Saperstein’s other letter

Zennie Abraham just posted a second letter from A’s minority partner Guy Saperstein. This time, the message was addressed to Senator Barbara Boxer. He posted it in its entirety, and so will I. The tone is markedly different from the public rebuttal to John Russo.

April 2, 2009
Senator Barbara Boxer
1700 Montgomery St. Suite 240
San Francisco, CA 94111

Dear Barbara:

As you know, Jeanine and I have long supported you and we plan to continue doing so. However, we were very disappointed about the letter you sent to Commissioner Selig. I realize you have a lot on your plate in the United States Senate, but if you are going to weigh in with such resolute conclusions about the A’s, I wish you had made a greater effort to determine the facts. You made no inquiries to the Oakland Athletics about efforts they have made to find a stadium site in Oakland and your letter cites almost no relevant facts. Doug has known for a long time that I am part of the Wolff ownership group, so if you didn’t want to call the A’s directly, you easily could have called me with your concerns. Perhaps after hearing more of the facts, you would have offered a more balanced assessment to the Commissioner.

Your letter cites some of the past history of the A’s in Oakland, but it glosses over and ignores many important facts. It is true the A’s had great baseball teams in the 1970s—experts say some of the best teams in baseball history—but you neglect to mention how Oakland fans responded to these great teams. Not very well. These teams drew less than a million fans per year and that number dwindled to 306,000 in 1979. The A’s couldn’t even sell out the World Series! I remember this because I could walk up on the day of each game and buy a ticket. I’m willing to bet this never has happened before or since in MLB history in any other city. The second thing that should be noted about 1970s is that it preceded free agency. Thus, the A’s owner, Charles Finley, didn’t have to compete with other teams for players by paying them competitive salaries; they were bound to the team by the so-called “reserve clause.” Because of this form of indentured servitude, even small-market teams like Oakland could remain competitive for years. Today, with free agency, the economics of baseball are fundamentally different and small-market teams have fundamentally different challenges.

Your letter also cites the Haas Family era, another period of excellent teams, and even good attendance. But you neglect to note that the Haas’ were losing $10-$15 million per year with those teams in an effort to pay competitive salaries. They were a winning, attractive team which paid big salaries to big stars, but that was because the Haas family was willing to lose millions every year. While we can all thank the Haas family for their beneficence, their model of ownership was and is unsustainable and you cannot expect the Wolff ownership, or any ownership, to operate as a community sports charity.

Not only do the A’s draw far fewer fans than the Giants, but the A’s average ticket price paid is one of the lowest in MLB—approximately half of what Giants fans pay for tickets. The A’s have 8,000 full and partial season ticket holders, compared to the Giants’ 24,000 full season ticket-holders. This is even worse than it appears, because when you rely mainly on game-day walk-up sales, you never know how fans are going to show up that day and, consequently, you don’t know how many vendors to hire, ticket takers, food workers, etc. So you overstaff and overpay, due to uncertainty. By contrast, if you are the Giants and know that 35,000 fans are going to attend every game, you staff properly. Added to these major economic disadvantages, the A’s income from the sale of luxury boxes is one of the lowest in MLB and just a small fraction of what Giants fans pay. This is largely the product of the unpleasant but inescapable fact that Oakland lacks a vibrant business community. When you add all this up, it would be hard to find any MLB owner who would characterize this as strong fan support.

Let me present a few more relevant facts—facts that any ownership must contend with. When Charles Finley brought the A’s to Oakland from Kansas City, Oakland had a population of 367,000 [1960 census] and San Jose a population of 204,000. Forty-one years later, San Jose’s population is 989,000—now the 10th largest city in America—and Oakland’s is 401,000. Which is the more vibrant, growing city? And, while you are promoting Oakland as the only possible site of a new stadium, please note that only 19% of A’s fans come from Oakland.

As currently situated, the San Francisco Giants control 2/3 of the Bay Area market and are located just 12 miles away from the A’s. If the new baseball stadium were to be built in Oakland, it would replicate this imbalance; if it were built in San Jose, 50 miles away from the Giants stadium, the market imbalance would be adjusted and the A’s could be more competitive.

While it is easy to scapegoat the A’s for the ills of Oakland, a fairer assessment of what ails Oakland would start with its inept political leadership—some of whom you prominently endorsed, supported and rarely criticize. Without naming names, let me recall just a few more salient facts.

The long-range planning and leadership of the Oakland Coliseum Authority has been almost non-existent. This group made mistakes of judgment which would be almost beyond imagination except for the fact that they actually happened. They spent $140 million to build Mount Davis at the Oakland Coliseum, then entered into a contract which not only costs the taxpayers of Oakland nearly $20 million per year, but which term is only ten years. So, ten years later, Al Davis and the Raiders are whining about a new stadium—which, predictably, they want the taxpayers to pay for. And what do the taxpayers of Oakland get for this almost unbelievable beneficence? Eight home games a year! Then the Coliseum Authority dropped $100+ million into the laps of the Golden State Warriors, who also play far fewer games than the A’s and have far less economic impacts on the city. Along came the Oakland A’s in 2005, under its new ownership, and in recognition that the A’s were playing in what is basically a football stadium, and now a decrepit one at that, and requested that the Coliseum Authority split the cost for a $500,000 feasibility study for a new stadium. The Coliseum Authority couldn’t even scrape together $250,000 to try to keep its biggest asset! The Authority has allowed the Raiders and Warriors to bankrupt it and there is nothing left for the A’s, despite the fact that the A’s, unlike the Raiders, Warriors and 49’ers, always have been willing to pay for building their own stadium. To put it another way, the A’s may be the only sports franchise left in the Bay Area, and perhaps America, willing to pay for their own stadium, but the Coliseum Authority hasn’t lifted a finger to help the A’s and now politicians like you and Doug [and there probably will be others] are quick to pillory the A’s for even thinking of moving.

Nor has the Oakland political structure helped. Despite the many business reasons to move to San Jose, the A’s explored all options to stay in Oakland. Lew and the A’s can give you the full picture if and when you want to hear it, but I can tell you I have been involved since Day One and when Lew first asked me to become part of the ownership, I said I would love to do it, but I didn’t want to be part of an ownership which just bought and moved the team. Lew assured me that he would make a full effort to stay in Oakland and I don’t think he and his son, Keith, have left a single stone unturned in their efforts to make Oakland work for the A’s. I recall specifically Lew proposing to build a 3,000+ unit housing project and several hundred thousand feet of retail space near the Coliseum and taking the profits from this development to finance a stadium at little or no cost to the taxpayers of Oakland. This would have been the biggest economic development in Oakland since Liberty ships were built during World War II, but the only Oakland City Council Member who showed any enthusiasm was Larry Reid. Give Larry a call and ask him why no one else got behind this plan. And in case anyone might suggest forward thinking and planning was not possible, while Oakland was doing nothing, San Jose bought land in downtown and put together a 50-acre parcel, zoned it for a sports stadium and completed an Environmental Impact Report for the stadium. If they want a baseball team, they are ready for it. You were elected to represent all the cities and citizens of California, not act as surrogate Mayor of Oakland. You have a responsibility to try to determine what is best for the state, for the Bay Area, and, yes, for Oakland AND San Jose. Your letter to the Commissioner plays into the hands of the San Francisco Giants, who have long contended the Bay Area is a one-team region and whose game plan is nothing less than driving the A’s out of the Bay Area. I think you need to rethink your strategy and begin by making sure the A’s are able to stay in the Bay Area.

Like you and Doug, I find it convenient to have a team located 20 minutes from my house and, like you, I will be inconvenienced if the A’s move to San Jose. But should an investment of half a billion dollars for a new stadium to meet the needs of present and future Bay Area baseball fans be based on your, my and/or Doug’s convenience or on a sound economic foundation? I think the answer is obvious and I hope you will begin to review the facts and evidence before making more pronouncements which operate to undermine the A’s opportunities to build a sustainable future.

Lastly, despite serious reservations about the ability of Oakland to provide help in the quest for a new stadium, Lew and I will be meeting with Mayor Dellums in two weeks in an effort to make certain that we have not overlooked any viable site. And, of course, Lew, Keith and I remain available at any time to provide you with additional information about all options.

Best Regards,
Guy T. Saperstein GTS/ht

The immediate observation to be made is that this is the first time anyone from the ownership group has come close to “connecting the dots” regarding the A’s and San Jose. Maybe that was intentional, maybe not. I’m surprised to be reading it. I thought San Jose was like Fight Club. For those who still don’t think San Jose’s the next step I have to ask, Really? Come on, now.

Next up is the issue of the feasibility study the A’s asked for when Wolff took over. According to Saperstein, the $500k cost was to be split between the two parties, but the Coliseum Authority was too tapped out to help. All the while the Authority was finalizing the deal to get rid of Raider PSL’s forever and hiring multiple consultants to get a naming rights deal for the Arena. If this feasibility study assertion is true, you can be sure that it will end up in the Blue Ribbon report.

What I don’t get is Zennie’s response. He rants about Saperstein’s pointing out the 70’s attendance woes. It’s no secret that the A’s weren’t a big draw then, just as they aren’t now. The facts are these:

  • The A’s averaged 764,660 per season during the decade
  • The A’s were as high as 5th in AL attendance once (1972)
  • The A’s topped 1 million twice during the era
  • The A’s were last in AL attendance twice and second-to-last twice
  • Average annual attendance for all AL teams during the 70’s was 1,194,395

When your biggest argument is semantic, you don’t have much of an argument.

I’m also not sure what Saperstein has to apologize to the Haas family about. Nothing he wrote denigrated Wally Haas. He held up Haas as a paragon to which no future ownership group can be favorably compared. At the same time, yes, Haas was losing money. That can’t be disputed. Why so sensitive then?

Now, there are things to quibble about. Russo mentioned in his letter that the Coliseum North proposal would’ve required eminent domain, which is right. Wolff was willing to pay no more than $1 million an acre, a ludicrous amount at the time. When the plan collapsed, Wolff then resubmitted Schott’s old Coliseum parking lot plan, in which the A’s would contribute $100 million. Does anyone remember that?

One of the big keys for any political campaign, even the kind we’re witnessing here, is message discipline. It doesn’t matter if you’re Karl Rove or David Axelrod, Doug Boxer or Lew Wolff. I sense a serious lack of message discipline on both fronts, and it isn’t very becoming for either side.

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