Maybe the 49ers should’ve built a dome instead

Remember the famed groundbreaking for the 49ers stadium in 2012? It was a joyous regalia, with red carpet for VIPs and an artificial turf field where the grass field would eventually be placed. Little did the 49ers and Santa Clara know that the fake grass would end up being the best-looking field all the way through the stadium’s first year of existence.

If they only knew how it would work out 30 months later...

If they only knew how it would work out 30 months later…

Tonight, a crowd resembling an late-April A’s game at the Coliseum “filled” the seats at Levi’s Stadium for the Foster Farms Bowl. Despite being local, Stanford’s small student body and alumni base was not going to buy the team’s 9,000-ticket allotment. Maryland, having jumped from the ACC to the Big Ten (oops, B1G), is not a great football power whose fanbase travels well. Add to that the thoroughly abused field, plus blustery winds and a chill that were far more reminiscent of the ‘Stick than of sunny Santa Clara (remember how fans were frying in the seats in September?), and the optics more than a little disappointing. The only notable thing, other than the Cardinal’s offense actually looking cohesive, was Foster Farms’ sponsorship of the whole affair, punctuated by animatronic chickens singing 80’s karaoke favorites during the commercial breaks. The bowl’s executive director expressed hope for a Cal-Michigan matchup next year. I’ll go out on a limb and guess that Meeeesh-igan, for some reason, won’t end up as low as 6th (thereby qualifying for the game) in the B1G next season.

Somehow, nearly everything about Levi’s Stadium has ended up disappointing in 2014. The field has been bad enough to be planted five separate times. A stadium that loudly touts its LEED Gold certification can’t properly grow grass. That should change for 2015 with new dirt and sod, if not the roof deck may have heads on pikes as featured attractions. The late summer heat chased fans to the concourses, leading to empty seats. The 49ers were shut out in their first home preseason game. As the team continued to disappoint on the field, novelty and public curiosity wore off, leading to even more empty seats and a lot of head-scratching about the venue. The Pac-12 championship game was poorly attended. The Foster Farms Bowl was even worse.

Was Levi’s Stadium too luxurious? Yes. Did it lack character? Absolutely. Was it worse in ways you wouldn’t anticipate going in? Sure. Can it be fixed? Perhaps not to the degree everyone would like.

The irony of all this disappointment is that considering the >$1.2 billion spent on the stadium, they could’ve put a dome on the thing and fixed a good number of those problems. An enclosed stadium with a roof fixes the summer heat and tonight’s wind, and it could be done without needing climate control, a la Safeco Field. It probably fixes the grass problem, since the stadium would have either Field Turf or a grass tile system like in Houston, so no grass debacle. Yes, a retractable dome would kill the open feel of the stadium. The flip side to that argument is that the footprint would have to be more compact, with fans closer and a more intimate setting.

And like other domes, which attract Final Fours and multiple Super Bowls without weather worries, a domed Levi’s Stadium would be a more flexible venue overall. I recognize that a dome – retractable or fixed – is anathema to building in the Bay Area, where the very site on which Levi’s Stadium sits was once part of the incredibly fertile “Valley of Heart’s Delight.” If anything, we’ve found out that the environment, and human reaction to the environment, are much more fickle than we’re initially willing to admit. An add-on dome is not a realistic option for Levi’s Stadium, considering the limited space around the stadium to support it and the way it was built in the first place. Seat licenses make midfield ticket holders just as likely to retreat to the clubs or not show up at all if they don’t feel it’s worth it. There’s little the 49ers can do at the moment to fix it, though I expect them to experiment a lot on different types of service going into next season.

Levi’s Stadium inaugural season hasn’t gone the way Jed York would’ve wanted. Neither has the team’s collapse. Fixing the 49er fan experience means more than merely providing new amenities to escape to. It means providing value for every fan in every seat location, everywhere throughout the stadium. Providing solutions for that problem will require some Silicon Valley ingenuity, but more importantly it will require swallowing some pride and getting back to basics. That’s innovation that not many companies get right, whether in tech, sports, or hospitality. I’ll write more about what that could entail – for football and baseball – in the new year.

Reaction time

It would be silly to devote a post to every single new tidbit that comes out, so I’ll do one of those rare newswraps here.

