Selig’s Tortures of Hell and Splitting the Baby

Update 8:50 PMJean Quan is trying to delay the vote, supposedly to get further concessions from Lew Wolff. Wolff’s comments today don’t sound like he’s giving any additional concessions. 

During today’s customary pre-All Star Game media session, Bud Selig addressed the A’s stadium situation for the umpteenth time. Not surprisingly, Selig’s answers yielded little for fans to be optimistic about. Selig answers that were actual answers were mainly confined to the ongoing lease negotiations at the Coliseum, with no hint as to what would occur in the future whether the lease was approved or not.

Somehow I doubt these were Selig’s personal tortures of hell. After all, he knowingly has created these conditions. It’s been much worse for A’s fans and even local media for being forced to report on this never-ending charade, not to mention little old bloggers who try to make sense of it all. Coupled with Selig’s imploring the Oakland City Council to get the deal done was the presence of Lew Wolff beside him at the Home Run Derby last night, as well as today during the session. It was a not-so-subtle reminder of who the commissioner will side with if Oakland can’t come to an agreement on Wednesday, when the City Council will hold a special session at 5:30 to consider the lease. Meanwhile, there continues to be an epic amount of finger pointing within the Council, as the mayoral candidates take stances for or against the lease and then pull 180’s days later. Those who aren’t running for mayor are sick of the politics. While MLB’s threats seemed to have cowed the Council enough to approve the deal, there’s no telling with could happen in the next 24 hours or so. Selig also acknowledged the success of the exhibition games held in Montreal in the spring, while shooting down Montreal as a potential A’s relocation target.

If anyone feels like they’re in hell, it has to be the members of the JPA board, the Oakland City Council, and the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. The mistrust and lack of communication all point to the JPA’s eventual demise, as the two City and County partners have differing visions for how to move forward. The City has been working with BayIG and Colony Capital, and for months has not expeditiously informed the JPA on the process. The JPA decided in recent weeks to figure out a potential deal with the A’s, which could threaten the Raiders’ future at the Coliseum as much as the Coliseum City deal threatens the A’s.

Last week I wondered if the idea of one party buying out the other would come up again from Nate Miley, and sure enough it has. About the only thing that the City and County can agree on is that there are too many cooks in the Coliseum’s kitchen. Miley even brought up a split-the-baby proposal.

“I would say if we could have one party responsible out at the Coliseum and the (Oracle) Arena, that would be the preference,” Miley said.

If there could be an easy way to break up the JPA, that’s it. The arena and stadium have separate financing and debt repayment structures. They’re even separate when it comes to the assessor’s rolls.

 

Most of area is the Coliseum complex, jointly owned by the City and County. Inset within is the arena land to the left. Not shown: additional land acquisitions to the east and north.

Most of area is the Coliseum complex, jointly owned by the City and County. Inset within is the arena land to the left. Not shown: additional land acquisitions to the east and north.

The County would probably be willing to take on the arena and let the City handle the rest of the complex and the development within. If Coliseum City or Wolff’s plan required the arena land, it would be a simple deal to pay off the estimated $70 million owed on the arena after the Warriors leave, assuming that the W’s aren’t liable for the remaining debt. All the County would require is a minimum amount of parking spaces (5,000 or so) to be available and continued access to the BART station via the bridge. That’s a much more manageable situation than the stadium’s $100 million owed after 2017 ($138 million after this year) and $100-400 million in infrastructure costs required to build out a complete development.

The downside of splitting the baby in this manner is that Oakland will find itself in a much riskier position. It alone will have to figure out what to do with the remaining Coliseum debt. It would also have to finance all the new infrastructure without the County’s help. Some state or federal grants could prove helpful, but are increasingly scarce. There’s very little hope of refinancing either the arena or stadium debt in the future if neither is going to have a tenant, so it’ll be up to the developer to pay it off, else the City & County eat it.

Let’s say that the County, as Miley suggests, wants out of this project altogether. Without knowing what the A’s are planning, it’s likely that their Coliseum redevelopment will be similar or smaller in scope than Coliseum City. The problem there is the mutual distrust between Wolff and the City. The City has only been working with the Raiders/BayIG, and would presumably have them as their preferred partner. But if the A’s lease extension is approved, it could jeopardize the existing Coliseum City relationship. Mayor Jean Quan and CM Kaplan can characterize this is not having to choose all they want. MLB and NFL (through proxies) are forcing that decision. Can’t dance with two partners the whole night, Oakland. Sooner or later, one of them’s gonna up and leave, or at least find a new partner.

