Nashville’s new AAA ballpark opens

If you hadn’t heard, the A’s changed AAA affiliates this year, going with the Nashville Sounds after the Sacramento River Cats chose to pair up with the SF Giants. After 36 years at Herschel Greer Stadium and multiple failed attempts to find its replacement, the Sounds moved into shiny new First Tennessee Park. FTP is located downtown, steps from the Cumberland River and blocks from the State Capitol building and Bridgestone Arena, home of the NHL Predators. Poetically, FTP was built at Sulphur Dell, the site of Nashville’s first pro ballpark dating back to the 1850’s.

The Tennesseean has a nine-part series on the development of the ballpark and fan reactions to it. Despite the proximity to the river, the ballpark was oriented southeast by architect Populous towards the downtown skyline. Eventually development will fill in the blocks between the ballpark and the Capitol, creating a sort of walkable mini-district between the two.

The façade behind home plate doesn’t follow the bowl shape, allowing for a great deal of additional usable concourse and flexible space. Five 33-seat suites dominate the seating behind home plate, including bar tables and glass door access to the suites (instead of the normal bunker suite configuration seen this low). To me this is the most controversial element of the park since it removes around 200 prime seats in favor of suites.

Seating at First Tennessee Park

Seating at First Tennessee Park

Additional suites are located above a club level that goes completely around the infield, which tells me that Sounds ownership knew there was a market for a healthy number of luxury options. Nashville’s a city on the rise, and has seen some success with its NFL and NHL franchises, so much that some are talking about Nashville being a major league city in the future – though not anytime soon. Maybe if MLB decides to expand again?

The big distinctive feature of First Tennessee Park is its massive guitar-shaped scoreboard, inspired by the old scoreboard at Greer. A huge video display takes up the “body” of the guitar, while a traditional line score is displayed on the neck. Another small video panel sits within the headstock.

The terrible weather that plagued much of the Eastern part of the country during the winter threatened FTP’s short construction timeline. Nevertheless, the Sounds and Populous got it done, completing the stadium in 410 days. That’s about as long as it took to build Aces Ballpark in Reno, though much longer than the 332 days needed to finish Southwest University Park in El Paso. So far, FTP is starting off on a good note.

P.S. – In June Southwest Airlines will start a non-stop route between OAK and BNA (Nashville). That’s a good thing considering the number of relief pitchers that will probably be going back and forth as the A’s search for bullpen solutions.

The Five Story Makeover

Progressive Field reopened for business this week after a $25 million renovation, most of the focus on the outfield. I agree with this comparison:

It has everything to do with those terraces on the upper deck. Designed for groups of standing fans, the effect was supposed to be a series of patios leisurely overlooking the field. Instead there are these blocky mini-façades that are both overly busy and distracting. While some unifying paint work will soften the look, I can’t help but think that these terraces are little more than glorified seat coverings – not as bad as tarps, but not much better.

Unlike Coors Field, where much of the RF upper deck was ripped out to accommodate a lengthy outdoor bar, at Progressive Field the Indians choose not to remove the upper deck risers, which would’ve freed up space and eliminated the need to build around them. So while the capacity has dropped to around 37,000, it could go back up if team saw the need to “expand.”

Photo from “Did The Tribe Win Last Night?” blog

 

Much better conceived is the two-story “Corner Bar” along the main concourse. Several rows of seats in the RF corner were replaced with standing areas, the bar itself having its own patios. And the RF gate has been rearranged, allowing for direct views from the expanded entry plaza instead of the very broken up look it used to have.

As part of the redone outfield, the visiting bullpen has been moved to CF in a stacked configuration. The old bullpen bench and access to it remain, allowing fans to wander in and sit there for a spell. It’s a neat “new” feature to give to fans.

Coors Field in 2014, Rooftop Bar in RF upper deck

Coors Field in 2014, Rooftop Bar in RF upper deck

The Jake and Coors were well known in the 90’s for great attendance records, both teams surpassing 3.5 million in season attendance on multiple occasions. As the novelty wore off, both venues started to look cavernous. It took the better part of a decade for ownership to figure out how to adapt the parks to an evolving fanbase. The Coors project perhaps looks more appealing, but the work at Progressive is more comprehensive. Either way, it’s nice to see both parks keeping up with the times.

