The Neukom Doctrine

In the mid-90′s, Microsoft was at the top of the world. With unmitigated dominance over the computer operating system market, smaller competitors were crying foul as Microsoft used its stature to enter new markets and take them over. Often MSFT did this by bundling features into Windows for free, such as its Internet Explorer browser. This strategy was called “embrace and extend” though it really meant “embrace, extend and extinguish” to competitors, as Microsoft frequently added features that would lock out competitors.

Giants managing partner Bill Neukom is no stranger to this strategy, as he defended Microsoft’s practice of it during his tenure as general counsel until he left the company in 2002. Initially he and Microsoft lost the landmark antitrust case against the Department of Justice in 1999, only to have the decision overturned by an appellate court. The company and the government eventually settled out of court, which allowed the company to stay intact (DoJ was seeking to break it up). Historically, the decision for Microsoft is viewed as a somewhat pyrrhic victory, as it has struggled to innovate in the face of Google, Apple, and smaller upstarts over the past decade, resulting in flat stock performance during that period.

By building AT&T Park, Peter Magowan initiated his own form of “embrace and extend” with the fanbase by choosing a more attractable, accessible location for the Giants than the windy, transit-poor Candlestick Park. Suddenly it became much easier to bring in fans from throughout the city proper, plus well-heeled fans in Marin County (via ferry) and the Peninsula (via train). The Giants got the added bonus of tons of fans coming from the East Bay via ferry and BART. Many of those fans were ex-SF residents who moved out to warmer, cheaper suburbs like Concord and Pleasanton. In doing so, they struck at a huge part of the A’s East Bay fanbase, and while many of the hardcore A’s fans would stay allied with Oakland, the A’s lost one very important demographic: Giants fans who could frequently go to A’s games as a more accessible substitute.

Since then-A’s-owner Steve Schott couldn’t object based on the fact that the Giants were building within city limits, all he could do was to deal with it and look to improve the A’s stadium situation, which he tried with Lew Wolff at the HomeBase site and in Santa Clara. The former was declined by Coliseum officials, the latter by Santa Clara officials when rumors of Schott wanting to sell arose. Schott also infamously didn’t show for a presentation on Oakland’s Uptown site, which is the very least he should’ve done – even though Jerry Brown was never going to let an Uptown ballpark happen on his watch.

Neukom further extended Magowan’s strategy by acquiring the San Jose Giants. He also had the World Series trophy paraded all over the East Bay – though not Oakland, obviously. Now, he’s preparing to make an interesting choice regarding the Giants’ future.

Since the beginning of his tenure as managing partner, Neukom has been steadfast about the Giants’ territorial rights to Santa Clara County. The argument goes that the value of those rights was baked into the financing of AT&T Park, which means they’re also baked into the franchise’s value. As such, they’re sacrosanct and not up for negotiation. Naturally, being steadfast is not the only option that he has since Bud Selig may choose to nudge him in one direction or another. With that in mind, it appears that Neukom and the rest of his ownership group have three distinct options moving forward.

