Oakland poll indicates voters are getting ready to live without some pro sports

We’re nearly one year into Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s tenure, which makes it a fine time for a poll. That led the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce to commission a poll called Pulse of Oakland. As Oakland continues experiences its own kinds of growing pains, the government and voters have tough decisions to make over the future of Oakland. As a city that has been defined by its sports teams for decades, sports will a major role in Oakland’s direction. Or will it? The poll, which asked voters to judge sixteen different issues in terms of importance, showed that pro sports came in last. As expected, crime, jobs, and education were the most important, registering for 93-95% of polled voters.

Pro sports, on the other hand, were quite a different story.

importance

While each of the sports teams were considered important for a majority of voters, they paled in comparison to regular kitchen table issues

The Warriors are practically a moot matter by now, thanks to the progress on their SF arena. The difference in felt import between the A’s and Raiders is fascinating, not because of the percentage difference, but because the Raiders and Raiders fans have spent two years pushing Coliseum City, a project in which the Raiders were considered the feature player. Sure, Mark Davis didn’t exactly participate fully with the project. Nevertheless, Coliseum City had name recognition and media attention, whereas the A’s weren’t (and still aren’t) actively promoting anything. If there ever was any urgency towards keeping the Raiders in Oakland, it didn’t show up in this poll.

More surprising was the indication that Oakland residents may be willing to move from a sports city identity. 83% of respondents favored a Coliseum development plan that didn’t involve any new sports venues, while 60% support new stadia at the Coliseum complex.

support

Polls like these guide politicians at City Hall, and Schaaf is no different. She has stood firm on her pledge for no public money for any new stadia, and she’s not likely to experience any blowback anytime soon based on these poll numbers. I suspect that has to do with so much of the fanbase being situated outside Oakland city limits, where those fans aren’t Schaaf’s constituents. If there’s any worry, it’s for anyone who might eventually ask for voter approval of public financing.

Next week Schaaf will present Oakland’s case to a NFL stadium committee. She’ll talk about Oakland’s trajectory without actually having a Raiders stadium plan to show. While these poll results shouldn’t push Oakland off a cliff, they won’t bolster Schaaf’s case to the owners. In the end, we’re still talking about a $400 million funding gap for just one venue. There’s no way to talk around it.

NFL Town Halls: Three days of talking around a problem

They came, they saw, they empathized.

As part of NFL’s relocation evaluation process, the league is required to hold public meetings in the cities from where incumbent teams are threatening to move. Despite the fact none of the three teams considered part this discussion – Raiders, Chargers, Rams  – have actually filed a request for relocation (they aren’t allowed until January), the NFL decided to hold these meetings well in advance of all three teams’ expected applications to leave.

That left the NFL to announce three weeks ago that they would send a team of executives, fronted by Eric Grubman, to the threatened cities to hear from fans and discuss each city’s situation. Grubman was accompanied at each stop by fellow VPs Chris Hardart and Cynthia Hogan, plus league attorney Jay Bauman. All four sat in directors chairs on a blacked out stage, while fans sat in the lower auditorium levels, waiting to speak at podiums placed in each aisle. Politicians and team owners, even Raiders owner Mark Davis, sat among the riffraff.

St. Louis and San Diego share a common problem, in that their respective teams have not participated at all in recent stadium development efforts at home. Local sentiment reflected that, with fans lustily booing the Rams’ Kevin Demoff and the Chargers’ Marc Fabiani, both of whom have openly pooh-poohed those 11th-hour attempts in favor of stadium projects in the LA area. Feeling powerless, fans in both cities sang a common refrain: bring Stan Kroenke and Dean Spanos back to the table so that we can make stadium deals in STL/SD. And as each story about generational bonding or heartbreak was heard, the more it sounded like groveling. That’s what the owners and the NFL have reduced fans to doing: begging to keep the team in town. It’s a common story, at least in North American pro sports, and this won’t be the last time it happens. Some guy within NFL Films will be tasked with editing the combined nine hours of testimony down to probably 30 minutes that will be consumed by the collective 32 NFL owners at a future league meeting. I don’t envy that person one bit.

upintheair

George Clooney and Anna Kendrick in 2009 film “Up in the Air”