Opening Day success, Wolff says San Jose “Not worth nasty battle”

Well, that was nice. The A’s finally won on Opening Day for the first time in forever, Sonny Gray nearly pitched a no-no, the scoreboards were a huge success (with a few hiccups), and many new A’s made solid debuts.

Off the field, Lew Wolff broke his own news, courtesy of Phil Matier:

Oakland A’s owner Lew Wolff said a possible move to San Jose is ‘not worth a nasty battle’ over territorial rights with the San Francisco Giants, and is hopeful the city’s new mayor can helpthem get a new stadium built in Oakland.

Wolff also fought back against the constant critics, while reserving praise for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. I’m not sure what’s going to convince the critics that Wolff is serious besides an actual groundbreaking ceremony. I’m glad that at the very least Schaaf doesn’t have the same combative tone as her predecessor.

Whether Wolff was told outright by The Lodge or not, San Jose is not in the plans anytime soon. And if Wolff actually wants to get this done while’s he still breathing (something he’s alluded to in jest more than once), Oakland’s the only path. The only way San Jose opens up is if a Raiders’ plan is approved, kicking the A’s out. Then you have to deal with the payout, the CBA, all these things that The Lodge has avoided like the plague over the last two CBA ratifications and would prefer to avoid again. Of course, many of the A’s brass are totally on board with building in Oakland. Broadcasting veep Ken Pries, from last July:

From our position, we just don’t think that (Raiders project) is going to happen – we are betting it doesn’t.

This isn’t hard to figure out. A’s ownership knows that the money is in San Jose. Anyone with a brain can figure that out. Wolff and Fisher also know that they are boxed in, try as they did to escape that box. With the Raiders’ future up in the air, the A’s should take advantage of a potential Raiders departure. As I mentioned Saturday, there are still issues to work out in terms of revenue sharing, but they’re minor compared to a T-rights fight, whatever that may entail.

Unlike Coliseum City, there’s no real timeline or framework for the A’s to do anything. So far their strategy is to wait the Coliseum City process out. If they, like MLB, are gambling on Coliseum City failing, the Coliseum should be delivered on a silver platter. Then again, Wolff did hedge a bit by re-signing that land option in San Jose.

Hey, Lew’s gotta have a Plan A and Plan B, right?

We’re All Screwed

Great sentiment to take into a new season, isn’t it? Things may not seem that dire, but consider that I’ve been writing this blog for ten years and we’re no closer to a stadium than we were in 2005. As Howard Bryant explains in his latest ESPN The Magazine article, we may actually be further from a solution than before. There remains a single site in the Bay Area that baseball is willing to consider, and it is encumbered by a competing development process (Coliseum City). Everyone involved has acted and looked bad and has generally failed abysmally:

  • A’s don’t want Oakland, still covet San Jose
  • Giants remain greedy and recalcitrant
  • MLB provides no leadership
  • Oakland interests trashed A’s ownership, tried to force sale of A’s to no avail
  • San Jose sued MLB, making them a non-entity in terms of negotiation while lawsuit was ongoing

Bryant goes on to explain that MLB is banking on the Coliseum City falling through and the Raiders leaving, which would leave the A’s at the Coliseum to work out a deal, a solution presenting itself with no intervention required on Commissioner Rob Manfred’s part. Convenient, right?

Of course, progress made recently on the EIR process won’t necessarily translate into actual deal success. City archives all over the state are full of dead EIRs from projects that were never built.

An under construction Coliseum in more hopeful times

An under construction Coliseum in more hopeful times

Nevertheless, that’s the outcome MLB sees. It’s one that A’s management is willing to play along with, for now at least. It doesn’t mandate getting a ballpark built right away or even soon, thanks to a lease that can take the A’s through the 2024 season.

