Oakland Coliseum Complex: The Admirable Failure

I have two copies of Paul Goldberger’s recent book Ballpark: Baseball in the American City in my possession. One is a hard copy, the other a Kindle version. The book goes through the history of ballparks, from before baseball was properly organized in the late 19th century through the pre- and post-war periods to the under construction Globe Life Field and the planned Howard Terminal ballpark.

In chapter 7 (“Leaving the City”), Goldberger makes the following observations about Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, built in boom year of 1950:

Memorial functioned reasonably well for baseball despite its football-like appearance. Reportedly football fans in Baltimore believed the stadium’s layout  favored baseball, which further underscores the paradox most devoted of the multi-purpose stadium: it is never ideal for any sport, and the most devoted fans of one sport, frustrated by the facility’s shortcomings, are likely to think that the design favors the needs of another sport over their own.

A couple weeks ago, the Coliseum underwent its final football-to-baseball conversion, marked by numerous comments about how baseball has it better there. This sentiment was echoed most vociferously by former Seahawk and Cal Bear running back Justin Forsett, who said:

The last Raiders game planned at the Coliseum on December 15, followed by the intense construction period that has marked the last two winters in which baseball or fan-related improvements are installed within the stadium bowl. There isn’t much need to change the field, though the rumor of moving the bullpens is still out there. A Monster Jam event will be held in mid-February, followed by the ritual of resodding of the grass at the Coli.

The Coliseum uses stadium technology that mostly dates back to the 60’s and it shows. Whether we’re talking about the low overhangs, the lack of functioning elevators or escalators, or the notches in the lower seating bowl, the Coliseum stands as a mid-century marvel, though it clear isn’t fetishized like an Eichler. The field remains below sea level, plagued by a poor drainage situation (a game during the last homestead was delayed at the start due to standing water). It’s not a field designed to wick away a foot of rain in an hour. It is, at its essence, playable in ideal conditions. And it has held up despite being replaced twice a year, trampled by 300-pound men and construction equipment, even families on fireworks nights or the occasional concert crowd.

Newer stadia with grass fields have done a better job of obscuring the dirt infield with temporary sod. Artificial turf looks more like real grass with each passing generation. Innovation will continue to leave the Coliseum in the dust, and whether the A’s move to Howard Terminal or a new stadium next door, there’s little reason to consider revamping the grass field when it’s doing fine with routine maintenance. It should do even better without the frequent football changeovers, harkening back to the pre-1995 Haas era of baseball prominence.

From behind the backstop earlier this season

In hindsight, it makes me wonder about the role of the multi-purpose stadium in American sports history. Goldberger devotes two chapters to the phenomenon, starting with Cleveland Stadium in the 30’s and taking the reader through the cookie cutter era and the last purpose-built multi-purpose stadium, SkyDome/Rogers Centre. Was it a necessary step to accommodate a growing pro sports industry and economy? How much did suburbanization and car culture impact stadium development? Most of these stadia got the wrecking ball and with it were relegated to the dustbin of history. Yet while the old cookie cutters were around, how truly bad were they? The most favorable thing often said about these venues was that they were serviceable. Cities tried to concentrate all of the major sports activity in one place or complex. Kansas City, South Philly, and the Coliseum remain examples. But Kansas City recognized the benefit of separate stadia long ago, after the A’s left for Oakland. Philly decided to ditch the old Vet and build separate football and baseball stadia in the same complex. Pittsburgh followed the same path with Three Rivers, as did Cincinnati with Riverfront.

Yes, there is an impressive list of ballparks built during the 20-year HOK era that are shining examples of bringing baseball back downtown: Camden Yards, Progressive Field, Coors Field, T-Mobile Park, Oracle Park, PNC Park, and Petco Park. Oakland remains thirsty for its own urban transformation, while Kansas City continues to flirt with moving the Royals downtown. Bringing a team downtown is no magic bullet, as the Pirates remain woefully small market and the Reds’ Great American Ball Park is ho-hum at best.

The recent trend of building more ballparks in urban areas was followed by a mini shift towards revisiting suburbanization, as practiced in Arlington and Miami. On that trend’s heels is the neighborhood-ization of the ballpark, which the A’s dabbled in a decade ago. This approach tries to create a great sense of place around a ballpark, while providing a large palette of different types of ancillary development to help pay for the venue itself. Globe Life Field (successor to Globe Life Park) will have an adjacent village. The Angels continue to negotiate development rights to the area surrounding their home in Anaheim. The days of a stadium surrounded by a sea of parking are waning, though this is more prevalent in baseball as opposed to football. Cubs ownership owns much of the real estate surrounding Wrigley Field, and the Giants are soon to start their commercial development on the parking lots to the south of Oracle Park.

