Market Relegation: The New Era of Neutral Site Baseball

Numerous great institutions are coming to an end over these last two weeks. The Lakers’ and Celtics’ playoff runs ended, killing Adam Silver’s dream NBA Finals matchup. Another Sun Belt Stanley Cup Final is about to start. English football ended their season in their respective leagues, with the joy and agony of promotion and relegation to come. Great TV shows like “Succession” and “Barry” had their series finales on Sunday, with “Ted Lasso” finishing tonight. And the A’s, whose 2023 season ended before Opening Day, may be saying adios to Oakland in a week if the State of Nevada passes SB 509, which would cement Vegas’s effort to lure the club to the desert.

That’s a lot of drama (and some comedy) to wrap up in two weeks. Series, whether fictional TV or real sports, all have endings, and I can’t help but feel a little wistful. While teams can rebound and rebuild, the A’s as an Oakland entity is on the precipice. In the past I haven’t been eager to overly dramatize that, but this feels real. Judging from last night’s sole public hearing on SB 509, it’s starting to feel like a fait accompli. Oakland’s (or California’s) process is glacial compared to Nevada, which is happening at light speed. We still can’t say how bad a deal this will be for Nevada and Clark County since the projections are too rosy at a glance to seem real and there is no input from a state appointed economist or non-partisan analyst. Yet there may be a method to this madness. The problem is that it includes a future without Oakland on the MLB map. For you, probably an old school baseball fan, you may have to expand your thinking.

The first clue came from last night’s hearing, when LVCVA’s Steve Hill noted that the new scheduling format allows every team to play every other team one series per year, alternating home series for interleague matchups. In previous years you often had to wait three years to see any particular team in the other league, and because of unbalanced divisions it was not necessarily guaranteed that team would come to town at regular intervals. This format change creates stability for travel planning, so much that when I saw that I stopped making the Travel Grid. If you can reasonably expect to see every team at least once every other year or schedule road trips in alternating years, there’s no surprise or delight left in making those schedules. Sorry about that everyone. It’s still good for baseball in that it’s predictable and easily programmable, with the only real sacrifice being some midseason intra-division series.

Next is news out of Orlando that they want to build a domed MLB ballpark for an expansion team. Of course, given Florida’s history with MLB teams it’s preposterous to even consider a third team, so the focus is quickly shifting to St. Petersburg, which is trying to work out a deal with the Rays and developer Hines. The plan includes a fixed dome instead a retractable dome and includes 775 units (23%) of affordable housing. Sounds promising until you remember that the subsidies that provide affordable housing come out of the same general project budget that helps subsidize the ballpark, just like Howard Terminal. As the project is still young, no one is claiming doom yet. The challenge is there, along with the pre-existing fan access problem at the Tropicana Dome site. Regardless, the Rays are locked into the Trop through 2027. Orlando couldn’t open this ballpark until 2028 at the earliest, and FWIW the current CBA runs through the 2026 season.

Yeah, Orlando’s ballpark looks like The Battery in ATL, though the ballpark is oriented… WEST?

Let’s take this a step further and assume that Oakland and St. Petersburg can’t get ballpark deals done, leaving the A’s bound for Vegas and the Rays set to depart for Orlando. Both teams will be in new domed stadiums by 2028, the next CBA will set the stage for a new round of expansion, presumably providing a heretofore unknown level of financial stability for the Rays and A’s. Like it or not, that’s what baseball wants. They’re not afraid to step on some toes to get it. They have their antitrust exemption in their back pocket. And based on the patience MLB has shown towards both clubs and their current home cities, there is no feasible antitrust challenge in sight for either city.

You may ask where that financial stability comes from, knowing that both clubs are headed for historically small markets. Well, they’re gonna get help. Due to Las Vegas’ and Orlando’s status as mid-sized cities, both teams are likely to be classified as small markets, which makes them eligible for full revenue sharing for the foreseeable future no matter how the plan evolves. This is where a potential relocation fee would come into play. It may be $1 Billion, or $500 million or $300 million, or it may be nothing. There is probably a sliding scale on how this works. I suspect that a special mechanism will be made available for these two teams – and only these two teams – because of their tourist-trap locales. The relocation fee could depend on their willingness to part with more of their locally grown revenue.

The current CBA calls for teams to share 48% of their locally-derived revenue including gate receipts, suite sales, and local TV revenue as their main sources. That money would go into a pool that would be split into 1/30 shares. Big market teams were ineligible for the pool of shared revenue based on a formula that changes on an annual basis. After 2016 the A’s were phased off revenue sharing in anticipation of Howard Terminal or another Oakland ballpark, with the idea that they would have requisite revenue to hold their own as a big market franchise. As that failed to result in a new ballpark, the A’s were placed back onto a partial revenue sharing plan with the most recent distribution last winter, though I’m not clear on how much that actually is. In any case, as I’ve mentioned before, to lose revenue sharing would be noticeable but not debilitating thanks to the growing amounts of national revenue (TV, streaming, merchandise, sponsorships). I’m guessing this year’s amount is around $20 million and could grow to $35-40 million next year. If the A’s get a full share it’s worth over $100 million annually plus the national revenues. By keeping the A’s and Rays classified as small markets going forward, all these revenue sources will help to give them ballast as they cultivate local fanbases. 

82 games seems conservative for a venue that could host a dozen more annually

The A’s/Rays situation calls for an exchange. They could minimize their relocation fee in exchange for giving up a percentage of their ticket sales. This is outside the 48% pooled revenue. Here’s how this could work: upon building the Vegas ballpark, the A’s could designate some number seats to be sold directly by the visiting team. The revenue from those sales would go to that team. The visiting teams could choose to take a full allotment of those tickets by game or series which they would sell to their season ticket holders or as part of vacation packages. If that sounds exotic, consider that teams have already started doing these kinds of sales of spring training games. The difference right now is that they’re selling their own Cactus/Grapefruit League tickets instead of another team’s regular season. 

When you go to a MLB game, there is no dedicated road/away supporters section. European soccer and some American college football stadia have away sections, often for fan safety. For baseball, the natural place to implement road sections is the area behind the visiting dugout. Depending on how large a visiting team’s fanbase is, those sections could expand or be reserved for advance or gameday sales. In their projections the A’s expect 405,000 visitors to games each year, which translates to 5,000 visiting fans per game. While this could certainly work for the NY/LA/Chi teams, it’s more of a reach for say, Pittsburgh or Baltimore. That’s okay, because if the visiting team doesn’t claim a full allotment, it will go back into general sale. There would be rules on how advance sales would work for that, but it can be folded into existing season ticket packages or sold as standalone or vacation package deals, which if you haven’t noticed, Vegas and Orlando are par excellence at doing. The actual revenue would be claimed under the visiting team’s local share, 48% of which by rule would go into the revenue sharing pool. The scheme basically allows the home and road teams to call dibs, which harkens back to the old ticket splits that were done prior to revenue sharing. In the end, it’s all accounting.

There’s another wrinkle to the A’s/Rays relocation. The Orlando ballpark plan looks similar to the Braves’ The Battery development with a huge indoor mall-like canopy on top. That may not be possible in Vegas due to the nine acres afforded to the ballpark. Still, Bally’s is figuring out ways to maximize that adjacent space, so if they want to have an air-conditioned public area right outside the ballpark, it’s not like Vegas isn’t chock full of those. 

