As the 2022 baseball season is underway, so is the quest by owners to get public money to fund a new stadium. From Oakland, California:
By 2020, the A’s were the only team left. But they made it clear they were prepared to leave, too. Last May, majority owner John Fisher and team president Dave Kaval—resident cartoon villains of what remains of the Oakland sports scene—began threatening to follow in the Raiders’ footsteps and relocate Oakland’s last pro team to Las Vegas … unless the Oakland City Council voted to help them build a $12 billion stadium “district”—replete with condos, hotels, and apartment buildings—on a wedge of waterfront property operated by the Port of Oakland just west of Jack London Square. If approved, the project would constitute one of the largest and most transformative development deals in California state history. It would likewise require hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding to complete. Fisher, who is heir to the Gap Inc. fortune and has a net worth north of $2 billion, has committed to privately finance the construction of the stadium itself, but the project isn’t viable without a suite of infrastructure improvements to the surrounding area. These improvements are what the A’s asked the city to find ways to pay for.
It was a familiar ploy. As journalists Neil deMause and Joanna Cagan write in Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, since roughly 1984, when the Colts left Baltimore for Indianapolis, team owners across the country have worked systematically to “supplement profits by extorting money from their hometowns,” usually “under threat of moving.” Starting around last summer, Fisher and Kaval began to expand upon their means of municipal extortion. In the run-up to a series of contentious City Council meetings, Kaval took to posting videos of himself on Twitter jubilantly attending Las Vegas Knights games, as if to spur the city into supporting his proposal out of jealous insecurity. Fisher, meanwhile, enlisted MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to act as muscle. “Thinking about this as a bluff is a mistake,” Manfred told the BWAA in July 2021. “This is the decision point for Oakland as to whether they want Major League Baseball going forward.”
Oakland has been struggling to make that decision ever since. Some, like Marcus Thompson, an East Oakland native, 2021 California Sportswriter of the Year, and author of Golden: The Miraculous Rise of Steph Curry,resent Fisher and Kaval’s tactics, and say that Oakland’s political leaders “should not be caving to an owner” worth over $2 billion who has “shown zero desire to be a meaningful member of our community unless it is profitable.” Certain Oakland political leaders, such as Councilmember Carroll Fife, who represents the district in West Oakland where the A’s stadium would be built, agree. “There are so many dire issues in Oakland right now,” Fife told me in February—citing, among other things, Oakland’s crises of gentrification, affordability, and homelessness, which the United Nations has singled out as “cruel.” Fife said she doesn’t believe “a sports team is going to address” any of them. “We should use public resources toward addressing residents’ immediate needs.”
Others believe the economic benefits of a new stadium are worth pursuing in and of themselves. “Building the new A’s ballpark would be a blessing,” Mitchell Schwarzer, historian, professor, and author of Hella Town: Oakland’s History of Development and Disruption, told me in an email. It would “bring crowds to adjacent Jack London Square,” and fill “its vacant spaces with places to eat, drink and shop.” Oakland’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, agrees, calling the A’s stadium project “a world-class waterfront ballpark district” with the potential to “benefit Bay Area residents for generations to come.”
No major city or leader wants to lose a major sports team. And the Oakland case is unique with multiple teams leaving in recent years.
However, the price that is often paid to keep a team is not worth it. The costs are too big, taxpayers lose other opportunities, the money would be spent elsewhere in the city if not at sporting events, and the owners are the ones who truly win with the increasing value of their team.
The Oakland case is also different because of the way the Athletics are run. The team has a Billy Beane approach that suggests an excellent team can be created with a limited payroll and an ability to exploit market inefficiencies. The A’s have done this a few times in the last two decades…and then they sell off all of their good players and start again. They just did this going into the 2022 season and have a minimal payroll of just under $50 million, second-lowest in baseball and roughly one-fifth of the biggest spenders in the sport. In addition to the economic case for taxpayers, is this a team worth supporting?