Like Lew Wolff assuming that The Lodge would work out a deal for San Jose, MLB assumes that the Raiders are in LA after 2015. But even that’s difficult to forecast at this point. Stan Kroenke’s Inglewood stadium plan has the most momentum at this point, and the Carson concept is being spearheaded by the Chargers. Both teams have plans to accommodate a second team, though they have both declared that a second team is not a necessity. The NFL wants no more than two teams in Southern California (including the San Diego market). Those two teams could be the ones spearheading separate stadium projects. Or they could partner together on a single stadium. The Raiders, not having their own stadium plan to push, have to hope that Kroenke’s plan falls through and Carson succeeds, allowing the Raiders and Chargers to be the LA teams. If Kroenke gets his stadium, it doesn’t matter whether the Chargers stay in San Diego, move to Carson in their own stadium, or partner at Inglewood, the Raiders are the odd man out. There’s the odd chance that either the Chargers or Raiders could move to St. Louis, but few outside of St. Louis are considering the idea seriously.

Therefore, MLB’s hopes rest with a very silent man who has little interest (and zero actual financial interest) in baseball. Kroenke owns or has owned franchises in every other major sport, including top tier English soccer (Arsenal).

Whither the A’s in all of this? As usual, that depends. If the Raiders are shut out of LA because of the Rams’ and Chargers’ activity, the Raiders would effectively be forced to work on a stadium in Oakland, ostensibly at the Coliseum. Naturally, that would conflict with the A’s and MLB’s plans. Don’t believe for a moment that either team or league is going to actively work with the other on a joint development plan. With no public subsidy in sight, the Raiders and A’s will look to horde whatever revenue-generating opportunities they can, whether we’re talking entitlements or parking. Either way, that will run into conflict with Oakland’s designs on the Coliseum land, which are to create a new neighborhood with up to 10,000 new residents. Strangely enough, a “same as existing” use plan for the Coliseum lands would work best for entrenched interests in the area, including East Oakland residents concerned about gentrification and businesses west of 880 fighting against losing industrial land.

Should the Raiders look elsewhere in the East Bay, the A’s would be in the driver’s seat for the Coliseum. Yet as previously investigated sites are eliminated – Camp Parks and Concord NWS have their own plans underway – the Raiders will be even more boxed in at the Coliseum. Worst case they stumble to Santa Clara, where they would play tenant to the 49ers instead of the JPA. Chances are that they’d partner with a developer (SunCal?) for the Coliseum. Finally, that choice that I’ve been talking about for years, the one nobody in the East Bay has wanted to talk about publicly, would have to be made.

That doesn’t mean any choice would be made immediately, let alone a stadium built. Look at what happened for the San Jose Earthquakes. The team was reborn in 2008, had a stadium promised in 2010, didn’t start construction until 2012, and didn’t open until 2015. Seven years, and for a city that Lew Wolff actually loves. It’s easier to start construction when you’re absolutely sure the checks will come in.

Having to privately finance an entire stadium is hard enough, now the A’s would have to do so in small market Oakland. It’s not even so much about whether Wolff and John Fisher want to do it, does MLB want to subsidize it for 30-40 years via revenue sharing? If the A’s are going to carry a big mortgage in Oakland with iffy corporate support, revenue sharing seems an absolute necessity to keep the A’s in good financial health. That’s the alternative to negotiating with the Giants.

And if the Raiders build at the Coliseum instead? Well, the A’s would be able to leave the Coliseum, but for where? San Jose is not a player in this scheme, but you’d be surprised at what avenues can open up once MLB runs out of options and leverage. That might mean Diridon, it might mean Howard Terminal. It would be fitting for MLB to actually do something after years of actively sitting on its hands. As long as the A’s remain in the Bay Area, even severely delayed progress would be well worth it.

The small market A’s and some serious equity

Like clockwork, the annual Forbes MLB valuations roteere released yesterday, just prior to the start of the regular season. Unlike last year (which I didn’t bother to write about), there were several surprises. The biggest was the Giants’ 100% boost from $1 billion to $2 billion, on the strength of the team’s third World Series win and development potential at Mission Rock.

