The Big Lew Wolff Interview, Part 3
[Ed. - Before I start again I have to mention that there are some blogs out there who are cutting and pasting huge chunks of this interview for further commentary. I have no problem with that. I do have a problem with the fact that I haven't received a single request to use this interview for any kind of reuse of large chunks of it. I mean, really, it's not like I've spent a lot of time on this. It's not like people care about professionalism or common courtesy anymore. How about a heads up? Maybe a link to the original interview? It's the least you can do. The very least. We may not agree on much, but we can at least show courtesy and respect others' work. That's all.]
ML: You’ve frequently said here and everywhere that it’s all about keeping the A’s in the Bay Area, in this market -
For our ownership.
ML: Right. Recently, Giants president Larry Baer has hinted that while he supports the A’s looking in their territory – Alameda and Contra Costa counties – but if they can’t they’re welcome to try somewhere else such as Sacramento. How do you respond to that “hint” by Baer and the Giants?
If tomorrow you had the only McDonald’s in San Francisco, and fourteen miles away there was another location in Oakland. And your SF McDonald’s is worth $10 million and the Oakland McDonald’s is worth $100,000. That was fine for you (SF). Now the Oakland location says they’re closing up and they’re moving outside of the territory. What happens to the only McDonald’s then? Larry and the Giants would benefit hugely, I guess, in their minds. They dominate the market now, they may want to dominate it totally. Their market value might jump a huge amount.
However, I don’t get it. I don’t get why they’re so adamant about this. It’s just a difference of opinion.
ML: Do you think the Giants have a motive for protecting their territorial rights other than what they’ve stated publicly? Which is – they just want to pay off the ballpark.
I’ll have to say that going back to – forget that it’s Oakland or San Jose – there are four two-team markets. [Ed.: Note exclusion of DC-Baltimore] Three already have the same boundaries. I think this one should too. I think we would have a great rivalry with them. Why shouldn’t we have a beautiful ballpark? In fact, one of the backers and instigators is my partner and his family, the Fishers. I think if you actually went to a lot of the passive investors in the Giants – these are people who want to support the Bay Area, not just one team. What is it gonna hurt? In fact I think it’s gonna be better for them too. Everybody has their own views.
ML: There’s been some talk from fans and media about challenging baseball’s antitrust exemption. Knowing what you know, being in what they call “The Lodge”, is there anything realistic about that?
Well, today we live in a litigious society. If you want to sue over this chair you’re sitting on you can sue the manufacturer because you’re not feeling well. We are not of that ilk. We are a partner. Maybe this is an odd view, but I believe that we’ve entered a partnership. This is what the commissioner chose. As I said before, we’re not even thinking about it (suing). It’s not right based on being part of a partnership. Therefore it’s not a lever for us, it might be for someone else. If the reverse is true, maybe a smart attorney running a baseball team might say, “We can do this, we can do that.” [Ed.: I chuckled] We’re not going to do it, that’s all there is to it. It’s just not right.
ML: This seems to be something very consistent that you’ve said, even going back a couple of years ago. The partnership idea that all of the owners are in one boat and they’re all supposed to be rowing in the same direction.
I know I’m a little naïve when it comes to that, in the world that we live it, but that’s how I’m gonna run it.
ML: Okay. When it comes to making a decision, is it really all up to the commissioner?
Yep. Well – that’s a good question – he would need a vote of the owners [Ed.: 3/4 of owners]. Since I’ve been there, there haven’t been a lot of votes. Maybe the Giants wouldn’t vote for it or a couple of teams. Again, it’s a collaborative thing. With all the work that’s gone into this, whatever the decision is, it’ll have a lot of backing. I think if he decides to let us move to San Jose that he’ll get a lot of votes. I don’t think the voting will be an issue. He even has the power to go beyond that if it’s for the good of baseball. I really don’t sit there and analyze this from a legal point of view. If the decision is “you can’t” or “you can” the support will be to follow the commissioner’s lead.
