It Takes Two to Contract: Cal League Edition

Last week, Minor League Baseball announced two huge moves within the High-A level. The California League franchises in Bakersfield and Adelanto (Bakersfield Blaze and High Desert Mavericks, respectively) will fold at the end of the 2016. Their player development contracts would not be renewed, and two new Carolina League teams would rise in Fayetteville and Kinston. That would leave the Cal League with only 8 teams, whereas the Carolina League would grow to 10. The Florida State League would stay at 12 teams, the largest of the three leagues.

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Sam Lynn Ballpark entrance

Bakersfield had a plan for a privately developed ballpark a few years ago, but the financing never materialized. Next, Salinas tried to lure the team north. That too went nowhere. With no relocation sites on the horizon, Bakersfield was on the clock to replace antiquated Sam Lynn Ballpark. The LA Times’ Bill Shaikin wrote an obituary on the 75 years of baseball in Bakersfield, a city of 300,000 that also lost its NBDL (D-League) franchise earlier this year. As for the fate of the westward-facing ballpark, the city’s trying to figure that out. Bakersfield’s exit makes San Jose Municipal Stadium the oldest remaining venue in the Cal League.

In tiny Adelanto, fewer tears are being shed over the Mavericks. The city even went to the lengths of threatening to evict the team over tensions related to the Mavericks’ onerous $1-a-year stadium lease. Instead, they made a deal with the San Bernardino County Fair to reuse Mavericks Stadium, a facility that opened in 1991. 25 years? It’s been a good – albeit sparsely attended – run.

It’s important to note that these contractions and expansions would not have been possible if not for both teams being in dire straits. No avenues remained in California, with Salinas fizzling out and Chico seemingly satisfied for now with independent ball. The serial, everyday scheduling of baseball makes it impractical to contract only a single team. Whether we’re talking the California League or the American League, it would take two teams to contract. And in the American League, that’s a payout that could reach $1.5 billion, though it should be noted that contraction is not in the cards for the next round of CBA negotiations.

Baseball America’s podcast last week covered the Bakersfield/High Desert contractions in great detail, with hosts John Manuel and J.J. Cooper talking about what ailed the markets, along with the issues facing California in general – including our own Oakland Athletics. It’s worth a listen.

John Fisher to tour Howard Terminal with technical experts

After several months of keeping plans mum, A’s majority owner John Fisher will tour Howard Terminal Thursday. The Chronicle’s Matier & Ross report that Fisher will be accompanied by other team executives and Port officials and technical staff. City officials and Lew Wolff may not attend, but if Lew doesn’t there’s a decent chance that his son, Keith, will. The younger Wolff is the current VP of venue development, the same title Lew had when he was hired by Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann in 2003.

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Howard Terminal ballpark site rendering (MANICA Architecture)

The tour is being characterized as “hush-hush,” so don’t expect much coming out of it in the way of a statement or anything else. The A’s environmental and legal team will have questions for Port staff about the state of the sealed asphalt cap that prevents toxic leaks. Relatedly they’ll discuss the soil and the water monitoring system embedded within. Most importantly, they’ll talk about requirements to get the site ready, including digging up and cleaning up the toxic dirt underneath the site.

It would take too long rehash all of the details, so I’ll provide links to previous posts instead.

Infrastructure will also come up, but much of that won’t be the responsibility of the Port. Any new transit modes that come to the HT area (BART, streetcar) will be the planning domain of the transportation agencies and the City more than the Port. The Port will be largely responsible for getting people efficiently in and out of Howard Terminal. To do this a system of vehicular and pedestrian bridges will need to be envisioned. This is of paramount importance because there will be some limited amount of parking at Howard Terminal that can’t be jeopardized by the presence of a freight train blocking the gate to the property. Additionally, pedestrian will be descending upon the ballpark from points north and east. Unlike the Coliseum BART bridge, which was designed to provide ingress for at most 10,000 fans for an event, the system in place at Howard Terminal will need to support 35-40,000 visitors smoothly.