From a baseball playing standpoint, new events will increase usage of the ballpark. Sure, there will be 81 home games plus at least one spring training warmup game. Beyond that, we got a taste of the future from the exciting World Baseball Classic in March. Once opened, Vegas and Orlando could serve as the pool play and championship round hubs for the WBC every three years. This year, Miami’s LoanDepot Park and Phoenix’s Chase Field hosted 10 pool play games. Miami also hosted two quarterfinal games, two semifinals, and the championship game (Japan hosted the other quarters). In the future, Orlando and Las Vegas can replace Miami and Phoenix to host the pool games while alternating the knockout rounds every 3-6 years. Plus there’s one last wrinkle. Baseball (maybe this is a Manfred initiative) has wanted to put together some sort of in-season tournament for some time. It’s unclear how expansive this tournament would be or how it would affect standings and statistics. Having Las Vegas and Orlando in place takes care of one very important variable: climate control. Because both are domes, there’s no worry of rainouts or postponements as there is at the outdoor parks. I imagine this isn’t something they would implement until baseball expanded to 32 teams, but once it did they could run it annually just like the All-Star Game. The NBA is already considering its own in-season tournament, so it’s only a matter of time for baseball to create their own.

Is there room for Oakland and Tampa Bay in this future baseball fantasy? Tampa perhaps, if it can get its replacement dome together. If it can’t, expect MLB to quickly pivot to Orlando. There are no minor league teams there and spring training vacated Orlando years ago, so no territorial conflicts exist there. Oakland isn’t known as a major tourist destination so it doesn’t fit this concept well. Sadly, the sports world is leaving Oakland behind. Oakland has tons of great sports history and it was a pacesetter in the 60’s. It will have to prove itself again as a worthy competitor in the pro sports world through what it builds, not what it promises.

As for the Vegas ballpark, can you hold your breath for an entire week? You may have to. They probably won’t take the full floor vote until June 5, and only if the NV legislature comes to a budget deal first.

Renderings of Vegas Domed Ballpark Released

Initial impressions

The A’s released initial renderings of the ballpark they’re planning to build at the Tropicana on the south Strip. As I’ve seen plenty of ballpark renderings, especially A’s ballpark renderings, I was prepared to be unimpressed. And I was at first, looking at low-res versions. I called these renderings “placeholders” with the proportions wrong and some details seemingly missing or unfinished. When I got home after work, I found high-res versions and started studying. What I found shedded much more light on what the A’s are attempting to accomplish.

Roof retracted shows off south Strip

First, we’ll start off with the view from behind and slightly to the first base side of home plate. It looks roughly north as I predicted. No big deal there, as that was the most practical orientation available. The backdrop features a high “waist” of the outfield decks. This should’ve tipped me off to how the retractable roof worked, but it didn’t at the time. I had to look at another image to figure that out. 

The backdrop includes MGM Grand in RF, with the other MGM properties visible across the Strip (New York New York, Park MGM/Mirage, Cosmopolitan, Bellagio). MGM must be thrilled to get all the free advertising this ballpark will provide with the ballpark’s orientation. Unfortunately for them, much of that view across the Strip will be obscured by new buildings built by Bally’s on the Tropicana site. Another rendering shows a fairly clear space between the ballpark and the Strip, which will only last 1-2 years as ancillary development is phased in. Bally’s CEO Soo Kim suggested the new resort on the property will be sports-themed. In my last post I questioned the separation of the ballpark from the new casino, partly because of the gambling controversy and because of the desire to separate the revenue streams between Bally’s, the A’s, and any other entities that may get involved. 

Ballpark at a distance looks larger than nine acres

An elevated view from above New York New York presents a ballpark that at a glance appears much larger than the nine acres allocated by Bally’s. The angle showcases a large lighted arch from which the fixed roof is suspended, much like Wembley Stadium. The arch helps to give the appearance of much greater displacement for the ballpark, though there is also an ample buffer area surrounding the circular ballpark’s outer walls that may be misleading. One option that may be available is to make the ballpark part of the entire resort on game days or during events, which will open up the entire complex’s facilities to fans. Little Caesars Arena in Detroit was built in this fashion with multi-use development integrated with it. The arena was also architected by HOK. If this sounds familiar, it should. Lew Wolff wanted this concept going back to the Fremont days.

Now, you might be asking, “Fixed roof, I thought there was a retractable roof?” How about both? The retractable roof doesn’t appear in two of the renderings. A third rendering shows the roof fully enclosing the outfield of the ballpark. The retractable portion is motorized and runs on tracks atop the waist. The roof appears to be made of transparent or translucent ETFE material as was done in sections at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis and nearby Allegiant Stadium. ETFE promises to allow light in while reflecting heat due to its layered construction, unlike glass which tends to transmit heat. The material can’t be completely transparent, so the view through it may have a somewhat frosted glass appearance depending on how much transparency is involved in the actual fabric used.

Milwaukee’s American Family Field uses a fan-style roof discussed in the last post. The roof sits above the upper decks along the baselines and closes in sections. That roof is extremely complex and prone to failure so it’s unlikely the A’s and HOK (architect) will attempt a similar roof design. Instead, they may are back to the first successful retractable roof stadium for inspiration.

Rogers Centre (née SkyDome) has been operating a hulking retractable roof for over 30 years. If you’ve never been there, you may not notice that it’s a two part roof. The top portion slides back and forth from the outfield towards home plate, which is what you normally see in videos. The lower part of the roof sits behind main grandstand and tucks itself away underneath the top portion for good weather games. The picture below shows what the grandstand looks like when the roof is stowed away.

Fully open roof at Rogers Centre
Open roof in Vegas with dual tracks above the “waist”

For mechanical simplicity, I would expect the A’s retractable roof to move as a single unit like Rogers Centre’s lower section. During mild/spring games or night games, the movable part could tuck into the fixed roof area. It could also be a split roof like Milwaukee, but I wouldn’t expect that. When I started piecing this together, I didn’t immediately think of SkyDome. Instead, I thought of the old Pittsburgh Civic Arena, known as the “Igloo” or by its corporate name, Mellon Arena. I got to see a game there sometime in 2002, during the Penguins’ fallow period between the Jagr and Crosby eras. The arena was famous for its partially retractable roof, which used a similar mechanism to what HOK is aiming for, though the movable portion was actually quite small and turned the arena into an amphitheater with a large bandshell. 

Roof closed from across Las Vegas Blvd.

By designing a retractable roof to be a part of the structure instead of a canopy on top of the structure, the A’s are effectively limiting the ballpark’s footprint. For that reason, and because the normal construction budget concerns, I expect the ballpark to really be nine acres in size. It’s rather pointless to use the other post-SkyDome retractables comparisons because they’re designed much differently.

Closeup of ballpark with roof open shows off lighted arch

There’s no rendering of the ballpark from inside with the roof closed. And that, friends, is the true test of how good this design is. The retractable section looks to be covered by the aforementioned ETFE, which was how Globe Life Field was intended to built. That ballpark instead had one-third of its roof covered in partly transparent ETFE. Whether or not you believe that change was made to reign in costs of an expensive new material, the fact is that’s what the Rangers went with it, making Globe Life Field look like a huge shed. The A’s really want to avoid putting a drab shed among the garish edifices of the Strip, so they would be wise to invest to ensure their facade is not just distinctive, but also cool. The reality is that working with huge HVAC systems and their ductwork is going to clutter up any roofed ballpark, so HOK has its work cut out for them.

