On the evening of June 16th, 2013, then-owner of the Oakland Athletics Lew Wolff sat down to dinner at the Oakland Coliseum’s West Side Club after watching his team defeat the Mariners 10-2. He never got to take a bite.
Instead, he was informed that raw sewage leaked into the kitchen, and the restaurant had to be immediately shut down. The plumbing issue also forced the Mariners to depart the visitors’ locker room and shower with the A’s. Speaking with USA Today the next day to explain the incident, Wolff quipped, “I was really hoping by now that we’d be going into a new venue. It stinks.”
Now, more than eight years later, after another well-publicized sewage leak incident, light fixture failings, dead mice in the soda machines, and a plethora of less-newsworthy infrastructure problems at the Coliseum, the A’s are still desperate for a new home — and they’re willing to move on to drier pastures to get it.
In May of this year, citing insufficient movement on a project for a new stadium in Oakland, MLB declared that the Athletics were free to explore a move to another market, leading A’s President Dave Kaval to announce a parallel path strategy several weeks later. This strategy has, as of December 2021, entailed continuing negotiations with the City of Oakland on a waterfront ballpark project while simultaneously pursuing sites in Las Vegas.
This is not the first time the Athletics have sought to leave Oakland. In 2006, Wolff floated the idea of developing a site in Fremont, CA, 26.5 miles southeast of Oakland. That proposal was abandoned in 2009 after pushback from the residents of Fremont, but Wolff followed up in 2012 with an attempt to move the team to San Jose, CA, which is about a 45-minute drive south of Oakland.
That effort was blocked by the San Francisco Giants’ territorial rights and resulted in San Jose bringing a case against MLB challenging the unique antitrust exemptions that enable the league to regulate its franchises’ movement. The case was ultimately torpedoed by the US Supreme Court’s refusal to take it up on appeal, forcing the A’s to refocus on sites in Oakland and Alameda County.
What makes the current “parallel paths” strategy different from previous escape attempts is that it represents the first time the Athletics have considered a move away from the Bay Area entirely, and the first time they’ve had MLB’s approval to complete such a move. Given that the team’s quest for a new stadium spans more than two decades and has resulted in a list of failed proposals long enough to merit its own Wikipedia page, it’s unsurprising to a neutral observer that they’d want to cast their line in a new pond.
But for Oakland fans, the flirtation with Las Vegas has felt like a shattered promise, a betrayal of faith by a franchise that, for the past four years, staked its entire marketing strategy on its commitment to their city.
“Rooted in Oakland”
On June 25, 2014, roughly a year before the conclusion of San Jose’s case, Wolff and the Athletics renewed their lease on the Coliseum for another ten years. Two years later, in November 2016, Wolff bowed out of the organization by selling his shares to the team’s other owners. This left John Fisher, an heir to the Gap fortune whose net worth is estimated around $2.6 billion, as the majority owner of the team. Along with Wolff’s departure, Kaval was brought on as the team’s president, and it was announced that he would be taking the lead on the effort to get a new ballpark built.
The ownership change reinvigorated efforts to find a site in Oakland, and the team soon announced a desire to have a new stadium by 2023. It began evaluating three possibilities: a new complex on the same site as the Coliseum, development in the Peralta Community College District, and a waterfront project at Howard Terminal, slightly north of Jack London Square.
The backdrop for the organization’s renewed commitment to Oakland was the news that the city’s other two professional sports franchises, the Raiders of the NFL and the Warriors of the NBA, would be departing. The Raiders were headed to Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas for the 2020 season, and the Warriors would be moving across the Bay to the Chase Center in San Francisco for the 2019 season.
The A’s accompanied their latest push for a new stadium with a highly publicized PR campaign summed up by the tagline “Rooted in Oakland”. The message was unmistakable: The other guys might have abandoned you, but we’re here to stay.
That marketing campaign was more than just words. It was accompanied in the 2018 season by the introduction of the extremely popular A’s Access ticket program as a replacement for season tickets, along with the first notable stadium improvements in years. These improvements included the introduction of food trucks, the Treehouse bar complex in left field, and an improved kids zone. As a cherry on top, the organization was able to field a competitive team as well: 2018 saw the A’s break a stretch of three losing seasons and return to the playoffs.