  • Don’t budge, let the A’s leave the Bay Area. The Giants have said publicly that they “hope” that the A’s are able to work out a ballpark deal in the East Bay, since it would respect the existing six-counties-to-two distribution of territories in the Bay Area. Secretly, they have to be hoping the A’s fail completely in the Bay Area and are forced to look elsewhere. The only really advanced threat of building in either Alameda or Contra Costa Counties was when Pacific Commons was in the planning stages. It concerned Magowan and Giants President Larry Baer enough that they scouted the location to see how close it was to Santa Clara County. With Fremont a bust and many outside Oakland skeptical that a privately financed ballpark deal can be done in Oakland, the Giants have to be licking their chops at the thought of a Bay Area completely to themselves. While there don’t appear to be any good relocation markets for the A’s at the moment, there’s no certainty that will remain so five or ten years down the road. Should the A’s leave the Bay Area, they would be compensated by the Giants for ceding the East Bay. The interesting thing about such a transaction is that like the Giants ceding Santa Clara County, it would place a price tag on a territory. If the argument among the big market teams is that they don’t want to see such a precedent, then they don’t want either outcome to happen. Strange, huh? It would get even more complex if the A’s were to move to Sacramento as Baer has suggested, because the A’s could lobby MLB hard to split up Northern California to gain exclusivity over much of the region up to the Oregon border and Northern Nevada, the same way Warriors and Kings TV territories are split. The split would be damaging to the the value of the Giants’ TV rights since they’d give up millions of households every game. The result is ultimate dominance over the Bay Area for the Giants, but a huge loss throughout their broader territory. From a bottom line revenues standpoint, it’s hard to say how much this helps the Giants. If the A’s move out of state, the Giants pay nine figures upfront. If the A’s move to Sacramento, the Giants lose money on an annual basis. There have been rumors about the the Giants being willing to pay off the A’s to leave, so it’s not like both teams haven’t thought about it.
  • Don’t budge, keep status quo. This option assumes many events occurring in sequence. First, Lew Wolff (or whoever the owner is if Wolff sells) would have to stay in the Coliseum several more years past the existing end of the lease while working out the details of a ballpark in Oakland. It also assumes that MLB absolutely believes that a privately financed ballpark deal can be and is being done in Oakland. The Giants would be fine with this as it maintains regional hegemony. It might not work quite as well for MLB. If the A’s have trouble filling the ballpark due to poor performance, high priced tickets, or both, the A’s will have an extremely bad debt position for MLB to deal with. As long as the A’s struggle (whether in old or new digs), the Giants will continue to essentially pay part of their revenue sharing payment directly across the Bay to the A’s, which could be $20 million or more in coming years. Remember that the Bay Area is the only market where one team effectively subsidizes the other. That’s another situation that has to give MLB and Giants ownership pause.
  • Allow the A’s to move to San Jose. Again, Neukom has been steadfast about not allowing this. How bad would the Giants be damaged? Once you remove TV money and other Bay Area local revenue, I figure that Santa Clara County alone is worth at least $25 million per year in revenue to the Giants (back of napkin guess). That’s a lot. That pays off AT&T Park all by itself and then some. Neukom’s argument is that they’d lose that revenue. Wolff and South Bay proponents counter that hardcore Giants fans will remain that way and the Giants’ losses won’t be so deep. In particular, Wolff has argued that the league should look at compensation for T-rights on an annual basis, where a threshold is set and the A’s pay for the gap that doesn’t meet that threshold. Whatever the compensation model, I don’t think the Giants would lose $25 million annually. They’d probably lose 50% of that number since many of the fans are casual and both fans and sponsors can be replaced by East Bay fans. Years ago Magowan floated a number like $100 million for Santa Clara County, while Roger Noll estimates that the actual value is around to $20-30 million. If you’re Neukom and his partners, how do you attack this? A one-time payoff, even $100 million, dissipates within 7-10 years and doesn’t do much for franchise value (currently $563 million). Noll’s number is a mere pittance to them. Even if the A’s come off revenue sharing, it doesn’t mean the Giants won’t stop paying in – they most assuredly will continue to pay, though a few million less every year. The best thing for them may be to simply shut up. But that sets up the possibility that Selig will name the price for them.

No matter what Neukom decides, it looks like he’ll have to pay. He either keeps paying to keep the A’s in their stadium rut, he pays them to leave, or he gets less revenue if he cedes the South Bay. With the aura of the World Series and record revenues pouring in, such a possibility seems extremely remote. When the time comes to figure out how all of this should work out, that glow will be the furthest thing from his mind. By no means am I sympathetic to either Neukom or Selig for dragging this out for more than two years, but this is a thumbnail sketch of the dilemma and it took 1,600 words. What price hegemony? It’s definitely not cheap. Or easy.