Selig pulls out move threat card, Oakland folds like cheap tent, JPA approves lease

Today had me driving from Toledo to Pittsburgh, so much of the time I was out of pocket or unable to catch up on news. Fortunately, I arrived at my planned midpoint as the JPA was convening for a vote. This is the place I visited:

The Ohio State Reformatory

The Ohio State Reformatory

Look familiar? It’s not a college campus or an old hospital. It’s the old Ohio State Reformatory, located in Mansfield, Ohio. It’s better known as the site for the filming of The Shawshank Redemption, the great Stephen King-Frank Darabont picture that no one saw in the theaters but everyone saw on cable. I toured the prison, which would’ve been demolished if not for the film’s production and belated popularity. Like the Coliseum, much of OSR is in a steady state of decay. And like the film’s climactic scene, our own green-and-gold clad heroes at times have forded a river of sewage to escape the facility. I recognize that forcing a team of millionaires owned by billionaires to stay in mediocre conditions is nothing like actual prison. The point is that writing this blog at times is my own personal prison, one that I seemingly can never escape (especially the comments section or fools on Twitter). However, I made a promise to see this through, so it’s being done. Every so often I allow myself to feel a little hope, the dangerous concept that Red cautions Andy to squelch. Even after 9 years and with no end in sight, I still hope. I can’t allow myself to be completely consumed by cynicism. There’s already one Miserablist in the Bay Area, no need for two.

My own vacation activities aside, there is reason for hope to come out of today. First, let’s recap.

  • Yesterday, the prevailing sentiment was that the City representation on the JPA board would form a bloc and oppose proposed lease agreement, killing the deal and allowing the City to provide a counteroffer.
  • That tactic was quickly trumped by last night’s letter from Lew Wolff to the JPA, which was reported during the JPA session. Wolff indicated that if the JPA did not approve the lease, Bud Selig would grant Wolff immediate permission to move the team out of Oakland.
  • In fear of Selig’s threatened reprisal, the JPA board met in closed session to discuss the lease. Eventually the lease was approved 6-2, Rebecca Kaplan (who helped construct the lease terms) and Aaron Goodwin (who dissented on the current lease).

Now for the deal terms. The redone lease includes concessions made by both sides. Note: the deal must be ratified by the Oakland City Council and Alameda County Board of Supervisors before August 1.

  1. The A’s will be in the Coliseum through at least the 2017 season, with opt-outs available to both the team and the JPA until the 2024 season.
  2. $5 million in back parking fees that were up for arbitration in the fall are now wiped away.
  3. The A’s will pay $1.25-1.75 million in annual rent. They will be obligated to pay this through the end of the lease, unless they are able to work a deal to build another stadium in Oakland.
  4. The A’s will pay at least $10 million for a new scoreboard/ribbon board package. They will keep all revenue from the boards during A’s games. The JPA/Raiders will get revenue for football games. If the new system costs less than $10 million, the remainder will be paid to the JPA.
  5. The JPA will put together a $1 million/year maintenance fund, for use when things break. The JPA is not obligated to spend $1 million every year if maintenance spending is not required.
  6. A’s will have good faith discussions about building a future ballpark at or near the Coliseum, depending largely on what the Raiders do.
  7. The Coliseum area is the only site under consideration for a ballpark, with Howard Terminal dropped.

However you feel about the parking matter, this is a large number of concessions from the A’s. As Interim City Administrator Henry Gardner pointed out, this won’t stop the big subsidy that the City and County have to pay to keep the Raiders and A’s at the Coliseum. Then again, the counteroffer wasn’t providing any relief for that subsidy either.

The A’s have also asked for any developer interested in the Coliseum to put up $20 million towards a redevelopment project. You can call this “earnest money.” It may sound like a lot, but it’s an important form of skin in the game for the developer, something that Colony Capital isn’t providing right now. Wolff certainly isn’t afraid of dropping that kind of coin, since he bought some Fremont land in advance and paid for the CEQA study work in advance. $10 million is a good amount to keep pretenders from engaging in talks.

This type of deal was available in November, before the last time the A’s and the JPA hit a stalemate. Selig and Rob Manfred then stepped in and negotiated the to-be-superseded short-term deal. For whatever reason, the City of Oakland hasn’t recognized that until now, Selig has treated the City with kid gloves. That explains their shock and outrage to Selig’s power play. Sorry Oakland, this is how Selig normally operates. It’s part of the standard commissioner’s playbook. At some point the hardass version of Selig was going to show up and back his owner. To expect different wouldn’t just be unrealistic, it would be downright delusional.

Things are not going to get better for Oakland. The other shoe to drop will be the reactions of Mark Davis and the NFL. Since the Raiders and A’s are effectively competing for the Coliseum, both leagues are likely to play tug-of-war with the City in order to get them to commit to either entity. That should provide Oakland with some amount of usable leverage, but that’s negated by the City’s lack of non-land resources and their concerns about the feelings of the other team/league. What you’re seeing right now is Oakland in paralysis. The NFL and MLB are only happy to shake Oakland out of it. Both leagues are gearing up their preferred and contingency plans. If Davis decides this is it and gives up on Coliseum City, the complex is all Wolff’s to negotiate. If Davis truly wants Coliseum City and sees a way to make it work, Oakland will have a tough decision to make. Which team, league and developer should they partner with? It’s a decision that no politician wants to make, especially during an election year. Yet that’s Oakland destiny. Get busy living? Andy Dufresne had to decide that he had enough of Warden Norton’s hijinks in order to plan his escape. Oakland has two Warden Nortons, and it will have to screw one of them. Otherwise Oakland could find its teams, like Norton’s money, all gone.

