Reaction time

It would be silly to devote a post to every single new tidbit that comes out, so I’ll do one of those rare newswraps here.

  • The East Bay Express’s Robert Gammon reported that the previous group showing interest in buying the A’s (Don Knauss, Doug Boxer, Mike Ghielmetti) is back again talking up buying the franchise. This time, they’re not alone. There could be up to three groups, including one fronted by Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber. Lacob and Guber were previously associated with the Dolich-Piccinini group in 2001. Lew Wolff continues to maintain that the team is not for sale.
  • Bill Shaikin of the LA Times partly shot down the Warriors connection when he contacted Guber, who said unequivocally that he’s not interested in the A’s. Lacob and others may be interested, though Lacob is not commenting at the moment.
  • BANG’s Marcus Thompson wrote a quite stirring column asking Oakland to act now to save the A’s in Oakland. Thompson also asked many of the important questions about both Howard Terminal and Coliseum City that currently have no answers.
  • SFGate has a new editorial imploring MLB to make a decision, once and for all. In the column is a quote from Wolff claiming that Howard Terminal’s cost would be more than $1 billion.

Pretty heavy news day, huh? Well, not according to KCBS’s Doug Sovern.

Is there actual news to report? Why yes there is!

  • The FCC is moving forward with its proposal to eliminate TV blackouts of sports broadcasts. The proposal mainly targets NFL games, so naturally the NFL opposes it.
  • The 49ers struck a partnership with fellow Santa Clara resident Intel for a major sponsorship & technology deal. Intel will provide a great deal of tech infrastructure while taking control of the big northwest gate.

Finally, Bizjournal’s Nate Donato-Weinstein has been tracking the iStar development and has an update. If you’re not aware, iStar is a developer and land owner tied to the Earthquakes stadium project. While the stadium is going up west of San Jose Airport, the iStar land is in South San Jose’s Edenvale neighborhood. The plan was to take some of the proceeds of various development activities at iStar and funnel them towards the stadium. The numbers:

  • 260,000 square feet of office space
  • 150,000 square feet of retail
  • 720 housing units
  • $10 million would be funneled to the stadium

Those numbers are important because they can provide a comparison to what is being proposed at Coliseum City.

  • 837,000 square feet of office space
  • 265,000 square feet of retail
  • 837 housing units
  • 2 hotels comprising 478 units

iStar went through numerous struggles and iterations as the recession ravaged the real estate market. Now that things are on the rebound, projects like iStar are picking up again. It’s surprising that despite the fairly large scope of the project, only $10 million is being made available. That’s one-sixth one-seventh the $60 $70 million budget for the Earthquakes stadium. Now consider that Coliseum City, whose Area A phases cover comparable development plans (other than the much greater office space) over a very long timeline. How much could the development activity realistically provide? $50 million? $100 million? While revenue sharing formulas will probably be different, there is a practical limit before eating into profitability. The Raiders stadium will cost more than 15 times as much as the Earthquakes’ new digs. Bridging the gap is the foremost issue for these stadium initiatives. Without that puzzle solved, there really isn’t much else to talk about.

Olbermann and Justice give Wolff some good advice

Last night Keith Olbermann took Oakland and Alameda County to task over the continuing sewage problems at the Coliseum. Tonight was Lew Wolff’s turn to be flogged. The clip below is a segment featuring Olbermann and longtime national baseball writer Richard Justice, in which Justice chides Wolff for blaming fans for the A’s attendance woes.

Everything’s on point. Olbermann’s sympathetic to Wolff’s plight but doesn’t excuse him. Apparently, the lead-in to this segment was a much more thorough critique of Wolff. For whatever reason Olbermann’s producers chose to leave it out. The show is not available for streaming besides scattered Youtube clips like these.

It’s too bad. I would’ve liked to have seen KO’s take on this side of the matter, if only to serve as equal time.

Justice pointed out that Cleveland manager Terry Francona and some Indians players chose to take the high road regarding the Tribe’s woeful attendance figures. That’s not exactly the same as Larry Dolan or Mark Shapiro talking. Last week Shapiro had an interview with Crain’s Cleveland which was similar in tone to Wolff’s latest quotes. Shapiro blames some of the problems on Cleveland’s market size. Fans countered that the organization has done little to earn their faith. Obviously there’s a different dynamic at work in Cleveland compared to Oakland. Circumstances are very dissimilar except for attendance figures – and one other thing. Aside from the three straight World Series in the 70’s (which Olbermann notes were not well-attended), the A’s most successful era occurred after the Raiders moved to Los Angeles. The Indians greatest success in the last 50 years occurred after the Browns abandoned Cleveland for Baltimore. The Raiders were successful for a period when they returned, and have been mediocre in the decade since. The Browns have been the AFC North’s punching bag since they returned as an expansion team. Both affected baseball teams have been unable to repeat their respective successes since the football teams returned.

I was able to watch the last airing of Olbermann for Thursday night/early Friday morning, and have seen the missing 10-minute show monologue. KO ripped Wolff, Horace Stoneham, Al Davis, the Coliseum’s sewage problem (yes, that again), Bo Pelini, Lee Elia, Craig Kilborn, and Olbermann himself for creating circumstances that lead to gaffes like Wolff’s. No, KO didn’t call for Wolff’s head. For your edification, I took a phone video of the segment (replete with poor audio, turn it all the way up) for you to view. If it gets taken down because of copyright/fair use issues, I’m sorry. Can’t do anything about that.

Note that Olbermann didn’t have any sort of solution, other than urging Wolff to not trash fans. Well, it’s nice for KO that he could jump from network to network and sue whenever he got petulant or bored. Wolff? MLB’s constitution doesn’t give him such latitude.

Someday we’re all gonna look back on all of this and laugh. Right?

Talking bobbleheads, giveaways, and expectations

The A’s held a 1973 team reunion on April 27. A raft of greats from that repeat championship team were on hand, including Sal Bando, Blue Moon Odom, Bert Campaneris, and Reggie Jackson, who was honored with a commemorative bobblehead.

