The A’s fortunes won’t turn on a dime

This sums up my thoughts on the Portland Oregonian’s John Canzano’s clarion call to recruit the A’s to Portland (or convince MLB to expand there):

The Portland Diamond Project group, which made two separate offers on land in the Portland area, is not considered a potential ownership group, according to Forbes’ Maury Brown.

Portland’s biggest problem is that it actively pushed aside AAA baseball to entertain MLS soccer years ago. No matter how much the market may have improved statistically, it’s still guilty of putting baseball on the back burner. Its only baseball team is the short season Hillsboro Hops, a team that pulls slightly more than 3,000 regularly in a stadium built to hold 4,500. PDX now has to go the Phoenix route, hoping that a spec-built stadium will be sufficient for an expansion team or a relocated team. In either case the club will have to wait at least three years for the stadium to be developed.

Brown also argues that any stadium in Portland should have a retractable roof like Seattle’s Safeco Field. After seeing from afar how inclement weather has affected early season games in the Northeast and the Eastern Seaboard, I have to agree. Teams can’t afford to lose revenue dates if they can help it.

Sure, it’s easy to crap on the A’s attendance so far in 2018. Those columnists don’t seem to understand the concept of loss leaders. That’s what last night’s 10-2 win over the ChiSox was. It attracted >20% fans who have never been to the Coliseum in its 50 years as a ballpark. Some of those fans may be the next generation of A’s fans, or those whose interest was recently piqued. The process to build a fanbase is a long, slow one, not triggered by one event or game date. The A’s have to earn the fan base’s trust, which will not happen overnight.

Looking backward to 2018

Square one.

That’s what we’re talking about. We don’t know what the A’s next steps are on the ballpark front. We may get a glimpse of it on Saturday, January 27, when the team will again host FanFest at Jack London Square. At FanFest 2017, Dave Kaval was coy about site choice, insisting that the A’s were still in the midst of studying site options. The Peralta site hadn’t been rumored yet, let alone publicized. Momentum built little by little throughout the spring, followed by the crash after the announcement.

The team has been licking its wounds since Peralta stopped talks with the A’s. Kaval has said nothing about next steps. Like last FanFest, visitors next month will be tantalized by visuals of Howard Terminal in the background. The Coliseum lingers in the background, though what can you say about a neighborhood that lost a Pak ‘n Save and a Walmart in the last ten years? Fans will be asking the A’s brass about both options, so I think this is an opportunity for the A’s to backers of both sites to start making their own efforts.

Howard Terminal, Coliseum JPA?

Let’s start bidding on the A’s. You want them? Really, really want them? Then show your hand. Present what you’re willing to offer. By that I don’t mean contributing cash for stadium construction. We already know that since the beginning the A’s have pledged to make the stadium part a privately financed affair. That leaves infrastructure, in terms of parking, improved roads, and enhanced transit options. Howard Terminal still has no estimate for what anything will cost to make it viable. The Coliseum still hasn’t figured out its ownership and debt situations, choosing to put those on the back burner. Any bids have to include those plans, respectively. Both plans effectively have to start with the City, because Oakland has to initiate the purchase of the half of the Coliseum land from Alameda County (the county would loan money to the city), or Oakland has the start the process of rezoning Howard Terminal to non-industrial port (or city) land.

Most of the details of any negotiations would be held in closed door sessions, as most municipalities do with real estate. But we can at least get some kind of framework to get started on either side. And that would give fans something to work with that’s more than a skin-deep debate over a pretty, impractical site vs. a cheap, dumpy one. A competitive approach is likely to yield better results than another one of Oakland’s aimlesss task forces.

The one wildcard to look at in 2018 is The Lodge. Commissioner Rob Manfred has stayed patient so far, preferring not to criticize Oakland while the A’s completed their search. Now that Phase One has ended with a thud, I’ll be curious to see if Manfred’s patience starts to simmer.

Official: Peralta/Laney Ballpark is Dead

Wash: “It’s incredibly hard.”
Beane: “Hey, anything worth doing is.”

About six months ago I wrote the tweet below, not knowing yet which ballpark site the A’s were choosing:

Reality is here, and it is a bitch.