Other thoughts

  • The upper deck for this four-deck ballpark is ridiculously huge. That’s probably because the lower deck is quite small, and undoubtedly quite exclusive.
  • Bullpens are in left field in fair territory beyond the fence.
  • The video board in right field is noticeable. Less noticeable are the ribbon boards on three levels of the outfield. Are any of them large enough to function as more than auxiliary displays?
  • The image with the open roof shows that the roof itself is hiding another large display board. Which is interesting, but why is it facing the outfield and away from most of the fans inside the ballpark?
  • The retractable roof has a pitch to it, similar to how Tropicana Field’s roof is tilted down towards the outfield fence.
  • The first rendering shows a grass field, which is unlikely because of how much this ballpark will be used during the other six months of the year and during road trips. 
  • If you think these renderings are ugly or not worthy of a future A’s ballpark versus Howard Terminal, I’ve got bad news for you: they all come from the same architecture firm, HOK.

Thoughts on MLB in Vegas and retractable roofs

Howard Terminal with a twist

I want you to take a long look at the rendering above. You’ll probably say you’ve seen it before, that it’s Howard Terminal. It’s not, for reasons I’ll get into later. For now, study it because it reveals certain things about baseball in the 21st century that you probably weren’t aware of previously.

Before I do the point-by-point tear down, I’ll discuss the report that Bally’s and GLPI are offering 9 acres on the southeast portion of the Tropicana Hotel and Casino plot to the A’s for their ballpark. GLPI, which owns the site land while Bally’s has the development rights, is offering $175 million towards “certain shared improvements within the future development in exchange for a commensurate rent increase.” When I saw that, I immediately thought that is GLPI is providing an enticement for the A’s to build a retractable roof.

I’ve gone to games and taken tours at all of the retractable roof ballparks built in the last 30+ years. I’ve taken notes and seen many of the mistakes made in the first generations of retractable roof ballparks that caused them to evolve. Whether those changes were done to increase fan enjoyment or business opportunities, they’ve come a long way for good and ill. Here are some observations about the sector.

  1. Teams care more about reducing operating expenses than anything else. Two of the early designs in Phoenix (Chase Field, 1998) and Milwaukee (American Financial Field, 2001) used roofs that opened from a home plate-to-center field line, the same method you often see at American football stadia (Arlington, TX and Glendale, AZ). While this allows for a more compact footprint, historically it’s more costly to maintain due to its mechanical complexity. Milwaukee’s roof was mired in lawsuits when the roof broke down soon after construction, incurring costly repair bills. Chase Field’s roof had a less dramatic break down, attributable to age and causing the Dbacks to refrain from operating it unless they know the weather days in advance. Chase in particular is still subject to roof leaks whenever it rains, which is bad news even when it’s closed and a monsoon comes through in the late summer.
  2. Rogers Centre (1989) can’t be made prettier or with a better backdrop. The Blue Jays chose to add improvements along the concourses and in the outfield instead, so it will look even more like an airport concourse than it did when I visited a few years ago. Despite the less-than-picturesque baseball setting, folks in the Great White North definitely appreciate it when there’s blue sky up above instead of white, so the team tries to keep the roof open as much as possible as summers are fleeting. It also helps that the Jays don’t need a massive air conditioning system.
  3. T-Mobile Park (1999) and Minute Maid Park (2000) are similar in that they have roof systems that open towards right field. This makes for expansive sky views when the roofs are open, though RF is merely another grandstand with a scoreboard. Seattle’s design is mostly a roof canopy that allows breezes to come through, whereas Houston’s is a more sealed dome meant to mitigate heat and humidity.
  4. LoanDepot Park (2012) and Globe Life Field (2020) are evolved versions of Seattle and Houston. Miami’s roof opens behind the first base line, while Texas’s opens behind third base. This allows the roof eyesore to be placed out of view of most fans during games when the roof is open, though there’s still the same assemblage of grandstand and scoreboard in RF. Miami started with grass and moved to artificial turf when the team had trouble growing grass there, which is only possible in Florida when you keep closing the roof. In Texas, they didn’t even bother with grass and went straight to a different version of the turf used in Miami. Both also have “partial retractable roofs” which have a large fixed roof component somewhere to keep construction and operating costs down. It’s disappointing for two Sun Belt teams to go this route. However, it’s not just about the roof. Using turf helps both venues get better LEED certification due to less water usage. 

Knowing all of that, it’s a safe bet that any Vegas ballpark will also have turf and possibly a retractable roof if it can be afforded. Again, GLPI’s $175 million pledge is an enticement for the A’s. When I started this blog, the going rate for a value-add retractable dome was $100 million. That makes $175 million in 2023 dollars seem a bit cheap. I suspect that’s all a matter of negotiation. I also suspect that a big part of the negotiation will be the magic trick of where the roof goes when it opens. GLPI and Bally’s can also govern air rights for the stowed roof, making it more appealing for the A’s to deploy something that might be used only two months every baseball season. A retractable roof might be more attractive for non-baseball uses such as concerts. Imagine a packed crowd going nuts when the roof opens for a 9 PM EDM headliner in there. These roofs measure 5-6 acres these days, though I imagine they would aim for something smaller if they could get away with it.

You might also wonder if the A’s could fit a retractable field, much like the grass tray used at State Farm Stadium and Allegiant Stadium. While that was discussed by Dave Kaval previously, I can’t think it’s terribly practical because of the area required. If you search for baseball field sizes online, you’ll often see an estimate of 4.5 acres. That’s a bit much by my estimation. An acre is 43,560 square feet, or a 208.41-foot square. 4 squares of that size would easily accommodate a baseball field and foul territory, but a 4-acre tray is twice the size of the football field-sized trays currently in use. It’s also an amenity that, due to its near constant usage, would claim an even larger footprint than the 9 acres under discussion. There may be an extremely creative way to make that work. I simply don’t think it’s practical.

Angel Stadium in Anaheim size shown for the sake of simplicity

There have been numerous questions about where the renderings are for this now-$1.5 Billion curiosity. In my experience, renderings tend to stay under wraps until it comes time to sell something to the public. Right now everyone’s talking behind closed doors. Frankly, I think we’ve been looking at a perfectly good rendering the whole time. That image at the top of this post is a flipped version of the Howard Terminal ballpark, in which the roof deck slopes down to left field instead of right field. Why? Because if you plan it that way on the Tropicana lot, you open the entire ballpark to the rest of the casino property and the Strip. Add some big glass walls a la Miami and an ETFE fabric roof and you have a panoramic view of Las Vegas with the roof open or closed, or even if it’s fixed. People forget that the original trailblazer, the Houston Astrodome, was built with thousands of skylights filling its roof. Eventually they caused problems for outfielders and couldn’t sustain a grass field (sound familiar?), so Astroturf was invented to fill the need. The technology for both roofs and turf has been evolving ever since. The main takeaway from the history of retractable roof ballparks is that even if you can have the best intentions, you can’t beat physics.