While the weekend-long reunion went well, the bobblehead giveaway didn’t. Only 10,000 bobbleheads were available for the 31,292 in attendance, which left many who had waited long hours sans souvenir. It’s becoming a common theme: schedule a bobblehead day, line up a bunch of fans, someone inevitably goes home unhappy. Subsequent bobblehead days for Coco Crisp (in June) and Yoenis Cespedes (yesterday) attracted sellout crowds, leaving even more fans without a souvenir. It’s gotten to the point where if a fan is not in line several hours before first pitch, chances are he’ll go home empty handed.

A’s marketing guys Troy Smith and Travis LaDolce invited into the business offices in Oracle Arena before today’s game. I spoke with them for 90 minutes about all manner of giveaways and marketing strategy. Smith admitted that Reggie Jackson day was a debacle and that there was major room for improvement. To that end they bumped up the orders for both the Crisp and Cespedes giveaways from 10,000 to 15,000, a move they had to make months ahead of time in order to ensure prompt delivery. It’s all part of the guessing game the A’s front office constantly has to play regarding demand.

Collectible pins, which get far less attention than bobbleheads

Collectible pins, which get far less attention than bobbleheads

For instance, take yesterday’s game. Now that we’ve come to expect sellouts on bobblehead day, it’s natural to want greater quantities of items. Because of the parking situation associated with the circus next door at the arena, it was decided that the gates should open at 2:30, 90 minutes before the normal time. Throughout the day A’s marketing staff including Smith and LaDolce were monitoring the situation. D Gate, which appeared to be most heavily impacted, ran out of bobbleheads at 3:27 PM. However, by that point lines had fully dissipated so if you had walked up prior to 3:30, chances were good you’d get one. Chances were even better at the season ticket entrance, which usually is stocked well enough to handle giveaways past the point when other gates run out.

What wasn’t known about the game was that the A’s had only sold 25,000 tickets to the game 24 hours prior to first pitch. An incredible 10,000 tickets were sold as either walkups or online during that period. That’s rather typical these days due to the rather predictable number of advance tickets sold. Some additional amount were sold after Cespy won the Home Run Derby. The problem is that the A’s have to plan everything for each game well ahead of time, including staffing and giveaways. Staffing can be handled with some flexibility. Because of the lead times associated with giveaways, bobbleheads have almost no flexibility (well, except for the actual bobblehead itself).

Two other examples of this phenomenon occurred in the last several weeks. The first was on Grant Balfour Gnome Day (June 16), which was a full standing room only sellout. Walkup sales were so high that in the week prior to the game, the front office worried if only 25,000 would show up. On the Fourth of July, less than 27,000 showed up for a picnic blanket giveaway, which left the marketing crew (and me) baffled because the annual fleece blanket giveaway day typically goes gangbusters.

Now think about the leadup to yesterday. All sorts of things could’ve dampened attendance. Cespedes could’ve been eliminated early in the HR Derby. He could’ve been injured early in the season. The team might not have been in postseason contention. All of this comes into play, and if you’re working off a steady base of about 10-15,000 attendees, it can be difficult to justify bumping it up more. The easy thing to say is to order 30-35,000 right off the bat. Because of the team’s limited marketing budget, 35,000 bobbleheads would’ve negatively impacted some other promotional day, potentially getting rid of a promotion altogether. I asked about other teams that sell 40,000 or full capacity quantities such as the Brewers or Dodgers. Those teams can afford to do it because marginal tickets they sell in the leadup to the game are usually very expensive ($100 or more), so they have headroom to make up for it. The A’s have dynamic pricing, but even then prices might go up only 20-30% in the process. Sponsors attached to each giveaway have little say over the quantity since the giveaways have to be planned as early as November prior to the following season, and they generally don’t directly fund giveaway purchases. I pressed on with 35,000 items. Smith countered that the last thing the team wants is to have 5,000 left over. When I said the items could just be sold in the team store, he said (I’m paraphrasing here) that if that’s the case, they’re not a good promotional tool. The whole point is of giveaways is to get people in the park and to give them a special memento. Sell overstock in team store would defeat the purpose (though I suppose it would give the naming rights sponsor an avenue, hint-hint). Judging from the response at the Coliseum, it’s working whether the quantity is 10,000 or 15,000. He admitted that there may be room for more in the future, but it would all be linked to ticket sales since everything flows from there.

jamesvenes-bobblehead_chart

James Venes’ June chart showing different teams’ bobblehead giveaway figures

The chart above, put together by the inimitable James Venes independently from this article two months ago, shows the wide spectrum of bobblehead quantities for the various teams. The Brewers and Phillies give to capacity, the Giants and Dodgers are pretty close. Then again, those four teams surpass 3 million in attendance annually. The A’s are in the middle of the pack as far as the bobblehead-to-capacity ratio goes. Last weekend I attended the Ken Griffey Jr. day at Safeco Field. Despite a sure sellout crowd (47,000), they had only 20,000 bobbleheads. Like it or not, giving items to around 40% of the house is standard practice.

Over the years the A’s have tweaked the types of giveaways they’ve done. Gone are the cheapo caps of yesteryear as few people care about those. Smith showed me a commemorative back-to-back World Series champs pennant from 1974, to which his mother added “1974” in pen. I asked why there aren’t giveaway pennants anymore. Smith replied that people don’t seem to hold them in any value. I imagine the same thing could be said about the old end-of-season baseball card giveaways (remember how those were sponsored by Mother’s Cookies?). LaDolce had a similar pennant commemorating the A’s 1992 division crown, a moment that reflected the true end of the Haas era. Nowadays the stuff people want are collectibles, with bobbleheads at the forefront.

Troy Smith's assembled scorecards from The Streak. Note the attendance figures from each.

Troy Smith’s assembled scorecards from The Streak. Note the attendance figures from each. Game 20 isn’t there because Smith he was working the scoreboard that day.