  • The East Bay Express’s Robert Gammon reported that the previous group showing interest in buying the A’s (Don Knauss, Doug Boxer, Mike Ghielmetti) is back again talking up buying the franchise. This time, they’re not alone. There could be up to three groups, including one fronted by Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber. Lacob and Guber were previously associated with the Dolich-Piccinini group in 2001. Lew Wolff continues to maintain that the team is not for sale.
  • Bill Shaikin of the LA Times partly shot down the Warriors connection when he contacted Guber, who said unequivocally that he’s not interested in the A’s. Lacob and others may be interested, though Lacob is not commenting at the moment.
  • BANG’s Marcus Thompson wrote a quite stirring column asking Oakland to act now to save the A’s in Oakland. Thompson also asked many of the important questions about both Howard Terminal and Coliseum City that currently have no answers.
  • SFGate has a new editorial imploring MLB to make a decision, once and for all. In the column is a quote from Wolff claiming that Howard Terminal’s cost would be more than $1 billion.

Pretty heavy news day, huh? Well, not according to KCBS’s Doug Sovern.

Is there actual news to report? Why yes there is!

  • The FCC is moving forward with its proposal to eliminate TV blackouts of sports broadcasts. The proposal mainly targets NFL games, so naturally the NFL opposes it.
  • The 49ers struck a partnership with fellow Santa Clara resident Intel for a major sponsorship & technology deal. Intel will provide a great deal of tech infrastructure while taking control of the big northwest gate.

Finally, Bizjournal’s Nate Donato-Weinstein has been tracking the iStar development and has an update. If you’re not aware, iStar is a developer and land owner tied to the Earthquakes stadium project. While the stadium is going up west of San Jose Airport, the iStar land is in South San Jose’s Edenvale neighborhood. The plan was to take some of the proceeds of various development activities at iStar and funnel them towards the stadium. The numbers:

  • 260,000 square feet of office space
  • 150,000 square feet of retail
  • 720 housing units
  • $10 million would be funneled to the stadium

Those numbers are important because they can provide a comparison to what is being proposed at Coliseum City.

  • 837,000 square feet of office space
  • 265,000 square feet of retail
  • 837 housing units
  • 2 hotels comprising 478 units

iStar went through numerous struggles and iterations as the recession ravaged the real estate market. Now that things are on the rebound, projects like iStar are picking up again. It’s surprising that despite the fairly large scope of the project, only $10 million is being made available. That’s one-sixth one-seventh the $60 $70 million budget for the Earthquakes stadium. Now consider that Coliseum City, whose Area A phases cover comparable development plans (other than the much greater office space) over a very long timeline. How much could the development activity realistically provide? $50 million? $100 million? While revenue sharing formulas will probably be different, there is a practical limit before eating into profitability. The Raiders stadium will cost more than 15 times as much as the Earthquakes’ new digs. Bridging the gap is the foremost issue for these stadium initiatives. Without that puzzle solved, there really isn’t much else to talk about.

Olbermann and Justice give Wolff some good advice

Last night Keith Olbermann took Oakland and Alameda County to task over the continuing sewage problems at the Coliseum. Tonight was Lew Wolff’s turn to be flogged. The clip below is a segment featuring Olbermann and longtime national baseball writer Richard Justice, in which Justice chides Wolff for blaming fans for the A’s attendance woes.

Everything’s on point. Olbermann’s sympathetic to Wolff’s plight but doesn’t excuse him. Apparently, the lead-in to this segment was a much more thorough critique of Wolff. For whatever reason Olbermann’s producers chose to leave it out. The show is not available for streaming besides scattered Youtube clips like these.

It’s too bad. I would’ve liked to have seen KO’s take on this side of the matter, if only to serve as equal time.