While the Rangers will move to a similarly named ballpark next door in a few months, the “old” Globe Life Park will remain a functioning venue. An XFL franchise will start play there next spring. GLP will be reconfigured to house football as such:

XFL configuration at Globe Life Park

Remember that pro sports in Arlington started with an expanded Texas League park named Turnpike Stadium over 50 years ago. Once expanded, Arlington Stadium barely qualified as sufficient for the major leagues. When George W. Bush became Rangers owner in the early 90’s, he helped engineer the deal that resulted in GLP. The City of Arlington’s extremely sports- and business-friendly environment eventually attracted Jerry Jones, who abandoned Texas Stadium in Irving for JerryWorld, within spitting distance of the ballpark. Now that Globe Life Field will open in 2020, there will be three venues mere walking distance from each other, two with retractable roofs (one huge, one medium-sized), the third without a roof but okay for hosting events outside of the summer months. That isn’t so much a complex as series of purpose-built venues built near each other to take advantage of available parking.

Rendering of a Ghost Town

When Coliseum City was unveiled in 2015, I opined that the vision was too ambitious in trying to accommodate the Raiders at the expense of the other tenants. Apparently that wasn’t Raider-friendly enough for Mark Davis, who was unwilling to give up parking acreage for a neighboring ballpark or ancillary development. The Dubs were already looking across the Bay, while the A’s had to regroup after being rejected on San Jose. Still, this concept of a mega-development with three venues and increased year-round activity was sold as the savior, the panacea for Oakland. The Coliseum complex, as shown in the rendering above from last year, has a mostly deconstructed stadium and an arena with a tenant for six weeks per year and limited opportunities to pay to keep the lights on.

Of course, Oakland is not like Arlington in many respects, so it would be foolish to attempt to take the North Texas sports economics model and transplant it into the East Bay. Now the new panacea, as it’s being pitched, is a model that utilizes an industrial site next to a commercial site (Howard Terminal and Jack London Square, respectively) and use the Coliseum to help fund the ballpark. Parts of the Coliseum would be filled in by a mix of uses, effectively throwing East Oakland a bone. Alameda County negotiated with the A’a a buyout of their share of the complex, while the City of Oakland remains a holdout.

There are few remaining sports complexes in use. The Coliseum is one though it only has one tenant left once the Raiders leave. The 50’s and 60’s were the time for the baby boom, suburban expansion, the Interstate highway system, the socioeconomic ills all of that would cause in later decades, and sports complexes. Some examples:

  • South Philadelphia Sports Complex (1926) – Anchored at first by Philadelphia Municipal (later JFK) Stadium, which briefly hosted the Eagles, AFL Quakers,  and WFL Bell, along with numerous festival concerts. The Eagles moved to Franklin Field on the UPenn campus, then back to the complex for Veterans Stadium (1971) and Lincoln Financial Field (2003). The Phillies moved to the Vet in 1971 after calling Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium home, then moved back to the complex for Citizens Bank Park (2004). The 76ers and Flyers were housemates at the Spectrum (1967) for its entire life, before moving to its replacement in 1996. Ancillary development included a now-demolished aquarium and a Comcast-developed retail-entertainment district. Future plans include an e-sports arena.
  • NRG Park (1965) – Anchored by the Astrodome and Astroarena (1971). The Dome hosted the Oilers and Astros until the Oilers left for Tennessee and the Astros went downtown. The Arena was considered too small for major indoor sports. A convention center continues to operate. The Dome still stands, unused, with an uncertain future.
  • Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (1966) – Currently houses the A’s (through at least 2023) and Raiders (through 2019). Previously hosted the Warriors, Golden Skates, Rhinos, and Oaks.
  • Truman Sports Complex (1972) – Separate venues built for the Royals and Chiefs after the A’s left KC. Both charter tenants remain.