Think winning helps to get a new ballpark? Think again.

One of the emerging narratives I heard when the A’s started playing well in 2012 was

The A’s are playing well, they don’t need to move, they may not even need a new ballpark.

As the team continued to succeed through the 2013 season, the narrative changed to

The A’s are winning in Oakland, they have to build here. The fans are coming out!

…along with…

If the A’s win the World Series, they’ll get their new ballpark in Oakland.

That lingered with me for a while. Other than the bandwagon factor on attendance, what does winning have to do with getting a new ballpark built? Turns out that winning has very little to do with getting a ballpark built. One idea often thrown out there is the notion that a team can ride the momentum of winning seasons, pennants, and rings to build the public goodwill necessary to seal a stadium deal. Over the past 20+ years, that generally has not been the case. Most ballparks are built absent of significant on-field success, the deals forged by behind-the-scenes political planning, not so much the optics of celebrating fans.

I wasn’t aware of how little winning mattered until I did the math. I took a look at all of the ballparks (not multipurpose stadia) built in the modern era, starting with US Cellular Field (New Comiskey) in 1991. Then I added up their respective home teams’ records and attendance going back 7 years. Why 7? A ballpark usually takes 3 years to build, an additional 2 to plan and approve, plus another 1-2 years depending on political and economic climate, legal hurdles, or other obstacles.

Out of 22 new ballparks built and 138 seasons – 129 full seasons when accounting for strike-shortened 1994 – played prior to opening of those parks, teams have combined to accrue a grand total of 1 World Series championship, 7 league pennants, and 29 postseason appearances (division crowns or wild card spots).

ballparks-7years

A list of 22 new ballparks built in the modern era. Legacy ballparks that have undergone renovations are not included.

The astounding thing about all this futility is that the sole World Series was won by the Braves, a team that didn’t need to win to build support for a ballpark because they were getting a free ballpark after the 1996 Summer Olympics ended. In the run-up to the Games, the Braves were folded into the venue scheme when the Centennial Olympic Stadium was conceived in such a way that it could be converted from a track-and-field stadium to a ballpark after the Games ended. Since the funding was provided entirely by sponsors, there was no need to sell the stadium to the public. The Yankees experienced 2 World Series losses in the years before the new Yankee Stadium. Only 2 other teams even made it to the Series during their pre-ballpark runs.

What happened more frequently was that teams were quite terrible leading up to their new digs. The Tigers were atrocious by design, as Mike Ilitch chose to use that period for rebuilding and to help pay for what would eventually be Comerica Park. The Marlins were built to tank until a park came, as were the Brewers. The Pirates chose to rebuild in their post-Bonds period, an era that lasted much longer than anyone envisioned. And Cleveland was continuing that great legacy of ineptitude that spawned a movie franchise. Two teams in the above list were expansion teams. The Rockies played at Mile High for two years while Coors Field was being completed, whereas the Diamondbacks were deferred until 1998 when Chase Field opened. A third team, the Nationals, effectively acted as an expansion team because they were sold by MLB to the highest bidder and Washington was granted the franchise move conditionally upon completion of a ballpark deal.

The Giants, whose new ownership made a big splash in 1993 by signing Barry Bonds, was often said to have started working on their downtown SF ballpark plan once they took the reins. Even so, the team split its time between being competitive but not good enough to win the division (late 90’s) and nearly unwatchable (mid 90’s). Winning didn’t build the park, Bonds did.

Some teams tried to follow the formula of building a team to coincide with the opening of a park. The Giants are certainly one of those. The Indians are a classic example, going to the postseason in 6 out of the first 7 full seasons at Jacobs Field (Progressive). The Twins tried to anticipate such a window by signing local superstar Joe Mauer to a long contract extension coinciding with opening of Target Field. Injuries to Mauer, Justin Morneau, and a slew of pitchers severely crippled the franchise, which is still trying to get back to relevance after its successful opening season outdoors. The blueprint worked for the Orioles and Rangers, and more recently the Phillies. In all of these cases the franchises anticipated major revenue growth upon moving to their new homes, which is exactly what happened.

Going into the recent winter meetings, Billy Beane talked about not having a “five year plan,” code for the kind of rebuilding phase we’d normally associate with the run-up to a new ballpark. That’s a very different stance than he had taken in 2007 or 2010, when he was more likely to speak in terms of planning for the future, with a ballpark in Fremont or San Jose in mind. Now that the competitive window is wide open and the future of the franchise is in flux, there’s no need to be in that mode. It’s as pure a win-now mentality as we’ve seen with Beane at the helm.

Some will look at this and talk correlation not implying causation. What I’m saying is that historically, winning isn’t associated with teams and new parks until after those parks open. My point is to drop any hint of causation in the run-up because there is no correlation. If you are looking for causation, consider that 5 World Series (and 10 pennants) have been won by teams in the first 7 years after a modern era ballpark opened (NYY 1, PHI 1, STL 2, ARI 1).