The combination of public commitment to the city, concrete investment in the fan experience, and a talented group of players on the field achieved the improbable — it increased attendance at the Coliseum. In fact, attendance rose by 6% year-over-year from 2017 through 2019, whereas the average league attendance dropped by nearly 6% in the same period.
More intangibly, the atmosphere at the park changed, and fans felt it. The team that had long been maligned for its terrible stadium and correspondingly low attendance was making an honest effort to flip the script. The new ownership was saying all the right things, investing directly in the community, and innovating to find ways to get people into the gates.
It seemed the A’s had fully embraced the gritty identity of “The Town” and would continue turning the Coliseum’s warts into sources of humor and pride as they won games and continued the journey toward their own permanent, baseball-specific home in Oakland.
Unfortunately, the push to find that new home has run into one stumbling block after another. The challenges have come in many forms, from student protests to Chinatown business associations to the Covid-19 pandemic to convoluted lawsuits. Even as the Athletics experience an on-field resurgence, the window for a new ballpark in Oakland is closing, and the relationship between the city and franchise has frayed to a thread as a result.
December 2017: A False Start
Months after the Athletics declared their preference for the Peralta site, the door was abruptly slammed on that option. The Peralta Community College District, which owned the land being discussed, announced its decision to halt talks after strong opposition from a coalition of students, teachers, and community leaders, and never re-engaged in discussions with the team.
The A’s and President Dave Kaval returned to the remaining two options they’d laid out in June: Build a new stadium on the existing Coliseum site or break new ground with a waterfront project at Howard Terminal.
Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf, an outspoken proponent of keeping the A’s in Oakland, had favored the Howard Terminal site since the reveal of the team’s three preferred options in June 2017. She continued to push for cooperation with the team to find a solution after the Peralta talks fell through, and was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle the following day saying:
“Oakland remains fiercely determined to keep the A’s in Oakland. It is unfortunate the discussion with Peralta ended so abruptly, yet we are committed, more than ever, to working with the A’s and our community to find the right spot in Oakland for a privately financed ballpark.”
March 2018-December 2019: Progress
Following several months of backroom talks to identify a path forward, the A’s next move was to offer to buy the Coliseum from the city of Oakland and Alameda County. This move would both give the A’s full ownership of the Coliseum and the land it stands on while also providing a degree of political cover for local politicians to begin stumping on behalf of the team.
Government investment in infrastructure for sports franchises is a touchy subject for many residents of Oakland and Alameda County. Their tax dollars are still going toward $65 million in debt incurred on behalf of the Raiders for the construction of the rarely used “Mt. Davis” bleachers in the Coliseum. In 2020, the city also had to duke it out in court with the Warriors to ensure its residents wouldn’t get stuck with bills for renovations completed on the Oakland Arena in the 90s.
The deal the A’s struck would, at its core, be a swap of the land containing the Coliseum and Oakland Arena complex in exchange for the Athletics taking on the $135 million in debt Oakland and Alameda County still carried related to renovations of the two stadiums. The continuing refrain from anyone supporting the new stadium project is one of a “privately funded” park. However, negotiations have continued to be haunted by the tax burden left on residents by teams that ultimately abandoned them.
Moreover, as talks have progressed, it became clear that any new construction would not be restricted to a new ballpark. The discussions began focusing on full-scale urban development in the model of San Diego’s Petco Park and Giants’ Oracle Park — two stadium projects whose construction effectively rejuvenated aging waterfront property in their respective cities. For the politicians to get on board, they needed to make clear that the city wouldn’t be left holding the bag again.
Several days after the A’s made their offer, Mayor Schaaf appeared standing next to Kaval on Oakland City Hall’s rooftop to announce that Oakland would enter into dual exclusive negotiating agreements with the Athletics for the Howard Terminal and Coliseum sites. In hindsight, a quote from Kaval in the San Francisco Chronicle’s article covering the rooftop announcement uncannily foreshadowed the progression the team would take from that point onward: “We want to find a solution that works for the city of Oakland, our community and for the A’s. Being able to parallel-path these two options is a great path to do that.”
