Wolff suggests MLB will help subsidize Oakland ballpark

Tyler Clippard did better as A’s closer than I expected, possibly faint praise in light of the pitiful nature of the rest of the bullpen. After Clippard was traded to the Mets for potential back-of-the-rotation starter Casey Meisner, Billy Beane was asked about the team’s strategy and philosophy. Inevitably the discussion turned to his thoughts on a future ballpark (h/t BANG’s John Hickey), whenever the hell that’s gonna happen.

“It seems the environment maybe is right. It’s not my department… I don’t want to be Pollyannaish. I’m hopeful that something or some progress will be made. It will make it easier to plan from a baseball operations standpoint. If you had a ballpark (in the works), this would probably be the proper approach.”

Beane has echoed similar thoughts before, as the A’s were pushing for ballparks in both Fremont and San Jose. It would be completely acceptable for Billy to be gun-shy considering the failures of the past. Yet Beane seemed practically optimistic, despite there being no specific date to break ground, let alone open a new park.

Backing that optimism was Wolff, who took the notion of an Oakland ballpark further, admitting that he’s – get this – talking it over with Rob Manfred.

Wolff did say that new commissioner Rob Manfred was fully behind the A’s getting a new venue as soon as possible. And the A’s owner said Major League Baseball would likely kick in some money to help the A’s get a stadium done at the Oakland site, public money not being available.

That’s about as big of news as we’ve heard all year on the ballpark front. A private subsidy – that’s what we’re talking about here – is exactly what the A’s will need to make a ballpark in Oakland… wait for it… feasible. Oakland has a hearty albeit small fanbase, and it lacks San Francisco’s or San Jose’s corporate wealth. Money from MLB, which would really be paid by the richer clubs, is the stable revenue stream that the A’s need to stay in Oakland. And since it doesn’t come from Oakland or Alameda taxpayers, it’s politically above board.

The easiest path to that money is MLB to continue to keep the A’s on revenue sharing, which I suggested a week ago. While it doesn’t fulfill the goal of getting the A’s off the dole, it solves the Lodge’s problem of figuring out what to do with the A’s without fighting over territorial rights. Enshrined in the current CBA is language specific to the A’s:

Beginning with (but not before) their first full season of operation in a new stadium, the Oakland Athletics shall be subject to the same-percentage revenue sharing disqualification that applies to other market-disqualified Clubs in the given Revenue Sharing Year.

Those “market-disqualified Clubs” are the top 15 markets (teams) in MLB. The bottom 15 are fully eligible for revenue sharing. As long as the A’s stay in the Coliseum, they straddle that line between the two. The owners and Bud Selig probably thought that the A’s stadium mess would’ve been resolved by the end of the CBA, that’s why the language is in there. Instead, Selig’s successor, Manfred, and those same owners now have the choice of resolving the A’s problem by allowing the A’s to stay on revenue sharing. It’s a compromise plan to be sure, one the owners always had in their back pocket.

Revenue sharing is designed to help the have-nots with player development, not for stadium development. That’s an issue that would have to be worked out internally. I would expect that, as with the current CBA, the A’s place within the revenue sharing recipients pool will have another sunset clause, one that’s perhaps 10 years down the road.

There is an alternative to revenue sharing in the form of MLB’s credit facility, which allows up to $100 million per team for reasons outside of normal baseball operations. Eventually that may be the better way to handle the situation. Use of the credit facility would be more like the NFL’s G-3/G-4 program, in that a loan would be taken out against future TV revenues. It’s a smaller subsidy, but if the ballpark costs a reasonable amount ($600 million), it could be enough to cover those years when stadium revenues are running a little dry.

If you were looking for a sign that Wolff and John Fisher are serious about building in Oakland, this is it, short of a plan unveiling. It shows that ownership is serious, MLB is serious, and Oakland is the main focus. At the same time, there is still the saga of Coliseum City to deal with. Nate Miley suggested today that nothing was happening as far as alternative proposals until Coliseum City ends, so we can look forward to that at some point, maybe in the coming weeks. Until then, this is progress.