When I was asked for future giveaway suggestions, I only had one: an A’s fan. Preferably an action figure or figurine with a gold jersey if that can be done. He/she might be donning a green cape or a Reddick luchador mask. I can’t speak to how racially non-specific it should be or to anatomical correctness. I’m sure it can be done. It would be a great acknowledgement of how faithful the hardcore A’s fan is, a kind of olive branch disguised as an in-joke. I’m no marketing genius, but I think it’d be cool. Accessories could be given away at future games. Besides, if the marketing folks have to order these before knowing what will happen with the notoriously volatile A’s roster, a good bet would be one thing Billy Beane can’t trade: a fan.

Yours truly posing with the three straight American League Championship trophies

Yours truly posing with the three straight American League Championship trophies

We talked about a great number of topics including the upper deck tarps, ballpark sites, the Josh Reddick effect, crossing over from being a lifelong fan to working for the team (as both Smith and LaDolce are), what it means to move from an old stadium to a new ballpark, and other matters. They showed me a prototype Green Day trucker hat to be given away at the end of the month, along with a hint about surprise guest they’re hoping to secure in time for the next Star Wars fireworks night. We didn’t talk about costs to produce items, though some of that information can be found elsewhere. I don’t know if our talk or the feedback from this article will effect change. The team has a fan committee that it listens to regularly. Smith and LaDolce were happy to talk to me at length. They read this blog, as do others around the league. Hopefully the kinks can be worked out to a happy medium. Maybe they can institute a ticket system like the kind employed for concert ticket sales or iPhone/iPad launches. There are ways to get these things in the hands of people that really want them. Until then, we’ll keep waiting in line. Thanks to Troy Smith and Travis LaDolce for inviting me into the inner sanctum for a little bit. I’m sure we’ll have more to chat about in due course. Maybe we’ll be talking action figures.

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P.S. – The team and bobblehead manufacturers can take months to work on items and still not get them exactly right. Case in point:

BART, AC Transit strikes to affect A’s fans

By now you’re probably aware of the awful gridlock gripping much of the Bay Area because of the BART employees’ strike, which started this morning of months-long negotiations broke down again over the weekend. The employees, who are members of the ATU and SEIU, have been asking for raises to make for recession-era givebacks. The ATU asked Governor Jerry Brown to force an order to keep the trains running while negotiations continued. Brown refused to act, leading to a complete shutdown of trains. (Disclosure: My dad, who retired 2 years ago, was a shop steward for ATU in the South Bay/VTA chapter.)

Whatever your feelings are about the strike, if it goes on throughout the week there will be no BART service to the three-game series against the Cubs, Tuesday through Thursday. BART has attempted to bridge some of the commuter gap by running charter buses between its terminal stations (Fremont, Dublin/Pleasanton, etc.) to San Francisco, but those buses are limited to commute hours. AC Transit is providing extra Transbay buses, while service along the BART spine remains as-is.

AC Transit’s employee contracts were also up last night, so they’re currently working without a contract. There is talk that AC Transit employees will do a one-day walkout as early as Tuesday, which would compound the the East Bay’s transit crisis.

Ferries are experiencing a huge surge in ridership. Unfortunately, fans still need AC Transit (or Capitol Corridor) to get from Jack London Square to the Coliseum.

And not to be left out, the City of Oakland’s non-emergency public employees started their own one-day strike on Monday.

Capitol Corridor is an option that will provide uninterrupted service, despite the fact that its trains are actually operated by BART. While Capitol Corridor isn’t the quickest or most convenient way to get to the Coliseum, it can do in a pinch if you’re set against driving to what will undoubtedly be a more packed Coliseum parking lot. Amtrak even started a promotion this summer that allows riders to pay only $5 each way for companions, up to 5 companions per trip. Capitol Corridor doesn’t have a very frequent schedule late at night, so if you’re considering taking the unelectric train, first check the schedules to see if they work for you.

Fans along the 680 corridor are pretty much screwed from a public transit standpoint. As for South Bay and Peninsula folks, BART was never a direct option unless you drove to Fremont or Millbrae to take BART in the first place. Same goes for North Bay fans, whose transit options to the Coliseum have historically been limited.

BART usually accounts for 15-20% of fans getting to the Coliseum. Tuesday’s date is not a Free Parking Tuesday game, so don’t be shocked if you have to pay – it was on the schedule from the beginning. The A’s haven’t provided any advisories for the series yet, but you can expect to see something tomorrow. The A’s homestand ends Thursday, which should hopefully limit damage if the strike extends through the weekend. The Giants have a six-game homestand starting on Friday starting with a Dodgers series. The A’s return on the 12th with a Red Sox series.

The last BART strike occurred in September 1997, at the end of a particularly dismal season for the A’s (65-97). The A’s weren’t affected in the first two days of the six-day strike as they were on the road. Come Wednesday, September 10, the A’s were greeted by crowds of 4,764 and 6,135 against Toronto.

Advice: Carpool as much as possible. Allow for an extra 30 minutes to get to the ballpark, or leave late (close to 7) to avoid the nastiest part of the commute. Try Capitol Corridor if it works within your schedule. And hope that the different parties can come to their senses and end this mess.

When meaningless numbers are spun

In the eight-plus years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve remembered a lot of little details. I’ve also forgotten just as many. Such was the case Thursday, when a John Shea article brought up San Jose’s economic impact report from 2009 (Exhibit 3 in the antitrust case filing). Shea asked whether a move to San Jose would boost attendance. He then pointed to the report’s assumption of only 2.1 million in annual attendance at a hypothetical 32,000-seat ballpark.

A’s superfan, radio gadfly and occasional commenter here (and friend of the blog) Bleacher Dave stepped up to push the idea that San Jose has an attendance problem, even though an Athletics game has never been hosted there. I rebutted that the attendance claims were never meant to forecast actual demand, only to provide a baseline for tax benefits (conservatively) and indirect benefits (usually outrageous). No matter, Dave pressed on, citing study author CSL’s experience in the field to buttress his argument.

CSL also did similar reports for the 49ers and Raiders to back those teams’ respective stadium campaigns. So far, only the 49ers have their stadium going. I pointed Dave to the Raiders report. Later I remembered that Let’s Go Oakland did its own report for a hypothetical Oakland ballpark either at the Coliseum or somewhere in the Jack London Square area.