Back to the rendering. Imagine that the roof deck is removed as it’s not needed in Vegas. That roof deck essentially covered all of the back-of-the-house facilities for the ballpark. If you’ve ever been the MGM Grand across the street from the Trop, you know that it’s home to a casino, multiple hotel towers, and several venues all connected by a large main concourse. There’s the theater for David Copperfield, a long-running Cirque du Soleil show, and the MGM Grand Garden Arena, which last night hosted the big Devin Haney-Vasiliy Lomachenko lightweight championship boxing match. The Grand Garden Arena was Vegas’s first real major sports venue, hosting numerous prize fights and concerts over the past 30 years. GGA was a premier venue in the early 90’s that’s been easily eclipsed by T-Mobile Arena down the street, home of the Golden Knights. As MGM has ownership stakes in both venues, it can move events between them without worrying too much about conflicts with the hockey team or UFC events which are hosted at T-Mobile Arena. Now if you’ve been to GGA, you know that it’s fairly barebones and mostly exists as a big exhibit hall with seats. There are concessions there, but if you want something good the rest of the casino is just steps away. As MLB recently signed a deal with FanDuel to be its official betting partner, baseball quickly got into bed with the gaming industry. I would expect MLB to instruct any baseball team moving to Vegas to maintain some amount of separation from actual casino gambling, no slot machines or gaming tables. Sportsbooks are clearly a go. Not having gone to an event at TMA, the pics of it resemble a younger Staples Center or Chase Center. As concourse space in venues is expensive, it may be mostly an issue of efficient fan traffic flow. Anyway, I’m sure Pete Rose is rolling over… somewhere.

Plenty of room to cut from 13 acres to 9, stowing the retractable roof will be a challenge

Finally, I went back into the archives to find some drafts of the HT ballpark. The parcel it was placed on was slightly more than 13 acres. Cut down the roof deck, remove “Athletics Way” outside the ballpark and the extra street areas, and you can get down to 9 acres pretty easily. It will still be a challenge to integrate the ballpark into a larger development while maintaining separation. You can bet, though, that several architecture firms are champing at the bit to do just that.

Approximate placement of HT-sized ballpark on Tropicana LV site (not entirely to scale)

Two Peas in a Decrepit Pod

The Vegas situation created a bit of a cottage industry of skin-deep analysis of the A’s, didn’t it? With little tidbits of news emerging from the desert every other day (site change, legislation, labor deal), the dwindling number of A’s fans breathlessly await the next morsel while cursing John Fisher and Dave Kaval under their collective breaths.

There’s a constant desire by the media to rationalize all of these moves, to make sense of it all. It doesn’t make sense on a local, deal terms basis because it all seems so chaotic and haphazard. Only when you pull back all the way to 50,000 feet does it start to make sense. 

It’s strange that the most useful reveal didn’t come from the Bay Area or Vegas papers, or their respective local news stations. The best commentary may have come Stuart Sternberg, the owner of the Tampa Bay Rays, to the Tampa Bay Times three weeks ago

The goal is to make the whole league healthier, Sternberg said. That is why Manfred waiving any relocation fee makes sense — even though the A’s would be taking a prime site for expansion which, at a time when regional sports networks are teetering, could bring owners $4 billion to split with two new teams.

“It’s in all of baseball’s interests to have the A’s and any baseball team on the firmest footing possible,” Sternberg said. “A fee to put them on the firmest footing possible makes it more difficult for them — to say ‘Look, we’re going to let you move and your revenues are going to go up but we’re going to take them all from you.’

“Everybody wants to see us, they want to see the A’s, on really good ground. Fortunately for us, we’re playing good baseball right now. The A’s had amazing runs over time and recently. You can’t hold that together. It’s hard to hold together even if you have a decent revenue team. It’s next to impossible to hold together if you’re a lower revenue; it’s impossible to hold together.”

Once I read that from Sternberg, everything started to make more sense. The A’s parallel paths strategy. The Rays’ failed split-home plan with Tampa Bay and Montreal. The A’s trying feigning interest in Laney while the Rays kept their fires going in Tampa, then both efforts dying.

The rationale is actually dead simple. Major League Baseball treats these two franchises as the weak links in the baseball’s economic system, and is apparently willing to bend some internal rules in order to get them in better shape. Maybe that means a move, or the split-home concept, or even something even more radical that the teams or the commissioner still has up his sleeve. I first saw an indicator of this when the dust settled after the lockout and a new CBA was ratified. After I started this blog, I opined on multiple occasions that MLB would cut back on revenue sharing to prevent teams from hoarding profits when they couldn’t field competitive teams. MLB actually strengthened and expanded local revenue sharing during that time from 34% to 48%, plus the growing national revenues that come from the various broadcast, streaming, and merchandise deals. After getting phased out of revenue sharing in the last CBA, the A’s were granted a 25% share and could get more if they get a stadium deal approved by next January. 

January 2024 was put out there as the next huge deadline. Make no mistake though, it’s entirely arbitrary in order to put pressure on the cities. If the A’s get the expected 50% local revenue sharing piece, it’s worth an extra $15-20 million. While that might sound impressive, it doesn’t make a huge difference in the A’s financial picture. Even the difference between 50% and 0% is nothing that Fisher wouldn’t be able to accommodate through his now notorious belt-tightening.

So maybe this whole exercise results in a rushed bill getting through the Nevada Legislature and Governor Lombardo signs it, clearing the way for the move. Then again, the legislature could see through this ruse and defer to a special session or even the next regular session in 2025. At this stage it is pointless to compare and contrast the Howard Terminal deal to whatever Southern Nevada is attempting. This isn’t about bridging a gap in public infrastructure funding, the narrative that emerged from Oakland City Hall two weeks ago. And it’s not about the overall value of the real estate that surrounds a ballpark, as that is entirely speculative. No, we are getting down to brass tacks, folks. This is simply about whether or not the parties can get a ballpark deal done, to ownership’s and MLB’s satisfaction. Baseball has time to work out the internal details after any deal’s framework is approved. If this can get done, or if this fails and the ball ends up back in Oakland’s court, it will be a matter of what kind of deal can be done for HT. Same goes for the Rays, who have a deal being hammered out for the Tropicana Field site as I write this. If that fails, that might be it for St. Petersburg as a MLB city the same way this may be it for Oakland.  

What about the fans in all of this? The floggings will continue until morale improves, unfortunately. You could make an argument that forces are aligned against those cities. But you can’t say they aren’t being given a chance. Until something definitively changes, Oakland and Tampa Bay will continue to have every concept thrown against the wall to see if anything sticks.

P.S. – We all know that Rob Manfred can’t be expected to save the A’s in Oakland. We shouldn’t expect Joe Lacob to either. If Fisher suddenly decided he wanted to sell the team, there would immediately be opposing forces weighing on him. Obviously, he’d like to get the greatest return on the club, whose value rose 8x since he bought it. The other MLB owners would also want for him to biggest sale price possible since it would boost their respective valuations. But the A’s poor local revenue showing makes it ripe for lowball offers, which I suspect Lacob tried to throw at Arte Moreno before Moreno pulled the Angels’ for sale sign earlier this year. MLB is still dealing with the coming fallout from the Bally Sports bankruptcy proceedings, which may result in MLB taking back control of local broadcast rights for several teams. It’s entirely possible that for the A’s, Rays, and even the Angels, that nothing gets settled until early next year.

It May Be Bust, After All (Or Not)

The moment I saw this clip from an episode of Succession two weeks ago, I immediately thought about the City of Oakland hashing out Howard Terminal with the A’s braintrust.

At the time I had an idea swimming in my head as a thesis for a future article: “What if Howard Terminal never gets past the point where we are right now?” That point was April 7. I decided against publishing then because I felt it would be too inflammatory and entirely speculative. Unfortunately, sometimes life comes at you fast. Now the question:

What if Howard Terminal never gets past the point where we are right now?

…is no mere speculation. My only response when I heard the news Wednesday night that the A’s entered an agreement to purchase land near the Las Vegas Strip for a ballpark was something more of a gut reaction.

