It all started as an experiment in forced scarcity. The reasoning: to create a more intimate environment for fans. Instead of improving the atmosphere, the tarps on the old upper deck have become a symbol of the great philosophical divide between A’s ownership and A’s fans. Ownership made the change to better control staffing levels and associated costs. They wanted to get fans accustomed to a two-deck ballpark concept that they were hoping to transition to in a few years. We’ve now had six seasons with the tarps on the upper deck with no ballpark forthcoming. A few changes were made over the years:
- 2009: All You Can Eat sections introduced for 316-318
- 2010: AYCE sections converted into Value Deck, where all tickets include $6 of food/merchandise credit
Regardless of the changes, fans looked at the installation of the tarps as a change done to spite the fanbase or drive down attendance. While the former is more of an emotional argument that can’t be proved, the attendance effects can’t be argued. Over the years, some of the youth culture that liked to hang out in the upper deck were displaced. They didn’t relocate to the Plaza Reserved level en masse. Some of the heartier types went to the bleachers. Many just left.
(One side effect of the current layout is how much more cramped the Coliseum is for fireworks shows. My friends and I got in line for the grass far too late sit there, and ended up sitting in the lower deck. Since so many sold seats face away from the display, those fans are forced to move down to the field or relocate elsewhere in the stadium to properly view the show.)
As the two sides remained divided over swaths of vinyl, the team on-the-field suffered through fits and starts trying to rebuild the roster, with seemingly endless cycles of player development followed by heartbreaking trades.
All that brings us to today, where a resurgent A’s franchise is showing great improvement on the field and steady improvement at the gate. The tarps haven’t changed season ticket and advance sales in any meaningful way. Whatever data the business side wanted to gather from this scarcity experiment is probably in a large enough sample to make some sort of declaration or judgement about the upper deck. Any revenue potential for ads on the tarps evaporated as they became enormously unpopular. The limited availability Value Deck has settled in as a popular, affordable seating option.
Come 2013, it should be time to turn the page. The tarps can come down permanently. That would add 11,000 seats back to the Coliseum, bringing its capacity to 46,000 – too large for a ballpark. However, the Plaza Reserved (East Side Club) could be closed in conjunction, removing 3,000 seats from inventory. That puts the capacity at 43,000, which is still rather large for MLB but sufficient for the premium games. Use of Plaza Reserved has always struck me as backwards if the aim is to improve the fan experience. Sight lines are terrible because of the cut-off outfield, and the tier is all in the outfield, so it’s not particularly close to the action. It requires its own security and concessions staffing, as well as its own restrooms. The club behind the seats is typically underutilized during the baseball season, only coming into play for special functions such as the Root Beer Float Day.
Chances are that Wolff and Crowley (who originated the tarp idea) will stick with the status quo, since they’re already made the investment. But there is a third way that ownership could move that makes sense for both fans and ownership. The idea involves removing tarps on 12 additional sections in the upper deck (310-315, 319-324), adding 4,600 seats in the process. If those sections are added and Plaza Reserved is closed, the offset is a net 1,600 seats, bringing the Coliseum’s capacity to 36,600. That’s roughly the minimum that MLB supposedly wants for the next A’s stadium, so the change adds seats while retaining some level of scarcity. It also works from a staffing standpoint, since the “new” sections are accessed from the upper concourse. That allows the use of the same concession stands, restrooms, ramps, and elevators. The minimal security used for Plaza Reserved can be brought to the upper deck, so no change there. Sightlines will be better compared to Plaza Reserved, and some of that feel of the old upper deck can start to come back, even if part of the tier remains cordoned off or tarped.
Whether we’re talking about the 36,600 or 43,000-seat alternatives, either one is much better than the status quo. One of the problems with dealing with MLB or other pro sports leagues is that the leagues often mandate a single fixed capacity per year. The A’s aren’t allowed to remove and replace tarps on a per-game or per-series basis, which is why you get the same capacity for Giants or Yankees games as you would vs. the Royals or Rays. That rule is unlikely to change, so the A’s should consider taking at least a conciliatory step (or half-step) towards addressing the real problems caused by the existing seating configuration. No, it’s not going to suddenly convert those who have a deep-seated hatred towards Wolff/Fisher/Crowley. What it can’t do is degrade the experience any further. It might actually help. It’s worth some consideration.