The other surprise was the huge gains for small market teams, led by the Royals, Indians, and yes, your Oakland Athletics. Forbes awarded the A’s a 46% gain, from $495 million last year to $725 million this year. While many revenue-related factors are responsible, Forbes also chose to up its revenue multiplier in determining the valuations, which had been falling behind actual sale prices in what has been over the last several years a hot seller’s market.

Higher enterprise ratios are being fueled by the stock market’s six-year bull run (which has inflated asset values and created a lot more buyer than seller of teams), baseball’s unmatched inventory of live, DVR-proof content, real estate development around stadiums, higher profitability (which reduces the need for capital calls) and the incredible success of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, the sports’ digital arm that is equally-owned by the league’s 30 teams.

Even the new A’s valuation may be behind the teams a bit. When Bloomberg released its own independently derived valuations after the 2013 season, then-PR man Bob Rose suggested that the number was closer to $700 million based on revenue. Before franchises started going for insane amounts, it was common for franchise owners – including Lew Wolff – to claim that Forbes’ numbers were incorrect, overselling certain aspects of a franchise’s operation. Now we’re starting to approach $1 billion for a team that has at best average TV/radio deals and no new stadium. A 300% return in a decade is pretty impressive, no matter how slice it – though Wolff and John Fisher can’t realize that until they sell the club. They’ve shown no indication that they’re interested in selling, despite how much the stAy crowd clamors for it.

As nice as the new valuation looks, it’s miles from where the Giants, Dodgers, and almighty Yankees ($3.2 billion) are. The Bronx Bombers recorded more than $500 million in revenue last year, confirming a quote from an unnamed Yankee exec in the fall. The luxury tax was designed to dissuade teams from profligate spending, but until recently that hasn’t stopped the Yankees and the Dodgers don’t seem to care one iota about the luxury tax. Redefining luxury tax penalties may become a sticking point in the next CBA negotiations, one that goes hand-in-hand with shifting the revenue sharing model for lower revenue (small market) franchises.

Let’s do a deeper dive into the Forbes figures. First the A’s:

numbers

Forbes breakdown of the A’s valuation

 

Now the Giants:

Forbes Giants valuation

Forbes’ Giants valuation

In nearly every key measurable, the Giants double or even quadruple the A’s. The Giants hit a perfect storm of on-field success and savvy management, which was parlayed into impressive revenues. The Giants are a money-making machine. They are also a big market club, no doubt. Though they aren’t profligate spenders in terms of payroll, everything else about them is big market, just like the Yankees, Dodgers, and Red Sox.

The A’s, on the other hand, bear all the marks of a small market team. Gate revenues are abysmal compared to the Giants. It’s so lacking that the A’s could untarp all the regular upper deck seats, sell out the entire season, and still only reach 50% of the Giants’ revenue. The flipside to that is that the A’s are a far more affordable, accessible product for baseball fans in the Bay Area. The market itself, which is defined as the East Bay, compares to a lot of other small markets like Tampa Bay and Kansas City. As long as the A’s are pigeonholed to the East Bay, it’s likely they’ll remain small market, or perhaps boost themselves to a medium-sized market if a new stadium comes.

New and improved national media revenues are the tide that has lifted the A’s boat. As big market teams keep getting bigger and bigger annual revenues, the A’s will continue to be a club that receives a nice revenue sharing check, at least as long as they play at the Coliseum. Per the current CBA, they’ll continue to be eligible for revenue sharing until they start playing in a new Bay Area ballpark. So the A’s are in a sort of limbo in which right now they’re considered a small market team in that they receive revenue sharing, but will be redefined as a big market team once they open a new park. That arrangement could continue into the next CBA, or it could change. I suspect that if the A’s build a new park in Oakland, they’ll remain a small market team by definition, simply because they don’t have the same direct access to big sponsors as they would in San Francisco or San Jose.