Funny thing. Gruen Gruen & Associates, the firm hired to do LGO’s study, made its own attendance assumptions for a new ballpark:

  • Coliseum: 2.11 million/year
  • Jack London Square: 2.24 million/year

The key difference is that LGO’s study has a ballpark capacity of 36,000 instead of San Jose’s 32,000, which would in theory allow for larger sellout crowds when sellouts occur. The projections put the Coliseum roughly on par with San Jose and JLS ahead of both to the tune of 1,600 fans per game. If San Jose’s capacity were greater and had a similar number of sellouts, San Jose would land somewhere in the middle of the Coliseum and JLS projections.

Now if I wanted to twist these numbers into something they aren’t, I’d say that there’s something definitely wrong with the supposedly rabid Oakland fanbase only increasing attendance over the old Coliseum years by 7-13%. Surely there’d be a better response than that, right?

But I won’t. Because that’s not what these studies are for. The studies base their assumptions on five-year historical ticket sales at the Coliseum, which as we all know isn’t exactly an attractive, modern venue. Only one of those years was a playoff year. A major rebuilding plan marked the following years, which negatively affected ticket sales and fan interest. Wherever the A’s build, they won’t have the luxury of getting a big public subsidy as was the case in Miami or Washington, DC. If this thing actually gets built, it’s reasonable to expect that there will be so much pent-up desire to be there (the wildcard of on-field performance notwithstanding) that attendance should easily surpass those assumptions. It all has to do with season ticket sales.

Before a single pile is driven or brick is laid, the A’s will probably have to get somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 season ticket commitments or FSEs (full season equivalents). The closer to 20,000, the better (the A’s hover below 10k currently last I heard). The Giants maintain 25-27,000 FSEs annually, and they were so confident in the demand when their park opened that they only offered full season ticket subscriptions. (Note: More upfront ST commitments – especially multiyear – also proves to banks that the project is worth financing.)

The greater the ST sales, the better for the whole A’s market. It creates scarcity for the remaining seats, it provides a solid secondary market, and if pricing tiers are set correctly, should create good value for fans at multiple levels. It also means a lot fewer really cheap seats, but that’s the price of growing into a better, privately funded facility.

The two economic impact reports written for San Jose and Oakland provided none of this context and took none of these factors into account. All they did was average attendance over a short window, bump it initially upon opening, and taper it down over time as the honeymoon effect wore off. That’s the most basic of analysis and should be treated as such. Actual numbers should be better, but could also be worse if prices are too high or the team is pitiful. There are no guarantees.

If the goal of certain individuals is to create a gotcha moment out of a misinterpreted number, then we’re going to waste a lot of time finding gotcha numbers and moments everywhere. It smacks of a political race. There are much more important numbers to consider, such as the cost of Howard Terminal or a territorial rights payoff. Those are the numbers that matter. Not some previously ignored projections from several years old documents that are easily disregarded.

If people want to persist with stuff like this, I can’t stop them. We’ll be here as we always have, ready to provide the nuance that the news articles, tweets, and radio callers often lack.

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P.S. – Oakland Fan Pledge, which was started to prove fan commitment to the A’s, has just over 4,000 pledges so far (including mine). We’ve got a long way to go, folks.

P.P.S. – One more thing to consider. The Giants have long maintained that they need attendance of 30,000 every game in order to take care of AT&T Park’s debt service and field a competitive roster. How on earth would the A’s be able to pay for a more expensive park with 25,000 a game, even if prices were jacked up?

A River (of shit) Runs Through It

There’s fifty feet of crap. And then there’s us. – Billy Beane, Moneyball

Brad Pitt as Billy Beane in "Moneyball"

Brad Pitt as Billy Beane describing the A’s station in “Moneyball”

Figurative turned literal on Sunday, as the A’s and Mariners (and umpires) were forced to vacate their respective clubhouses after the game because of a sewage backup. The backup caused sewage to seep out of the shower drains as players were trying to clean up. Both teams were forced to use the Raiders’ locker room showers, which are located a level up in the old Exhibit Hall.

As part of the 1995 Mt. Davis renovations, the Exhibit Hall was transformed into new football locker rooms, while the A’s clubhouse and visiting facilities remained mostly untouched. As a result, the plumbing in the clubhouses continues to deteriorate and requires constant repairs, which the A’s usually end up paying for during the season. Per the team’s lease, they can deduct the cost of the repairs against their annual rent payment. During the NFL offseason, the Raiders locker room often gets used as an extra staging area for VIPs. As a part of the stadium that was constructed less than 20 years ago, it’s in much better shape than the old baseball clubhouses.

In 2011, I asked Lew Wolff about the state of affairs at the Coliseum. Here’s an excerpt of our discussion:

Wolff: We’re constantly making repairs that are not our obligation.

ML: Really? Like what?

Wolff: 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.

Two years later the leaks have gotten worse and the scoreboard still needs replacement, with funds to make that happen siphoned away to study Coliseum City. It’s easy to make scoreboards a low priority at a decrepit place like the Coliseum since they don’t affect players or revenues. Functional clubhouses, however, are a different matter entirely. It’s one thing if the clubhouse flooding and contamination was confined solely to the A’s clubhouse. This time it affected both teams and the umpires. Now there’s the prospect of complaints being filed by the A’s, Mariners, and the players’ and umpires’ unions. (Susan Slusser noted that the Angels complained about a similar incident in 2001, citing a possible E. Coli threat.) Ultimately the responsibility falls on the Coliseum Authority, the body acting as the landlord for the three Coliseum tenant teams. A Herculean effort by an industrial cleanup company like ServPro should get the place up and running. The structural deficiencies will continue to linger.

I know next to nothing about engineering sewer systems, but I do know that having facilities below sea level (such as the clubhouses) can make it difficult to get a proper gravity-based flow going. The funny thing is that one of EBMUD’s huge sewer interceptors runs right through the Coliseum complex, so it should be easy to get wastewater and sewage out of the complex assuming that the sewer lines and pumps are working properly. Evidently at least one part of the stadium’s sewage infrastructure wasn’t working at all. Think about that. There is a river of shit running right through the Coliseum and somehow it couldn’t be utilized on Sunday.