Coliseum renovation for baseball?

Lew Wolff was profiled in the current edition of Athletics magazine. It amounted to a short biography, with some time at the end devoted to how Wolff sees the A’s future. Much attention has been paid to the following passage:

We continue to respect the desire of the Raiders for a new football-only venue, while we of course would like to play in a new or vastly improved baseball-only venue.

New or vastly improved? Wolff referred to a renovated Coliseum recently, perhaps only in passing. This sounds like a renovated Coliseum is a real option. But is it?

When most A’s fans think about a rebuilt Coliseum, what they think about most is the old Coliseum, pre-Mount Davis. Knock down the concrete eyesore in the outfield, bring back the bleachers and ice plant, fix up some stuff in the old Coliseum and the A’s are set. Which would be true – if this was 25 years ago. We’re in 2015, and the bar has been raised. Removing the football seats isn’t going to bring in casual fans, the attendees that come to Oakland so inconsistently and infrequently. In California, renovation works on old theaters, where wood and accents connote charm and warmth. A hulking stadium once known as the Oakland Mausoleum has no warmth. It would still lack a purpose-built ballpark’s intimacy. And for Oakland and Alameda County, they’d be stuck with $100 million in remaining debt and nothing to show for it. There is a bright side, however. If the A’s took over the Coliseum after the Raiders left, the A’s could claim and repurpose the Raiders’ locker room, eliminating the legacy clubhouse’s plumbing and sewage issues for good. City and County would still be stuck with the debt, but at least they wouldn’t have to pay the Raiders’ ongoing operating subsidy at the Coliseum, worth $7 million a year.

Cost of return to early 90’s Coliseum: $150 million ($50 million in improvements, $100 million in outstanding debt)

Another option could be to repurpose Mt. Davis and replace much of the old stadium, since Mt. Davis is the newest part of the Coliseum. I posted such a concept six years ago to little fanfare, which is exactly what I expected. It’s exactly the compromise plan that you might think it is.

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It’s sort of the Two-Face of ballparks. The top level of Mt. Davis would be removed, seats replaced on the lower and club levels, plus remodeling of the concourses and suites. New seating decks would be built behind a relocated home plate and first base line. The mezzanine and club levels of the old Coliseum would remain since they fill needs: a restaurant in the outfield and additional seats. The new scoreboards could be assembled into one extremely wide (36′ high x 290′ wide) or large (72′ x 145′) display. No additional major infrastructure other than a revamped field drainage system would be needed. Of course, some issues regarding the sight lines from Mt. Davis would have to be resolved, partly by rearranging the lower bowl and adding new seating options.

Cost of repurposed Mt. Davis-based baseball stadium: $350 million for the A’s, including $100 million Coliseum debt.

—-

A new, bespoke ballpark on the Coliseum grounds is the preferred option for A’s fans and MLB. Is it for Wolff and Fisher? Sure, as long as it pencils out. The idea that Wolff pitched last year was that there was a way to privately finance a ballpark while also addressing the debt by taking it out of the public’s hands. Unfortunately that concept has been hit with two huge doses of reality.

Issue #1 is that it’ll be hard to service the debt of the new stadium and the old stadium using all private sources. Right now Mt. Davis costs low eight figures to service, but imagine if that debt wasn’t serviced by relatively stable sources like taxes, instead paid by stadium revenues. Financing costs would balloon, making an already expensive project even more expensive. That’s why I found it curious that Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf seems resigned to having the public sector pay off the debt. To go that route would be significant reversal, as one of the goals of Coliseum City was to find ways to wipe away the albatross.

That leads to Issue #2. The sale of the (public) Coliseum land could turn into a political third rail thanks to protests by East Oakland and housing activists. Wolff, like many other developers, is finding that the economics aren’t quite right for a market value project at the Coliseum, where the higher prices are needed to subsidize other project components like the stadium. Even if the pricing worked out, the same aforementioned activists would raise hell over potential gentrification. When the Coliseum City process started, there was an acknowledgement that the various public and private partners would have bargaining chips to play. Slowly, each of those chips is being taken away. We’ll soon be down to the basics: building a stadium privately, with no help.