That said, could winning help make the case for the A’s? I suppose there’s a small chance, if winning gooses season ticket and premium sales sustainably to the point of funding the ballpark to a similar amount seen with other ballparks. That would mean hitting around 20,000 season ticket subscriptions or more (the A’s are under 10,000 currently). It might also mean PSL sales, or locking in several dozen businesses to sponsorships and suite contracts. But is that realistic? There’s a disconnect here, as the big corporate deals tend to run in the 5-10 year range if not longer. Winning is much more fleeting than that. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Cardinals can leverage winning tradition better than most because they’ve proven it repeatedly. It’s a form of currency for them. The A’s don’t have that. If the A’s aren’t competitive this year for whatever reasons, look for the attendance and sales gains seen in the past two years to quickly recede. By winning, I don’t mean getting to the LDS or even the LCS. I mean winning the last game of the season. That’s our legacy, whether we’re talking Finley, Haas, Schott, or Wolff. To look to winning as an elixir to solve the ballpark dilemma is to trivialize winning. Anyone who watched the A’s in the late 90’s, late 00’s, and late 70’s knows full well how difficult winning is. My advice to fans is to not worry about winning creating momentum. Enjoy the on field exploits as they occur, and let the ballpark business unfold on its own. You can’t count on winning being a big part of the solution.

Wolff reconsiders the Coliseum – to what end?

If you want to know what I thought immediately when I heard that Lew Wolff is reconsidering the idea of building a ballpark at the Coliseum, well, Ray Ratto beat me to it.

If, on the other hand, you want to entertain the idea that Wolff is being forthright and sees the Coliseum as a real option, I have some ideas about that too.

But first, let’s step back to June 2012, and the Save Oakland Sports meeting I attended. As we were wrapping up, one of the SOS principals (used to be “A’s observer” in the comments) asked me, Do you think Lew Wolff would consider building in Oakland? My response was, Yes, but you have to make it worth his while. He’s trying to pay for a ballpark and make it pencil out, so if Oakland has some mechanisms to make that happen, I think he would be interested.

At the time I figured people would interpret that to mean cash or free ballpark. What I was suggesting was that if Oakland can figure out a way to bridge the gap between what makes San Jose so attractive (corporate interest) and Oakland’s limitations, there could be a solution in Oakland. Can Coliseum City bridge that gap? That’s the billion-dollar question.

Remember that when Wolff was first hired as VP of venue development, he pushed for a ballpark on the Malibu & HomeBase lots, the latter of which was not owned by the JPA. The JPA nixed Wolff’s idea and later bought the HomeBase lot for Coliseum City and the Raiders. Steve Schott preferred a ballpark – if in Oakland – to be in the north parking lot of the Coliseum. That idea was a nonstarter due to potential conflicts with the other tenant teams (Warriors, Raiders) and the area still stinging politically from the Mt. Davis debacle. When Wolff took over as managing partner, he first offered up his Coliseum North vision. The light industrial area includes the old drive-in/swap meet, the now-shuttered Columbo bakery, and several other small businesses. This concept also died quickly, as the City didn’t want to entertain the prospect of buying out businesses and the limited amounts Wolff was willing to offer to seal the deal.

Now there is Coliseum City, which could bridge the gap via third party investor funds. In effect this is a substitute for the normal public subsidy we so often see in the stadium game. The idea is to have Colony Capital and HayaH Holdings take care of some amount of the gap on their own. How much they will be willing to fund for one or more new venues will depend largely on the what forthcoming market study recommends for the project.

BayIG, the combined group of developers and capital, is supposed to have reached out to both the A’s and Warriors in attempts to get them to agree to be involved in Coliseum City. Until now both teams’ ownership groups have shown little interest in partnering with BayIG and the Raiders on Coliseum City as they’re pursuing their own venue plans in San Jose and San Francisco, respectively. However, there is a way I could see Lew Wolff showing interest in CC, especially as a potential funding mechanism.

That way occurs if Coliseum City isn’t feasible for the Raiders. Even though the Raiders are the anchor tenant, there’s a great chance that they’ll have to back out, simply because the costs of building their own stadium are prohibitive. Recently there was talk of a $400-500 million funding gap for the stadium, and with typical football-related sources potentially maxed out, it’s difficult to see how development alone would pay for a large portion. For instance:

Three phases of Coliseum City have ballpark built out at the end of the project

Three phases of Coliseum City have ballpark built out at the end of the project

Phase I doesn’t address any new sources of revenue to fund the project, except the possibility of selling Coliseum land (Property Transfer). Given the remaining debt on the Coliseum of $100 million (and dropping each year by 7-8%) and the cost of infrastructure, it’s likely that any proceeds from land sales would be wiped out by that combination of costs. It’s likely that BayIG and the JPA would work together to create a Community Facilities District (Mello-Roos) or Infrastructure Finance District, whose purpose is to collect various taxes to fund the project. CFDs require majority votes, whereas IFDs require two-thirds supermajority votes. In the case of the 49ers’ stadium plan, a CFD was approved by the public. Historically IFDs are tougher to put together and approve, though some legislators including State Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) have been making headway on that front. It’s not quite the new redevelopment as it’s limited to infrastructure, but it’s an important step.