Feeling pressure from faculty and students alike, the board for the Peralta Colleges abruptly ended ongoing discussions with the A’s about building a ballpark at the current district headquarters next to Laney College. There was to be a Board vote next week to decide whether or not the district would enter formal negotiations with the A’s. Not anymore. With tepid support from Oakland City Hall, the A’s were facing an uphill battle for approval even at this lowest level. They didn’t even get to the first switchback on the trail.

The decision was followed by a series of reactions from relevant parties, including the A’s using 280 characters instead of a screenshot:

This doesn’t require much analysis, and with the whole process being cut short after three months it doesn’t merit recriminations. The A’s underestimated the potential opponents, and the City was hands-off with no support. That’s often a quick recipe for failure, even as I hoped the parties to get through at least to next week. So much for that.

So what happens next?

Well, we’re in the holidays, so for now, nothing. Early in 2018 we should hear more, especially as the A’s will have to regroup leading up to FanFest, whenever that is. And unlike 2017 FanFest, when many fans interpreted the site as the A’s leaning towards Howard Terminal, maybe next year’s choice will reveal more about the A’s plans with Peralta fading away. The A’s led by Dave Kaval have shown that they’re willing to accelerate their process if they see an opportunity. Despite the missed opportunity at Peralta, I’ll be encouraged if the team shows the same urgency in 2018.

As for sites, they don’t suddenly change in value or potential now that Peralta has dropped off. Let’s look at them, December 2017 edition.

Howard Terminal

People are asking about this, naturally. I remain skeptical of the site because of the cost of infrastructure (transportation and parking), the cleanup costs that the site would incur, and the need for enhanced rail safety for cars and pedestrians. Oakland and HT proponents could salve the A’s wounds by offering a package of improvements that address the A’s concerns. Not so sure about any way to mitigate winds and temperatures at HT, which for the A’s were a few degrees cooler than at Peralta. (I informally saw this from looking at wunderground.com maps while watching late season games.)

Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum

There are several approaches that can be taken at the Coli. The most popular has the A’s playing there until a new ballpark is built nearby within the Complex. That’s clearly the least disruptive path. It doesn’t resolve who pays for the stadium’s or arena’s outstanding debt. Development of the remaining 100+ acres is already entitled thanks to the failed Coliseum City plan, but those entitlement can start to have developers attached to them with a revised plan and cleared land.

Kauffman Stadium

BANG’s Dieter Kurtenbach, who lives close to the Peralta site, suggests that the A’s renovate the Coliseum. While that could be the cheapest option, it would also appear to be the cheapest option, which MLB doesn’t want. Then again, Kauffman Stadium was brilliantly renovated, though it was originally built as a ballpark, not as a multi-purpose cookie cutter with a gazillion unfortunate compromises.

I can see the A’s reign in their approach at the Coliseum, given the comparably limited economic potential there. Instead I suspect they’ll focus on the old Malibu/HomeBase lots along Hegenberger, which are somewhat separate from the original Coliseum complex in terms of access and ownership. The A’s may proclaim that there’s no “Plan B” – a classic Lew Wolff tactic – but they’ve always had the Coliseum plans in the desk drawer ready to quickly revise and present at a moment’s notice. Why? They’ve talked with the JPA about the Malibu/HomeBase site on-and-off since 2003, before the City even bought the land.

Malibu (triangle) and HomeBase (rectangle) lots at south end of Coliseum

Lest you forget, there were other sites under consideration!

Somehow part of the Oakland Army Base near the Bay Bridge was rumored. If Howard Terminal was too windy, OAB has to be disqualified just for the wind alone. There were no other serious contenders.

And whatever happened to San Jose? In normal Silicon Valley fashion, Google is about to swallow much of Downtown SJ whole, as it is planning with San Jose a sprawling, 240-acre campus by the Shark Tank that could bring in 20,000 additional employees to Downtown everyday. Google and its real estate partner have already bought a bunch of the land previous set aside for the ballpark, including the old AT&T facility on Montgomery. Amazing what happens when you just wave a bunch of cash in an landowner’s face.