Justice pointed out that Cleveland manager Terry Francona and some Indians players chose to take the high road regarding the Tribe’s woeful attendance figures. That’s not exactly the same as Larry Dolan or Mark Shapiro talking. Last week Shapiro had an interview with Crain’s Cleveland which was similar in tone to Wolff’s latest quotes. Shapiro blames some of the problems on Cleveland’s market size. Fans countered that the organization has done little to earn their faith. Obviously there’s a different dynamic at work in Cleveland compared to Oakland. Circumstances are very dissimilar except for attendance figures – and one other thing. Aside from the three straight World Series in the 70’s (which Olbermann notes were not well-attended), the A’s most successful era occurred after the Raiders moved to Los Angeles. The Indians greatest success in the last 50 years occurred after the Browns abandoned Cleveland for Baltimore. The Raiders were successful for a period when they returned, and have been mediocre in the decade since. The Browns have been the AFC North’s punching bag since they returned as an expansion team. Both affected baseball teams have been unable to repeat their respective successes since the football teams returned.

I was able to watch the last airing of Olbermann for Thursday night/early Friday morning, and have seen the missing 10-minute show monologue. KO ripped Wolff, Horace Stoneham, Al Davis, the Coliseum’s sewage problem (yes, that again), Bo Pelini, Lee Elia, Craig Kilborn, and Olbermann himself for creating circumstances that lead to gaffes like Wolff’s. No, KO didn’t call for Wolff’s head. For your edification, I took a phone video of the segment (replete with poor audio, turn it all the way up) for you to view. If it gets taken down because of copyright/fair use issues, I’m sorry. Can’t do anything about that.

Note that Olbermann didn’t have any sort of solution, other than urging Wolff to not trash fans. Well, it’s nice for KO that he could jump from network to network and sue whenever he got petulant or bored. Wolff? MLB’s constitution doesn’t give him such latitude.

Someday we’re all gonna look back on all of this and laugh. Right?

Talking bobbleheads, giveaways, and expectations

The A’s held a 1973 team reunion on April 27. A raft of greats from that repeat championship team were on hand, including Sal Bando, Blue Moon Odom, Bert Campaneris, and Reggie Jackson, who was honored with a commemorative bobblehead.

While the weekend-long reunion went well, the bobblehead giveaway didn’t. Only 10,000 bobbleheads were available for the 31,292 in attendance, which left many who had waited long hours sans souvenir. It’s becoming a common theme: schedule a bobblehead day, line up a bunch of fans, someone inevitably goes home unhappy. Subsequent bobblehead days for Coco Crisp (in June) and Yoenis Cespedes (yesterday) attracted sellout crowds, leaving even more fans without a souvenir. It’s gotten to the point where if a fan is not in line several hours before first pitch, chances are he’ll go home empty handed.

A’s marketing guys Troy Smith and Travis LaDolce invited into the business offices in Oracle Arena before today’s game. I spoke with them for 90 minutes about all manner of giveaways and marketing strategy. Smith admitted that Reggie Jackson day was a debacle and that there was major room for improvement. To that end they bumped up the orders for both the Crisp and Cespedes giveaways from 10,000 to 15,000, a move they had to make months ahead of time in order to ensure prompt delivery. It’s all part of the guessing game the A’s front office constantly has to play regarding demand.

Collectible pins, which get far less attention than bobbleheads

Collectible pins, which get far less attention than bobbleheads

For instance, take yesterday’s game. Now that we’ve come to expect sellouts on bobblehead day, it’s natural to want greater quantities of items. Because of the parking situation associated with the circus next door at the arena, it was decided that the gates should open at 2:30, 90 minutes before the normal time. Throughout the day A’s marketing staff including Smith and LaDolce were monitoring the situation. D Gate, which appeared to be most heavily impacted, ran out of bobbleheads at 3:27 PM. However, by that point lines had fully dissipated so if you had walked up prior to 3:30, chances were good you’d get one. Chances were even better at the season ticket entrance, which usually is stocked well enough to handle giveaways past the point when other gates run out.

What wasn’t known about the game was that the A’s had only sold 25,000 tickets to the game 24 hours prior to first pitch. An incredible 10,000 tickets were sold as either walkups or online during that period. That’s rather typical these days due to the rather predictable number of advance tickets sold. Some additional amount were sold after Cespy won the Home Run Derby. The problem is that the A’s have to plan everything for each game well ahead of time, including staffing and giveaways. Staffing can be handled with some flexibility. Because of the lead times associated with giveaways, bobbleheads have almost no flexibility (well, except for the actual bobblehead itself).

