Oakland, do not give in to the A’s ask for tax payer money for a new stadium

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:

Photo by Griffin Wooldridge on Pexels.com

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?

The sociological pitch for the Oakland A’s: green-collar baseball

We have blue-collar, white-collar, and pink-collar. In time for Opening Day of the 2011 baseball season, how about “green-collar baseball“:

There’s a sociological genius at work in the Oakland Athletics marketing department. The current slogan for the franchise, “green collar baseball,” speaks volumes about the culture of the bay area, and why I have become such a devoted fan of the Oakland A’s…

Across the Bay Bridge, you’ll find a better stadium (AT&T Park), a team with a higher payroll, fancier concessions, and fancier fans. You’ll find doctors, lawyers, and San Francisco techie types taking in an afternoon game, reveling in the see and be seen crowd. On the San Francisco side, baseball is very much en vogue. If you search hard enough, you might even find a fan in the crowd who can tell you what a change-up is or explain the infield fly rule.

Trot back over to the Oakland side, and you’ll see where that marketing slogan is coming from. The Oakland Coliseum is clearly a Soviet spin on the baseball stadium, a concrete gulag if there ever was one. The concession options are minimal, the team operates on a shoestring payroll, and the fans are decidedly less cosmopolitan.

All these shortcomings are what bring me to love the authentic experience of Oakland Athletics baseball, and loathe the corporate, plasticized feel of the Giants. There’s an old Taoist saying that it’s “better to be alive in the mud than dead in the palace.” Count me as one who’s happiest to feel alive in the mud of the Oakland A’s.

Having spent time watching both the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park and the Oakland Athletics at Oakland-Alameda County Stadium, I have a few thoughts on this subject:

1. There is no comparison in stadiums: AT&T Park is nice and has great views while the A’s play in a concrete circle. One website goes so far as to say that the A’s stadium “represents everything that’s wrong with baseball stadiums.

2. The two teams do seem to have differences in the number of fans: AT&T Park is regularly full while the A’s struggle to even fill the bottom portion of the stadium, even when the team was good in the early 2000s.

3. Both teams have potential: the Giants, of course, won the World Series last year while the A’s seem to have put together a dark horse candidate to win the AL West based around young pitching (just like the Giants). The baseball in each place should be relatively similar.

4. San Francisco and Oakland are very different kinds of cities. Both have a grittiness to them but Oakland is known for crime and gangs while San Francisco has more glittering pieces. Ultimately, I think this is really what is behind this idea of “green-collar baseball”: Giants’ fans are painted as plastic because this is how Oakland residents view their neighbor across the bay. Oakland, both the city and its baseball team, are the underdogs, the team with a limited number of fans, limited funds, and a limited stadium. What is sociological about the use of this marketing slogan is that it invokes issues of social class and status.

I wonder if these sorts of descriptions only pop only in cities that have multiple franchises in the same sport. Almost the same argument occurs in Chicago: the Cubs fans are only at Wrigley Field because it is the cool thing to do while the White Sox fans are the working class people who really care about baseball.