Grubman, who made most of the responses to fan questions, reminded me a lot of Ryan Bingham, the slick, well-compensated corporate hatchet man from the Walter Kirn novel Up in the Air. The film adaptation in 2009 starred George Clooney as Bingham, a man who lived a thoroughly hollow personal existence while obsessing over a quest to reach one ten million frequent flyer miles. That’s not to say that Grubman’s like Bingham personally. From all appearances Grubman is a family man. He even joked in Oakland that he was missing his wedding anniversary for that night’s hearing. Nevertheless, Grubman’s ability to empathize with every fan and speaker was amazing to watch. Veterans and government employees received laudatory Thank you for your service salutations. Several times he prefaced a remark with, I know what it’s like to be a fan. It was as breathtaking and sickening a performance as I’ve ever seen – including Clooney’s, which netted him an Oscar nomination. Then again, Grubman apparently gets paid at least $4.4 million a year as an executive VP in the NFL. Like Bingham with his delegating boss, Grubman is compensated well to, among other responsibilities, take Roger Goodell’s arrows.

Davis has also been an active participant in the joint stadium effort in Carson, though Raider fans and city officials have given him some credit for participating to a degree with the now shitcanned Coliseum City project. He received a largely warm reception from the roughly 400 Raiders fans at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. He made some opening remarks, stating that the Raiders wouldn’t answer questions at the session. Couple that with Grubman’s admission that the NFL had no solutions for Oakland, and you might think that the whole thing was a charade. You would be mostly right.

When challenged about the Raiders paying only $300 million (plus the NFL’s $200 million in G4 money) towards a $900 million stadium, Davis responded.

That’s basically what Davis has been saying for the last six months. He’s not willing to stake additional stadium revenues to make an Oakland stadium deal happen, as the 49ers did with Levi’s Stadium. Hard selling with ultra-expensive seat licenses and ticket prices works as long as the team is good, but as we’ve seen so far in the 49ers’ tenure in Santa Clara, fans will ditch the team in droves if the team isn’t competitive. Even the Raiders had trouble selling out until the upper deck of Mt. Davis was tapped off. No one wants to be left with the check at the end of the night, whether it’s Davis and his ownership partners, the City of Oakland and Alameda County, or stadium financiers. This is not a trivial amount of money – $400 million – that we’re talking about. Fans need to stop treating this issue like it is.

Yet there were calls for crowdfunding to help bridge the funding gap. Before anyone creates a Raiders stadium Kickstarter, you all should know that there already exists a sort of primitive form of stadium crowdfunding. It’s called a brick campaign. Fans buy custom engraved bricks that end up in a plaza or on a wall at the stadium. Even successful brick campaigns won’t pull in more than around $25 million, a relative pittance compared to the total project cost. The Green Bay Packers held a stock sale in 2011 to finance renovations at Lambeau Field. That effort raised $64 million, from sales of 280,000 shares costing $250 each. If the NFL allowed Raiders fans to make a similar effort (even though the Raiders are not a publicly-owned corporation), the effort would have to sell around 1.8 million shares at $250 apiece to raise $400 million (after overhead and fees). That’s simply an infeasible goal for any team, not just the Raiders.

NFL exec VP Eric Grubman stands on stage while answering a question at the Oakland Town Hall

NFL exec VP Eric Grubman stands on stage at the Paramount Theatre while answering a question at the Oakland Town Hall on Thursday

Last but not least, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf was in the house. Schaaf thanked the NFL and fans for showing up. Yesterday, Matier and Ross led off their column with a note about yet another consultant being brought in to put together a package that might sway the Raiders and the NFL. That package could provide infrastructure and potential tax breaks for a stadium deal. While that might sound promising, it’s really just formalizing what Oakland’s willing to offer, which is limited help and no public money. That won’t work for the NFL because the league considers infrastructure and free land little more than table stakes. St. Louis and San Diego are providing real public money towards construction, just as every previous NFL stadium project has in the past. If public money isn’t on the table, there’s little reason to expect the NFL to respond positively. Grubman explained that every stadium deal has three financing parts: the team, the league, and the local piece. Historically that local piece has consisted of public loans or bonds. The NFL has already rejected the Coliseum City plan. The NFL has its script and it’s sticking to it. Oakland is no special case here. If Oakland really wants to keep the Raiders, they need to put some skin in the game. Given what happened with the Mt. Davis debacle, that skin may end up being Oakland’s scalp. Schaaf is right to be cautious and not desperate as her counterparts have been. How do those positions get reconciled? Someone will have to give in, and the NFL has not shown a track record of making concessions.