In case you weren’t aware, the A’s struck a deal with the Station Casinos corporate parent to purchase 49 acres of land in Las Vegas, on the northwest corner of Tropicana Avenue and Dean Martin Drive next to I-15. The location is only one mile from the famed Strip, and curiously, was not among the top sites the A’s were reportedly pursuing. In hindsight, it’s not hard to connect the dots, as Station/Red Rocks shut down the Wild Wild Wild West Gaming Hall that occupied the site since the mid-70’s. Station is not a major player among the Strip properties as they mostly operate many smaller “locals” casinos in the area. Some major demolition occurred earlier this month, including a hotel tower. Kudos to the A’s for keeping this on the DL.

I pulled out the Google Earth and snapped a shot of the view from where home plate could be, looking east-northeast. You can see the CityCenter development to the left, Park MGM (formerly Monte Carlo) in the center, then T-Mobile Arena and New York New York Casino to the right. While the Oakland waterfront beats it in terms of summer climate, the skyline backdrop would put this site in the Top 3 in MLB.

View from Wild Wild West site east toward The Strip

Acquisition of land is no slam dunk, as any A’s follower knows from the last 20+ years. The A’s signed land deals for Fremont, San Jose, and Oakland’s Howard Terminal which to date haven’t produced finished ballparks. So if you heard this agreement is “binding,” it always comes with strings attached. Clark County approves uses especially for heavily trafficked commercial sites like this close to the Strip, so it stands to reason that they won’t approve this until an actual stadium deal is in place. What that deal would look like is up for debate. 

An initial report pegged the cost at $1 Billion for a retractable roof ballpark, later revised to $1.5 Billion with $500 million in public financing. To me these are back-of-the-napkin math based on similar ballparks built like Globe Life Field in Arlington, TX. That park cost $1.2 Billion to build, experiencing a roughly 20% cost overrun despite clear signs of value engineering. Total project cost was $1.5 Billion including ancillary development.

Obviously, the cost estimate will only go up in the coming months due to market realities and the usual feature creep. And also, I suspect, we’ll see the inevitable growth of the project. 49 acres is a decent chunk of real estate to have adjacent to the Strip, and it seems that the fuzzy public financing model will include (with no current specifics) any number of ways to tax the crap out of everything sold or rented from the ballpark and ancillary development. There’s talk that the A’s and the state of Nevada need to complete a deal before June in order to get it approved before the end of the legislative calendar, which runs in two-year cycles. But there’s also this from the Nevada Independent:

If an incentive package is not agreed to by the end of the legislative session on June 5, state officials may be forced to call a special session to move forward with the relocation deal before Major League Baseball’s self-imposed deadline of Jan. 1, 2024, to sign off on the deal. If talks get far enough, frankly I expect NV to create the special session complete the deal if only because it’ll give a greater sense of due diligence. Rushing to get this done from soup to nuts in five weeks is a recipe for disaster. 


The rush to complete this is because of the *arbitrary deadline alert* January deadline from MLB. What is this deadline? To get a stadium deal done or else the A’s forfeit revenue sharing. That’ll teach ‘em to sign Shintaro Fujinami with their first revenue sharing receipt in five years, right? Don’t make me laugh. Forbes’ annual valuations story had the A’s profit as a result of revenue sharing at $60 million. Forbes admitted to miscalculating and factored in a quarter-share in their revised number, which became $29 million. That’s still fairly healthy for a poverty franchise that pulls in over $90 million annually from national TV, streaming, and merchandising revenue. They’ll do fine with or without the welfare check. The one thing ownership has an argument about is that the A’s are historically cash poor. The revenue sharing doesn’t come until the winter after each season ends, and the team doesn’t get much advance revenue from season ticket sales or big sponsorship payments. But that’s how the franchise is run, so they have no one to blame but themselves.

Now that Vegas is elevated beyond the exploratory phase to a real threat, I’ll opine on how this might work out. First of all, I don’t expect this deal to wrap up by June because there are still loads of implementation details to work out. The project price estimate of $1.5 Billion makes for a limited ancillary build, making the best scale comparison Globe Life Field, which the A’s visited over the weekend and I visited a couple years ago. It has a hotel and retail next to the ballpark, de rigueur for baseball currently. Does Vegas need another small hotel or another indoor mall? Certainly not. They might get it anyway if the ballpark happens.

As for Oakland, Mayor Sheng Thao announced that she was “blindsided” by the news and cut off further talks for the time being. She also spilled the tea that the City and the A’s were supposed to have some sort of “summit” next week to try to bridge the remaining funding gap. That the mayor’s office had this defense prepared shortly after the announcement showed that they A) knew something was coming, and B) they had the CYA story ready for when the inevitable happened. Does this mean baseball in Oakland is dead? Of course not. The Vegas deal may not consummate in time, in which case it also won’t be dead. The whole idea is to create real competition between the two cities in terms of how much subsidies the A’s and MLB can squeeze from them. The A’s are looking for $500 million from Southern Nevada to surpass the $375 currently offered by Oakland. And it’s working. Casey Pratt and Brodie Brazil keep the fire burning through video reports, while the Chronicle’s staff wrote a series of obituaries of A’s baseball. I chose to wait to do a blog post until this first news cycle washed over me in order to take time to reflect. I’m not going to say that the A’s are gone, and I won’t say there’s a sliver of hope. Often deals like this turn on new information or factors, which we’re probably not aware of yet. I wouldn’t blame you for tuning out the A’s as many fans are doing. I’m in for the long haul, even if they move to Vegas. Forgive me for not prematurely writing an obituary yet. There’s still work to do. After all, this site is newballpark.org, not newballparkinthetown.com.

P.S. – I’m in my late 40’s, which makes me past the normally acceptable music discovery age. That meant I didn’t catch New Zealand band “The Beths” when they came through America earlier in the spring or in prior tours. Still, I was eventually able to check out The Beths’ awesome third album last fall, shortly after the A’s were officially eliminated from contention after a long, laborious regular season. The leadoff single from The Beths was “Expert In A Dying Field,” a catchy little number to which I suspect many A’s fans can relate all too well.

P.P.S. – This story gets more predictably bizarre by the hour.

Ghost(ing The) Town

You may have noticed that before the 2023 season started, the A’s signed veteran reliever Jeurys Familia. Like many older players on the current roster, Familia is at the back end of his career. It’s worth pointing a couple things about the pitcher:

  1. He came from the Mets in July 2018 as a rental, available when the Mets gave up on a mediocre season and Familia was up for free agency.
  2. Familia didn’t pitch terribly for the A’s, though he did little to distinguish himself. As usual, the A’s got to the wild card game and lost, this time to the Yankees.
  3. After Familia became a free agent in the offseason, he reunited with the Mets that December.

From the time Familia was traded to the A’s on July 21, 2018 to when he re-signed with the Mets (December 14), the following events happened in the A’s ballpark process.

  1. A’s introduced Bjarke Ingels Group as the lead architect for their ballpark planning effort (8/23)
  2. A’s retained Brad Schrock of HOK as a ballpark consultant (8/30)
  3. Oakland filed lawsuit against Raiders and NFL after the team announces departure for Las Vegas (9/5)
  4. Howard Terminal officially unveiled (11/28)

In both cases, the timeline represents the same four months of activity. Now consider what has happened so far this year on the Howard Terminal front after a fairly uneventful 2022.