The other big takeaway from the valuation news is that the A’s debt position has significantly improved from doing nothing. Forbes reports that the A’s debt is now 8% of franchise value, or around $60 million. That leaves an astounding $665 million of equity for the ownership group. Wolff has suggested that he would use equity to help finance a ballpark. He could conceivably cover the entire cost with the team’s equity, but MLB rules about debt load preclude such a plan. The most debt the A’s can accrue without running afoul of MLB is 12 times their operating income if they’re building a new ballpark, 10x if not. If you take the average of income from the last three years you get $25 million. Multiply that by 12 and you get $300 million. The A’s have $60 million of existing debt, but according to MLB rules they can exempt $40 million of that. Combine all of those together and the A’s can in theory finance $280 million of a stadium. Even with the added debt, chances are that by the time the stadium opens it would hit only 35-40% of the franchise’s value, an acceptable amount for a sports franchise.

Naturally, the problem is servicing that debt. $280 million over 30 years at 4% is $16 million a year. To ensure that gets covered and it doesn’t have a deleterious effect on payroll, the A’s would have to get 30-32,000 average attendance per game for several seasons, at much more expensive prices than the Coliseum to boot. Then there’s the combination of suite sales, sponsorships, and maybe even seat licenses if fans are willing to invest. If this sounds similar to what the Giants did, that’s because it is. Maybe there’s a real estate component that can come in to offset that debt service requirement, but Wolff indicated in recent comments that grand development concept such as Coliseum City is not forthcoming from him.

Nevertheless, if Wolff and Fisher want to build, and fans are willing to pay, the path is there. Getting to a deal is the hard part.

P.S. – Speaking of getting to deal, there’s been some noise about wanting Wolff to show his plans. Show a rendering, something to indicate that he actually wants to build in Oakland. To which I say – come on. He just finished opening a soccer stadium, the spring training facility renovation, and is finishing scoreboards at the Coliseum. Are those not indicators of wanting to build?

All of these sentiments, while well-placed, are based on some unrealistic expectations. Fact is that the stadium development process is dog slow. It’s tedious. No premature release of renderings will do anything other than getting a small handful of fans excited. Believe me, I’m one of them. But I’ve also learned over the years is that all of that is sizzle, not steak. If you want real progress, you need rules. You need a framework. Here’s the “framework” for the A’s right now:

framework

That’s not a framework for anything other than random discussions between the A’s and East Bay pols. If the A’s, City, and County are going to work on an actual deal, they need to establish a real framework for talks and for a stadium/development deal. It would help if Oakland or the JPA started by creating an RFP (request for proposal), that would allow the A’s to formally propose something. The A’s are in the process of hiring a person to interface with City/County/JPA. If the Raiders wanted to present their own vision, the RFP could accommodate them too. That is how the Coliseum City process started, and is the proper – not to mention legal – way to do government business. Frankly, I’m past renderings. I want steak. You should too.

Alameda County approves ENA, draws line in sand at public money

Early during the Board of Supervisors meeting, President Scott Haggerty hinted that the assembled gallery could see how the Supes were going to vote, as they all had roughly the same comments during their part of the discussion. Nate Miley said he was going to vote for the ENA, but didn’t support “wholesale” use of public resources (land, money) for the project. Richard Valle called the project an “opportunity for private investment” before affirming his long-held no public funding stance. Wilma Chan felt the same while talking about community benefits. And Keith Carson considered the ENA a prudent step so that they could find out if the project had legs.

That sentiment of limited public support didn’t begin yesterday. It was brought up in public in December 2013, at the joint discussion between the Supes and Oakland City Council. It’s a topic that City and County haven’t been able to reconcile when County wasn’t part of the ENA. Now that they are equal partners, they’ll have no choice. It’s impossible to undersell the impact of this. County has taken a hard line on this, and it’s hard to see how City or Floyd Kephart’s New City will be able to reconcile it. In other words, it’s a potential showstopper.