Two other examples of this phenomenon occurred in the last several weeks. The first was on Grant Balfour Gnome Day (June 16), which was a full standing room only sellout. Walkup sales were so high that in the week prior to the game, the front office worried if only 25,000 would show up. On the Fourth of July, less than 27,000 showed up for a picnic blanket giveaway, which left the marketing crew (and me) baffled because the annual fleece blanket giveaway day typically goes gangbusters.

Now think about the leadup to yesterday. All sorts of things could’ve dampened attendance. Cespedes could’ve been eliminated early in the HR Derby. He could’ve been injured early in the season. The team might not have been in postseason contention. All of this comes into play, and if you’re working off a steady base of about 10-15,000 attendees, it can be difficult to justify bumping it up more. The easy thing to say is to order 30-35,000 right off the bat. Because of the team’s limited marketing budget, 35,000 bobbleheads would’ve negatively impacted some other promotional day, potentially getting rid of a promotion altogether. I asked about other teams that sell 40,000 or full capacity quantities such as the Brewers or Dodgers. Those teams can afford to do it because marginal tickets they sell in the leadup to the game are usually very expensive ($100 or more), so they have headroom to make up for it. The A’s have dynamic pricing, but even then prices might go up only 20-30% in the process. Sponsors attached to each giveaway have little say over the quantity since the giveaways have to be planned as early as November prior to the following season, and they generally don’t directly fund giveaway purchases. I pressed on with 35,000 items. Smith countered that the last thing the team wants is to have 5,000 left over. When I said the items could just be sold in the team store, he said (I’m paraphrasing here) that if that’s the case, they’re not a good promotional tool. The whole point is of giveaways is to get people in the park and to give them a special memento. Sell overstock in team store would defeat the purpose (though I suppose it would give the naming rights sponsor an avenue, hint-hint). Judging from the response at the Coliseum, it’s working whether the quantity is 10,000 or 15,000. He admitted that there may be room for more in the future, but it would all be linked to ticket sales since everything flows from there.


James Venes’ June chart showing different teams’ bobblehead giveaway figures

The chart above, put together by the inimitable James Venes independently from this article two months ago, shows the wide spectrum of bobblehead quantities for the various teams. The Brewers and Phillies give to capacity, the Giants and Dodgers are pretty close. Then again, those four teams surpass 3 million in attendance annually. The A’s are in the middle of the pack as far as the bobblehead-to-capacity ratio goes. Last weekend I attended the Ken Griffey Jr. day at Safeco Field. Despite a sure sellout crowd (47,000), they had only 20,000 bobbleheads. Like it or not, giving items to around 40% of the house is standard practice.

Over the years the A’s have tweaked the types of giveaways they’ve done. Gone are the cheapo caps of yesteryear as few people care about those. Smith showed me a commemorative back-to-back World Series champs pennant from 1974, to which his mother added “1974” in pen. I asked why there aren’t giveaway pennants anymore. Smith replied that people don’t seem to hold them in any value. I imagine the same thing could be said about the old end-of-season baseball card giveaways (remember how those were sponsored by Mother’s Cookies?). LaDolce had a similar pennant commemorating the A’s 1992 division crown, a moment that reflected the true end of the Haas era. Nowadays the stuff people want are collectibles, with bobbleheads at the forefront.

Troy Smith's assembled scorecards from The Streak. Note the attendance figures from each.

Troy Smith’s assembled scorecards from The Streak. Note the attendance figures from each. Game 20 isn’t there because Smith he was working the scoreboard that day.

When I was asked for future giveaway suggestions, I only had one: an A’s fan. Preferably an action figure or figurine with a gold jersey if that can be done. He/she might be donning a green cape or a Reddick luchador mask. I can’t speak to how racially non-specific it should be or to anatomical correctness. I’m sure it can be done. It would be a great acknowledgement of how faithful the hardcore A’s fan is, a kind of olive branch disguised as an in-joke. I’m no marketing genius, but I think it’d be cool. Accessories could be given away at future games. Besides, if the marketing folks have to order these before knowing what will happen with the notoriously volatile A’s roster, a good bet would be one thing Billy Beane can’t trade: a fan.