If a new A’s ballpark can stay reasonably priced, there are ways for it to be financed by Wolff. Like the Giants, there will be some annual set aside for debt service that impacts payroll. Lean years could become extremely lean thanks to the mortgage. The A’s could work a deal with MLB to ensure that they stay on the list of revenue sharing recipients in the next CBA. It would be a reasonable request given the A’s being pigeonholed into Oakland.

Regardless of the difficulty, a new ballpark has to be what MLB and Rob Manfred want for the A’s and Oakland. The old compromises don’t die. They evolve and transform. That’s the new reality.

Manfred status quo on A’s in Oakland, considers expansion

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred held the first All Star Game press conference of his tenure Tuesday, and he seemed prepared for most every question asked of him. On the recent push for baseball to extend netting near the plate to protect fans, Manfred said that MLB was still studying the issue and can’t formally make any changes until 2016, although individual teams can choose to extend the nets if they wanted.

Manfred referred to a forthcoming domestic violence policy, the difficulty of shortening the schedule to 154 games, even machine-judged balls and strikes. The discussion eventually moved to the subject of franchises and cities. Montreal remains impressive, though trying to project fan support based on a couple exhibition games each year is taking things a bit far. There was a question about the A’s, too.

No change there.

Things got interesting when Manfred was asked about the possibility of expansion. His response?

“Maybe one of the reasons I got this job is, I’m bullish on this game. I think we are a growth business, broadly defined. And over an extended period of time, growth businesses look to get bigger. So yeah, I’m open to the idea that there will be a point in time where expansion may be possible.”

Manfred was careful not to provide a timetable for expansion or put it at a high priority, similar to stadium efforts in St. Petersburg and Oakland. Regardless, this is a major revelation and a complete turnabout from predecessor Bud Selig’s consistent no-expansion stance since the tense 2002 CBA talks.

It’s important not to read too much into Manfred’s statement, but it’s likely that his favorable view on expansion is fueled by a handful of factors:

  1. The American economy (at least capital) is surging, with many cities emerging from the recession potentially ready to entertain new stadium deals.
  2. Montreal functions as both a relocation candidate and an expansion candidate, taking the place of DC, which filled the role for more than three decades.
  3. Manfred’s continued hopeful statements about Oakland may be a sign that a resolution for at least one team (probably not the Rays) is coming.
  4. Like Roger Goodell, Manfred probably has revenue growth goals for MLB. With 28 new ballparks built, national TV deals locked in, and most RSN carriage deals maxed out, few other growth avenues exist. MLB AM is its own juggernaut, one that may spin out and go public in time. The obvious way to achieve bigger growth is to enter new markets by expansion.

Of course, the problem for baseball is that unlike the other three major sports, MLB’s every day scheduling requires that expansion comes in pairs of teams, not single teams. I’ve long been an advocate of a 32-team MLB, with 16 teams per league. It would create smaller, more manageable divisions and eliminate the need for interleague play throughout the entire year, though that would remain an option if The Lodge decided it worked for them economically.

Realignment could work with two leagues of four divisions each with heavily unbalanced schedules, or two leagues of two divisions each – the pre-interleague arrangement – with more balanced schedules.

realign-32

As usual, placement of teams is purely for discussion purposes and not based on any league reports or rumors

Amazingly, the landscape has changed for expansion city candidates. Assuming that Montreal is penciled in as the first expansion franchise, there would be a race to fill the other spot. Unlike the Expos’ barnstorming tour of a decade+ ago, there are far fewer candidates and many more questions to be answered by expansion candidate cities. Portland has given itself over to soccer and would have to build a new stadium in conjunction with landing a franchise, the same way the Dbacks and Chase Field were developed together. Las Vegas is no longer a player thanks to ongoing development, a loss of political will (Oscar Goodman), and a new arena being built on the Strip. Puerto Rico has become America’s own Greece. Monterrey, Mexico seems to have the market size and a ideal temporary stadium, but with some misgivings by the players’ union. Charlotte has a brand new AAA stadium and an overstretched market. Sacramento is now in the firm grasp of the Giants, who would fight any expansion franchise over TV rights (not stadium building rights).