The public contribution issue is big enough for the County that at the same meeting they commissioned a $200,000 study by CB Richard Ellis to appraise value of the Coliseum complex, land and buildings. Even that proved divisive:

Why would the County want the appraisal so badly? If the County wants to work from the notion that it could sell the complex at fair market value, it would help to understand what that FMV is. That doesn’t mean that they’d actually sell it at FMV. They could do a deal like San Jose, offering land at a discount provided that there was a certain price based on use. If County trends towards FMV pricing, that may be to force a decision on preventing a land giveaway by the City. While there are no deal terms yet, Coliseum City has long operated from the idea that the value of the land would offset sunk cost items like new infrastructure or writing off the Coliseum’s debt. The money saved by not spending it on land could be funneled towards the football stadium’s funding gap.

parcels

ENA covers ~140 acres of Coliseum area land

 

But if FMV was sought for the land, there’s no redirection of money to the funding gap. How, then, does that gap get addressed? If all three parties are going to have even a rough framework of a deal by the June deadline, they’ll have to come to some serious compromises that satisfy all three. That problem is one of those proverbial above my pay grade type of problem.

Miley made sure to mention his contingency plan of retrofitting the Coliseum instead of building new. While all five Supes approved the ENA, they didn’t express a ton of confidence in the project coming together. Left unsaid was another even more radical option that may prove more viable in time, one that was briefly mentioned in the adult conversation 16 months ago.

What if the City bought out the County?

If the County were leaning in that direction, an appraisal would make even more sense. Then they could start to figure out how to split the property, the remaining debt, and the JPA itself. Divorces are always messy, so don’t expect anything like this to happen as long as talks with Kephart continued. It’s not hard to see Coliseum City’s demise leading to a divorce. After all, if the sports teams are the JPA’s kids, and the kids have all grown up and moved away, what’s left?

Yet another possibility is that the County, which has a good relationship with Lew Wolff, is waiting just like Wolff for Coliseum City to die. Then they can work with the City on ballpark plan at the Coliseum. The no public funding demand would arise yet again, which would scare off many developers – but not Lew Wolff, who is not thinking about developing the Coliseum extensively right now. But that would be at odds with the City, which has grander visions for the Coliseum area than a stadium surrounded by parking.

Going back to the next-six-months-narrative, Friday’s City Council approval had optics that were designed to look good in reporting progress to the NFL. However, the NFL’s LA point man, Eric Grubman, continues to maintain that Oakland is neither “aggressive” nor “specific” about its plans. It’s easy to figure out what he means by “aggressive,” but “specific” appears to be a vaguely coded term. Is that just about Oakland’s desire for a 80,000 dome? That appears to have been put aside in recent weeks, especially by Mayor Schaaf. Does it mean something else? Coliseum City continues to be this amoeba that could contain anywhere from three to zero teams. The next three months are meant to provide some specificity, and the following two months even more fine tuning. The NFL signaled that it may announce or authorize moves during the fall, before the 2015 season ends. That puts Oakland, San Diego, and St. Louis under the gun to resolve their stadium problems, or else become abandoned. Even as it seemed the NFL had lost control of this game of musical chairs, they may have regained it.

Are we having fun yet?

Corey Busch talks Blue Ribbon Committee on CSN

Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area provided a bit of a surprise on Yahoo! Sports Talk Live, when they had Corey Busch, former Giants executive and member of the three-person Blue Ribbon Committee (Irwin Raij & Bob Starkey were the other two). Busch explained some of the panel’s activities and charges. Jim Kozimor did his best to pry what little information he could out of Busch, who didn’t answer a number of key questions because of the state of the San Jose-vs.-MLB lawsuit.

Corey Busch interview Part 1

Corey Busch interview Part 2

Busch clarified the territorial rights deal that occurred in 1991, giving the Giants control of the Santa Clara County, which prior to that point had been an open territory. He also called San Jose’s lawsuit a mistake on their part. While you may glean additional information from the segment, you’ll probably come out of it even more frustrated than before, whether you’re an Oakland or San Jose partisan or are location-agnostic. My preference for the show: Ray Ratto in a talking head box in a corner, providing running commentary as Busch answered questions. Good work on the interview Koz, and maybe we’ll get to uncover the bodies when the lawsuit business is over. Busch promised!