The tour is part of the process described last year by Lew Wolff as a search for the best site for the A’s in Oakland. Only sites within Oakland city limits are under consideration. Wolff initially gave 6-8 months as the timeline, but chances are that the ongoing tenancy of the Raiders has complicated matters. Now the A’s are looking to the end of the year, though the A’s can’t fall into the trap of choosing first to wait for the Raiders and their Las Vegas plans. By taking steps to study Howard Terminal and perhaps other sites, A’s ownership is showing a more proactive effort than it had shown in Oakland previously. Nevertheless, it would’ve been nice if the folks who backed Howard Terminal for two years, OWB, published their (unfinished) work. Same goes for the A’s and their decade-old research. It would’ve given fans at least some insight into the process, which has been completely opaque from the start.

20 Years Is Enough

Turner Field and Chase Field opened for baseball in 1997 and 1998, respectively. Turner Field was a gift to Atlanta courtesy of the 1996 Summer Olympics, whereas Chase Field was a domed stadium borne of necessity in order to host the expansion team in the searing Sonoran Desert summer. Both are in the 15-20 year-old range, putting squarely in a sort of venue midlife crisis.

The Braves are leaving Turner for the richer suburbs in Cobb County. Turner will be renovated again and reborn as a football stadium for Georgia State University’s growing program. Georgia State had been playing its home games at the far-too-large Georgia Dome. They’ll play one more season there. Come Fall 2017, they’ll play in the reconfigured (and soon-to-be-renamed?) Turner, where much of the baseball grandstand will remain intact. The seats in right field will be ripped out, replaced by a new smaller grandstand that will run parallel to the sideline. Georgia State bought both the stadium and the surrounding parking lots for $30 million, all of which will be transformed into additional athletic facilities, dormitories, and academic buildings. GSU’s main campus is in downtown Atlanta, a similar distance between San Jose State’s main campus and its south campus, where Spartan Stadium and other outdoor facilities are located. Final capacity of the redone stadium will be around 30,000, 33% smaller than Turner’s baseball capacity and less than half of the Olympic stadium configuration.

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Turner Field renovation for Georgia State University football

Speaking of 30,000, that could be the new capacity of Chase Field, if an investment group that wants to buy and renovate the ballpark has its way. A partnership headed by Integral Group wants to modernize Chase and develop a few blocks of unrealized potential between the ballpark and Talking Stick Resort Arena down the street. Plans were approved for redevelopment of that area outside the ballpark in 2008, squashed by the recession. Integral is notable for being one of the partners in Ronnie Lott’s plans for the Coliseum which will include at the very least a new Raiders stadium. There are also plans (or at least space) for a ballpark should the A’s have any interest, though it’s unclear how that would pencil out.

To push the Chase concept further, Maricopa County is looking to sell Chase Field for at least $60 million, depending on appraised value. That value could include those additional blocks along Jackson St. Phoenix is undergoing a resurgence which started in earnest around 2013, thanks to numerous tech companies opening campuses near Tempe and Scottsdale, along with gentrification of some of the older neighborhoods in Phoenix. The County’s motivation isn’t primarily to spur development. They’ve been in quite a battle with Dbacks ownership over who’s responsible for $65-137 million in improvements to the stadium. They already rejected the lower figure, meant to cover peripheral items like scoreboards, suite refurbishment, and cosmetics. Major projects such as reimagining the upper deck and outfield concourse are well down the road.

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Diamondbacks FanFest with Chase Field roof closed

If I were looking to rework Chase, I’d look entirely at the block containing the stadium. There are 3-4 acres of additional space outside the walls that isn’t properly used. The photo above shows what it looks like with the roof closed. Gigantic ads that double as windows (when the weather cooperates) dominate the view. When the roof is open for games, the place transforms into an almost fully outdoor park. It’s not as complete a transformation as Safeco Field or Minute Maid Park, but it’s close.

Limitations imposed by the building’s design and the need for an air-conditioning environment prevent a full opening of the outfield. The contents could be rebuilt to great effect. A gym exists in center behind the batter’s eye, with parking dedicated to it. All of that should be scrapped and rebuilt as a children’s play area and a midway with rides and a carousel. The current children’s area is in the upper deck left field corner, notable only for having the stadium organ located there as well.

The main plaza on the west side where most of the gates are is also wasted space. It deserves a revamp with restaurants and bars that are open more than on game days. There should also be a way to directly connect the buildings in the plaza to the ballpark so that the whole area can be navigated outside the stadium.