  1. Sheng Thao succeeds Libby Schaaf as Mayor of Oakland. (1/4)
  2. $182 million federal grant effort for offsite infrastructure strikes out (1/10)
  3. A’s lawsuit against Schnitzer Steel fails (1/19)
  4. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred says A’s focused on Las Vegas (2/15)
  5. Silicon Valley Bank collapses (3/9)
  6. A’s win against EOSA’s appeal in EIR certification lawsuit (3/30)

Four months haven’t elapsed yet since the beginning of the year, but enough has happened that we can all agree that the recent track record is mixed at best. The point is that a lot can happen in 3-4 months, whether we’re talking about a journeyman reliever’s first tenure in Oakland or a long slog of a ballpark effort. It may feel like there is little progress, which at a glance appears correct. What felt like a steady march towards inevitability now feels like a brick wall. And on that front, all I can say is that… you’ve been lied to.

From the beginning, both the A’s and the City haven’t been upfront about how much everything’s going to cost. The A’s pushed Howard Terminal with gleaming renderings in late 2018, hesitant to give a price tag. As they encountered resistance and skepticism, they crowed about the total development being worth $12 Billion, as if that would sway anyone sitting on the fence. But the infrastructure cost was largely kept under wraps by both the A’s and the City, going from $180 million to $300 million to $600 million and up in four years. The only documentation we have explaining the cost is the term sheet [PDF] the A’s drew up in summer 2021, which explained that the cost of offsite infrastructure and community benefits would be $860 million. Those numbers haven’t been adjusted yet for 2023 market realities or 2027 projections, and should be a major cause for concern. How can you go from $180 million or $300 million to $600 million? You can’t blame inflation for all of that rising cost. Someone wasn’t being straight with A’s fans and Oakland residents.

Casey Platt and Brodie Brazil broadcast a mutual therapy session

The simple fact is that there is no deal yet at Howard Terminal. No term sheet, no DDA (disposition and development agreement) for the BCDC to approve, and most importantly, little movement from either side. Remember that the A’s put together the term sheet that the City rejected in summer 2021, with the City saying that they would take care of the offsite infrastructure and community benefits. To put it mildly, for a cash-poor city to put the onus on itself is a recipe for failure. 

Then again, consider that Oakland is in this position thanks the cumulative effects of the pandemic. The pandemic cancelled and rebirthed the 2020 MLB season in a truncated format with zero tickets sold during the shortened regular season. The pandemic created a whirlwind of unprecedented economic activity around prevention of transmission, detecting Covid infections, and living with the disease. Then when that whirlwind faded, the world was left with inflation and a society struggling to come to grips with it. The economic windfall that briefly filled the state’s coffers is gone. The economy itself is still fundamentally good for now, with eyes on the Fed in its efforts to walk a tightrope to contain inflation while also trying to prevent a recession.

None of the extraordinary economic activity seen over the past three years was predicted. It was also irreplicable. I can’t blame the City of Oakland for attempting to turn the pandemic’s lemons into lemonade. Everyone knew, though, that whatever was happening was unsustainable. It was a gold rush, incompatible with the glacial pace of municipal financing. So when Oakland was denied the federal grant earlier this year, it felt appropriate. 

While my rant might sound like a eulogy, I will concede that Howard Terminal is not actually dead yet. Perhaps the A’s combing the desert in southern Nevada will prove as fruitless as Oakland’s checking the couch cushions for grant money. If Vegas doesn’t work out, it’ll buy Oakland more time to make HT work somehow.  If that doesn’t happen, well, the Rays eventually figured out the most practical way forward. I can only hope the same for the A’s. Or Oakland can keep trying the impossible shot.

Note: I inserted Silicon Valley Bank into one of the timelines because they were probably a leading candidate to underwrite the affordable housing component. Who knows which entity will be so bold to front that in the coming economy?

Change of Pace

Decent turnout for a meaningless WBC pool game at Chase Field

Two weeks ago I found myself in Maryvale, where I spent my lunch hour watching the Brewers host Team Great Britain in a warm-up game leading up to World Baseball Classic pool play. Each of the ten ballparks in the Cactus League had a chance to host one warm-up game on March 8 or 9. Since MLB already had spring training going, they slipstreamed the games into the schedule. 

Maryvale isn’t a sexy neighborhood, so I wasn’t expecting a huge crowd. Yet it was so sparse it almost seemed like someone forgot to get the word out. The American Family Fields staff was on hand as usual, and I parked at a nearby shopping center and walked on as I’ve done in the past. The crowd felt more like a Fall League game than a Spring Training game with much lower stakes.

Lazy Spring weekday WBC exhibition at Maryvale

A week later, I went to Chase Field watch Pool C play between Team Colombia and Team USA. The stakes were much higher this time, as Mexico already advanced, making this game an elimination game. Colombia pitched well enough to stay within striking distance, but Trea Turner had a late home run to push the Americans over the top.

Team USA survived a slugfest with Venezuela and then overwhelmed Cuba, while Japan breezed all the way through to the final. The knockout (playoff) rounds were held in Miami at LoanDepot Park, which was largely full thanks to fans from Latin America and Japan bringing their own brand of fandom to the proceedings. Watching it on TV, it dawned on me that these domes are perhaps the best types of venues for the WBC. As much as I love ballparks old and new, I’ll be the first to admit that Americans are often too caught up in the aesthetic appeal of a ballpark instead of the actual baseball on the field. A six-month regular season will do that. Boring games will do that. I like how the new rules changes are speeding up the pace of games, though it’ll take at least a couple months to understand if they truly work as intended.

The day of the championship game between Japan and the USA, I checked to see what the radio broadcast schedule was as the game was going to start during my evening commute. I learned that there were no terrestrial radio broadcasts. Instead, MLB chose to have Sirius/XM handle the radio side just as Fox and its FS1/FS2 networks covered the TV side. I brought up the TuneIn Radio app and got the 7-day Premium trial, which led me to the WBC broadcast helmed by the always solid Giants play-by-play man Dave Flemming and former A’s first baseman Yonder Alonso as the color commentator. They were doing the international broadcast, which thanks to their familiar voices felt comfortable. Then in the middle of the first inning something strange happened: nothing.

The broadcast cut to the break after the USA’s uneventful first. Instead of the expected commercials from the usual suspects, all I heard was a live mic capturing crowd noise peppered with PA announcements and music. It was a throughly refreshing revelation, so pleasant that when I got home and turned on the TV broadcast on FS1 I quickly muted the TV and listened to the radio stream instead. Tension ratcheted up inning after inning until the classic confrontation between Shohei Ohtani, who was brought in to close for Japan, and Mike Trout, who ended up being the final hitter for the United States. It wasn’t certain that the two famed stars would have the chance to face each other, yet they did in the most dramatic moment possible. Ohtani struck out Trout, cementing his place as the WBC MVP and the best, most unique baseball player in decades.

Throughout the last 3 weeks, the WBC felt unusually underhyped. MLB controls it, operates it, and promotes it inside and outside the United States. MLB doesn’t want to risk its players’ health too much, however, and it fears the WBC outshining the normal operation of the baseball seasons for MLB and other pro leagues. That’s why MLB isn’t considering budging from holding the WBC in March, despite the obvious appeal of holding the final games on a semi-regular basis in the summer, in lieu of the All Star Game and festivities. On the media side, ESPN gave it rudimentary attention and sent reporters, though the coverage wasn’t nearly as much as it would be if ESPN was broadcasting the tournament with its gargantuan promotional machine. The terrestrial radio silence may not seem like much in the 21st Century. But baseball’s a 20th Century sport, and I’m sure there were plenty of people who had no idea about the coverage black hole. For them, the tournament might as well have not happened.