NFL to hold town hall meetings in St. Louis, San Diego, Oakland

Image from Barcroft Media

St. Louis on Tuesday, Peabody Opera House, 7 PM CT

San Diego on Wednesday, Spreckels Theatre, 7 PM PT

Oakland on Thursday, Paramount Theatre, 7 PM PT

Stream should be available at nfl.com/publichearings.

Commentary to come after final session in Oakland. Watch the Twitter feed for live coverage.

Swingin’ A’s Podcast Interview

Sometimes it’s easier to ramble on a podcast than to write and edit a couple thousand words on a topic. Actually it’s a lot easier. If you’re wondering how all the stadium business with the A’s and Raiders is going to work out, head over to today’s Swingin’ A’s Podcast at Hardly Serious. I talked for nearly an hour with host Tony Frye about the fallout from the SCOTUS decision, how the Raiders are holding everything up, and what I think is going to happen over the next few months. I even explain how a ballpark deal could get done. Take a listen, and try not to focus on how many times I pause while delivering an answer. It’s a podcast, I’m allowed.

Raiders gave Kephart and Oakland just enough rope

Last year the Raiders’ stadium funding gap was $400 million.

Today? Still $400 million.

And that may be the undoing of Coliseum City, just as was predicted many times since the start of the process.

BANG’s Matthew Artz got ahold of a letter written by Marc Badain to Floyd Kephart in April. Despite Kephart’s spin, the letter is incredibly damaging. The crux of it is this:

What is not clear is what the Developer, City, and County are willing to contribute. The Raiders’ $500,000,000 contribution leaves a funding gap of at least $400,000,000 required to build a new stadium. Simply put, the “terms required for the Raiders to commit to remaining in Oakland” are a plan that fills that funding gap without stripping revenues from the stadium and preserves the current level of surface parking. We have seen no progress toward understanding what the Developer, City, or County is willing to contribute and have received no proposals. As a result, there are no “terms” for the Raiders to evaluate nor are there “terms” for the Developer to communicate to the City and County.

You may come away from that thinking that the Raiders demands – all revenue, protected parking, capped contribution – are ridiculous, and in a sense you’d be right. The problem is that it is now abundantly clear that Badain and Mark Davis are comparing proposals, and whatever Oakland is putting forth is being compared to what is being offered in Carson. And Oakland so far is offering… nothing specific. Land? Not really anymore. Infrastructure? Depends on how much. Due to circumstance, Oakland has regressed in terms of what it can offer, a point that Eric Grubman famously made in the spring.

Ridiculous or not, Badain has a point that the G-4 loan money is tied to various team and stadium revenue streams. Fans tend to gloss over the reality. G-4 is a loan program, not a grant. With ties to luxury seating and TV money set in stone, any team receiving G-4 funds is naturally going to fight any attempt to repurpose any other stadium revenue for paying for the stadium, especially if the Raiders have their own projections. Thankfully for the Raiders, exploding league revenue has expanded G-4 to the point that a nearly $2 billion mega-stadium is more than merely plausible.

Chances are whatever gets built at the Coliseum won't look like this

Chances are whatever gets built at the Coliseum won’t look like this

Throughout the rest of the letter, Badain offered plenty of examples of how the Raiders have cooperated with the process. They met with developers. They laid out their demands wish list. They met with Kephart, and they continue to meet with Oakland on another track. They haven’t taken the lead on any specific stadium proposal. Then again they haven’t done that with Carson or San Antonio, and they surely won’t be leading the pack on Inglewood. Davis appears to be content to play second fiddle, as long as he gets a good deal for his team. That shouldn’t be too difficult since Davis isn’t going for quite as ostentatious a new home as what Stan Kroenke or Dean Spanos are trying to build. Yet since Davis isn’t driving the bus, he doesn’t get to say much about how nice it should be. FUD is emerging about Davis not being able to afford Carson just as he couldn’t afford to do more in Oakland, but remember, selling a piece of the team is his ace-in-the-hole. In the letter Badain admits that equity in the team is available, but only as a way to bridge the funding gap. Whatever the size of that limited stake, whether 10% or 20%, it’s worth perhaps twice as much in LA as it is in Oakland.

The parking situation also seems to be a nonstarter. It was during the spring that both Davis and Lew Wolff indicated that they wanted to preserve surface parking, even if that means severely curtailing development. Even the final proposal from Kephart does little to address the teams’ parking demands, filling half the space with garages and commercial buildout.