Later versions:

  • Meadowlands Sports Complex (1976) – Originally hosted the football Giants only. New venue MetLife Stadium hosts both the Giants and Jets. Purpose-built arena on premises abandoned by Nets and Devils, who moved to Brooklyn and Newark, respectively.
  • Jacksonville Sports Complex (1995) – Home of the Gator Bowl (1927), which was razed and rebuilt as the home of the expansion Jaguars. An arena and a minor league ballpark also exist nearby.
  • Dignity Health Sports Park (2003) – Soccer stadium for the LA Galaxy, part of a public-private partnership between Cal State-Dominguez Hills and venue operator AEG. The stadium temporarily hosts the Chargers while they wait for their new Inglewood stadium to be completed. There is also a velodrome and the park will host multiple events as part of the 2028 Summer Olympics.

After teams left the Astrodome, Kingdome, Metrodome, and the cookie cutters for purpose-built facilities, the few multi-purpose stadia left were iconic of an era that time passed by. Some of the goals were ambitious: large capacities and even larger adjacent parking lots, downtown locations in many cases, and updated technology such as electronic scoreboards and luxury suites. Time marches on, though. Even as 50,000-plus fill the Coliseum on Wednesday evening, there will be constant reminders of how past its prime the venue is. Is there room for a multi-purpose stadium in the future? Well, sort of. There is a coming glut of ultradomes, NFL stadia designed to host a rotating college football playoff or bowl game, the Super Bowl, a college basketball tournament regional or final, and perhaps a premier soccer exhibition or boxing/wrestling every so often. What was once a 50/50 football/baseball split is now closer to 90/10. Bowl game? Sure. No housemates that play baseball, though. Or basketball or hockey. Fans want venues right-sized for their sports teams. Or at least the team owners want those venues, no sharing.

All in all, the Coliseum complex saw over 50 years of use and 10 world championships during that time. While it’s not yet time to send in the demolition crews, it’s not a bad moment to assess the complex’s impact on Oakland, the East Bay, and the Bay Area as a whole. More than anything, the Coliseum served its purpose. It did so a little brash with some bash. It put Oakland on the map. It’s still mostly efficient to visit, convenient, and centrally located. It is not by any means sexy. The Coliseum attracted, but did not keep, several pro sports franchises. Better to have loved and lost, I suppose.

Raiders going across the Bay for 2019

This year, the A’s don’t have to worry about the Raiders chewing up the Coliseum grass. For a year the Silver & Black will be chewing up the Giants’ grass instead before moving to Vegas. And thankfully, the Coliseum won’t have to spend $250k every time they have to convert the stadium from football to baseball.

My question is: How quickly can the A’s repurpose the Raiders’ locker rooms?

Remember that the SF Demons of the XFL played at China Basin for one XFL season. Last year the Rugby Sevens World Cup was held there during the baseball season. You know what would be neat? Rather than a bus on game day, charter a ferry to take the Raiders from their Harbor Bay practice facility to Oracle Park.

Update 2/6Not so fast my friend.

For Kyler Murray’s sake, I hope he is able to follow his dream, whatever it is. I’m sure his parents and representation will guide him through whatever arcane and complicated economic systems he has to deal with to become a successful professional athlete.

In the meantime…

Kaval Call Part IV: Coliseum redevelopment

Imagine the mid-60’s. You’re driving on Highway 17. There’s a flurry of construction near Hegenberger. Terminal 1 at Oakland Airport opened. The tumult (and the joy that comes with six world championships) of the 70’s was still in the distance. Oakland was hitting the big time!

Starting tomorrow the Coliseum may only have one tenant, the A’s. That lone team announced its intention to leave last month. What will be left of the Coliseum complex?

Coliseum originally under construction

In the picture above you can clearly see all of the notches in the lower bowl. The Coliseum started out with the Raiders as its first tenant. Seating risers mounted on steel plates could be moved around to suit football or baseball, which came in 1968. There were actually two different configurations for football: one for the overlapping baseball and football months where the gridiron ran from home plate to center field, and the “permanent” first base-third base configuration. The notches allowed the football field to fit the bowl, and are still in use today.

Knowing that the notches are part of the charm of the Coliseum, it’s curious that the A’s and BIG released the following rendering of a mostly deconstructed stadium.

Coliseum reimagined as amphitheater

The distinctive corner notches that would normally exist in the regular football configuration are gone. The notches at the foul poles remain along with a redone backstop notch, making this ampthitheater-Coliseum in some ways more of a true ballpark than the Coliseum ever was.