Phase II provides for limited ancillary development next to the football stadium. It could raise a $1-2 million per year, depending on how money is extracted from the condo developments. Hypothetically, if each condo provided $100,000 of its sales price towards stadium construction, that’s still only $83.7 million. Chances are that asking for more than that would either make the units not salable or eat significantly into the developer’s profits.

If the Raiders stadium proves too costly, the A’s could easily slot right in with a much less expensive stadium option that has a much smaller funding gap, say $200-300 million. Plus with only one stadium there instead of two, there would be additional land to develop or reassign as needed. Wolff’s in a good position to wait and see how the market analyses work out for them and the Raiders. Numerous outcomes could be put forth:

  • Coliseum City works financially for all three teams
  • Coliseum City works financially for two of the three teams
  • Coliseum City works financially for only the Raiders
  • Coliseum City works financially for only the A’s
  • Coliseum City doesn’t work financially for any team

I’m sure there are specific benchmarks for each of these outcomes, but we’ll have to wait until April to understand what those are. The Warriors component is even fuzzier than for the A’s and Raiders, since the replacement would be built in Area B of Coliseum City across I-880. To date the arena has not been part of the identified planning phases.

For now, Wolff gets to provide the most tacit support to Coliseum City, while letting the chips fall where they may. If the plan doesn’t pencil out, which I suspect he believes, he’ll have the numbers to prove himself right and to shut his critics up. If it does work out, he’ll be in a good bargaining position to ask for some piece of the pie. BayIG is being asked to get teams to sign on by no later than next summer, so we’ll see if this has legs.

Of course, the last 1,100 words are only believable if you endorse the idea that Wolff is actually considering Oakland in any way. If not, you’ve just wasted a few minutes of your time. Get back to your building your Wolff effigies and altars.

Cactus League Grid Schedule

Today I booked my flights to/from Phoenix for Spring Training. I’ll be there March 13-16, taking in at least 4 games. For your convenience, I’ve constructed a Cactus League grid, similar to the regular season grid that I construct every fall. The grid is laid out from Northwest to Southeast in the metropolitan area, so you can see which games are close to other games. Games typically start at 1 PM everyday, though some teams schedule 7 PM night games on occasion (noted in bold). The grid is also split into western and eastern sections relative to Downtown Phoenix. Nine teams cover five ballparks in the more spread out west, whereas six teams hold five ballparks in the more compact east.

Cactus League ballpark map

  • Camelback Ranch: White Sox & Dodgers
  • Goodyear: Reds & Indians
  • Cubs Park: Cubs
  • Maryvale: Brewers
  • Peoria: Mariners & Padres
  • Phoenix Muni: A’s
  • Scottsdale: Giants
  • Surprise: Royals & Rangers
  • Tempe Diablo: Angels
  • Salt River Fields @ Talking Stick: Diamondbacks & Rockies

And now the schedule (click image for PDF):

cactus_league_2014

If you plan to be in the Valley of the Sun around the same time I am, let me know and we can plan something. It’s the last hurrah at Muni, so get out there and enjoy  it if you can.

Coliseum City page created

The other day Wendy Thurm asked me if there was a page of links and material related to Coliseum City that she could check out. There wasn’t, so I took some time to create one. The result is a curated, reverse chronologically-ordered list of posts, with a brief overview of the project. The link is simple enough:

There’s a new link in the sidebar as well, so you can reference it after this post disappears. Eventually I’ll do the same for other sites, but it will take awhile.

Alternate history: Athletics stay in KC, Oakland gets expansion team in 1971

The late 60’s was a tumultuous time in American history, as we all know. Baseball, a notoriously conservative game, was starting to make its own moves in concert with the times. Two decades after baseball became integrated, a influx of talent prompted MLB to think expansion. The A’s and Braves’ moves to Kansas City and Milwaukee, respectively, were considered half-measures because they could be accommodated by train travel. When the Dodgers and Giants moved to the West Coast, planes became a necessity. That opened the door to the rest of the frontier, with numerous growing cities selling Midwestern and East Coast owners on the virtues of moving to new ballparks and wide open spaces.

Charlie Finley was brilliantly chronicled doing his part to hasten this change in his biography, which was published in 2010 and I’ve been rereading for the last week. Finley was considered the first owner to truly play the ransom game with a municipality, as he did in the mid-late 60’s. Even as he talked long-term leases with Kansas City pols and civic leaders, he had his eye on anywhere that could’ve hosted a team. Candidates included the South (Atlanta, New Orleans), Dallas-Fort Worth, and the West Coast (Oakland, Seattle).