By the end of this project, some $5 million will have been spent on Coliseum City, only to find out that the Raiders’ and A’s stadium goals run counter to the broader planning objectives of Oakland pols. A stadium surrounded by parking is not the kind of high-density, constant-use plan envisioned for the Coliseum. Of course, so far we’ve barely scratched the surface of the other side of the debate: fear of gentrification. With so many bargaining chips taken away over the course of the last several months, how much is left to offer? More importantly, is that enough to get a football stadium deal done? My guess it’s not even close to enough. A ballpark is less expensive and gets used more. It’s getting close to the time when Oakland will need to shift the conversation. They’ve done a good job stalling so far. We can only hope that what remains isn’t scorched earth.

Kephart plays out the string

After reading tweets and reactions, and finally listening to Floyd Kephart’s spiel at Lungomare today, I can use one word to describe the whole affair.

Perfunctory

Unlike Kephart’s 50/50-or-less assessment of the project at this late stage, I can say with greater confidence – 80/20 – that this will be the last time you see Floyd Kephart in Oakland. He said that he’ll be there through the early part of October, but that doesn’t mean he has to come back if all signs point to no on the City’s part.

There’s a rendering. It looks modern. Great. The next one’s more interesting.

After reading Kephart’s spoken points and digesting them for a bit, I realized that what Kephart presented today, warts and all, was the most honest proposal anyone’s ever given in the four year saga of Coliseum City. Here’s why:

  1. It acknowledges that the A’s are likely to stay at the Coliseum for a considerable period, so the Coliseum stays intact.
  2. The arena stays as well, because the City wants it even if the Warriors leave.
  3. The project area was downsized to 132 acres, no planned phase west of the Nimitz.
  4. The funding gap, which according to Kephart would be $300 million, would be funded by a City-sponsored conduit bond.

The conduit bond is a tricky thing. This kind of financing has the tax-free, low borrowing cost benefits of regular municipal bonds, but municipalities aren’t on the hook for repayment, as Oakland and Alameda County were with Mt. Davis’s general obligation bonds. Instead, revenues from the development, such as naming rights and certain forms of tax increment on the project area would be used to the tune of $20 million per year. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s similar to the way the 49ers financed their gap through Goldman Sachs. During the pre-Harbaugh era, there was a legitimate question about whether the stadium could be paid for this way. A few playoff runs and highly renewed interest later and the 49ers were able to pull it off. The Raiders, well, they’re not in that position. The makes me wonder how the financing would work if there were revenue shortfalls. Who would be responsible, the Raiders? What if they defaulted? And why would the Raiders or the NFL approve such a plan, given the revenue uncertainty?

Kephart said a few other things I found noteworthy.

“Purchase of the (Coliseum) land is key to us staying. In the event that the Council says no…we’re not going to do the development.”

The land purchase is contingent on the City and County coming to an agreement on Oakland buying out Alameda County’s half.

“I’m on my 4th city administrator and 2nd mayor in 10 months. I’m under the 2nd ENA and I haven’t negotiated one significant thing except the ENA.”

That would’ve been a drop-the-mic moment if he was so frustrated that he wanted to quit. He wasn’t. But that’s a stunning admission of how little has actually been done. Kephart has been quick to blame the City, County, and team for his failure. Ultimately, it is his failure since he was brought aboard to bring everyone to the table and work out the deal, so this grousing seems like sour grapes. He made one more observation:

“I’m not the problem, and I’m not the solution.”

Kephart also claimed that it was the City’s responsibility, not his, to get the Raiders, A’s, or Warriors on board. That’s a complete backpedal on his part. Per the ENA, as part of the initial submittal due June 21:

(b) Proposed terms and conditions required to obtain a commitment from one or more of the Oakland Raiders, the Oakland Athletics, and/or the Golden State Warriors to the Project with an update on status of negotiations between New City and each team regarding its commitment to participate in the Project;

I don’t know when this all changed, but I got a hint of it a few weeks ago when NFL point man Eric Grubman was talking about Oakland on Fred Roggin’s LA radio show. Grubman mentioned that the City hadn’t presented anything to the Raiders, which sounded strange since I too thought that New City was responsible for signing the Raiders. Now it makes sense in terms of process, though no light was shed on why it evolved this way. Exactly how was the City selling this to the Raiders? And wouldn’t those efforts run in conflict with the City’s desire to “open” the process for alternatives?

Near the end, Kephart had a sort of kiss-off moment.