Manfred’s statements are sure to get those dormant expand-to-my-home-city machines going again. And that’s just fine with him, since it will keep baseball in the news year-round. I have confidence that MLB will expand to 32 teams sometime in the next 10 years. If it doesn’t happen, it will be a sign that the owners’ collective greed goes completely unchecked despite an ever-expanding pie.

Make. Them. Pay.

When HBO announced its own fake news show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver I felt great about Oliver, who did exemplary work at The Daily Show. I also felt rather hesitant at the show’s format: a 30-minute show on Sunday night featuring the previous week’s news. It didn’t take much time for Oliver to prove the format a winner. Instead of the rat-a-tat nature of TDS, The Colbert Report, and other late night shows, Oliver was given the freedom of devoting a lengthy segment every week to a single topic. Those segments, usually ending each episode, have providing cutting and often educational rants on a broad range of topics, from FIFA corruption to race relations to an interview with Edward Snowden. So it shouldn’t have surprised me that this week’s topic was near and dear to my heart: stadium development in America.

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Oliver starts and ends the segment with references to soaring locker room speeches. I took the liberty of transcribing his own speech at the end. As you watch the end, read the speech.

For the rest of you I want you to look deep down inside your hearts. I want you dig in there and I want you to find something. And it’s gonna seem tiny but it’s the most powerful thing in the world. And it’s the word “No.” No.

So when a billionaire asks you to buy him a hologram machine that doesn’t exist yet, what are you gonna say?

NO.

That’s right! And when they ask you to build a stadium with public money without opening their books, what are you gonna say to them?

NO!

That’s right! And when they ask you if they can keep all the money for calling their arena “Smoothie King Center” what are you gonna say to them?!?!

NO!!!!!

FUCK NO that’s right ‘cause that’s a stupid name for anything, even a smoothie store!

‘Cause I want you all to get out there. And the next time a team comes around asking for a new stadium I want you to MAKE THEM PAY. What are you gonna do?!?!

MAKE THEM PAY!!

WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO!!!

MAKE THEM PAY!!!!

WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO!!!!!

MAKE THEM PAY!!!!!

CLEAR EYES! FULL HEARTS!

CAN’T LOSE!!!

LET’S GO DO THIS!!!!!!

crowd ends in a MAKE THEM PAY! MAKE THEM PAY! chant.

Already my week is made.

Schaaf talks Oakland sports on CSN

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf made an appearance on CSN’s Sports Talk Live program. Her segment, hosted by Jim Kozimor and featuring Ray Ratto and Tim Kawakami, offered the chance for Schaaf to field myriad questions about the respective fates of Oakland sports teams. Schaaf spent much of her studio time not directly answering most of the pointed questions, such as Ratto’s inquiries about choosing one team over another or Kawakami’s question about Howard Terminal.

schaaf

That said, she perked up more than her usual sunny demeanor when describing ballpark talks with the A’s:

She was also quite excitedly described Howard Terminal, though when pressed on putting a ballpark there she was clear about what she wasn’t prepared to do.

Schaaf went on to describe Howard Terminal as a place that could be home to some sort of sports or entertainment development, referring specifically to a concert venue. Port commissioner and former mayoral candidate Bryan Parker advocated for a waterfront arena at HT, either beside or instead of a ballpark.

As for Coliseum City, Schaaf threw her predecessor Quan under the bus while assuring the panel that Floyd Kephart’s final deadline was August 21, and really September if the City Council wanted to extend things further. The NFL has owners meetings starting August 11, and though the NFL could decide on one or two teams to move to LA at that early juncture, it seems more likely that they’ll hold off until at least November or after the football season ends. That would give Oakland, San Diego, and St. Louis more time to work out stadium deals and allow the teams to sell a full season of tickets without an early move announcement hanging over their heads.