It was Finley who pushed Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt to agree that the new sports complex southeast of downtown KC should have separate baseball and football stadia, an against-the-grain move for the era. Finley, who long felt the A’s were being cast aside for the new football team, saw this as an equal measure. Yet Finley gave little support to the stadium plan, even though area voters passed it during the summer of 1967. By the end of the season the stage was set for a bidding war over the A’s that served nothing other than Finley’s ego.

Local interests tried to get Finley to sell, but he wasn’t interested. Finley had spent a bunch of insurance profits on bonus babies, so there was an interest in seeing his team through. That eventually occurred with the threepeat World Series wins in 1972-74. Finley also named a price that no one local could match: $25 million. He felt he had been previously mistreated by Kansas City – which he was based on previous KC Muni lease discussions – and set forth to burn all the bridges. As the offseason neared, KC interests turned their attention towards an expansion team. Finley prepared a presentation for AL President Joe Cronin and the other team owners that favored Oakland over Seattle and KC. The AL powers approved the Oakland move, in turn granting expansion franchises for KC and Seattle for 1971.

However, Missouri Senator Stuart Symington was furious over the three-year gap between the A’s leaving and the expansion team starting up. He took a meeting with Cronin and threatened to open hearings on baseball’s antitrust exemption. Taking the threat seriously, Cronin promised a 1969 expansion date, leaving a year gap. That meant that the team would have to play at Muni for a few years. It also meant that Seattle’s club would have to play at Sicks’ Stadium for an indeterminate period. Sicks’ Stadium was already deemed inadequate and whose condition was considered a major factor in Seattle losing the Pilots to Milwaukee (and Bud Selig) after only one season.

What if Finley had been magnanimous and relented? He couldn’t admit that having a future stadium all to himself in KC was better than having to share in Oakland, but that had to be part of his calculus. What intrigued Finley about Oakland was the promise of greater radio and TV revenues, which is ironic considering the A’s difficulties in that realm the past 20 years. If Finley kept the team in KC, KC would’ve gotten the World Series champs of the 70’s, and Finley probably would have sold to local interests in the late 70’s once he saw that baseball’s economics were surpassing his ability to compete.

Seattle, which had rejected previous votes on a domed stadium to attract a baseball team, was forced to approve one once they were granted the expansion franchise. Because they had no choice but to accelerate their efforts, Pilots ownership lost their shirts during the 1969 season, filed for bankruptcy, and sold to Selig when no local ownership groups stepped up. The Pilots relocated, which brought forth a lawsuit from Seattle against MLB, which led to the expansion Mariners in 1976. If the team had been given more time, it’s possible that needed improvements for Sicks’ would have been made to keep ownership and fans happy. Even though the domed stadium had faced stern opposition, it eventually was approved and opened in time for the 1976 season. That opening would’ve been earlier had the team already been in place. Milwaukee would’ve gotten an expansion team to go with Toronto in 1976 – unless the team was awarded to Denver or New Orleans.

As for Oakland, under this alternate scenario they would’ve had the team in 1971. Perhaps it would’ve been called the Oakland Oaks, or the Oakland “Baseball” Raiders (doubt it due to Al Davis’s desires). It definitely wouldn’t have been called the Oakland Athletics. The burgeoning talent that Finley stockpiled would’ve won titles in KC, and Oakland would be building from expansion castoffs. Another thing to consider is that the expansion draft in 1968 was for four teams (Montreal & San Diego were planned, Kansas City & Seattle were rushed) which created an enormous dilution of talent. A draft in 1970 would’ve been less painful for the expansion teams. Perhaps A’s ownership would’ve been more stable over time. Maybe not. The Coliseum still would’ve been relatively new and modern, and without Finley’s constant moving threats, the fan base could’ve grown more naturally – though during the 1968 season ticket sales were not exactly impressive.

After studying all of this for a while, it’s easy to understand the hierarchy of who has the power when it comes to franchise moves and stadium negotiations:

  1. League
  2. Team
  3. Municipality
  4. Stadium

That structure has remained throughout the eons, and is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Cobb County is the new Fremont

The story is familiar. An out-of-town ownership group sees a development opportunity on cheap land and a chance to build a ballpark in tandem. At the same time it moves away from its long-time home to a location with more money. No, I’m not talking about the Braves moving 12 miles to Cobb County. I’m talking about the A’s moving to Fremont.

Conceived in 2006, the Cisco Field/Ballpark Village concept had support from the Mayor and City Council of Fremont. Cisco went to A’s ownership and suggested the deal, which included the ballpark’s naming rights in partial exchange for heavily discounted land it controlled in south Fremont, near what was then the NUMMI plant. After negotiations stalled with landowner ProLogis and several retailers in the area, the A’s looked across the Nimitz to Warm Springs before giving up on Fremont completely.

Some blame the demise of Fremont on NIMBY concerns. While that had something to do with it, the biggest problem was the impact of the recession. As new home starts ground to a halt with the collapse of the real estate market, mega-developments like Pacific Commons failed to pencil out. That project and many others of similar scope sat dormant for several years, or died on the vine.

