Category Archives: Feature

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.