Extremely late last Wednesday night, the Oakland Athletics baseball franchise, owner John Fisher and president Dave Kaval, confirmed the reporting of several outlets that they had signed a binding agreement to purchase land for a future stadium in Las Vegas. Fifty-five years of history in the Bay Area appear to be coming to a close… though many won’t fully believe it’s real until shovels break ground.
In the wake of the announcement, everyone has been quick to find someone to blame: the ownership, the city and local politicians, the fans, Major League Baseball, that next-door neighbor who roots for the Giants, you name it. The truth is almost always more complicated than blaming a single person or entity would allow. But unlike most complicated situations, the reaction from locals, former players and managers and others around the sport has been nearly unanimous--full of disappointment.
That’s for good reason–the A’s are a Bay Area institution, rich in history and with their own unique fan culture. You won’t find moments like the Bernie Lean, the Grant Balfour Rage, “I believe in Steven Vogt” or Josh Reddick’s Careless Whisper walkup many other places. It’s just a shame it all seemingly has to come to an end.
So consider this one final plea. The A’s belong in Oakland for many reasons, and for many others, they don’t belong in Las Vegas. Here’s just a short list of the most obvious of those reasons:
The number one reason negotiations broke down between the City of Oakland and the Athletics, if you listen to the A’s front office’s side of things, was that it had become impossible to make any sort of progress on a new ballpark. It’s never been a secret that A’s ownership is characteristically frugal, usually on the extreme side. That said, it is still hard to fathom just how little the team was willing to spend to stay in Oakland.
To boil it down to the bare essentials, the city had agreed to pay $350 million for the off-site costs of the proposed new stadium at Howard Terminal, but also reimburse the A’s for additional on-site stadium costs when it could, according to a 2021 terms sheet that the team never officially signed onto. Times continued to be tough economically for the city and at present, they have been unable to come up with the final $88 million to fulfill the original estimated costs. ABC7 Reporter Casey Pratt did a very good job breaking down the whole spider web on the Damon Amendolara Show last week.
Yes, it’s hard to build stadiums in California but… wouldn’t you expect that number to be a little higher? The Pittsburgh Pirates, another notoriously cheap franchise, just spent over $108 million on a single player. Plus, lest we forget, the A’s made $62.2 million in profits last season alone, fifth most in all of MLB. Plenty of teams operate at a loss, because winning in sports is supposed to be worth paying the price.
The A’s, however, have decided to actively strip their operation down to the bare bones, more so than ever before. Ownership is pocketing profits until they can move to Las Vegas with a sweetheart land deal and then... who knows what they’ll do? Suddenly start spending like a championship team? Shell out the $88 million on prized free agents? The few fans that will remain loyal to the team after the move are likely not holding their collective breath on that one.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the ”reverse boycott” currently being planned by A’s fans later this season. Given that the timeline for departure is expedited (the lease at RingCentral Coliseum is up at the end of 2024), it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the die-hards of Oakland pack the stadium at least a few other times, partly in celebration, partly in protest.
It’s tiresome to hear the narrative that the team doesn’t have fans. Watch Coco Crisp’s walk-off single in the 2012 playoffs. Look at the 56,000 fans that packed the Coliseum when the A’s made the Wild Card Game in 2019. The A’s have had to work extra hard to bring in fans for years because the stadium is… let’s just call it “rugged.” But when the situation has merited big crowds, not only have those crowds showed up, but they’ve showed out.
Plus, it’s not only a run-down stadium that can keep patrons out. A’s fans are simply fed up with this saga. The team refuses to spend. They threaten to leave for Las Vegas, San Jose, Mexico City, you name it. They blame their city for refusing to capitulate to their demands. And all the while, any marquee player who comes through the door is traded before he can reach free agency. Fans may want to love the A’s, but the front office, by design, has made the team extra hard to love.
This one hits on a foundational issue that this team and many other sports franchises have made prescient. Michael Lewis’ 2004 book, which became a 2011 film starring Brad Pitt, made A’s GM Billy Beane the ultimate protagonist. Finding players off the scrap heap, winning in spite of cheap ownership, it all became so quaint. The last on-screen line of the movie, “Billy is still trying to win his last game of the season,” seems to set the A’s up for a future fairytale ending if and when they ever win a World Series with a bottom three payroll in the league.
But this is 2023 now, and every single front office relies on advanced analytics in their decision-making. Beane now works as a special advisor to Fisher but there are plenty of other savvy analytical minds in the A's' GM suite... they're just playing the same game as everyone now, with far less capital.
Thankfully, though, there exists a much simpler option. John Fisher is worth over $2 billion–2.2 according to his real-time Forbes valuation. That is approximately 10 times the total payroll of the 2023 Los Angeles Dodgers… the whole dang team. And we aren’t even asking the A’s to spend like the Dodgers here.
