The Knauss Plan, for now
Clorox CEO Don Knauss has been making the rounds, first on KQED yesterday, then on KNBR this morning, and finally on The Game during the lunch hour. All three are worth consuming, so if you haven’t done that yet, get through all three links, then come back and read the rest of this post. Cool?
Okay. Knauss was very consistent with his messaging, which should be no big deal for a CEO of a high profile public company. The bullet points from his pitch were these:
- Knauss and other East Bay business interests would like to meet with Lew Wolff and perhaps MLB to discuss options in Oakland.
- If current ownership (Wolff/Fisher) continues to believe that there is no shot in Oakland, Knauss has put together a potential ownership group with members in the East Bay and others in SoCal that could buy the team, keep it in Oakland, and build a ballpark.
- The group has identified three sites in Oakland. The preferred sites are the two on the waterfront: Howard Terminal and Victory Court. The Coliseum complex is the third site, though it is not “preferred”.
- Financing for the stadium would be patterned after the model the Giants used to build AT&T Park. This includes the selling of seat licenses.
During The Wheelhouse, Mychael Urban pressed Knauss for answers about plan specifics and why the group has never directly contacted Wolff. Knauss replied that in the first case, he wanted to at least until after the May owners meetings (though he didn’t say anything would be released at that point), and in the second case, he “wanted to respect the process” MLB has put forth with the commissioner’s panel and so forth.
Well then, how does one go about making it work as the Giants did in China Basin? Thankfully, some very smart economists - John M. Quigley, Eugene Smolensky, and Stephen J. Agostini - have gone to the trouble of diagramming the process. The flowchart below comes from a paper titled Stickball in San Francisco. It’s better known as the San Francisco Giants’ case study in the book Sports, Jobs, and Taxes by noted sports economists Roger Noll and Andrew Zimbalist. Ready? Here’s the secret recipe:
See? Easy peasy, no sweat right? Sure, there are a few things that are different, such as the need for a ballot measure. Oakland has long claimed that it doesn’t need one. That claim originated from two theories: that either Oakland could leverage redevelopment money or the powers within the Coliseum Authority (JPA). The latter still stands technically. The former? As long as Oakland’s pledge to take care of costs to put the site together stands, and those site costs keep rising (Victory Court was at last count $250 million), the Mayor and City Council are going to have an extremely difficult time convincing the voters that they shouldn’t vote on it. Even in the Coliseum’s case, going without a vote is inherently very risky because many of the people on the JPA board are standing office holders, such as Ignacio De La Fuente and Scott Haggerty. The stench of the Mt. Davis deal still hangs thick and heavy over the Coliseum, and the Authority is having trouble refinancing existing debt at the complex. Does anyone honestly think a $2+ billion megaproject like Coliseum City won’t go to a vote? The project is calling for its own streetcar! Maybe Knauss will don a Harold Hill costume the next time he does a press conference.
Then again, Knauss expressed a preference for one of the waterfront sites. We know that Victory Court is incredibly expensive and that some current landowners aren’t exactly going to roll over for a ballpark, even though they are great Oakland supporters. Maybe it’s time to revisit Howard Terminal one more time. It’s difficult to see how the Howard Terminal site would work. Matson, one of the key corporate supporters at yesterday’s press conference, consolidated operations at HT several years ago. There’s no readily available place to relocate Matson should they give up HT. I suppose it’s possible they could give up a portion, say 15 of 50 acres, in exchange for some kind of break from the Port. Then it just be a matter of dealing with the nearby power plant and prepping the site, which would require completely new pilings/foundation work (just like AT&T Park). Judging from the price tag for SF’s Piers 30 & 32, the cost would be around $80 million to start plus whatever the price is to compensate Matson. Whatever that total is, it’s probably cheaper than Victory Court. (Personally I’d pick HT just because of its proximity to Beer Revolution, but that’s just me.)
Finally, there’s the matter of seat licenses. Knauss and his partners think there’s a market there. Lew Wolff has said there isn’t a market from the beginning. Who’s right? I’ll defer to Wolff, who has access to the season and advance ticket sales rolls and has a pretty good idea of what people are willing to pay for tickets and premium offerings. The Giants’ $255 million financing package included $75 million from 15,000 charter seat licenses. That’s a $5,000 average upfront payment (available in installments, of course). Is the market really there as Knauss claims? Consider for a moment that the 49ers are selling seat licenses right now. The Raiders, if they get a new stadium built at the Coliseum, will require their own seat licenses. They may also be in the mix for whatever venue the Warriors cook up. The A’s would be entering the fray with, if using the formula the Giants used, 20% of the ballpark cost, or $100 million of seat licenses. The A’s don’t have the Giants’ 25,000-strong season ticket roll, or the reputation of having a large number of premium ticket buyers (Green Collar Baseball, anyone?). So you’d have three, possibly four teams selling seat licenses along with more expensive tickets. That’s a good way to oversaturate the East Bay, a market which has historically shown trouble maintaining solid fanbases unless the teams are ultra-successful. These financing terms don’t work unless great support can be maintained through thick and thin, or at least if some of the load can be sloughed off to corporate interests. Otherwise someone has to make up the shortfall, and as we saw from the OFMA debacle, the results can be disastrous. MLB and Selig know this, and they won’t be impressed just because someone says “we can work it out”. Selig will want to see pledges, upfront payments, real tangible proof that seat licenses can be supported and that there won’t be a shortfall that drags down the franchise. The CBA has a provision that the A’s have to come off revenue sharing by 2016, unless they’re still at the Coliseum. MLB is not going to approve a plan that creates huge risk for the team and causes them to stay on revenue sharing even with a new ballpark.
Perhaps the best predictor of how portable the Giants’ financing model is comes from a 2002 AP article which quotes former owner Peter Magowan and Rob Tilliss, the JP Morgan consultant who put the deal together. Magowan:
“You cannot expect a private ballpark to be built in Cincinnati or Milwaukee, there’s not the economic base there. It’s not the Silicon Valley,” he says. “And we couldn’t do it today. We were very lucky in our timing we had low interest rates and a very good economy.”
“It definitely is not a one-size-fits-all kind of model.”