Even Scott Ostler put a new (old) site in the hat, Victory Court! He even wondered how it didn’t work, I “chronicled” it for you Scott. Or in one two words: Redevelopment Died.

It’s been a long journey, and it’s far from over.

Actually it’s a Flash Sale for A’s baseball

Well that was fast.

The A’s announced their $19.99 Ballpark Pass deal last Thursday. Today they announced that the plans will stop selling this Wednesday at 5 PM.

That’s right. Not even a week’s worth of sales. The good news is that the response has been incredible. The team already tallied 2,000 passes sold so far. The abrupt end of the sale aroused a lot of speculation, so it was worth asking what was going on.

This doesn’t shut the door on future sales. For now this group should provide a large enough sample size to understand how the passes will be used, what the demographics breakdown looks like, and what in-stadium purchases are made by pass holders. For now you’ll have 36 hours to decide, if you were on the fence.

Like many A’s promotions this year, the Ballpark Pass was rolled out later in the season, away from other promotions to give it some breathing room. After the normal winter season ticket push, the team offered digital options like the 510 Pack, which focused on field level tickets. Then the A’s opened the upper deck, which brought great excitement and fanfare but apparently not a lot of ticket sales. Because it’s such a new development, I didn’t expect gangbusters sales, at least as long as the team was mediocre.

The Ballpark Pass is different in that its aim is to provide a frictionless way to attend games. Pay once per month, decide if you want to go the day of a game, pick seats if you want using the At the Ballpark app. It’s easy and doesn’t require much planning, so combined with the bargain basement price point it should be a hit. At 2k sales so far, it most certainly is. But it’s also worth studying why the emotionally positive upper deck opening hasn’t yielded a big boost in attendance, yet the Pass is set to do just that.

The price point helps, yes. Disregard that for a moment. Is the problem more that the traditional walkup ticket sales model is dying, if not already dead? So much has happened to the entertainment sales model since the iPhone launched in 2007. The proliferation of apps has created new economies around tickets, with purveyors recognizing that ease and convenience are bigger factors than tonight’s pitching matchup or the A’s slugger pair. Last weekend I went to see a friend’s musical in a local regional theater. That mom-and-pop operation uses Walletini, an app aimed at modernizing small live theater ticketing operations. Movie theaters have been using Fandango for years. Sports events have Ticketmaster, Tickets.com, and a myriad of secondary market apps. The Pass cuts through all of that by making the Coliseum a sort of club where you can just show up – and not be forced to pay anything else once you’re there.

It’s a nearly egalitarian way of selling baseball to fans, except perhaps for longtime loyal season ticket holders who now have been severely undercut. I expect that if the A’s continue with the Pass, they’ll need to offer greater perks to retain those high-revenue customers in ST plans. Otherwise there will be questions about the value they’re getting. As far as marketing experiments go, the Pass operates at multiple levels. It’s trying to bring in new fans or disenchanted old fans. It’s trying a different pricing model. It’s trying to balance those new subscribers against the needs of MVP and club seat holders.

All of it put together should provide a good picture of what A’s baseball is really worth to A’s fans.

 

It’s Netflix but for A’s baseball

The A’s announced that they, along with a few other MLB franchises, are rolling out an inexpensive monthly ballpark pass, which allows for admission into all home games from June through September. The price of the pass is $19.99 per month, and like most subscriptions, will auto-renew every month.

Ticketing will be done through the mobile At The Ballpark app. Once you buy a month, you’ll have admission to all games that month. The admission is for guaranteed standing room, plus you’ll receive seat location(s) by text if they’re available. Realistically that should be for nearly every game since the A’s are averaging just north of 16k per game in a 41k capacity stadium. Like most subscriptions, you’ll be able to cancel it during the season (see terms for more details). The value is undeniable. June has 15 games by itself, which works out to $1.33 per game. And that’s for the Yankees, Astros, Blue Jays, Reds, Dodgers, and Nationals, plus a Braves game. The downsides are that the pass is not transferable, and if you need to get a group to sit together you’ll need to buy several together.