So what you have is an event MLB promoted like crazy to overseas fans in hopes of bringing in some tourist dollars, which is exactly what happened. There were sizable groups of fans from Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as Korea and upstart Australia. As for America, MLB is still of two minds on how to treat the WBC. If you go to MLB’s website now, you’ll see a few mentions of the WBC. It’s not a fixture. It’s strange because like the Spring Training games, WBC games are essentially exhibitions. They matter more to certain audiences, and MLB certainly saw that interest on display. The problem is that MLB has already shifted gears to wrapping up Spring Training and getting ready for Opening Day. They’re in a hurry to show off their “new and improved” product. This pattern is likely to continue in 2026, when the US will host both the WBC and the World Cup. There is absolutely no chance of MLB getting blown away in terms of media attention, so they’ll keep the WBC in March instead of July, which is when the World Cup knockout rounds will occur.

And that’s fine. I came away much more optimistic about baseball than I was last fall. Baseball is in fact not dying, and MLB is trying to evolve despite itself. My optimism has much more to do with baseball transcending borders and oceans, which might be the best outcome of all. I’m a bit wistful knowing that there’s a good chance that the next edition of the WBC will be over-commercialized and overhyped just like every other major sporting event. At least I had three weeks of bliss, on which I will always look back fondly.

Spring 2023: Catch It!

This week in Arizona is a bit of a lull. It’s a brief respite between the regular winter activities that started with the Barrett-Jackson auto auctions in January, leading to the WM Open in February, and culminating in the Super Bowl XLVII last Sunday. Having hosted two big games in the last decade, State Farm Stadium is practically a shoo-in for the ongoing Super Bowl rotation. The region’s pleasant winter climate and its ability to host large scale events makes it a top contender for future Super Bowls, assuming they can return to prioritizing the playing surface over extracurricular activities. Even if they can’t, there’s always mention Glendale’s annual place in the College Football bowl season and the upcoming 2024 Final Four.

Lulls come to an end, though, starting tomorrow with the MLB Desert Invitational baseball tournament at multiple Cactus League ballparks in the Valley. Sloan Park in Mesa and Salt River Fields in Scottsdale will each hold doubleheaders Friday and single games Saturday and Sunday, while GCU’s Brazell Field will host games Saturday through Monday. I’ve never seen a game at Brazell, so I’ll catch one this weekend. ASU is not participating in the Desert Invitational, instead hosting San Diego State for a series this weekend at the venerable Phoenix Muni.

As I started looking through the various schedules, I realized that this is my chance to do something I’ve always wanted to do: chart all of the baseball games (college and pro) in the Valley. Sure, the Cactus League is pretty awesome and way ahead of the Grapefruit League because of its accessibility and compactness. Yet there’s other stuff happening here too! What would happen if I put all of those data points and events into the mix?

Click image for PDF version

So I took a couple of evenings this week and put together a table. It shows the sheer number of games in multiple sports happening in the Valley, all no more than an hour drive away from each other. If you’re coming here this spring, you might want to use this as a reference. Just keep the PDF on your phone or tablet. There are no links to ticket buying websites, I’m sure you already know how to do that. Cactus League, GCU and ASU home games, and the return of the World Baseball Classic are represented. Also included are the exhibition games between the national teams and some MLB squads, with every ballpark represented. The table is laid out in a roughly west-to-east format, plus the college teams, basketball, and hockey to the right. Yes, ASU’s new Mullett Arena is present, and while I have some interest in the 5,000-seat barn hosting both the Sun Devils and NHL Coyotes temporarily, I’m not willing to pay NHL-style prices to do it (which they’re doing even for the ASU games).

The World Baseball Classic was cancelled in 2021 due to the pandemic, and postponed last year because of MLB’s lockout. 2023 it would be, then. Opening round play will be held in Japan, Taiwan, Miami, and Phoenix. Japan will host part of the knockout play, while Miami will host the remaining rounds. That means you’ll have a chance to sample a side of WBC with your typical Spring Training trip.

Take a look at the schedule, and consider that this spring wasn’t really possible in the 1993 version of the Cactus League, which had almost none of the current ballparks opened at that point. In 1993 Chase Field was merely a potential ballpark site in Downtown Phoenix. The NFL Cardinals played at Sun Devil Stadium, and Phoenix hadn’t yet stolen the Winnipeg Jets. The funding method for all of the various venues in Maricopa County is controversial to be sure, but it helped boost the region’s profile and cement its place as a premier location for high profile sporting events.

Notes

  1. Daylight Saving Time is on March 12, the same day as the apparently sold out Mexico-United States matchup in the WBC. As an Arizona resident who doesn’t have to observe DST it doesn’t affect me in the slightest. But it might affect your travel plans. You’ve been warned.
  2. The University of Arizona in Tucson is not included in the table as it’s two hours away, effectively a day trip. Sadly, there’s no Cactus League action there anymore either.
  3. I didn’t complete a Travel Grid for 2023 this season. Why? Once I saw that the schedule format would now have every MLB team play each other throughout the season, the novelty rationale for the Grid melted away. It may come back at some point. I make no promises.
  4. Public transit remains wanting here. While Phoenix Metro’s light rail serves Downtown Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa, it will probably never go to Scottsdale and expansion plans aren’t taking LRT to Maryvale or all the way to Glendale yet. If you’re in Tempe you’ll see streetcar tracks that will eventually run along the south end of the main campus up north to Tempe Town Lake. My advice is to limit your use of East Valley-West Valley Uber/lyft rides as they get expensive. Think of the East and West Valley as similar to SF/Peninsula and the East Bay, pick a side and stay there for a while. On the other hand, Waymo keeps expanding its presence here. Sky Harbor Airport’s Sky Train recently finished a long-awaited expansion to the Rental Car Center west of the airport.

Calling Dibs on the Coliseum

Coliseum pint glass

Calling Dibs on the Coliseum

AASEG and the City of Oakland held a ceremony at the Coliseum to celebrate the announcement of the AASEG’s Exclusive Negotiating Agreement over the City’s half of the complex.

The plan is to revitalize the Coliseum area and East Oakland, which went neglected in the wake of the Raiders’ and Warriors’ exoduses, the A’s planned departure in the coming years, and the general deterioration as other area businesses like Walmart left. It’s strange to consider this reversal of fortunes, as not even a decade ago Oakland was heavily promoting a Coliseum City concept anchored by a new Raiders stadium.

AASEG’s concept, absent any fleshing out on their website or a providing real specifics, is effectively a community-based, Black-led, updated version (read: adds affordable housing) of Coliseum City minus the Raiders. Besides the economic boost, the results could yield a WNBA franchise, NWSL team, and a NFL team via expansion. That last part would require the NFL to forgive the City of Oakland for suing it multiple times, no big deal.

Casey Pratt watched the event and noted that the A’s weren’t mentioned at all except for a comment by CM Noel Gallo in the context of the A’s *maybe*  ditching the Howard Terminal plan and coming back to the Coliseum. 

Later, KRON’s Stephanie Lin caught up with new Oakland mayor Sheng Thao and asked her about the A’s. Thao’s comment suggested that the City hasn’t made much progress with the A’s since she won the election last November.