Some are pointing to the possibility that the sewer system was taxed by large crowds. The A’s drew 171,756 total fans during this recent six-game homestand. Let’s put that in perspective. That’s 28,626 per game, or roughly half the originally designed 1966 capacity of the Coliseum. Even the Sunday sellout was only 57% of the 2012 football capacity. The system as a whole should not have been stressed in the slightest.

As the investigation into the cause of the incident continues, it will occur against the backdrop of ongoing lease negotiations. Previously it was assumed that the Authority would have a good deal of leverage because the A’s have nowhere else to play in the Bay Area post-2013. Now the tables have turned, as it can be argued by many parties that the Coliseum is unfit to host MLB games until the clubhouse sewage problem and other deficiencies are addressed. MLB could even step in to make preconditions on the JPA prior to further lease talks. That would put the JPA in quite the pickle. How can the JPA recover more money from the A’s towards Coliseum debt service if it has to fund additional, costly improvements at the Coliseum? If the JPA wants to lock the A’s into a deal longer than 5 years, how much money is the JPA willing to put up to make it worth the A’s and MLB’s while? And how does that coincide with any requests the Raiders are making for their lease extension?

Prior to this incident, Lew Wolff offered to continue on at the Coliseum for five years with the current use terms, rent TBD. He could and should demand infrastructure improvements, but he and Michael Crowley could be enticed to stand pat and maintain the status quo since it would be less complicated. It would be hard for the A’s to make any leasehold improvements without prior approval of the JPA, and since they’re not bound by the lease beyond December there’s no immediate incentive to do so. All they’ll probably do at the moment is make necessary repairs, clean and disinfect the place, lay down some new carpet in the affected areas, and hope for the best. While that should be enough to get through the rest of the season, imagine another sewage incident occurring during the postseason. What kind of PR disaster would that be for Oakland? And I can’t image naming rights sponsor O.co is thrilled to be associated with this debacle. It’s bad enough that from afar the stadium resembles a toilet.

Three weeks ago Jon Heyman incurred the wrath of A’s fans over his snide tweet comparing AT&T Park to the Coliseum. He mostly stayed away from any remarks this time around, except for a retweet of Slusser getting a David Rinetti (A’s VP of stadium operations) quote:

Smart move by Heyman to stay away from this mess, though I wouldn’t blame him if he gloated in private. Trololol.

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Update 10:45 AMBob Nightengale has a choice quote from Wolff and reiterates a story from February.

The A’s, of course, have tried to bolt town for the last five years. The San Francisco Giants won’t share their territory and permit the Athletics to move to San Jose. Major League Baseball, which hoped the A’s and Giants would somehow reach an agreement on their own, finally got a resolution from their blue ribbon committee. The committee submitted a set of guidelines to Wolff in February, and if he agreed to meet the requirements, a move could soon be underway.

Wolff won’t talk about the guidelines. Neither will the Giants. Or even Major League Baseball.

Well, since the NSA isn’t sharing any of Wolff’s telephone conversations with Commissioner Bud Selig, it’s fair to say that if Wolff agreed to the parameters, he’d have a shovel in his hand today digging into the San Jose soil.

Wolff denied the February report in last week’s radio interview. Clearly something isn’t meshing here. The two short-term decisions at the moment are the lease and the S4SJ lawsuit. It would make sense to wait to announce something until both of those issues are resolved.

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Update 2:30 PM – Amazingly, Lew Wolff is pulling his punches, at least according to a new Carl Steward article.

“What it says basically is that it’s a deteriorating facility,” he said. “I think everybody is aware of that, even the people who run it. We’re sort of all in this together, so it isn’t something I would use … we just have to solve it right now.”

Wolff downplayed that this might be the kind of incident that would give him extra ammunition to force the hand of Major League Baseball to act on the A’s situation, which has been stalled for several years under a panel appointed by Selig to assess the team’s options.

“Even if they said tomorrow, `OK, you can have a new stadium,’ we can’t do it in one day,” Wolff said. “We’re still going to have a plumbing issue.'”

Of course, Wolff isn’t going to stop the M’s, other teams, MLBPA, or WUA (umpires) from filing their own complaints. Those may have more bite. On the other hand, Billy Beane’s comments were a little more pointed.

“Today this is national news, but it happens here all the time,” Beane said. “Our employees are impacted by this. I was the first to see the manager’s office (Sunday), but we see it all the time, and this is not unusual. I don’t blame them (the Mariners) for reacting, but we have to live with it on a semi-regular basis.

“If we say anything, we’re told we’re being opportunist,” Beane added. “I wish these were working conditions we didn’t have to work with. When it affects somebody other than us, it becomes a story. I’m used to it. I deal with it.”

Doesn’t get more Oakland than that.

Baseball in Oakland has gotten cheaper

When the A’s converted the all-you-can-eat sections in the upper deck to the Value Deck in 2010, it marked a major change in how tickets and concessions were priced at the Coliseum. Prior to 2010, both offerings were steadily increasing. Team Marketing’s Fan Cost Index, which tracks the cost of a game for a family of four, had the A’s above the middle of the pack even though the venue itself was no great shakes. Since the introduction of the Value Deck and Menu, prices have dropped and stayed remarkably flat as the newest MLB edition of FCI shows.

Fan Cost Index for the last four years

Fan Cost Index for the last four years

FCI considers the cost of four tickets plus soft drinks, beers for the adults, parking, programs, and caps. The caveat here is that such a package is not usually purchased by a family that goes to the park regularly. It also doesn’t take into account that many fans will eschew value menu fare and go for something a little more upmarket. In any case, it’s a fairly honest representation of pricing and spending at every stadium, and as you can see from the table above, a game at AT&T Park is considerably more expensive to attend than one at the Coliseum. As a matter of practice, Team Marketing surveys each team prior to the beginning of each season.

The A’s have chosen to keep prices steadily, remarkably stable for four straight years despite last year’s AL West crown. In 2010, FCI for the team was nearly 9% below MLB average. Now it’s almost 21% below the league. Instead of raising prices throughout, the team has chosen to charge more for premium items found in the Westside Club, Round Table pizzas or craft brews. It’s a reasonable philosophy to have, though for me personally I choose to drink my craft brews in the parking lot when I have the chance.