Yours truly posing with the three straight American League Championship trophies

Yours truly posing with the three straight American League Championship trophies

We talked about a great number of topics including the upper deck tarps, ballpark sites, the Josh Reddick effect, crossing over from being a lifelong fan to working for the team (as both Smith and LaDolce are), what it means to move from an old stadium to a new ballpark, and other matters. They showed me a prototype Green Day trucker hat to be given away at the end of the month, along with a hint about surprise guest they’re hoping to secure in time for the next Star Wars fireworks night. We didn’t talk about costs to produce items, though some of that information can be found elsewhere. I don’t know if our talk or the feedback from this article will effect change. The team has a fan committee that it listens to regularly. Smith and LaDolce were happy to talk to me at length. They read this blog, as do others around the league. Hopefully the kinks can be worked out to a happy medium. Maybe they can institute a ticket system like the kind employed for concert ticket sales or iPhone/iPad launches. There are ways to get these things in the hands of people that really want them. Until then, we’ll keep waiting in line. Thanks to Troy Smith and Travis LaDolce for inviting me into the inner sanctum for a little bit. I’m sure we’ll have more to chat about in due course. Maybe we’ll be talking action figures.


P.S. – The team and bobblehead manufacturers can take months to work on items and still not get them exactly right. Case in point:

BART, AC Transit strikes to affect A’s fans

By now you’re probably aware of the awful gridlock gripping much of the Bay Area because of the BART employees’ strike, which started this morning of months-long negotiations broke down again over the weekend. The employees, who are members of the ATU and SEIU, have been asking for raises to make for recession-era givebacks. The ATU asked Governor Jerry Brown to force an order to keep the trains running while negotiations continued. Brown refused to act, leading to a complete shutdown of trains. (Disclosure: My dad, who retired 2 years ago, was a shop steward for ATU in the South Bay/VTA chapter.)

Whatever your feelings are about the strike, if it goes on throughout the week there will be no BART service to the three-game series against the Cubs, Tuesday through Thursday. BART has attempted to bridge some of the commuter gap by running charter buses between its terminal stations (Fremont, Dublin/Pleasanton, etc.) to San Francisco, but those buses are limited to commute hours. AC Transit is providing extra Transbay buses, while service along the BART spine remains as-is.

AC Transit’s employee contracts were also up last night, so they’re currently working without a contract. There is talk that AC Transit employees will do a one-day walkout as early as Tuesday, which would compound the the East Bay’s transit crisis.

Ferries are experiencing a huge surge in ridership. Unfortunately, fans still need AC Transit (or Capitol Corridor) to get from Jack London Square to the Coliseum.

And not to be left out, the City of Oakland’s non-emergency public employees started their own one-day strike on Monday.

Capitol Corridor is an option that will provide uninterrupted service, despite the fact that its trains are actually operated by BART. While Capitol Corridor isn’t the quickest or most convenient way to get to the Coliseum, it can do in a pinch if you’re set against driving to what will undoubtedly be a more packed Coliseum parking lot. Amtrak even started a promotion this summer that allows riders to pay only $5 each way for companions, up to 5 companions per trip. Capitol Corridor doesn’t have a very frequent schedule late at night, so if you’re considering taking the unelectric train, first check the schedules to see if they work for you.

Fans along the 680 corridor are pretty much screwed from a public transit standpoint. As for South Bay and Peninsula folks, BART was never a direct option unless you drove to Fremont or Millbrae to take BART in the first place. Same goes for North Bay fans, whose transit options to the Coliseum have historically been limited.

BART usually accounts for 15-20% of fans getting to the Coliseum. Tuesday’s date is not a Free Parking Tuesday game, so don’t be shocked if you have to pay – it was on the schedule from the beginning. The A’s haven’t provided any advisories for the series yet, but you can expect to see something tomorrow. The A’s homestand ends Thursday, which should hopefully limit damage if the strike extends through the weekend. The Giants have a six-game homestand starting on Friday starting with a Dodgers series. The A’s return on the 12th with a Red Sox series.

The last BART strike occurred in September 1997, at the end of a particularly dismal season for the A’s (65-97). The A’s weren’t affected in the first two days of the six-day strike as they were on the road. Come Wednesday, September 10, the A’s were greeted by crowds of 4,764 and 6,135 against Toronto.

