Bay Area Council releases Oakland Ballpark Economic Impact Report

This is not our first rodeo, folks.

What am I supposed to do with this? Yes, take with a grain of salt. Or a whole shaker full of salt. Reference Lyle Lanley, perhaps? That’s an homage. Maybe the original is more appropriate?

I do have some thoughts, such as Why were they so quick to tout ongoing spending by the team inside the stadium? Is it because it’s expected that the team will pay for it, instead of some sort of subsidy stream? Private enterprise is supposed to do that! Let’s not lower our standards because we’re used to sports franchises ripping municipalities off, or because a certain Oakland team continues to be subsidized even though they are leaving.

Or how about the construction spending? Could the Bay Area’s still white-hot real estate market throw that same money and resources into alternative projects such as housing or offices? Yes they could. The biggest hangup at this point is the approval process. Back in 2010 when Oakland was still struggling coming out of the recession, this argument might hold weight. Now it’s just noise.

That 2010 study even spent a couple slides talking about how assessed property values would explode thanks to a ballpark. Today that talking point is anathema. Property values is practically a four-letter word.

These documents are sales pitches, always prematurely staged and distributed. They don’t hold up under scrutiny, but they also don’t get much scrutiny. So it does the job. I’ll let you discuss the various inconsistencies, or question the methodology. To me these are pamphlets, no more, no less.

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.

Schaaf thinks ballpark sites have narrowed down to Howard Terminal and Laney College

Watch:

Big if true.

If I had a drone I’d take some updated pics of the Laney site. Instead, here are some Google Earth 3D renderings looking south, east, and north.

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As this is more-or-less informed speculation on the mayor’s part, I’m going to hold off on major posts until the A’s announce (or leak) something.

Second Deck Club Sandwich

Travis Sawchik’s piece at Fangraphs two weeks ago got to the heart of the issue plaguing the new era of neo-classical ballparks: a lack of intimacy. Sure, most of these parks reduced foul territory and improved sightlines to improve fan experience, which is wonderful as long as you’re sitting in the lower bowl or field level seats. In most newer parks there are 15-20,000 seats in foul territory from pole to pole.

Above that lower level, anything’s possible. Legacy parks like Fenway and Wrigley took different approaches. Wrigley’s second deck was constructed fairly early in the park’s life. Fenway built more lower deck (grandstand) and small decks of premium seats above the lower level, plus the press box. In my eyes, Wrigley is the true classic two-deck ballpark, because it didn’t stray much from its pre-war design and character. Fenway is essentially a single-deck ballpark, at least as far as seating is concerned.

Think of all new parks as a lower deck, and upper deck, and a three-story hotel or office building sandwiched between them.

These days the difference between most ballparks is the approach to the second deck. The old cookie cutter stadia often had a mezzanine level with a level of suites underneath the traditional third deck. The Coliseum was built this way, as was Angels Stadium and many of the “octorads” out east. Several of early new parks followed this arrangement, including Camden Yards, AT&T Park, and Minute Maid Park. Newer parks differed by offering swanky club concourses, or additional suites behind the plate (or in football, along the sidelines). As more parks were developed, other cities chose to distinguish themselves with different features, sometimes favoring more suites over club seats.

Coors Field cross section

Think of all new parks as a lower deck, and upper deck, and a three-story hotel or office building sandwiched between them. The club seat area accounts for two stories, the upper suite level the third. The key disadvantage of this is that the upper deck is pushed skyward and its seats have to be steeply pitched or raked to better see the field. The worst example of this is the White Sox’ Guaranteed Rate Field, whose upper deck was so undesirable that the top eight rows were lopped off. The premium second deck was constituted as suite-club-suite, a stadium club sandwich. Progressive Field in Cleveland is not that much better, with its three-level wall of suites down the third base line and club seat deck along the first base line.

 

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We end up with several variants of the same theme. In nearly all of them the upper levels are pushed back from the lower seats for minimal cantilever and no columns. The older 60’s-70’s parks that received significant upgrades, Angel Stadium and Kauffman Stadium, took out the huge chuck of the lower seats behind the plate to accommodate four or five levels of suites, indoor clubs, and press. Other newer parks like Busch and Miller have their first suite level below the second deck club.