It’s normal for teams to raise prices in proportion to payroll increases. A’s payroll, like FCI, has remained steady over the last four years. Revenue has risen, though not dramatically. Revenue sharing fills in the gaps, so even if the A’s boosted prices that revenue increase would be partly offset by decreased revenue sharing.

As we’ve seen during the first homestand, fans aren’t terribly responsive to price, or even success carried over from last year. Tuesday’s “free parking” crowd was identical in size to the BART $2 Wednesday crowd. “Inclement” morning weather scared away Thursday’s getaway game walkup crowd. A multitude of factors play into every fan’s and family’s decision making process when it comes to attending any one game. The numbers show that advance and season tickets have improved measurably, but it’s not enough to move the needle much in terms of revenue.

For now the A’s price things to what they think the market will support. There’s enough room for one or two extra salaries to come via trade at midseason or at the deadline. The system allows for that. If the A’s wanted to boost payroll to $80 million, revenue would have to be boosted at least another $20 million independent of revenue sharing. Would the fanbase support the increased prices and attendance that would be necessary to generate that extra revenue? I’d sure like to find out.

World Baseball Classic tickets discounted to as little as $8

Tickets for the championship rounds of the World Baseball Classic at AT&T Park were priced quite heavily when they went on sale in December, often forcing fans to buy three-game strips for hundreds of dollars. That price gouging, in conjunction with Team USA getting eliminated last night by Puerto Rico, has caused the WBC to heavily discount numerous blocks of tickets in the last couple of days.

Prices for the two semifinal matchups were as low as $15 yesterday for nosebleed sections in left field and the back of the bleachers. Today the WBC dropped prices on better seats and locations for both games to just $8, a loss leader price if I ever heard of one. That is sure to upset folks who bought early, but it will delight casual fans and followers of the remaining teams (Japan, Netherlands, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico) who are in town or are willing to make the trip cross-country.

wbc-late_pricing

Snapshot on 3/16 of severely reduced pricing on several sections with big unsold inventory

While premium sections are staying expensive, many areas that “fill out the bowl” have a good number of unsold seats, including groups of seats together. There’s a threat that AT&T Park will look empty without a contingent of US fans and the possibility that the DR/PR fans won’t be there in large numbers. The Bay Area doesn’t have a huge population of Dominicans or Puerto Ricans compared to the East Coast, so there’s reason for concern. A healthy number fans of Team Japan should be there, as we’d normally expect. Netherlands skipper and Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens appealed to his fellow Dutchmen in the Bay Area to come out and support the Oranje, though they’re not expected to be there en masse.

On Friday I got a $15 bleacher ticket for Monday’s game between the Dominican Republic and the Netherlands. Today I snagged a $8 ticket for Sunday’s Japan-Puerto Rico matchup. A friend of mine who bought single game tickets in advance last month for Sunday’s game paid $72 for a View Box seat behind the plate. Yesterday those same seats were priced at $62, and now they’re $50. It’s possible that the prices could sink even further if there continues to be middling interest.

Running tournaments like the WBC can produce outcomes like this. Unlike the FIFA World Cup, which is assured of having the greatest players in the world playing for every participating country, the WBC is subservient to MLB, so fans aren’t treated to cream-of-the-crop competition due to pro clubs holding back players by rule or choice. Nevertheless, the competition has been excellent so far, with surprising pitching performances from the DR and an upstart club in the “Kingdom of the Netherlands” that threatens to be powerhouse for years to come.

If you have time and can spare a few bucks, the WBC semis are a steal on Sunday and Monday. And in the event that the final doesn’t sell that well, it may also be a good choice on Tuesday. Check it out.

Save Oakland Sports meeting with Santana, Blackwell (Updated with Oakland apology)

Update 7:20 PM – Around 4:30 today, an article by the Trib’s Matthew Artz indicated that Oakland officials apologized to Lew Wolff for erroneously stating that the City and Mayor Jean Quan didn’t receive the letter. Wolff angrily replied (in ALL CAPS no less) that he did, in fact, send the letter, and later produced a letter of acknowledgment from Quan dated January 2. During the Bucher & Towny show on The Game, Townsend explained that his crew and Phoenix reporter Kevin Curran had launched their own inquiry into the status of this now mythical letter. Curran sent an email to the Mayor’s office asking for the letter since, by law, the City has to file all such communications. This afternoon the story from Artz broke, followed by an email reply from Quan spokesperson Sean Maher explaining the situation. Apparently the original email, which was also sent to numerous media, was buried in the “mountain of (holiday) furlough email” the City received. Because of this, news outlets reported on it first, giving City staff the impression that they didn’t receive it, when in fact, they did. The explanation was also a bit wishy-washy because the Mayor supposedly “eventually” received the letter, giving the impression that she didn’t receive it directly. Statements coming out of the Mayor’s office yesterday continued to press that they didn’t receive the letter. In any case, Oakland comes off highly incompetent at the very least and petty on top of it all, just because Santana decided to lash out at Wolff. That’s simply poor form. Obviously, that led to today’s apology.

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Monday’s much-delayed Save Oakland Sports meeting was held at La Estrellita in downtown Oakland. Though host Chris Dobbins was keen to not put City Administrators Deanna Santana and (Asst. Admin.) Fred Blackwell on the hot seat, to their credit the staffers addressed several lingering issues with some degree of frankness and a general lack of spin.

Blackwell gave an update on the state of the Coliseum City studies and EIR. The study work should be awarded in the next month, and documents should be ready by the end of the year. Because of the broad scope of the project, there will be a master plan for the 750 acres on both side of 880 and a specific plan for each side, the big focus being on the sports complex. Blackwell called Coliseum City the most dynamic project in the state in terms of size and transit access.

coliseumcity-jrdv-east

View from east towards Oakland Estuary. Image: JRDV

Based on JRDV’s newest renderings, he has a point. Much of the area on either side of the Nimitz would undergo a drastic transformation. While there would be a new football stadium in Lot B and a ballpark pushed up to the corner of Lot A, almost everything else would get torn down and replaced. Chief among the changes is a new arena, which would be placed west of 880, where Coliseum Lexus and another empty car dealership are situated. Low and mid rise buildings would be tightly packed from Oakport to the Estuary and in between the two stadia. Two new pedestrian bridges would cross 880. The BART bridge would be transformed into a huge plaza over the Union Pacific tracks. The only two legacy structures that would remain intact in the vision are the 12-story high-rise office building that briefly housed the Tribune and the newer Zhone building.