ML: And that’s really all you’re looking for. Yes or no.
ML: You mentioned the Dodgers and Mets offhand. Are they on the front burner and the A’s on the back burner, or does it not work like that?
You’d have to ask the commissioner. No, I don’t think we’re on the back burner. I really think the Mets and the Dodgers are two different situations. But they’re both important (teams), important markets, important to us. The Mets aren’t suing baseball. They’re just trying to survive – and maybe they made some errors with this Madoff thing – I don’t know that much about it. The Dodgers are attacking, they put their team in bankruptcy. If they follow the constitution of baseball that’s cause for taking over the team. I’ve got my own stuff I worry about every day. We need those markets to have ownerships that are committed and capable of not getting into these issues.
ML: Commissioner Selig, when asked about what’s happening with the A’s a couple of times this year has said, “We’re working on it,” in nice, vague terms. Are they really still working on it? Seriously.
[laughs] I think what he’s working on – and I don’t know – is unless Oakland knows something that I don’t know. I answer is I think he’s contemplative. Way beyond where I am. We talk several times a week, not on this issue but on others I’m involved in. I’m having a – I enjoy the commissioner. We’ve known each other a very long time, longer than I’ve known my wife – and we’ve been married 54 years. I think he’s got enough information to make a decision. He may be trying to figure out a good way that the Giants are happy and we’re happy. He tends to do that. And right now, what choice do I have? Last night we won a game. That’s more fun than worrying about this crap.
ML: I agree, I agree. Now let’s talk a little about the Coliseum. I’m sure you’re aware that attendance is up this year as opposed to last year, and over 2009 as well.
When Russia went from communism to capitalism they had a huge jump in economics, but that’s from a very low base. [laughs] When I talk to the commish he’ll say to me, “You know, you’re up 4.5%.” The one thing he follows is attendance. Now I follow paid attendance, I’m not sure that he does.
ML: Fair enough.
Attendance is up (league-wide) according to my last conversation. They’re up a little bit in the American League.
ML: Yeah, I think it turned around after the weather.
Now I don’t know if it means in the ballpark. I look at Dodger Stadium and it looks almost empty sometimes.
ML: I believe that it’s paid attendance and it’s somehow withstood the drop for the Mets and Dodgers.
What happens is that some people are afraid to give up their tickets. I was hesitant to give up my Laker tickets. But then I look back and ask how many games did I go to since my kids all moved out of L.A. Do I really need these tickets? And then a year later I decide to do one more year. I worry about the impact of that.
ML: I see.
I just wish the Dodger thing was settled and we could move on.
ML: In the past you’ve mentioned the Coliseum’s defects and its chronic state of decay. Could a ballpark be built alongside or replace the existing Coliseum? For now let’s put aside the financing – well no, we can’t put it aside.
No, let’s put it aside for the moment. First I looked at the Coliseum, because there was nothing downtown. We’re talking about the physical stadium. This is where I read the older (sports) writers, they’re living in the past. A lot has changed for Oakland since then. The last year the Haases owned the team they had the highest payroll in baseball and drew 1.2 million. You might want to check that out.
ML: They were. [Ed. - 1.2 million in the strike-shortened 1994 season, 1.1 million in each of the following two seasons.]
[Ed. - At this point Lew's son-in-law, Dean Rossi, comes by with his son, Arthur. It's mostly a personal conversation so I'll leave this out. Lew will drop Arthur off at the Coliseum to run around the clubhouse - every kid's dream - before heading up to City Hall to meet with Mayor Quan. Note: Two partners in Rossi's law firm help run Baseball San Jose.]
So where were we? Coliseum.
ML: So is it possible?
Let’s talk about it. Aside from the market being – Oakland used to have several major corporations, doesn’t have them any longer. The whole thing with the Raider thing, Mt. Davis, we had nothing to do with that. You can never get sight lines that satisfy two sports in one venue anymore. Even inside it’s not good to have hockey and basketball. You can do it but, you know.
