage on Tax Increment Financing in the Jack London Square District, adjacent to Howard Terminal where the A’s have planned to build a new ballpark and surrounding development for five years. The City Council denied that TIF plan for infrastructure financing instead claiming ownership of the problem and then relying on Federal grants to fill the gap. Federal Grants that they did not win.
Exhibit D for some folks would be the giant nothing burger of a press conference announcing an agreement that was originally announced 18 months prior for a plan at the Coliseum site for an NFL stadium and attracting a WNBA team. An NFL stadium that no NFL team is remotely interested in after two different Raiders tenures that ended in relocation. A WNBA team that would be fun to root for, but hardly provides the number of dates and crowd sizes to justify regular operation of a 20,000 seat arena.
All of this says “Oakland City Government is in over its head when it comes to professional sports.”
Thankfully, the City of Oakland doesn’t have to be sports experts to understand the value of a bustling neighborhood on the waterfront. As such, under former Mayor Libby Schaaf, the City approached negotiations of the ballpark plan as a lever to get long needed improvements and a new neighborhood underway in JLS. Schaaf is now gone, but current Oakland leaders just have to understand that infrastructure investments by cities and states have ROIs of 15-45% and that they have the tools available to invest in a neglected part of the city that will lead to that bustling neighborhood. Limited Obligation Bonds can replace the missed grants.
Can Oakland leaders see past the identity politics of “billionaire bad” and to the opportunity that infrastructure investment presents? Time will tell, but it is definitely running out with the A’s and Port of Oakland’s Exclusive Negotiation Agreement scheduled to end in July.
All of the above information really should give pause to elected leaders in Nevada. They must be looking at this and thinking of two potential futures. One where they have an MLB team more securely and quickly because they have made a deal with John Fisher and the A’s are coming to town. The other where they have to wait a few more years to compete with other regional hubs for the ability to host a franchise.
On the one hand you have an owner who is asking to have the State pay for a large portion of a baseball stadium adjacent to a casino. This just after you already made a similar deal and forked over $700M for a football stadium. A deal that many locals are questioning in hindsight. This for an owner who has shown across two sports franchises that investing for growth is not exactly his strong suit.
On the other hand, you risk delaying a few years and perhaps not getting a team at all, against the upside of having a team with a local owner, perhaps a casino or hospitality magnate, who understands the local market. One who presumably understands that entertainment and hospitality are related industries and both require significant, smart investments to sustain over the years.
A local who will know how to build a new brand that uses local flavor. A team name that pays homage to Sin City? A color scheme that honors the desert environment?
Perhaps a magnate that won’t come carpetbagging from out of state with his palm open seeking tax money for his private venture is a better opportunity to pursue than a second carpetbagger from California?
It, at least, deserves serious consideration.
We Are Here
This all may read like an impossibly complex situation. The A’s have been working on a new stadium since before the Raiders came back to Oakland in 1996 and left again following the 2019 NFL season. The safe money has always been to bet against anything getting done.
There is a simple path forward. John Fisher decides he wants his legacy to be something other than a cheap owner who invested just enough to not win the big one while running sports franchises at the bottom of fan engagement in two different leagues. Oakland decides that building infrastructure is a great investment and worth floating Limited Obligation Bonds to cover. It is about the tax revenue that people living and working in a neighborhood 365 days a year generate for them. The stadium, which they aren’t paying for, is just the lever they can pull to get that neighborhood, afterall.
In either case, the fans are not to blame. The We Are Here reverse boycott is our way to ignore learned helplessness and deflate inaccurate narratives. Join us at the Coliseum on June 13th and feel the power of a fanbase that has always known how to have fun at a subpar ballpark, 3,000 or 30,000 in attendance. Help us remind the world that it is the job of a business to earn their customers time and money, not the consumers job to support a badly run business. Whether it is in Oakland, San Jose, Tampa Bay or Las Vegas… It is the job of the owners to sell the product. Full stop.