Before your eyes roll completely into the back of your head, let’s look at the three venues, starting with the ballpark. Blackwell continued previous talk of Oakland giving Lew Wolff information on Coliseum City and Howard Terminal, repeating Wolff’s continued rejection of both sites on financial grounds. Blackwell flat out said that new ownership may be required to get something done in Oakland, and that a MLB could act on behalf of a team to get a deal done. Of course, Blackwell cited Miami as an example of that working. “Working” meant taxpayers putting up 2/3 of the cost and politicians who approved the deal being run out of office. MLB wouldn’t do that unless it felt it could get several pounds of flesh. In Oakland, there is no flesh to take. The only thing MLB has offered so far is to negotiate the short-term lease at the current Coliseum.

As for the Raiders, Santana mentioned upfront that it took four months to get all of the right people (City, County, Raiders) named and set to negotiate the future stadium deal. Four months? You’d figure an e-mail thread and a conference call or two would take care of that.

In a refreshing bit of candor, Santana and Blackwell talked about the challenges facing the Raiders’ stadium piece. Santana said twice that any new project would have to bake in the $100 million of remaining debt (Mt. Davis). As I’ve mentioned before, any advantages Oakland has because of “cheap land” are wiped away because of this albatross. It also makes financing somewhat unclean, though that would depend on how current and future debt are structured. Right now, Mt. Davis debt is tied to the general fund of both City and County and was refinanced last summer. I imagine it could be complicated to restructure the debt to be paid solely by stadium/project revenues and would drive up the cost of borrowing to boot. Santana also talked about how the defeat of Measure B1 in November negatively impacted funding for Coliseum City to the tune of $40 million.

Blackwell admitted that the NFL may have a hard time giving the $200 million that Mayor Jean Quan is looking for, citing fan and corporate support. Why? The G-3 and G-4 loan programs are dependent on two specific revenue streams: national TV money and club seats. TV money is not that big a deal since it’s highly distributed, but the NFL is wary of teams running into blackouts. The Raiders are a particular high-risk case because even though the stadium doesn’t have a large capacity among NFL stadia, it’s had its share of blackouts and has a relatively low season ticket base (30,000). The recent tarping and pricing moves done by the Raiders are being done to grow the season ticket figure and reduce the chance of blackouts. In future seasons, the Raiders could increase capacity as the roll grows and the team performs better. Corporate support is another matter. Blackwell said that the NFL considers corporate support more important than regular fan support. The 49ers have done exceedingly well selling to businesses, which allowed the NFL to release $200 million for the Santa Clara stadium. Corporate support is not great in the East Bay, and the 49ers may have taken some East Bay business from the Raiders, putting the Silver and Black in a very tough position. Blackwell didn’t offer any answers on this, other than to say that the East Bay will have to step up to show it can support the Raiders in a new stadium. It’s a sobering but realistic view, not one to go rah-rah about.

On the Warriors front, Blackwell laid out the City’s case very plainly: Oakland would wait until W’s ownership got frustrated with the process of building something at Piers 30/32, then welcome the team back with open arms. With the A’s, ownership is certainly frustrated (with MLB and the Giants), not enough to run back to make a deal with Oakland. While working in SF, Blackwell saw the same strategy in place for the 49ers, only to see the team start building in the South Bay.

Things got a little strange with Santana laid into the A’s. Santana accused the A’s of playing games, claiming that the letter Wolff wrote requesting a five-year lease extension was only sent to the media, not to City or County. That’s rather confusing, because as the Merc’s John Woolfork wrote on 12/21:

If Wolff’s letter was discouraging to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, she didn’t let on, saying in a statement that she was “pleased to receive Mr. Wolff’s letter stating his desire to stay in Oakland for five more years.”

Considering that it took four months to figure out who the players were in a negotiation, I wouldn’t be surprised if the letter was lost somewhere. One thing to keep in mind is that Wolff has already done two lease extensions at the Coliseum during his tenure. If there’s one real piece of stability here it’s Wolff, not the turnover in Oakland City Hall.

The tough part of all of this back-and-forth is that even if Oakland is resurgent as its supporters say it is, it’s not to the scale of SF and SJ. It may never be to the scale of SJ. That makes it easy to make a case against the future of pro sports in Oakland. Without some kind of miraculous public and/or private miracle to really boost Oakland, it’s hard to see how Oakland could get to its rivals’ level. Maybe the argument is that Coliseum City is that miracle. Oakland has had nearly 50 years to show that pro sports is an economic stimulator. There’s no reason to believe Coliseum City, even in its fully realized, pipe dream scenario, is the miracle Oakland is looking for. The track record – in and out of Oakland – doesn’t support it.

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More reading:

Note: Look at how different the two Tavares articles are. Editors rule!

 

Dare to dream of the $80 million payroll

At once insane and tantalizingly possible, the Oakland Athletics are buyers this offseason. Any questions about Billy Beane’s M.O. were answered swiftly when word came this afternoon of the first big winter trade (Winter? I was wearing shorts on a 71 degree sunny day today.). Middle infielder Cliff Pennington and prospect Yordy Cabrera were traded to Arizona for former All Star CF Chris Young and $500,000 cash. Cabrera was later sent to Miami for reliever Heath Bell, but we’ll ignore that for the time being.

Young will earn $8.5 million this year and $10 million in 2014 if the A’s pick up his option. If not, the buyout price is $1.5 million. Coco Crisp, the A’s current CF, makes $7 million in 2013 with a $7.5 million 2014 option ($1 million buyout). That puts the A’s investment in four outfielders – Crisp, Young, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick – at $24 million, nearly half the 2012 payroll. Even with that kind of money, the four players combined for 13.6 WAR in 2012, making the 2013 expenditure pretty good value any way you slice it.