Closeup of redone Coliseum baseball configuration with arena in background

So… what happened to championship plaza? In this vision, the plaza is gone along with the plaza and upper decks, replaced by a grove of trees. It hardly makes sense for a city that’s about the spend significant effort to preserve its football history and tradition to simply cast that history aside. Now I get that these sketches are very preliminary, but they show a certain blindness to Oakland sports history. Even though the Raiders are leaving and no replacement is in sight, it doesn’t make sense to keep this baseball configuration when the A’s aren’t going to play many (one per year? any?) games there while so many fans also want football. Or if they can’t have football, they’d like a reminder of what once was. If this is the future of the Coliseum, it should reflect the venue’s rich history: football, baseball, concerts, monster truck shows, all of it.

Looks like a park, feels like a cemetery

Look at the outline of the Coliseum field above. There’s the plentiful foul territory and the backstop notch. I was surprised to find that also intact is the misshapen outfield wall, once euphemistically called the “Jagged Edge.” It’s the last remnant of a to-be demolished Mount Davis. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that the concrete east stands are gone, but the outfield wall was never an architectural highlight. I suppose that it too is an important part of history, so perhaps it should remain. Unlike my previous argument for the notches, the jagged edge was a by-product of design choices made with the 1995 renovation. If anything, bring back the Bash Brothers-era outfield fence and dimensions.

Around the amphitheater are a lot of nice amenities. As Oakland doesn’t have a large urban park, and maybe this could work despite its distance from downtown. Yet check out the nomenclature. Meadow. Lawn. Soccer. The Hills. Youth Sports Academy. Job Training. Soccer (again). No “football” to be found. A few tennis and basketball courts. The term Community bumps up against the Nimitz Freeway. It all speaks to a sort of whitewashing/greenwashing of sports in Oakland. Toss in some “affordable housing” and facilities that should help East Oakland residents, and Bob’s yer uncle.

I remember back to Frank Deford’s write-up of the Coliseum complex in Sports Illustrated, marveling at how things have (or haven’t) changed in the years since. Consider this pearl of wisdom:

The teams all have come so fast that, among other things, Oakland has neglected to support them. People in Oakland tend to gloss this over.

In 1968 there was a bonanza in the East Bay. In 2018 the teams are in a hurry to leave.

A narrative has emerged recently in which Raiders fans looking to place blame for the Raiders’ departure say it’s the A’s fault for “squatting” at the Coliseum.  The argument is not based on any facts or real evidence. All the A’s asked for in their lease extension was for 2 years to make plans for their own eviction if the Raiders put together a bona fide stadium plan of their own. That never happened. And if we’re being honest, Mark Davis would’ve been a fool to turn down $750 million in stadium subsidies from Nevada. Such a gift was not awaiting him in Oakland ever.

These days attention is turning to having Howard Terminal become the centerpiece for another civic revitalization effort, while the A’s, being the last team standing in Oakland, negotiating control over the Coliseum land and reaping the benefits. When I first heard that was the plan I was incredulous. It’s hard enough to build one big development in the Bay Area. Now Oakland wants to hand the keys for two of them to the A’s? The East Bay Times’ recent editorial captured this sentiment well, a sentiment that will undoubtedly grow in the coming months.

Comparison of new large real estate developments

The A’s don’t plan to build out the Coliseum per the Coliseum City plans. It would be nice to have for future development. Even if there’s no new stadium, or even if the old one becomes the Oakland Mausoleum. Just think of it. The A’s could have control of 170 acres, entitlements to 8,000 homes and some 4 million square feet of commercial square footage – in two separate, high-profile locations. To the victor loser goes the spoils, I guess. For the A’s, the spoils are being able to have the East Bay all to themselves. They can dictate what kinds of development can occur at the Coliseum complex, including another football stadium.

I asked A’s President Dave Kaval about the A’s plans for the Coliseum. He ruled out building a ballpark there. Kaval’s response:

We’re still following the entitlements for the Coliseum that were approved for Coliseum City. We have to build up the areas at the Coliseum to deal with sea-level rise.

That led to the obvious follow-up question: Is there a Plan B?

You know we’re the Oakland A’s, we’re all about Plan A. We think we’ve done a lot of community outreach and we’ll do a lot more.

After the backlash suffered with the Peralta plan, I don’t blame the A’s for trying to cover all of the bases this time. I have to wonder if the world – nay, the Bay Area – is moving too fast for them.

Goodbye Oakland Raiders, Hello… SF Raiders?

The Raiders are scheduled to play perhaps their last game ever in Oakland vs. the Broncos on Monday night. Already, Denver local news is sounding the alarm about the dangers that await Orange Crush in the Black Hole.