“While everybody might think that Oakland is the garden spot of the world, we have projects in three different continents and around the country. And I have lots to do.”

It’s true. The ponies aren’t going to wait for Floyd to come back to Del Mar, you know.

Oakland, the non-entity

They didn’t come, they didn’t see, and they didn’t conquer.

That was Oakland’s vibe at the NFL owners meetings. St. Louis made its stadium presentation previously, while San Diego did theirs yesterday and Carson made their preso today. It’s even possible that, unless Oakland pulls a rabbit out of its hat, it may not be invited to make a presentation in October either.

One of the many versions of Coliseum City that didn't solidify into a proposal

One of the many versions of Coliseum City that didn’t solidify into a proposal

Look, the bad news was known weeks before this week’s meetings. Oakland was not invited to make a presentation in front of the owners in suburban Chicago this week, because, to put it mildly, the NFL didn’t believe Oakland had a presentation to make. Here’s how you know how bad it is – in April Mayor Libby Schaaf hired one-time planning director Claudia Cappio to be the new assistant city administrator in charge of development. Among other responsibilities, Cappio became the de facto spokesperson for the project. That’s never a good sign, because when the City puts out a staffer and not a single Oakland politician wants to lay claim to the project, you know it’s in bad shape. What happened to Fred Blackwell? Remember him? Is he no longer consulting for the project? Oh that’s right, he left for a private sector gig. Blackwell clearly saw the writing on the wall.

The most damning statement came from NFL point man-cum-hatchet man Eric Grubman, who said this about Oakland’s situation:

‘The Oakland Raiders have great fans in Oakland city and the county of Oakland and a lot broader territory, but the facts on the ground are that there’s been no viable proposal that’s been made to the Raiders,’ Grubman said. ‘We’ve said one thing consistently to any of the markets that have been engaged in trying to put forth a proposal and it really rests on a couple of pillars. One of them is that a proposal has to be specific. The second is that it has to be attractive to a team and the third is it has to be actionable.

‘What actionable means is it can’t just be an idea to the extent that there is enabling legislation or enabling financing activities or there are litigation threats or anything of that nature, anything that needs to be assembled in a time frame where a club can act on it. Thus far, those sorts of tests have not been made in Oakland so as of yet, there is no proposal for the Raiders to consider.’

The irony of this is if the words above were uttered by Lew Wolff he would be ripped in column after column by the usual lazy critics. Wolff’s statements about Oakland in the past have largely had a similar tone and verbiage. But since Grubman doesn’t represent a specific team, and is in fact an arbiter of sorts for the NFL, these words will be met with little debate by potential critics, and mostly resigned disappointment by others. Yet look at that second paragraph. It is on par with Wolff saying that people can’t just point to a site and hope it into becoming viable. It needs to pencil out. And for three years and counting, Oakland has not made Coliseum City pencil out, not to any appreciable degree.

Thing is, I agree to some extent with what Oakland’s doing. It tried, it found out that the NFL wasn’t interested in a complex developer-finance scheme, it looked for alternatives and found nothing but resistance. All that’s left is to give up or wait for the NFL to kill Oakland. The former provides some (though not much) political cover for pols regarding constituents who want to see the City move on from Coliseum City. The latter provides cover when facing Raiders fans. In the meantime Oakland can finish the process, since it won’t hurt to do so with 10 or 40 days left in the ENA. Two months until the next meetings is not enough to rally the resources to make Coliseum City or an alternative happen, especially if Mark Davis isn’t committed to the effort.

There also has to be some detached bemusement coming from Rob Manfred and the Lodge. Unless Manfred worked out some sort of wink-nudge deal with Oakland, Manfred has to be wondering what kind of effort and political will he can expect out of Oakland for a ballpark. Observers have been poking holes in Coliseum City for years, and Oakland has done little to prove them wrong. Consider that the main accomplishment at Coliseum City was the passage of a planning-oriented EIR. That’s a procedural step, not a truly major milestone. Manfred will certainly play nice with Oakland once a ballpark process begins, but if he doesn’t like what he hears, don’t be surprised if he turns the heat up on the City and even Wolff. Manfred’s previous job was to get the best deals out of everyone MLB worked with, from cities to media outlets.

For now, desperate Raiders fans are left to criticize other cities’ stadium proposals in hopes that their success or failure will “trap” the Raiders in Oakland. It’s hard to come up with a concept more absurd than that. The NFL wants results, and if Oakland can’t provide them, the league is not going to sympathize. It will move on.