Back Camera

Then there’s that 30,000 figure. That doesn’t happen without knocking down most of the upper deck. Like US Cellular Field, that should help to make the place look less cavernous. Once that’s done they’ll have to put something behind the seats to fill that space. They don’t need more suites or amenities up there. Tacky looking signage? Curtains a la an arena? A second partial roof inside the original roof? It’s a tough task to make Chase Field look intimate.

While the Phoenix market’s economy has rebounded, downtown near the sports venues is still not a hotspot despite the numerous venues (ballpark, arena, convention center, theater, ASU’s downtown campus, museums). It’s largely event-driven, with more interesting restaurants and bars on the other side of downtown. It goes to show that no matter how much money and resources is thrown at a neighborhood it doesn’t always translate into a lively district.

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20 years later, the area between the ballpark and arena remains mostly parking

Fortunately for everyone involved, the ballpark is debt-free and has been for years. Same goes for the arena. Like Oakland, Phoenix and Maricopa County find itself trying to please two teams looking for new venues at the same time. There’s no inherent competition between the teams for sites or land, but they will be pushing for resources. In the past Maricopa County financed numerous sports facilities using a car rental tax, which has now been deemed unconstitutional. A similar tax just for the City of Phoenix is also being challenged. Phoenix owns Talking Stick Resort Arena. And finally, the Dbacks have the option to veto any purchase of the stadium by a third party. The Dbacks previously discussed buying the park from Maricopa County, which seemed like that most natural route at the time. Let the team make the investments since they’ll get all of the proceeds. The process may end up with such a deal happening since the Dbacks are the linchpin to everything. That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. The Dbacks could attempt to leave Chase Field completely in search of a location outside downtown Phoenix, but without the aforementioned tax revenue streams a move threat doesn’t have legs. There’s a really good shell at Chase that could be fixed up into a fairly intimate ballpark for far less than the cost of a new ballpark.

Coliseum Life, Episode 872

Minutes later…

There go the conspiracy theories.

Manfred strengthens case for Oakland

As has become customary over the years, reporters asked the Commissioner about the state of new venue pursuits for the A’s and Rays. Since Rob Manfred took the mantle from Bud Selig, Manfred has taken a slightly more hopeful and defined stance than his predecessor. Taking that a step further, Manfred today said that he remains committed to Oakland, seemingly indefinitely.

From the AP:

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And another Manfred comment from the Chronicle’s John Shea:

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Hear that? The commissioner is bullish on Oakland! That can’t be said for any other time since the A’s have been in the Town. Baseball was more concerned about Charlie Finley than Oakland in 1968. Throughout the Finley, Haas, Schott, and Wolff tenures, no one inside or outside baseball talked glowingly about Oakland’s economic prospects. Now Manfred is, and for good reason. By the numbers, Oakland is exploding in terms of real estate values and rents. It’s attracting tech companies and their employees. For the Lodge, Oakland has finally become more than a centrally-located fanbase, it is a healthy market unto itself. What’s more, Manfred likes Oakland’s prospects into the near future. If you’re wondering what took so long, consider the economic prospects of Oakland in 2009.

Manfred continued to push the notion that the A’s should pursue the stadium plan regardless of what happens with the Raiders. He hasn’t gone so far as to set a deadline or mention consequences (for either the A’s or Oakland), but if you’re paying attention, you know that this fall is the time for MLB to make hay with Lew Wolff and John Fisher.

The current CBA calls for the A’s to get off the revenue sharing dole once a new stadium opens. So far, Wolff has pledged to pay for the stadium without requiring Oakland to issue any new debt or raise taxes. But if Wolff and Fisher are going to pay full freight on the stadium, they’re going to need some relief from that debt service. The best arrangement within baseball would be to allow the A’s for the possibility to receive revenue sharing if they hit a shortfall. That shouldn’t be an issue for the first few “honeymoon period” years after the ballpark opens. There are some potentially lean years in the future, so allowing the A’s to stay within the revenue sharing pool could be an effective safety net, especially if the A’s start entertaining larger payrolls normally shouldered by a new stadium.

One other interesting quote came from Manfred:

Baseball is the best economic investment for a city because of the number of home dates it drives.