Stories about rough and lawless crowds for Raiders games at the Coliseum are the stuff of legend. Like most legends they tend to be either fictional or largely embellished. There have been incidents in the past, though, and for the final game in Oakland Raiders history, the Coli is likely to be quite lathered up for the occasion. I don’t blame fans if they do, save for violence.

“Ballpark” is the new “multi-purpose stadium”

To add insult to injury, the Raiders have started talks with the Giants to play the 2019 season at AT&T Park. It would only be a temporary stop as the Raiders await their palace under construction in Vegas. Still, the Raiders playing in SF has to be insulting for at least some Raider fans. Is it possible, though?

We’ve exhaustively covered MLB’s territorial rights here on this blog. Not so much coverage of the NFL’s T-rights. And yes, they do exist. There haven’t been many instances where NFL T-rights had to be defended, though the LA situation could have been trickier had only one team been there for an extended period when the other moved in. Historically, the NFL has been more prone to teams moving than expansion, with teams generally moving to new markets. That would make the NFL’s general by-laws about T-rights pretty straightforward:

“Home Territory” with respect to any club means the city in which such club is located and for which it holds a franchise and plays its home games and includes the surrounding territory to the extent of 75 miles in every direction from the exterior corporate limits of the city, except as follows:

I smell a catch coming…

(A) Whenever any two member clubs, other than the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders, are located and hold franchises for different cities within 100 miles of each other measured from the exterior corporate limits of the city, then the territorial rights of each of such clubs only extend to and include an area of one-half the distance between such cities.

and…

In respect to the San Francisco and Oakland franchises the following provisions shall apply:

The home club in each city shall have the exclusive right to exhibit professional football games played by teams in the League in its city, and neither the San Francisco nor the Oakland club shall have any right to play professional football in the city of the other without the consent of the other club.

In respect to the area included in the home territory of both clubs, but located outside the city limits of both cities, both clubs shall have joint rights of exclusivity, and both of said clubs may play games with other clubs in the League within such area without the consent of the other club also operating in the same home territory or any part thereof.

No other two-team market is codified this way. In fact, the only other two-team NFL markets (NY and LA) either have a shared stadium or are building one. So it would appear that the Raiders need express permission from the 49ers to play in SF. That’s despite the fact that the 49ers don’t play their home games within SF city limits. The Bay Area is weird that way.

Whether the Raiders play at China Basin, East Oakland, or Timbuktu next year, the lawsuit filed by the City of Oakland against the NFL and the Raiders is likely to continue. To that, I look at it as every pile after a tackle – nobody knows where everyone’s hands have been.

Oakland’s thirst for football runs into a hArd limit

As construction on the Raiders’ new Vegas palace continues, Oakland keeps trying to get some kind of football team to take the Raiders’ place at the Coliseum. Thankfully, on Thursday the Coliseum JPA ended their pursuit of a new XFL franchise for the 2020 season. The XFL, the once and future brainchild of WWE head Vince McMahon, previously played during the winter and spring of 2001, with a franchise at what was then named Pacific Bell Park (now AT&T Park). The next iteration of the XFL is supposed to launch a 10-week season around the time of the 2020 NFL playoffs.

The A’s ended up being a big factor in the decision, as the grounds crew takes much of each winter to get the field ready for baseball, which starts every April. To be fair to the JPA, the XFL appears to be ones who tried to push the issue, knowing how well the league did with the SF Demons last time around. But despite the Coliseum’s multipurpose nature, it’s still hampered by some old decisions – some 20 years old, some 50 – that make conversions expensive while compromising the playing surface quality for either sport. It’s smart for the JPA to pass on this.

Hesitance on the JPA’s part caused the XFL to look north, to Berkeley and Memorial Stadium. That entreaty was also refused, leaving the XFL with no obvious alternatives. Why didn’t the XFL hit up the Giants to use China Basin again? After all, AT&T Park recently hosted the Rugby World Cup Sevens successfully. Perhaps like the A’s, the Giants wanted to keep the field pristine during their offseason. Can’t blame them for that.

Hey, where’d the infield go?

Another option that won’t be available for Oakland is the other startup football league, the Alliance of American Football. That league, whose franchises are mostly placed in the South, has set a 2019 launch date.

The Coliseum may not be the best baseball stadium in creation, but at least we can rest assured that the JPA is paying more attention to preserving the Coli as at least a half-decent place to play. The Raiders have every incentive to get their new digs ready for fall 2020, which would benefit the A’s even more as they determine where the future ballpark will be built.