When Lew Wolff was heading the ballpark project, he hinted at ballpark features that would buck this trend and introduce greater intimacy. First was this screen grab from a presentation for a Fremont park, which compared the A’s vision with AT&T Park (note column, apologies for the poor quality):

Here’s an updated version that would’ve been used for the San Jose park:

Here the column is located at approximately row 30 of the lower deck. Another eight rows of seats are behind that column. This would bring the upper deck’s first row as close as row 17 of the lower deck, 10 rows closer than the Coliseum and 8 rows closer than AT&T Park. I don’t know how much of this has evolved in the last seven years, but it’s safe to say that it has to some extent. There’s no super-exclusive premium seating at the field level with its own concourse and a moat (though they could be introduced at some point). David Kaval has said that the A’s will use lessons learned from building and running the Earthquakes’ Avaya Stadium. He and the A’s have already been quite resourceful in using the limited available area at the Coliseum, so I expect changes that will turn this tide and make other owners jealous of the A’s ballpark’s intimacy.

There are some that have advocated for something like Shibe Park or Tiger Stadium. While some aspects of those parks are admirable inspirations, they aren’t how we should build a ballpark in this era. Construction technology has improved, ballparks have been much larger out of necessity, and we want backdrops more than bandboxes. When those parks were built there was no thought given to families, casual fans, or corporations. If the A’s want to hit 3 million fans every year they’ll need those constituencies. Compromises will be made to find a proper balance between making hella skrilla and building a ballpark for the baseball purist. I have confidence that Kaval and team can do it.

Don’t Worry About Las VegA’s

There’s no need to panic about Oakland losing the A’s to Sin City the way they are losing the Raiders.

Not for a few years, at least.

AAA (and former temporary A’s) home Cashman Field

I’m not going to rehash the market size/potential/franchise competition arguments. I did that 10 years before desperate Raiders fans were doing the same. The simple problem for Las Vegas is that the region, or Clark County in particular, shot their wad in bringing in the Raiders. The vehicle for funding numerous improvements around Clark County, the room tax, is currently 12-13% for most properties in the area. A 0.88% hike for stadium funding would bring the tax to around 14%, probably the most local hotels would be will to swallow, since taxes above that percentage start to become less competitive against other vacation/convention locales such as San Diego, Orlando, or Los Angeles.

Clark County hotel tax shares and hikes for the last 30+ years (Las Vegas Sun)

The “cap” also becomes important when considering how revenue shortfalls could be addressed at the stadium. The Raiders aren’t being charged rent at the stadium, but they will assume operations and with that, operating costs. If that becomes difficult to handle and the team cries poor, guess what the first source to tap will be? The same one that will provide some $50 million a year to start and is being collected as you read this.

In short, Vegas doesn’t have a funding source for a stadium. And as we saw with San Jose, just offering a site to the A’s on which they’d have to self-fund a stadium is not going to cut it. From a structural standpoint, it simply doesn’t work.

The Vegas talk was triggered by comments from Rob Manfred, who spoke last week on the topic. Manfred has opened to possibility of MLB expansion, which hasn’t been considered since the last round in 1998 (Tampa Bay and Arizona). Expansion can’t happen until the St. Petersburg (ironic) and Oakland (tragic) stadium problems are resolved. And if they aren’t resolved to Manfred’s and the Lodge’s satisfaction, Las Vegas and Montreal remain as relocation threats, no matter how hollow those threats are.

Manfred’s stated support for Oakland over the last couple years is not lip service. He’s giving John Fisher and Dave Kaval space to complete their work, and the City of Oakland time to get its shit together. He didn’t see Oakland A’s Forever!

“Until Tampa and Oakland are resolved, I don’t see us expanding as a practical matter. It could be an expansion or relocation site,” Manfred said. “I understand the demographics and it could work, based on the size of the city.”

Now that the Raiders have one foot out the door, everything can and should come together for a deal that should satisfy practically all in Oakland. If it doesn’t in five or ten years, the Commissioner can and will complain about the lack of progress. He or some heretofore unknown corporate henchman will talk down Oakland’s commitment, just as Eric Grubman did for the NFL and Roger Goodell. I riffed on this when I first heard about Manfred’s comments.

If all goes well, the only role we’ll see involves Manfred wearing a hard hat and holding a shovel. If not, well, you can’t say you didn’t see the plot twist coming.