Advice: Carpool as much as possible. Allow for an extra 30 minutes to get to the ballpark, or leave late (close to 7) to avoid the nastiest part of the commute. Try Capitol Corridor if it works within your schedule. And hope that the different parties can come to their senses and end this mess.

When meaningless numbers are spun

In the eight-plus years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve remembered a lot of little details. I’ve also forgotten just as many. Such was the case Thursday, when a John Shea article brought up San Jose’s economic impact report from 2009 (Exhibit 3 in the antitrust case filing). Shea asked whether a move to San Jose would boost attendance. He then pointed to the report’s assumption of only 2.1 million in annual attendance at a hypothetical 32,000-seat ballpark.

A’s superfan, radio gadfly and occasional commenter here (and friend of the blog) Bleacher Dave stepped up to push the idea that San Jose has an attendance problem, even though an Athletics game has never been hosted there. I rebutted that the attendance claims were never meant to forecast actual demand, only to provide a baseline for tax benefits (conservatively) and indirect benefits (usually outrageous). No matter, Dave pressed on, citing study author CSL’s experience in the field to buttress his argument.

CSL also did similar reports for the 49ers and Raiders to back those teams’ respective stadium campaigns. So far, only the 49ers have their stadium going. I pointed Dave to the Raiders report. Later I remembered that Let’s Go Oakland did its own report for a hypothetical Oakland ballpark either at the Coliseum or somewhere in the Jack London Square area.

Funny thing. Gruen Gruen & Associates, the firm hired to do LGO’s study, made its own attendance assumptions for a new ballpark:

  • Coliseum: 2.11 million/year
  • Jack London Square: 2.24 million/year

The key difference is that LGO’s study has a ballpark capacity of 36,000 instead of San Jose’s 32,000, which would in theory allow for larger sellout crowds when sellouts occur. The projections put the Coliseum roughly on par with San Jose and JLS ahead of both to the tune of 1,600 fans per game. If San Jose’s capacity were greater and had a similar number of sellouts, San Jose would land somewhere in the middle of the Coliseum and JLS projections.

Now if I wanted to twist these numbers into something they aren’t, I’d say that there’s something definitely wrong with the supposedly rabid Oakland fanbase only increasing attendance over the old Coliseum years by 7-13%. Surely there’d be a better response than that, right?

But I won’t. Because that’s not what these studies are for. The studies base their assumptions on five-year historical ticket sales at the Coliseum, which as we all know isn’t exactly an attractive, modern venue. Only one of those years was a playoff year. A major rebuilding plan marked the following years, which negatively affected ticket sales and fan interest. Wherever the A’s build, they won’t have the luxury of getting a big public subsidy as was the case in Miami or Washington, DC. If this thing actually gets built, it’s reasonable to expect that there will be so much pent-up desire to be there (the wildcard of on-field performance notwithstanding) that attendance should easily surpass those assumptions. It all has to do with season ticket sales.

Before a single pile is driven or brick is laid, the A’s will probably have to get somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 season ticket commitments or FSEs (full season equivalents). The closer to 20,000, the better (the A’s hover below 10k currently last I heard). The Giants maintain 25-27,000 FSEs annually, and they were so confident in the demand when their park opened that they only offered full season ticket subscriptions. (Note: More upfront ST commitments – especially multiyear – also proves to banks that the project is worth financing.)

The greater the ST sales, the better for the whole A’s market. It creates scarcity for the remaining seats, it provides a solid secondary market, and if pricing tiers are set correctly, should create good value for fans at multiple levels. It also means a lot fewer really cheap seats, but that’s the price of growing into a better, privately funded facility.

The two economic impact reports written for San Jose and Oakland provided none of this context and took none of these factors into account. All they did was average attendance over a short window, bump it initially upon opening, and taper it down over time as the honeymoon effect wore off. That’s the most basic of analysis and should be treated as such. Actual numbers should be better, but could also be worse if prices are too high or the team is pitiful. There are no guarantees.

If the goal of certain individuals is to create a gotcha moment out of a misinterpreted number, then we’re going to waste a lot of time finding gotcha numbers and moments everywhere. It smacks of a political race. There are much more important numbers to consider, such as the cost of Howard Terminal or a territorial rights payoff. Those are the numbers that matter. Not some previously ignored projections from several years old documents that are easily disregarded.