Online, the response to AASEG’s project is mixed. While there is nearly universal support for revitalizing the neighborhood, there’s already concern from A’s supporters that Howard Terminal is now on the back burner, which I predicted would happen last fall. To that I say, relax A’s fans. These ENA announcements are designed to gin up support while distracting from the hard work ahead, most of which won’t be publicized. A’s fans got spoiled by the city’s fairly frequent updates on HT during the Schaaf administration. It kept fans’ attention  as intended. The downside of that approach is that it minimizes the simple fact that the true end product is a deal. It’s like separating the wheat from the chaff.

Consider that since 2010, Oakland has entered several ENAs with multiple teams and developers. All included multibillion-dollar projects. And in the end, none of them actually built anything thus far. The Raiders were supportive of Coliseum City at first, but only if it was done on their terms. The A’s had an ENA when they entered an agreement to purchase Alameda County’s half of the Coliseum. That ENA expired with no further action. The city entertained a bidding process for their half, ultimately deciding on AASEG last fall because it apparently had bigger, more compatible goals. The only thing I can say for certain is that whatever gets built at the Coliseum will look nothing like what AASEG or the City is dreaming up. Why? Because reality has a way of resetting your objectives.

Throughout the bidding process and the slog that led to the ENA, it didn’t seem that anyone in the East Bay was willing to ask some very simple questions:

  1. What happens to the business plan – and the dedicated NFL stadium/convention center land – if these pro sports franchises don’t materialize?
  2. What is the priority list and sequencing involved?
  3. What if third parties cause interruptions to AASEG’s plans?

Third parties, plural? You might think I’m only referring to the A’s. Au contraire, my friends. You see, the ENA only includes the original Coliseum complex with the stadium, arena, and parking. Years ago, the City chose to buy some of the adjacent land such as the Malibu and HomeBase lots. The City then negotiated separately with the Oakland Roots/Soul, the upstart USL Championship men’s soccer team and planned women’s side. Their plan is to build a temporary stadium on the Malibu lot, which would serve as a good venue until the clubs are ideally promoted to MLS and NWSL respectively. AASEG may want to use the currently vacant land for their own construction staging. Since the Malibu/HomeBase sites are not covered in the AASEG/Coliseum ENA, it’s hard to know how they can make that ask.

AASEG’s plan also includes its own men’s and women’s soccer clubs. How could Oakland field two or four lower division soccer clubs when they only recently decided to show interest in soccer? Beats me.

I’m glad the East Bay is showing interest in soccer, though let’s be brutally honest about how that came about. Soccer is filling a vacuum created by the departures of NBA/NFL and perhaps MLB. It’s scavenging the wounded East Bay sports fan populace. WNBA/NWSL less so due to the fact there are no current teams in the Bay and women’s sports has its own market niche. The Roots are in their honeymoon period and are looking to cement their place in the NorCal sports market. USL teams like Phoenix, Sacramento, San Diego, and Las Vegas can achieve promotion to MLS by getting a stadium deal (20,000-seat modern SSS). Or Oakland could keep itself a lower division club like Orange County or Monterey Bay by staying in a smaller or temporary stadium. One choice is expensive, the other has limited growth potential. 

For any Oakland soccer club, it’s ironic that John Fisher’s San Jose Earthquakes stands in the way of MLS promotion. So would Sacramento if they get the financial stability they need to support a promoted Republic side. MLS would also have to grant a third NorCal team as no other market has more than two. MLS currently has 29 teams with St. Louis debuting this season. There’s a limit on remaining slots, all of which come with a stadium requirement.

The NFL stadium under discussion would also be used as a convention center. That probably  means it would be domed, the better for attracting multiple types of events. It’s too expensive to build a stadium in anticipation of being awarded an expansion franchise, so you have to wonder how long AASEG will get for that team to materialize with all the obstacles that will face Oakland. Beyond that, the exercise feels like a lot of late 20th century thinking. Domes are indeed flexible and adaptable, but they’re also expensive to operate and require constant maintenance because they are more complex than outdoor stadia. I moved from Scottsdale to Glendale last summer, and while we’re getting ready for the madness that is Super Bowl week, I’m also aware that in three weeks State Farm Stadium will host a home and garden show on the stadium floor made possible by its rollout grass tray field. After that there are a few stadium concert tours coming through and car auction events this year. Glendale isn’t utilizing the full stadium more than a couple dozen times per year including Arizona Cardinals games.

All of these factors lead me to believe that the only given in this process is that AASEG will not resolve all these issues along with their general business deal terms in the 18-month ENA period. They’ll request and be granted an extension in hopes that the A’s resolve their outstanding Howard Terminal issues and complete their own exit strategy from the Coliseum. However, the A’s lease runs through 2024 and they already admitted they can’t move into a new ballpark at HT before 2027. Since they control half the property through their agreement with Alameda County and they’re on schedule to finish the debt service payments in 2026, the A’s have veto power over any development plans at the Coliseum whether they include one, two, or three new sports franchises. 

Or no sports franchises for that matter. The ENA means having to negotiate with the A’s at some point, if not right away. And who knows what will happen to Howard Terminal in the meantime? In Oakland, the struggle for relevance remains.

—-

P.S. – Much of the media coverage painted the ENA as a “deal.” No, the ENA is the period when a deal is worked out or, often in Oakland’s case, when a deal isn’t worked out. I’ve been privy to many contract negotiations between private parties (corporations). Only in pro sports does a party publicize an intention to enter a contract. It would be helpful if the media doesn’t puff this up more than it is. It’s a step, not the destination.

Map of pro soccer clubs in the London metro area

P.P.S. – London, a metro that has twice the population of the Bay Area, has 17 professional soccer teams. All are associated with specific neighborhoods. That very concept seems anathema to American pro sports’ regional tendencies, but if Oakland can somehow achieve some of that neighborhood galvanization effect (and the Roots are so far), it’s a cultural win. I also wanted that for the A’s a while back, but Oakland keeps thinking bigger for some reason.

Belated Post-Election Post-Mortem

In light of recent political developments in Oakland (Sheng Thao wins Oakland mayoral race) and Las Vegas (Steve Sisolak loses gubernatorial re-election), I have some thoughts: thread 1/7

I thought it was foolish for anyone to handicap either city’s chances of a ballpark deal for the A’s. This week’s news doesn’t sway me at all. For either Oakland or Vegas it’s a tough path to a deal like what the A’s are seeking (public infrastructure, private development). 2/7

Both Thao and NV governor-elect Lombardo ran against the policies of their predecessors. That doesn’t mean death for an A’s ballpark, but it seems likely to be de-emphasized based on their stated platforms. Both winners have outlined greater priorities in their campaigns. 3/7

KC unveiled its $2 Billion downtown ballpark proposal, which looks like a slightly modernized, transplanted Kauffman Stadium with some ancillary development. It’s backed by the Royals’ new owner and the KC business community. 4/7

Royals’ proposal is $2 B. Howard Terminal – $12 B. Royals expect a sales tax extension approval. The A’s want to use real estate sales. KC’s subsidy is direct, Oakland’s is indirect. Note: You could fit the entire $FTX estimated consumer loss of $8 Billion into that gap. 5/7

Billy Beane was made Special Advisor to John Fisher last week. Don’t be surprised if Beane is assembling a team to purchase the franchise from Fisher in case both locations stall out. Beane’s RedBall SPAC was liquidated in August after it failed to make any major acquisitions. 6/7

For better or worse, Beane is essentially the face of the franchise at this point. Value associated with the team is wrapped up in him. So whether Fisher tries to get any development over the line by spending or he gives up and sells, Billy has to be part of the package deal. 7/7 F