The Big Lew Wolff Interview, Part 2
Be sure to check out Part 1 of this interview, posted yesterday. You can also get the full interview in PDF and e-reader formats by donating $5 via the PayPal link on the right.
ML: As I understand it, you had met with Mayor Quan in Oakland recently.
I’m actually having lunch with her today. I have not met with her (yet). She has been very nice to make time to see me. There’s no agenda.
[Ed. - I have not heard anything from either camp about what was discussed during that meeting. Nothing to the regular media either, AFAIK.]
ML: Just a chat, really.
What I’m telling you is what I’ll tell her. There’s no magic bullet here. If there was it’s simple. MLB (the panel) would’ve come to me with Oakland and said, “Here’s a suggested financial plan”
Remember that they’re the messenger. They’re just doing what they’ve been asked to do and I’m sure they’ve done it three times now. It sort of says to me that nothing has been produced that means anything, to my knowledge. There may be other reasons. The commissioner is contemplating whatever he wants to do. I think we’re getting there soon. I just don’t know.
The only thing missing is that I would’ve enjoyed the process of building the ballpark, financing it, and doing all these things. It looks like because of my age (I won’t be able to). So my son (Keith Wolff), who I think is as good or better at this than I am, and he’s a lot more calm than I am. I believe that development – public or private – can’t get done without a sense of urgency.
ML: It sure seems that way.
We have the resources and we have the people. It’s just that I final – I mean I can but I’m the commissioner’s age. I want to be very careful. None of us are going to live forever or be as active forever. I’m lucky, I think baseball’s keeping me active.
[Ed.: I have to point out that he ordered a frittata with fruit on the side, no starches, coffee with no cream. I ordered Eggs Benedict with potatoes, lots of cream with my coffee. Multiple cups.]
ML: It seemed like that happened with the Marlins, where Jeff Loria fought for years, and when he finally got approval his son-in-law took over.
That’s also true in Minnesota. I’m sad that the owner (Carl Pohlad) didn’t get to see his ballpark. We’re very advanced in our opinion. Why go out and spend $20 million on working drawings if you don’t know you have a site?
So it’s just a matter of waiting for a decision. I’m not a patient person but I’ve become very patient. The thing that makes me most comfortable is that I have a lot of backup to get this done. That’s number one. On the hand this is affecting our whole organization. We’ve got great people – Billy’s been there for fifteen, sixteen years, twenty years for Mike Crowley. I’ve promised them a new, modern facility and I feel responsible.
There’s something I think you’ll like to know. When we bought the team (2005), six teams had payrolls above $100 million. Now it’s twelve or thirteen. While Billy and his guys are fantastic at doing what they do, there’s only so much they can do. We can go and lose $30 million a year like the Haas family was doing but we’re not gonna do that. So if anyone wants me to do that I’m gonna have to say that we won’t.
[Ed. - According to Forbes/Financial World numbers the A's lost $6-10 million per year during the last years of the Haas era, which would be worth $9-15 million now. MLB's stance historically has been to consider Forbes' numbers inaccurate.]
ML: That’s something I’ve been arguing for years.
And baseball doesn’t want us to do that. All these teams that have spent haphazardly without breaking even have gone and caused problems for themselves and baseball. Remember that baseball is a partnership. The rule of thumb for running a team before you get huge revenues is that if you can keep your MLB salary at 50% of your revenues you’ll probably be at the break even point or make a few dollars. It’s not an internal rate of return 20% or something like that. You shouldn’t be in this business if you want that.
The great thing about Billy and Mike and their people is that they’ve been able to keep us competitive until we get a new ballpark – I haven’t delivered. We’re in a total revenue issue. We just need more revenue and we can’t get it without a new ballpark. We need some scarcity. We can’t have 70,000 seats or people yelling about tarps.
ML: I’ll get into that later.
I don’t have a yacht [laughs] that we’re paying for out of secret proceeds from the ballpark.