The league average payroll this season is $160 million. The A’s are close to that… just take away the one. $60.7 million, a full 40% of which is currently on injured reserve. It isn’t cute… it’s profiteering.
Commissioner Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball have continually allowed this franchise to underspend… and now they’re backing the team as it tries to Irish goodbye a city they’ve already been mistreating. Worse, Manfred laid the blame squarely at the feet of the politicians this week at a meeting with the Associated Press. He claimed the league had shown “unbelievable commitment” to Oakland fans and “exhaust[ed] every possible opportunity” to keep the team in the city. Which, again, rings pretty hollow if the whole thing could fall apart over less money than the Bryan Reynolds contract.
Here’s the bottom line: owning a team shouldn’t be a cash cow. Every team should be lawfully required to put their best foot forward and spend the requisite money to attract star-quality players. The NFL forces every team to spend at least 89% of the cap over a four-year period. It’s high time MLB does something similar and eradicates the scourge of forcing execs to resort to “moneyball” to even have a prayer of fielding a .500 level team.
Obviously, having a major sports franchise is a desirable thing for the vast majority of cities. Sports breed community engagement, make cities a more attractive vacation destination, and yes, bring in a significant amount of revenue. And Vegas has seen quite the influx of teams in the last half decade, with the Golden Knights making an inaugural season run to the Stanley Cup Finals, the Raiders ditching Oakland before it was cool and the Aces laying the groundwork for a potential dynasty.
But does that mean the city is so desperate for a baseball team they’ll take anything they can get? The A’s have a storied history in Oakland, which includes four championship pennants, but the current roster is the worst in the sport by a longshot. What is so attractive about that team that the city expects its fans will immediately hop on board?
We’ve seen this happen already in the NFL, and it’s an issue that will likely multiply with time. Teams move to a new city and expect fans to fall in line, but there are existing allegiances in play. The Rams and Chargers moved to LA and the stadiums (plural, because StubHub Center was a real thing that happened) became a tailgate haven for fans of the other 30 teams to come see their team in person. The Raiders, who had strong existing fan bases in the Bay Area and Southern California, moved to Vegas and are in danger of having their stadium become the same.
So what gives Las Vegas confidence that the A’s will be enough of a draw to bring in locals and vacationers for 162 games a year? Who are you even putting on the poster outside the stadium? Assuming the inaugural season is 2025, do you know how many current A’s players have guaranteed salaries for that first season? ZERO. It’s all arb-eligible guys and short-term rentals.
Is this topic as pressing as the others? No, obviously not. But the Athletics’ brand makes so, SO much more sense in Oakland than Las Vegas.
Green and gold? Green, like the oak trees the city gets its name from? Gold, like the California state nickname? A perfect fit. But now it looks like the green will have to represent the money spent at casinos and sportsbooks while the gold takes its lead from the fake stuff gilding the buildings. Makes perfect sense, see you at the ballpark!
This writer once played a national invitational baseball tournament in Vegas at the age of 13. It was July, and the average daytime temperature during the games was 108 degrees. The games were played on turf and it was like stepping on hot coals.
So unless A's ownership are truly the greatest penny-pinchers of all time, this new stadium will have to have a roof. That roof will likely be closed for just about every game between May and October, much like the roofs in Houston, Arlington, Miami and Phoenix.
And what fun is that? Roofed baseball may be a necessary alternative to face-of-the-sun baseball, but it's an undeniably weird atmosphere. Sounds are different, fly balls are somewhat hard to gauge against the backdrop of a ceiling and the air is always stuffy. Miami's loanDepot Park has a Twitter account that usually tweets whether the roof will be open or closed and when it's top-down, the usually-grumpy comments section lets out a huge scream of triumph.
To top it off, this will also likely be the sixth MLB stadium to employ artificial turf, as three of the four stadiums listed above have switched over to a new turf variant from natural grass in the past three seasons. Cost-cutting move? Sure. Ugly? Absolutely. For baseball purists, this Vegas stadium is sure to be an eyesore.
Perhaps it is unfair to treat the A’s differently because of the decisions of other sports teams they used to share a city with. But the emotional blow of the Raiders’ and Warriors’ departures are already weighing on Oakland’s fans. Losing their longest-tenured team, the one for whom the Coliseum was built, for whom the stadium marked a standard of beauty before the aptly named “Mount Davis” was added for football seating, would be too much to bear.
The Coliseum site used to be covered in signage for all three teams. On a night in May where the Warriors would play a playoff game shortly after an afternoon A’s game, the parking lots would be teeming with enthusiastic stadium-goers.
Yes, the site is badly outdated, and when visiting the Chase Center, it makes complete sense why the Warriors wanted shiny new digs. Yes, the A’s deserve a new ballpark as well. For reasons discussed throughout this piece, it would be 100 times better if that ballpark was in Oakland. It’s clear that isn’t going to happen, so in that sense, it makes sense that the team would leave. But it isn’t going to hurt any less.