In 2013, the real estate market is recovering even if the broader economy is still somewhat stalled. In hot markets like the Bay Area and DC we’re back to real estate boom times. Investors from China and India are swooping in to make cash offers on houses sight unseen, and foreign money is coming in to support big projects such as Brooklyn Basin in Oakland.

It’s that backdrop that has allowed the Atlanta Braves to seek out their own mega-development in Cobb County, just in the suburbs outside Atlanta city limits. A more affluent area closer to corporate interests and away from mass transit? What you or I would call white flight, the Braves would call working to remain competitive.

The Braves, owned by DirecTV owner Liberty Media, recently moved a package of TV game broadcasts from local independent station Peachtree TV (WPCH) to Fox Sports South and SportSouth, the sister Fox-run RSNs in Georgia. While that will help boost revenues, it’s not nearly as lucrative as the single-RSN deals that the Mets have and the Phillies are seeking. To help their own revenue streams, Braves ownership are looking at the next avenues, a new ballpark and ancillary development.

Yesterday an article by the New York Times’ Atlanta bureau chief Kim Severson asked a question that seems relevant for the times: what defines urban and suburban areas? While Turner Field (and Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium previously) were in the middle of Atlanta, the location didn’t match what many would consider urban. Far from transit and surrounded by large parking lots, the neighborhood wasn’t vibrant the way we expect urban ballpark surroundings to be. Similarly, the Oakland Coliseum is set in a hundred acres of parking, and while its connectivity to BART is excellent, the neighborhood leaves much to be desired. The Braves are planning a dense, walkable community that should be largely self-contained, though again it’s far from MARTA. For years either new communities or established smaller cities and towns have used redevelopment funds to create the kind of urban environment that could attract new residents – or at least a subset of that urban environment.

There’s no clear definition of a properly urban neighborhood. Oakland has plenty of excellent established neighborhoods, such as Rockridge, Montclair, and Grand Lake. San Jose has Willow Glen, Rose Garden, and Naglee Park. None of those places have 12-15 open acres for a ballpark. Nor do they have a citizenry who won’t fight tooth and nail over parking and traffic concerns. Often developers will work for years to create that neighborhood feel and it doesn’t work out. Witness how Jack London Square developer Ellis Partners has practically thrown in the towel on making JLS an energetic retail district, electing to push for more housing instead. San Jose has an unquestioned success in the form of Santana Row, though it may not have been possible without Valley Fair already there across the street. With Coliseum City (and to an extent, Howard Terminal), Oakland is attempting to create that vibrance where none currently exists. The list of failures is long: Fremont, Arlington, and Coliseum North to name a few. Will Atlanta and Anaheim prove successful and create the blueprint?

And what of the white flight element? Atlanta and the Braves have jointly, proudly displayed their heritage regarding race in baseball. With the Braves poised to move to a decidedly more white, more moneyed location closer to most of the team’s ticket buyers, what will this mean for the Braves’ legacy?

While deflecting criticism over the Braves’ pending move, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed made one of the more magnanimous statements about cities I’ve read in some time:

“We’ve got to make a decision — either we’re going to be a region or we’re not. It bothers me that we have not come far enough as a community that people feel that a team moving 12 miles is a loss to the city of Atlanta.”

Of course, Reid just helped Atlanta give away the farm for the Falcons and their coming new uber-dome. Other motivations were at work to keep the Falcons downtown while allowing the Braves move to Cumberland, such as lobbying from the Georgia World Congress Center. The Braves weren’t allowed to get control over the land around Turner Field, so they looked for greener pastures. Which is how this sort of deal often gets started.

Atlanta’s population is just slightly above 430,000, which makes the city a little larger than Oakland. In California, Atlanta’s size would supplant Oakland as 8th-largest in the state, below Long Beach. Even though Atlanta is arguably the most prominent city in the South (non-Texas), it’s much smaller than other Southern cities such as Louisville and Charlotte. The Atlanta metro has over 5 million residents in area 20% larger than the Bay Area metro. Yet Atlanta remains the historical and cultural hub of the region and of the state, a claim that can only be made by LA and SF in California. Pushing for regional unity is easy when you don’t have to worry about a team changing names. That’s definitely where the comparison with the Bay Area ends.

A’s lease situation looms in the shadows

Lost in all the postgame recriminations from Friday night is an article by the Chronicle’s Will Kane. It’s about the lease extension talks between the A’s and the Coliseum Authority, which to date haven’t yielded a new deal. When we last left off, Lew Wolff indicated that the A’s presented the JPA an offer of a 5-year extension at a higher annual payment, which would cover maintenance and some improvements at the Coliseum. The actual amounts and terms weren’t publicly disclosed. Wolff aimed for an escape clause that would be triggered by the Raiders building a new stadium that would presumably adversely impact the A’s. That was followed by Raiders owner Mark Davis pushing to demolish the old Coliseum and build a new one in its place.

Having this game as one of the last in the Coliseum is surely inconceivable. Right?

Having this game as one of the last in the Coliseum is surely inconceivable. Right?

Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, who has been touting the potential for Coliseum City since its public unveiling, believes that the two sides are close to a 6-8 year extension. What’s a little disturbing is this message from Kaplan:

And the six- to eight-year window should give Oakland plenty of time to get serious about building a replacement ballpark and luring the A’s to stay, Kaplan said.

Hold a sec. Plenty of time to get serious about building a replacement ballpark? You’ve got to be kidding me with that. I’m sure that Kaplan was merely referring to the idea of shoe-horning a ballpark into the A lot, a secondary item within the overall plan. It’s the tone that’s disturbing. It places doubt on the idea that Victory Court was serious, and it certainly raises questions on the seriousness of inclusion for the A’s in Coliseum City. Just as the A’s aren’t winning back burned fans by talking about leaving, Oakland isn’t going to win the A’s over by considering them an add-on or second/third phase. Plus the idea of 6-8 years should give anyone pause. For all the talk by Kaplan and Mayor Jean Quan about how projects could be fast tracked or don’t need extensive environmental review, 6-8 years is an awful long time to effect change. Especially if both Coliseum City and Howard Terminal are under site control, Oakland’s favorite new catch phrase. Mark Davis lightly admonished Oakland about showing urgency last month. A move like this shows more of the same lack of urgency from Oakland. How are any of the teams supposed to take Oakland pols seriously if the general feel is that they’re making moves to make it look like they’re making moves?

While Kaplan was quick to say that a deal was close, A’s President Michael Crowley doesn’t see it that way.

“We’ve had some discussions, but we still remain far apart,” Crowley said of the lease talks. “I really don’t want to negotiate in the press. We certainly hope to be playing here in 2014.”

We certainly hope to be playing here in 2014? That’s also a pretty bad tell. Wolff has been careful to talk about playing at the Coliseum for years to come, even talking to a fan about it in Anaheim during the last regular season road trip. But this is not a certainty. And if your argument for the A’s staying is simply, They have nowhere to go, think again. Of course they have somewhere else to go. It’s really a question of how much money they’re willing to pay to make it happen – short and long-term.

Consider this game of musical chairs.

  • The A’s Coliseum lease ends at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
  • Same goes for the San Jose Giants at San Jose Municipal Stadium. Obviously the A’s aren’t going to play at Muni, it’s much too small and is older and more dilapidated than the Coliseum.
  • Raley Field is not old and dilapidated. It has 11,093 seats, plus berm seating up to 14,000. I did some measurements of the berm in RF and some of the other areas, and have concluded that if bleachers were installed atop those areas, the capacity could reach 20,000. Without standing room admissions. The A’s would sell that capacity out for 2-3 years straight, the transition time needed to build in San Jose. That capacity isn’t necessarily too small for MLB since there would be a clear transition path, and the A’s have been playing to an average of 20,000 per game for the last three years anyway.
  • What about the River Cats? Well, Lew Wolff would have to call in a favor. The team is owned by Susan Savage, widow of Art Savage. Art Savage was an executive with the Sharks almost 20 years ago, and Wolff called him and his family good friends. Wolff would have to work with the family, who runs the stadium, to compensate them properly and plan Raley’s temporary expansion. The River Cats could continue to play select games there, or…
  • Move temporarily to San Jose, where city leaders would be happy to kick the intransigent High-A Giants to the curb in favor of a AAA team while waiting for the MLB A’s to arrive. As of two weeks ago, there is no movement on a lease extension for the SJ Giants. Sound familiar?
  • That leaves the SJ Giants without a lease, without a home. That will not go over well with long-time SJ Giants fans, some of whom are part of the Stand For San Jose lawsuit. Sucks for them, I guess. If the Giants started looking for a home somewhere else in the Bay Area or NorCal, trust me, there will be no shortage of smaller cities ready to roll out the red carpet for them.
  • When the temporary arrangement ends in 2016 or thereabouts, Raley Field can be restored back to its previous glory. While there would be a big grassroots effort in Sacramento to attract the A’s full time, much of the available political capital has already been spent on the downtown Sacramento Kings’ arena. We already know that, when Raley was under construction, changes had to be made that dropped the possibility of easy vertical expansion. That makes it difficult to envision Raley as anything larger that 20,000 seats, unless someone’s willing to pay to gut it and rebuild the suites and a new upper deck. Besides, after 2-3 years it’ll become readily apparent how much better Raley is suited to being a AAA park than a MLB park. It’s akin to what happened when Bud Adams moved the Oilers out of Houston, Absent a modern stadium, Adams had his team play in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis for a year, followed one season at Vanderbilt Stadium. Adequate, and definitely not permanent.

Is any of this based on inside information? I assure you, it is not. Rather, it’s an example of a well-conceived Plan B, just in case the A’s can’t work out a Coliseum lease extension. It gives the A’s a decent place to play while they wait out the legal drama, while not infringing on T-rights. The way T-rights are written, Santa Clara County can accept any team it wants provided it’s not a MLB franchise. That’s how Wolff, Davis, and Crowley should be thinking. If they aren’t, then they’re not doing their respective jobs.

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: