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!
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).
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.