There are so many physical issues. Right now if we wanted to move the fans closer, I don’t know what to do. The field is 22 feet below sea level so there’s no way to move forward without tearing down all the seats. You’d understand that better than most.
The field is great until football. The field is great because we have a great groundskeeper, Clay Wood. As soon as the Raiders come in – it’s just not good.
About the site. You can make all the drawings you want on that site. This is what really bothered me. The Coliseum wasn’t even the #1 site in the HOK study. Even Fremont was in the study. The Coliseum had a little line about some kind of utility thing. I asked if there was a title report ordered for the Coliseum. In my world that’s one of the first things you do. Nobody knew, the city didn’t know, it was just a bunch of bureaucratic nothing. So we ordered the title report, which is just about this thick [fingers spread an inch apart]. There is an easement.
[Ed. - The Coliseum Authority recently bought the land in question as part of its new Raiders stadium effort. Oakland Councilman Larry Reid envisions an ancillary development project similar to L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles, next to Staples Center. The Authority is also proposing $4 million in additional expenditures related to project study costs.]
ML: You mentioned this. It was the sewer interceptor.
It’s not an easement you can move. So any architect who wants to build over the freeway or whatever, needs to sit down and determine what easement does relative to placing a football stadium or arena. That kind of even minor detail, we could say, “oh we’ll do it” but never do it. None of that’s done. The average fan shouldn’t have to bother with that. But that site isn’t as simple as we thought.
One time I thought it would be a good idea to buy the triangle that heads out to Hegenberger (Malibu/HomeBase lots). I said, “Look, we don’t know if we’re gonna stay here, but we need that piece to do parking or mitigate, otherwise it’s chaos if you’re trying to develop that site.” All of a sudden another architect comes up with an idea for these multistory garages. Well, who’s gonna pay for those? And if you’re on the fifth floor of a garage for a baseball team, you might as well stay home. So it was just a hundred inhibitions.
Now, we recently had someone come up to me, a legitimate guy. I didn’t ask who it was as it came through someone else. He said, “Gee whiz, we think there’s a way to remain in Oakland and live with the Coliseum” and so on. Well, tell me what it is. “If you guys want to sell the team” and all that stuff. I’d like to know what you’re talking about before I would even contemplate that. Other owners haven’t been able to do anything in Oakland (build stadia) either. We’re not the only one. The Coliseum’s an over 40-year old facility. Dodger Stadium is too. Dodger Stadium, I believe, would take a minimum of $100 million to keep it going – and they keep it pretty well maintained. So you tell me what this would cost.
ML: I have no idea.
I don’t either. They (Coliseum Authority) don’t have any money. We’re constantly making repairs that are not our obligation.
ML: Really? Like what?
Leaks and things. The scoreboard. There are two of them because of football. I think they’re finally going to replace them, but if they don’t there are no more parts. If a light goes out we borrow it from another one. It’s aggravating. But they basically say they don’t have any money. They still have bonds to pay off. The place is old and this is not the time for cities to write a check for sports.
ML: Yet they’re going forward with a study for the Raiders.
All these studies. If I were an investigative reporter I’d like to know how much is spent. Supposedly that study is done. And that’s fine, they should, the Raiders are fine. Where are all these things? Who’s doing them? If it’s a six month study what happened to the first two months? We have heard nothing. And we’ve been more tolerant than the other two teams (as tenants). We’ve never affected our rights there. If we win (legally), what do we win if they don’t have any money? It was a baseball park once. I wasn’t around when any of that happened, but the amount put into that sure seems strange to me. That was before my time.
ML: The litigious part kind of speaks for itself at least for the other two teams.
Look, I’m just not litigious. I think our legal system is killing us, so much initiative. I’ve been in business almost 50 years. I’m a real estate developer. Most of my contemporaries are suing someone every three months. I’ve had two lawsuits my entire career. I think everything can be settled. But you can’t do it if someone’s not willing to cooperate.