The mayor emphasized the potential for other proposals from the Raiders and A’s, having little positive to say about Coliseum City itself. She’s definitely encouraging the ongoing work by the teams apart from Coliseum City, but leaving CC in play allows Schaaf to play the same wait-and-see strategy that Lew Wolff is playing. No rush right now, don’t succumb to the pressure to provide subsidies the way St. Louis and San Diego are, and don’t commit to a team if you can help it. That will probably work throughout the summer, but what happens when the football season starts, or when the NFL decides to play hardball? Then we’ll see well the mayor handles the political calculus of trying to keep two or three sports teams in Oakland.

Manfred visits Oakland, stays on message – with a wrinkle

Before I get into today’s edict from MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, let’s first sum up his position on the A’s with regard to a new ballpark.

  1. The A’s need a new ballpark.
  2. Oakland is the city for the A’s.
  3. The Coliseum is the only site under consideration in Oakland.

Okay, now let’s unpack what he said in today’s pregame press conference.

View from east towards Oakland Estuary. Image: JRDV

View from east towards Oakland Estuary. Image: JRDV

Via BANG’s John Hickey:

Speaking before the A’s played the Angels Friday night, Manfred said, ‘With respect to San Jose, all I can say is that we are still involved with really significant litigation, significant enough that it’s in the Supreme Court of the United States. I can’t foresee any movement until at least that litigation is resolved. That litigation has clearly been an impediment to things moving forward.’

At the same time, Manfred all but ruled out the A’s staying in Oakland if the Raiders attempt to build a stadium on the Coliseum site. The Raiders also are considering a move to Southern California, but Manfred suggested that if the NFL team stays, the A’s would have to go.

Another constant has been Manfred’s stance on San Jose. The South Bay city will not be in play as long as the antitrust lawsuit, which SJ city leaders are petitioning to have taken up by the Supreme Court, is still pending. MLB wants that little gnat gone, which should that happen by this fall, immediately brings up another question: What is MLB’s relationship with San Jose once the lawsuit is over? I’ve said all along that MLB is not going to kill San Jose while the A’s long-term fate remains unclear, especially in Oakland. That hunch certainly seems correct.

From the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Kawahara:

Manfred urged that the city of Oakland and Alameda County ‘focus on the need to get something done in respect to baseball — not to the detriment of football, but the need to get something done with baseball.’

‘I’ve said publicly I think it’s absolutely vital to the long-term health of this franchise that the A’s get a new facility,’ Manfred said. ‘It remains my goal, part of baseball’s long-standing policy, that we try to get that stadium built here in Oakland, where the A’s have been and have their fan base.’

There are some within the Oakland-only crowd who have been complaining endlessly about the A’s not providing a proposal to Oakland after the Coliseum City process was “opened up” last fall. Manfred knows this and is likely nudging Lew Wolff and John Fisher to get their ducks in a row. To me the idea of pushing Wolff has never made much sense. Wolff’s bargaining position will be best if the Raiders leave, and the lease gives him plenty of time to wait that out, plus there’s no indicator that he’ll get any financing help from MLB on an Oakland ballpark, so MLB can only dictate so much. Yet there’s a different suggestion that comes straight from Manfred himself, and it may come down to what Coliseum City has represented from the start.

Coliseum City was not originally conceived as a precise plan to keep all three current tenants in town. It was a mostly a plan to convince the Raiders to stay. It had a large, multipurpose domed stadium as its centerpiece. A ballpark was shuffled off to the northeast corner, a developmentally distant Phase B to the football stadium. The existing arena could stay – inadequate as the NBA sees it – or be replaced by a venue on the other side of the Nimitz. That new arena concept has practically disappeared as the scope of the project has shrunk, and while Floyd Kephart and CC proponents are still pitching separate venues for all teams, a distinct possibility is an either-or scenario, baseball or football. To that end Manfred has qualified his plea as “not to the detriment of football,” but he and his counterpart at the NFL, Roger Goodell, know full well what’s at stake. Neither league wants to share, or to put it more diplomatically, neither league wants to step on the other’s toes, which is exactly what would happen if both teams stay while a new venue is constructed.