If people want to persist with stuff like this, I can’t stop them. We’ll be here as we always have, ready to provide the nuance that the news articles, tweets, and radio callers often lack.


P.S. – Oakland Fan Pledge, which was started to prove fan commitment to the A’s, has just over 4,000 pledges so far (including mine). We’ve got a long way to go, folks.

P.P.S. – One more thing to consider. The Giants have long maintained that they need attendance of 30,000 every game in order to take care of AT&T Park’s debt service and field a competitive roster. How on earth would the A’s be able to pay for a more expensive park with 25,000 a game, even if prices were jacked up?

A River (of shit) Runs Through It

There’s fifty feet of crap. And then there’s us. – Billy Beane, Moneyball

Brad Pitt as Billy Beane in "Moneyball"

Brad Pitt as Billy Beane describing the A’s station in “Moneyball”

Figurative turned literal on Sunday, as the A’s and Mariners (and umpires) were forced to vacate their respective clubhouses after the game because of a sewage backup. The backup caused sewage to seep out of the shower drains as players were trying to clean up. Both teams were forced to use the Raiders’ locker room showers, which are located a level up in the old Exhibit Hall.

As part of the 1995 Mt. Davis renovations, the Exhibit Hall was transformed into new football locker rooms, while the A’s clubhouse and visiting facilities remained mostly untouched. As a result, the plumbing in the clubhouses continues to deteriorate and requires constant repairs, which the A’s usually end up paying for during the season. Per the team’s lease, they can deduct the cost of the repairs against their annual rent payment. During the NFL offseason, the Raiders locker room often gets used as an extra staging area for VIPs. As a part of the stadium that was constructed less than 20 years ago, it’s in much better shape than the old baseball clubhouses.

In 2011, I asked Lew Wolff about the state of affairs at the Coliseum. Here’s an excerpt of our discussion:

Wolff: We’re constantly making repairs that are not our obligation.

ML: Really? Like what?

Wolff: Leaks and things. The scoreboard. There are two of them because of football. I think they’re finally going to replace them, but if they don’t there are no more parts. If a light goes out we borrow it from another one. It’s aggravating. But they basically say they don’t have any money. They still have bonds to pay off. The place is old and this is not the time for cities to write a check for sports.

Two years later the leaks have gotten worse and the scoreboard still needs replacement, with funds to make that happen siphoned away to study Coliseum City. It’s easy to make scoreboards a low priority at a decrepit place like the Coliseum since they don’t affect players or revenues. Functional clubhouses, however, are a different matter entirely. It’s one thing if the clubhouse flooding and contamination was confined solely to the A’s clubhouse. This time it affected both teams and the umpires. Now there’s the prospect of complaints being filed by the A’s, Mariners, and the players’ and umpires’ unions. (Susan Slusser noted that the Angels complained about a similar incident in 2001, citing a possible E. Coli threat.) Ultimately the responsibility falls on the Coliseum Authority, the body acting as the landlord for the three Coliseum tenant teams. A Herculean effort by an industrial cleanup company like ServPro should get the place up and running. The structural deficiencies will continue to linger.

I know next to nothing about engineering sewer systems, but I do know that having facilities below sea level (such as the clubhouses) can make it difficult to get a proper gravity-based flow going. The funny thing is that one of EBMUD’s huge sewer interceptors runs right through the Coliseum complex, so it should be easy to get wastewater and sewage out of the complex assuming that the sewer lines and pumps are working properly. Evidently at least one part of the stadium’s sewage infrastructure wasn’t working at all. Think about that. There is a river of shit running right through the Coliseum and somehow it couldn’t be utilized on Sunday.

Some are pointing to the possibility that the sewer system was taxed by large crowds. The A’s drew 171,756 total fans during this recent six-game homestand. Let’s put that in perspective. That’s 28,626 per game, or roughly half the originally designed 1966 capacity of the Coliseum. Even the Sunday sellout was only 57% of the 2012 football capacity. The system as a whole should not have been stressed in the slightest.