ML: We’re talking about Oakland for a little bit. Has anyone presented you with other information about Victory Court, a sales pitch, or anything like that?
Absolutely not. However, gotta be fair. I think Oakland thinks, “We’re not dealing with Lew Wolff. We’re dealing with this committee.” If the committee has done that, I don’t know about it. I think what’s happened is that they’ve discovered what we’ve known. Through no fault of Oakland, the ability to build a new ballpark – well, you know that drawing a boundary around six blocks or ten blocks doesn’t make a ballpark. Is there a soil test? Will you do eminent domain, will you take people’s property? Do the off-ramps have to be replaced? Hundreds of items. And that kind of Socratic discipline – why should a fan in LF worry about that? Those rich owners over there are supposed to do it no matter what.
ML: Let’s move on to this freeway park. It was proposed by an Oakland architect, Bryan Grunwald, who occasionally posts on the blog. 980 Park is a concrete deck over a submerged section of freeway near downtown Oakland. You said that you consider it an A+ in planning and an F in implementation. Care to elaborate?
The problem with that is that talking to you is easy. Talking to guy looking for $2 ticket night on Wednesday is different. I can’t even imagine the cost on that. Forget about a ballpark. Say you’re putting up a hospital there or a park. I think we’re talking a billion – I have no idea. Air rights, we have them all over California. I haven’t seen too many places where they’re building over there – bridges and stuff. Let’s assume that we did that tomorrow. It would take a decade. I wouldn’t know where to start. First of all, we’d say to Oakland or somebody, “Give us the platform and we’ll build on it.” The platform itself has got to be overwhelming. I love those kind of ideas. They win architectural contests, a student gets a master’s degree for doing them, and we do have huge amounts of air rights all over the world. It just will not happen. If that’s the best we can do, might as well forget it.
ML: There are few places where air rights translate into anything. Those are places where the need is great, such as Manhattan.
I just don’t get it. It would be fun to have an architectural contest. But it’s like an iceberg, beautiful at the top, huge (beneath the surface). If that’s the best any of us can do, we have to forget it.
ML: Let’s shift over to San Jose now. You’ve had an ongoing dialogue with the City and Mayor about the Earthquakes stadium. How is that going?
The Earthquakes stadium also has to be privately financed. Certainly it’s a lot less expensive than a baseball park. I think – I don’t have the numbers exactly – they just opened a new soccer stadium in Kansas City. I think it was $150 million or something and I believe every penny of that was public money [Ed.: Cost was actually $200 million, all public]. We’ve worked very hard. What we want in a soccer stadium is a place you can go – we’re not looking to build Wembley Stadium – we’re in the 15-18,000 seat goal in this market. We’ve worked really hard to get the cost down to about $50 million, which everyone in soccer asks, “How can you do that?” Well, people can do it if it’s their own money, it’s not the government. There’s no soccer stadium that I know, except maybe Home Depot Center (that was not fully public).
ML: That was years ago. [Ed.: Columbus Crew Stadium was also privately financed by Lamar Hunt.]
Well they also had a good deal from CSU-Dominguez Hills. I’d like to move it faster but we’re doing it in stages. Right now we’re going through a planning process, not for a building permit but a use permit. We spent money to tear down the FMC building, but we haven’t pulled the string yet to build it because if you look at the economics of it you’re only using it for 19 games or 20 games. The ancillary use of these facilities, which I think is better than what my consultants think, concerts aren’t what they used to be, high school graduations. It’s Silicon Valley, I think you can have product introductions there. A lot of these things that you can’t predetermine. So what we’ve done is that if there are 10 steps to it we’re in step 7 or 8. We’ve spent money to do that but we haven’t pulled the string yet.
ML: On a related note, I went to the game at Stanford against the Red Bulls. I hate to belittle Buck Shaw, but it’s a small venue. Stanford, which was another example of something built with private funds, cost controlled by John Arrillaga. Many people came from down the Peninsula, there were plenty of the existing fan base, locals. For the fans it felt like it was overdue. Did the experience of that game – 40,000 people, the place was buzzing with excitement – change your thinking or reinforce it in terms of what the Quakes need to thrive?