If anything, Manfred seems to want the same kind of attention given to the A’s by Oakland as the City has given the Raiders. While Manfred strong-armed Oakland into signing the 10-year Coliseum lease last summer, he also did them a favor. Manfred kept the A’s in place for several years to come and enforced the territorial rights issue. If anything, Manfred wants Oakland to submit its own Coliseum-tailored-around-the-A’s plan. It may not be something that Wolff would sign on to, but it would likely curry favor with Manfred, and that tactic could be much more effective within the Lodge than keeping the A’s in their second banana status. Oakland tried to make this play before with Howard Terminal, but the difficulties there made it effectively infeasible, and OWB’s giving up on the site does nothing to discount that widely-held opinion.

From SFGate’s Lev Facher:

‘My information is that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to have two facilities on the current Coliseum site,’ Manfred said, indicating that a successful Raiders project could preclude the construction of an adjacent baseball stadium.

‘The A’s folks have been pretty clear that they believe the Coliseum site is the best site for a baseball stadium in Oakland,’ Manfred said.

Manfred’s in Oakland’s corner. That is, until Oakland starts to act in a way that displeases the Lodge. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that picking the Raiders over the A’s at the Coliseum is a sure fire way to get Manfred out of Oakland’s corner and into Wolff’s corner.

Oakland Mayor Schaaf to speak with MLB, NFL commissioners in NYC next week

BANG reported yesterday that Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf will meet with the commissioners of MLB and NFL next week, as part of a trip to New York for the World Cities Summit Mayors Forum.

Chances are that she will provide an update on Coliseum City, while explaining to both commissioners that the project is the best chance to keep either team despite misgivings on the part of Lew Wolff and Mark Davis. What the commissioners will probably ask – and this is the challenge for Schaaf – was what happens after Coliseum City. Whether Floyd Kephart some or all of the deliverables expected on June 21 (he won’t be able to provide the biggest, a commitment from a team), Schaaf and the City Council will be under pressure from both leagues to cut bait and start looking at alternatives. Those options are expected to be proposals from Wolff and Davis, though neither has offered one yet.

Let’s be clear about one thing – Schaaf’s talks with Roger Goodell and Rob Manfred will not be negotiating sessions. Neither league is participating in the Coliseum City process, and no other proposals are on the table, so there are no points to negotiate. Schaaf has remained adamant that Oakland can’t incur additional debt in the effort to retain any teams. Council member Noel Gallo took that no-giveaway notion a step further, announcing earlier this week that he’s against selling public land.

The problem is that everyone involved is talking around the problem at this point. Goodall and Manfred should by now be well aware of Schaaf’s no-subsidy stance. The land giveaway idea is practically a moot point. Neither team wants to extensively develop the Coliseum complex, so there’s no point to selling the land or figuring out a way to fund costly infrastructure when none will be built. Coliseum City point man Floyd Kephart keeps plugging away, even though he’s close to achieving persona non grata status in some circles. Manfred indicates that the A’s shouldn’t worry about what’s happening with the Raiders, though the current arrangement has their fates in Oakland intertwined and he knows it. Neither commissioner is going to tell Schaaf to boot the other’s team off the Coliseum property, yet that’s exactly what it will take for something to move forward. And neither is currently offering a solution for any funding gaps (NFL G-4 funds are limited, keeping the A’s on baseball’s revenue sharing plan is a subject for the next CBA talks in 2016).

What can we expect, then? Some words of encouragement. Renewed talk of urgency, moreso on the NFL’s part. The City of Oakland will probably keep its June 21 and August 21 deadlines, since they have little to lose over the next three months. It will be in their best interest to start formulating an exit strategy and plans to accommodate both teams on different sites if they haven’t done so already. That may be why the BANG item mentioned Howard Terminal. Dismissed out of hand from the start and declared dead last year, Howard Terminal is the only available large patch of land outside the Coliseum complex. It remains a difficult site to pull off because of regulatory hurdles and major infrastructure costs, but it’s something. And if someone can figure out how to pay for all of it, it may be viable after all. But who’s going to do that? No one talking in NYC next week will. Neither will either team.

Again, where are we with all of this?