Truth be told, the A’s have run similar Spring Training passes the past two years and two summers ago at the Coliseum ($79 for select months), so they have some experience with this type of ticketing. 2017’s edition offered 17 games at Hohokam for $40. By comparison the current deal is a serious loss leader, a way to get new casual fans in the door to sample the new experience at the Coliseum. A family of four could camp out the Coli for $320 (plus taxes), less than the cost of a single full-season bleacher ticket. That’s simply astonishing.

Variance in prices among other ballparks leads me to believe that an industry standard price has not been set yet. That’s fine for now. Fans get to benefit from the extended beta (pricing per ticket per month):

  • STL $30
  • HOU $59 (weekdays only)
  • CIN $30
  • MIN $99 (April/May)
  • DET $49
  • MIL $39
  • LAA $49
  • OAK $19

I expect that the actual number of available passes will be limited as they were for the spring, though the huge available inventory should make such restrictions unnecessary. The upper deck’s open. Let the kids in.

If the popularity of ticket subscriptions takes off, I wonder if they could affect how new ballparks (like the A’s future park) are designed. Would they build in more standing areas instead of back rows of seats? More bars and drink rails? Outfield berms instead of bleachers? A change to the outside food policy? And what does this mean for season ticket holders of the cheap seats, who were just undercut big time?

Other teams launched pass programs to fill in empty seats. The A’s are trying to fill whole sections and levels. If there’s a place where a pass could make a visible difference, it’s Oakland. Practically no cover and no two-drink minimum. Bring in the college and high school students, the hipsters, the families, the cheap dates. The A’s love you, and maybe you’ll love them back.

Laney, Peralta, and Howard: It’s a ballpark not a horse race

Last Saturday I spent most of the day (and night) at a Derby party. One of the hosts is from Kentucky, so the party had great authenticity all the way down to me taking a nap in the front yard after a group photo. That’s my authenticity, at least. During the brief lucid state I was in as we feverishly bid up horses, I started to feel a sense of familiarity to the whole affair. That’s because ever since the Dave Kaval-led A’s narrowed potential ballpark sites down to four in and around downtown, fans and observers everywhere placed bets on their own favorites. I’ve gotten no shortage of requests to handicap the four sites. While I’ve pointed to the Raiders-less Coliseum as the easiest, fastest site due to work already done and reduced complexity, there are far more interesting sites out there, sites that could prove more compelling to the A’s.

Peralta is the site between Laney (red) and Brooklyn Basin (light blue)

Kaval has been careful to not tip his hand. In public interviews and private conversions, Kaval praised all three sites, pointing out advantages for all three. If you’re gleaning some sort of favorite from him, it’s probably your own bias at play. Nothing wrong with that, just acknowledge it and understand that the team has a process it’s trying to follow.

That didn’t stop Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf from opining that the A’s have narrowed down the sites to Lake Merritt (Laney College) and Howard Terminal. Today, Robert Gammon expanded on that culling, explaining that the A’s are worried about getting 35,000 fans across the active railroad tracks running through Jack London Square. Brooklyn Basin, or the part of it that was being offered, is no longer under consideration. I suspect this is because they couldn’t assemble all of the needed land. Lake Merritt is actually two sites, the Laney fields and the Peralta Community College south of East 8th Street. Gammon’s scoop is that the A’s may be focusing on the Peralta site. That’s a bit of a surprise because most observers and Laney site fans have been fantasizing about those fields forever. Assuming that Laney wanted to keep its athletics program, bringing in the A’s is a nonstarter. Peralta is smaller, is further from BART, and rather close to 880. Peralta’s also smaller, with at most 10 acres available. Or does it?

Peralta parcel map

In the above map the word “College” has “16.70 Ac.” That nearly 17 acres includes all but 4 acres of the Laney College parking lot across Lake Merritt Channel. And because the ballpark is next to the Channel, a large buffer will be required along each bank for flood control and recreational purposes (Tidelands Trust). The buildable area is a square measuring roughly 600′ x 600′. That’s less than 10 acres in footprint, which would make the A’s park by far the smallest modern venue in baseball, while also leaving precious little room to build anything else. I wrote last October:

If the Peralta site is chosen, the administration offices and support for all four campuses in the district would have to be relocated. Perhaps a solution could include a large parking structure with offices atop. That could help serve parking needs for Laney, Peralta, and the A’s. It could also be crazy expensive on its own.