No. Two reasons. One, One of the people at MLS called me and asked if it was it the game or the fireworks. The game was around the 4th of July. If you look at our fireworks games in Oakland -
ML: They’re consistently higher in attendance.
So I said to our guys, “Why don’t we just work out a deal to play at Stanford all the time?” Stanford doesn’t want that. I don’t want it. No, the depth of the market means that except for three cities, maybe, soccer is not profitable. The owners – Anchutz, my guy John Fisher, the Krafts – they love soccer and they’re gonna support it if it takes another decade to get it where it needs to be. We’re the same way. But the market is not for 40,000 people. We wish it was. If we have 15-18,000 fans and they’re really on top of the field – we’re not trying to have private boxes, soccer is a family sport – we couldn’t do Stanford every week in my opinion.
ML – One of the things I noticed from the renderings is that other than the fact that it’s three sides with one open, the design looks like a miniaturized version of White Hart Lane, where Tottenham Hotspur plays. Is there anything to that?
We’re close to them as you know. I don’t think so, except that when you think about a soccer stadium the dimensions of a field are the dimensions of a field. The only real difference to me is if there’s a track, which really screws it up. All we want to do is get noisy and close. I would say that 70 or 80% of them are like that.
ML – The NFL just completed its CBA negotiations after 3 month lockout. MLB has been, as I understand it, having some ongoing discussions with the players union about their new CBA, which is expected to be done by the end of the season -
End of the year. Or sooner.
ML – Does what’s happening here with the stadium and the unknown that it is right now have any impact with the CBA?
No. However, I believe that, or I hope that we will have a non-confrontational negotiation, which has been ongoing. What you’ll have is, I don’t know the exact term, probably 3-5 years of what we call labor peace. We had that the last 5 years. I think some of the things that both sides are discussing – I don’t want to get into that information – will be beneficial to all of baseball and all of the union. I don’t think it’ll be the threatening kind of thing we’ve seen in basketball.
ML – There’s been almost no media coverage except for the occasional article from a national baseball writer.
I think it’ll get a little more coverage as we get closer to finalizing an agreement. It may not be controversial at all. This is the year to finish that agreement if possible. We’re working on it very hard. It isn’t like one side is screaming at the other.
ML – The players appear to be offering ideas that the owners may be interested in.
I follow it but I don’t want to get into it. The commissioner – you need to give him a lot of credit. His orders, and the head of the union, are we’re in this business together. Let’s work something out. I haven’t heard anything earthshaking.
ML – That’s good to hear.
Usually union negotiations get tougher close to the end. [laughs]
ML – What do you think about talk – and this is coming from national writers who are spitballing – about contraction of the A’s, Rays, or both?
We (the A’s) are against contraction. Nobody’s called us up and said, “We’re thinking about contracting you.” Contraction has a lot more issues to it than just shutting down a team and so on. They’d pay us the value (of the franchise). Then you’ve got minor leagues, places, cities all over the country with ballparks based on our activities, not just Tampa. We want to do the opposite.
ML – Do you think there’s pressure to get this done (a ballpark) so that nobody even has to consider that step?
That’s a very good question. I think getting it done has nothing to do with contraction. Baseball may have as many teams as they need. Some years it’ll be like we ought to contract. I do think that there’s so much going on with the Mets and the Dodgers, you can only address so many things. All of us are multitaskers. I don’t know that it’s so true in baseball. I don’t think it has to do with contraction. But sure, we and Tampa both need viable environments for our fans, or we won’t have any. It isn’t anything against any city.
ML – Do you and Stuart Sternberg (owner of the Rays) ever commiserate at the owner’s meetings about whose plight is worse?
I’ve decided that mine is worse than his. He’s a good guy.
ML – He’s also a little younger.
He’s got more time. We don’t commiserate so much but we are both concerned. Very concerned.