Unless you’re a Raider die-hard economic denier type (they exist), this is a basic truism – at least relative to football. However, buried in there is the term best economic investment for a city. That could mean infrastructure, or public funding, or a quasi-governmental agency like the JPA to get bonds or loans, or free land, any number of things. That’s an indicator that for Manfred’s belief in and protection of Oakland, he’s going to want Oakland to make its own investment. To what extent is unclear. Rest assured that Manfred will play the bulldog at some point in the future, and he won’t be a pushover. Look at how he’s treating the “threat” of a minimum wage or overtime vs. the economics of minor league baseball.

Wonder out loud threateningly about the future of the minors, an institution where no team pays its players? That’s the lawyer we all know and fear.

Poll: Effective life span of sports venues

Working on a post related to this. Vogt!

Las Vegas gains sports legitimacy by winning NHL franchise

Vegas has always lived on the fringe of pro sports. It’s home to an oft-forgotten minor league baseball franchise, UNLV, and of course, the American capital of sports betting in The Strip. It is at once a major part of the sports world, and also a satellite in terms of direct participation.

Photo: Bill Feldberg

Photo: Bill Feldberg

That dichotomy will officially end in October 2017, when an expansion NHL franchise will lace up skates in Las Vegas’s shiny new multipurpose venue, T-Mobile Arena. The arena opened in April with a slate almost entirely comprised of big name concerts. Hockey will start play this coming October, with a four-game set of exhibition games to test the arena’s ice making capability (didn’t the season end, Sharks? *sigh*).

And with that, the test of Vegas as a sports market will finally begin. The as-yet unnamed hockey team will benefit from a honeymoon period fueled by a 13,000-season ticket pledge drive. They’ll also have a first-mover advantage for at least a few years if the Raiders come to town, even longer if the Raiders don’t. The team may even be sneaky competitive, thanks to being the only team recipient in a friendly expansion draft. And whatever casual locals don’t buy in as attending casual fans could be replaced to a degree by visiting fans. Seriously, I wouldn’t be surprised if the NHL formatted future schedules to have games hosting Buffalo or the Great White North all on weekends.

Economically, the Vegas market remains largely a one-trick pony, begging to get startups and non-service sector industries to grow in Southern Nevada. Non-gaming corporate strength will be a major factor in the team’s long-term economic health, and while there should be no shortage of smaller local sponsors and a major car manufacturer sponsor just to cover both CES and SEMA, other patronage could be a tossup. The looming threat of competition in the form of a 65,000-seat domed stadium hosting the Raiders is also a real possibility. At least that should be decided later this year. Plus the team will be competing with its own landlords, AEG and MGM, for preferred days and dates on the calendar. The PBR World Finals is moving from the Thomas and Mack Center on the UNLV campus to T-Mobile Arena and is usually held in November, mere weeks into the NHL regular season.

Long term, there’s no telling how this team will hold up. Unless Sin City turns into Winnipeg South, it’ll need a lot of casual fans to fill the 17,500-seat venue. If that doesn’t happen the place will look like a lot of Sun Belt expansion era arenas, looking half-full and disinterested. For at least a few years things should be okay since the team will be a sort of super-novelty. The arena doesn’t need the team’s rent to pay the bills, and even if it does at a later date at least it’s privately financed. Whether or not Vegas becomes the next great hockey town is almost beside the point. The NHL was the first to stake a claim on the last great domestic frontier. That’s a big deal.

And finally, yesterday MLB commissioner Rob Manfred validated Vegas as a potential site for a future team.

“I think the whole, ‘you can’t go to Vegas because there’s casinos there,’ we passed that by a long time ago, right? There’s casinos all over the place. I see Las Vegas as a viable alternative. I would not disqualify it just because of the gambling issue.”

So there you have it. With other sports coming to Vegas, the gambling issue is no longer an issue. There isn’t much to consider this a shot across Oakland’s bow, considering the barriers to getting a domed ballpark in place, especially if a football stadium already exists. Still, Las Vegas has already had its day as a relocation threat candidate for the A’s and now the Raiders, so there’s plenty of history there. The time for Vegas to be yet again a baseball stalking horse is a long ways off.