Peralta in bottom center, Laney fields upper right, BART tunnel begins bottom right

Since the undivided parcel includes the parking lot, any land deal could be a little easier if it’s confined to the 16.7 acres, though with the Channel removed only 4 acres are left to build a multi-level garage, the replacement district administration buildings, and other offices. A pedestrian bridge over East 7th Street would also be in order. That doesn’t leave much land to build a ballpark village unless the A’s buy or the city/college volunteer additional land in the area.

There’s also an old rail easement immediately south of the Peralta parcel, plus a corp yard butting up against the Nimitz. Those could prove useful in the future. It’s not realistic to expect any street grid changes or other infrastructure to help support the ballpark other than revamped on/off-ramps. This is little more than a thumbnail sketch of the Peralta site. We’ll surely find out more in the coming months.

Unusual Peralta lot boundaries

The Coliseum was mentioned as the third-place site in the Gammons piece, which is not a problem from a process standpoint. With the Raiders leaving, the Coliseum is not going anywhere and can also serve as a fallback position if the need arises. Then again, MLB has often said it prefers downtown ballparks, yet two of the last three parks (SunTrust, Marlins) were not built downtown, and the Rangers’ replacement will also be built in the suburbs. Only Target Field is downtown, lacking an adjacent ancillary development. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s seems to be conflating “downtown” with “ballpark+development,” truly a perversion of the traditional definition of downtown.

Rain forces postponement of 4/16 game to 9/9 doubleheader

Rain the poured throughout the weekend forced the A’s to postpone Sunday’s game. Even though the rain was subsiding as planned first pitch time (1:05) approached, Later that day the team announced that the game would be made up in September, as the back end of a natural (single admission) doubleheader on Saturday, the 9th. MLB guidelines along with union preferences and financial pressures usually call for teams to schedule makeup games on off days, or if a doubleheader is absolutely necessary, a split or day-night doubleheader with separate admissions. Of course, this is the A’s we’re talking about, so they may actually benefit from one day’s admission more than two. Tickets for the postponed won’t be honored for the doubleheader because it’s not a new date. Tickets have already been sold for the original 9/9 game, so fans can trade in another date on the home schedule. That should also mean that they can trade in for 9/9, but there’s a good chance that their seats will be marginally worse. Best way to find out is to contact Ticket Services.

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As for what caused the postponement, remember that it’s been three years since the last postponement, also caused by a soggy field. Back then, the tarp was left off the field in hopes of some of the water evaporating. That’s quite different from the normal way of getting rid of water: gravity. Modern fields have some form of drainage system to move water out of the ground quickly. That works most everywhere except for the Coliseum, where the field remains 22 feet below sea level and is subject to tidal actions. On Sunday the tide was to start coming in as the game started, reaching high tide around the end of the game. On Monday night, high tide hit at 5:30 PM and was to recede as the night progressed. That allowed the A’s to start the game with some confidence, even though a shower hit in the late innings. DIY Network provided the blurbs above, which explain how the drainage systems work. The Coli’s system was done as part of the 1995 Mount Davis renovation, though the brief period between football and baseball seasons did now allow for a complete rebuild. The Giants’ system is interesting in that it uses a vacuum pump/air system to force water out. The field is 9 feet above sea level, which means it could be tidally prone on some occasions.

Coincidentally, the Coliseum parking lot is also 9-10 feet above sea level. Any new ballpark there should have its field at least at grade or higher to deal with climate change-related sea level rise. Howard Terminal and Brooklyn Basin are at elevation 11-12 feet, and being waterfront should be subject to similar standards. Laney College is terraced, going from 13 to 30 feet from south to north.

Whatever location is chosen, great care and thought will have to go into stadium placement, footprint, and orientation. In the modern era, that’s gonna have to include elevation as well, at least as long as you’re building along the bay’s flatlands.