When the news was first released, the most prominent immediate fan reaction was to wonder what would happen to Crisp. It was Crisp who was re-signed only nine months ago, and many fans wondered if that was a wise decision considering the number of nearly ready young outfielders in the A’s farm system. Once Cespedes signed with Oakland in February, it seemed as though Crisp’s days were numbered. When the A’s had their nine-game losing streak at the end of May, Crisp’s name surfaced as trade bait, despite his struggles throughout the first two months of the season. Yet Crisp got himself right in June, perhaps because he got the starting CF job back. His energy and skill at the top of the order made him arguably the most dangerous weapon in the A’s lineup by the All Star Break. Now Crisp seems almost indispensable among many fans, at least judging from reactions on Twitter. It’s a remarkable story that stands among many on the A’s squad. Crisp does have a lengthy injury history, though this year he was out at times because of illness (flu, pinkeye) rather than a muscle or joint problem.

If anyone is likely to be moved or non-tendered, it’s Jonny Gomes, Seth Smith, or both. Both contributed nicely in a DH+occasional OF platoon situation. Smith will hit his second arbitration year, and his value is strictly in that platoon role vs. RHP. Gomes is the opposite, mashing against lefties and coming in very cheap with a $1 million salary for 2013. Both players will command around $3.5 million, and both will want multiyear deals if possible and more plate appearances – which may be few and far between if the “Four Horsemen” stay healthy and get their 550-600 PAs. Young assumes Gomes’ role, which is a shame because Gomes is such a likable guy and a local, but that’s how the business works. Beane has already said on a conference call Saturday that Gomes would be affected by the Young acquisition.

I’ve put together a spreadsheet showing the A’s projected 2013 payroll. It makes certain key assumptions about the makeup of the A’s roster:

  • Stephen Drew’s $10 million mutual option is picked up. Drew showed improvement late in the season and appears healed from his ankle injury troubles. That’s not going to make the A’s or anyone commit to a really rich deal, no matter how much Scott Boras pushes for one.
  • Seth Smith is retained. I don’t think this is a given because of the reasons previously defined. If he stays it’s probably for $3.5 million. If he is replaced by someone in the A’s system like Collin Cowgill or Shane Peterson, the A’s will save $3 million in the process. Keep that in mind for future payroll projections.
  • Brandon McCarthy is re-signed. The elder statesman of the pitching staff, he’ll never reach 35 starts in a season because of lingering shoulder problems. But he is very effective when healthy and is a great clubhouse leader and spokesman for the club, and his (and his wife’s) media presence helps put a face to a team that might otherwise go relatively anonymous. He should be affordable to keep, and worth it.
  • Brett Anderson is not traded. If Anderson had not suffered elbow trouble that resulted in Tommy John surgery, Anderson might already be elsewhere. Having come back late in the season, he looked very good in limited action. He has ace-quality stuff, which as we’ve seen in the playoffs, can be pretty important.
  • No other big trades or free agents signings are done. This is the A’s we’re talking about, so nothing’s for certain when it comes to personnel. I’m keeping it like this to illustrate what the the payroll looks like now and to show how much headroom remains.

Minimum salary for 2013 is $490,000 per CBA. Specific salary estimates are based on previous published salaries for players with similar service time and/or performance.

All told, the payroll is as much as $65 million. Brandon Moss should have Super Two status, so he may earn more than what is listed. Without Smith (and Gomes), the payroll is only $62 million. The pattern for the A’s has been to respond to an encouraging season (2006, 2010) by bumping up payroll. In 2007 the A’s came off an ALCS appearance and boosted payroll to $79 million, with $46 million devoted to five players: Jason Kendall, Eric Chavez, Mike Piazza, Mark Kotsay, and Esteban Loaiza. None of those five produced in any meaningful way for various reasons, and all except Chavez were off the team during or shortly after the end of the 2007 season.

The 2008 season showed promise, with a solid young core and a .500 record. Payroll was bumped for 2009 from $48 million to $62 million. We know how 2009 went: Matt Holliday produced well but not like a superstar he was advertised to be, and Jason Giambi proved that you can’t go home again. So we know how this could play out if the team flames out. The A’s could easily spend another $10-15 million without much trouble, but if the team is 10 games back by July trading deadline, we could very well see another selloff. The Marlins tailed off in the NL East by the end of June, resulting in the trades of Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante, Gaby Sanchez, Edward Mujica, and Heath Bell. Not even a new ballpark could keep the fans from leaving in droves, forcing the directive for Larry Beinfest to cut costs posthaste.

It’s not by accident. This is a script all low-revenue teams have to work with. The A’s pulled in 1.6 million fans this season. Say they brought another 400,000 fans in to bring the 2013 total to a cool 2 million. At $30 a person, that translates to $12 million in extra revenue, about half of that going to payroll. The annual winter revenue sharing payment should also help. Success has cascading effects, as there’s also a lower percentage of no-shows and greater revenues from media and sponsorships. It’s a snowball effect. We’ve seen it run positively in the last few weeks, and negatively in recent years.

That makes a $62-65 million payroll something of a jumping off point. The A’s could support an $80 million payroll if things continue to go well. $80 million isn’t still in the bottom third of MLB, but it’s a good deal of extra budget to play with. However, we know that free agent spending has yielded mixed results, and that cost per win can be very difficult to pin down at times from a GM standpoint. Fortunately the team is strong in the outfield and pitching staff, making the weak spots easier to live with. How should Beane and Forst use $15-18 million of headroom? They could stand pat. They could make another trade or pick up a free agent (or two). They could go into the international market as they have in the past (Cespedes, Iwakuma, Ynoa) to bid on a young arm like Japanese high school phenom Shohei Otani. They could save it for some midseason deadline deals. Whatever way the front office chooses to go, the possibilities are practically endless. The future is bright, it’s ahead of schedule, and the A’s world – from owner to fan and everything in between – can’t be anything but happy about it.