As the investigation into the cause of the incident continues, it will occur against the backdrop of ongoing lease negotiations. Previously it was assumed that the Authority would have a good deal of leverage because the A’s have nowhere else to play in the Bay Area post-2013. Now the tables have turned, as it can be argued by many parties that the Coliseum is unfit to host MLB games until the clubhouse sewage problem and other deficiencies are addressed. MLB could even step in to make preconditions on the JPA prior to further lease talks. That would put the JPA in quite the pickle. How can the JPA recover more money from the A’s towards Coliseum debt service if it has to fund additional, costly improvements at the Coliseum? If the JPA wants to lock the A’s into a deal longer than 5 years, how much money is the JPA willing to put up to make it worth the A’s and MLB’s while? And how does that coincide with any requests the Raiders are making for their lease extension?

Prior to this incident, Lew Wolff offered to continue on at the Coliseum for five years with the current use terms, rent TBD. He could and should demand infrastructure improvements, but he and Michael Crowley could be enticed to stand pat and maintain the status quo since it would be less complicated. It would be hard for the A’s to make any leasehold improvements without prior approval of the JPA, and since they’re not bound by the lease beyond December there’s no immediate incentive to do so. All they’ll probably do at the moment is make necessary repairs, clean and disinfect the place, lay down some new carpet in the affected areas, and hope for the best. While that should be enough to get through the rest of the season, imagine another sewage incident occurring during the postseason. What kind of PR disaster would that be for Oakland? And I can’t image naming rights sponsor is thrilled to be associated with this debacle. It’s bad enough that from afar the stadium resembles a toilet.

Three weeks ago Jon Heyman incurred the wrath of A’s fans over his snide tweet comparing AT&T Park to the Coliseum. He mostly stayed away from any remarks this time around, except for a retweet of Slusser getting a David Rinetti (A’s VP of stadium operations) quote:

Smart move by Heyman to stay away from this mess, though I wouldn’t blame him if he gloated in private. Trololol.


Update 10:45 AMBob Nightengale has a choice quote from Wolff and reiterates a story from February.

The A’s, of course, have tried to bolt town for the last five years. The San Francisco Giants won’t share their territory and permit the Athletics to move to San Jose. Major League Baseball, which hoped the A’s and Giants would somehow reach an agreement on their own, finally got a resolution from their blue ribbon committee. The committee submitted a set of guidelines to Wolff in February, and if he agreed to meet the requirements, a move could soon be underway.

Wolff won’t talk about the guidelines. Neither will the Giants. Or even Major League Baseball.

Well, since the NSA isn’t sharing any of Wolff’s telephone conversations with Commissioner Bud Selig, it’s fair to say that if Wolff agreed to the parameters, he’d have a shovel in his hand today digging into the San Jose soil.

Wolff denied the February report in last week’s radio interview. Clearly something isn’t meshing here. The two short-term decisions at the moment are the lease and the S4SJ lawsuit. It would make sense to wait to announce something until both of those issues are resolved.


Update 2:30 PM – Amazingly, Lew Wolff is pulling his punches, at least according to a new Carl Steward article.

“What it says basically is that it’s a deteriorating facility,” he said. “I think everybody is aware of that, even the people who run it. We’re sort of all in this together, so it isn’t something I would use … we just have to solve it right now.”

Wolff downplayed that this might be the kind of incident that would give him extra ammunition to force the hand of Major League Baseball to act on the A’s situation, which has been stalled for several years under a panel appointed by Selig to assess the team’s options.

“Even if they said tomorrow, `OK, you can have a new stadium,’ we can’t do it in one day,” Wolff said. “We’re still going to have a plumbing issue.'”

Of course, Wolff isn’t going to stop the M’s, other teams, MLBPA, or WUA (umpires) from filing their own complaints. Those may have more bite. On the other hand, Billy Beane’s comments were a little more pointed.

“Today this is national news, but it happens here all the time,” Beane said. “Our employees are impacted by this. I was the first to see the manager’s office (Sunday), but we see it all the time, and this is not unusual. I don’t blame them (the Mariners) for reacting, but we have to live with it on a semi-regular basis.

“If we say anything, we’re told we’re being opportunist,” Beane added. “I wish these were working conditions we didn’t have to work with. When it affects somebody other than us, it becomes a story. I’m used to it. I deal with it.”

Doesn’t get more Oakland than that.