He followed that by tipping his hand on which site would be the top choice moving forward:
“Having just a destination ballpark with a sea of parking — that’s not a suitable sports complex for the 21st century for millennials, for fans. We want more parades down Broadway with championships and the civic pride that comes from that and the economic development of a new ballpark.”
For the next two seasons, discussions gained momentum and reached a steady, if unspectacular, pace. The Howard Terminal project really came to life in April 2018 when the A’s struck a deal with the Port of Oakland, the specific proprietor of the land in question, to discuss development.
With that agreement complete, planning continued, the A’s hired an architectural firm to begin drafting stadium designs, and long-awaited stadium renderings were released periodically through the rest of 2018. Meanwhile, the team continued to woo fans with a multitude of promotions, including free tickets to celebrate the 50th anniversary in Oakland and ended the 2018 season with a 97-65 record and a trip to the AL Wild Card Game.
Throughout 2019, the Athletics navigated environmental reviews, legal challenges, race and equity analyses for the city, and a whole host of other procedural steps. The players did their part in fostering goodwill with Oakland fans and residents of the Bay Area as a whole by repeating the previous season’s 97-65 record and returning to the AL Wild Card Game a second year in a row. Although the stadium proposal still had a very long road to travel, supporters of the project had good reason to be optimistic as the calendar flipped to 2020.
2020: Legal and Viral Landmines
Oakland and the A’s, like the rest of the world, were knocked on their butts by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the midst of the economic uncertainty and general chaos spawned by the virus, the Athletics had to abandon their hopes of having a new ballpark by the 2023 season.
With the Covid-related issues already having pushed back the Athletics’ desired move-in date, the project was further hamstrung by a lawsuit brought against the A’s by businesses with a stake in the existing infrastructure at Howard Terminal. The suit, which was essentially an attempt to expose the project to additional litigation over environmental concerns that could in turn delay it into nonexistence, was ultimately dismissed in February 2021.
But the machinations required to end the legal challenge killed the momentum built up over the previous two years and soured the working relationship between the A’s, city, county, and port officials. All parties were now facing a hard deadline in 2024 when the Athletics’ existing lease on the Coliseum would expire. Kaval didn’t mince words when speaking to the Mercury Times after the ruling:
“This was completely a 100% roadblock. We are concerned about the timeline and pace of progress because of Covid and the lawsuit. It’s great that we’re off the lawsuit and we’re moving forward. But you know, I think the timelines nonetheless are one of the biggest challenges that we face with the project right now.”
2021: Sin City Enters the Picture
With the 2023 timeline clearly off the table, the A’s are now more desperate than ever to get a deal done. A very trimmed-down version of the steps the team needs to clear to break ground on a new stadium is:
- Complete an environmental review process and get a final environmental impact review (EIR) approved by the City Council.
- Submit a project review with the city, county, and port. This is effectively the proposal of what will be built.
- Complete a project agreement with the city, county, and port. This would finalize the plans for what will be built and seal the financial agreement of who pays for what.
As of December 2021, the EIR is near the finish line, and will likely be finalized in February 2022. Negotiations on the timeline and approval process related to the project review and project agreement are at the heart of what’s driving Oakland and the A’s apart.
The Athletics kicked off 2021 by submitting a term sheet that outlined their vision for the Howard Terminal project in January. Having not received desired feedback on that term sheet by April, they attempted to gain momentum by releasing it to the public and encouraging comments. Both the City Council and community groups raised concerns over the cost and environmental impact of the proposal, but Mayor Schaaf stated she would have the draft term sheet ready for an initial council vote by July.
This is the point at which Las Vegas entered the picture, and cynicism amongst the Oakland faithful started to spike.
Immediately following the MLB’s announcement in May that the Athletics were free to explore other markets, Kaval asserted that it was Howard Terminal or bust for the franchise’s future in Oakland, with site visits in Sin City occurring the following week. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred added fuel to the growing fire in July, a week before the non-binding City Council vote on the term sheet, to warn that it was a mistake to assume the Las Vegas visits were bluffs. Kaval piled on, stating that the July 20th vote was “the last at-bat” for the team in Oakland.
The City Council responded to this pressure by highlighting three points within the Athletics’ terms that needed to be addressed, and then released its own term sheet four days before the scheduled vote. In a bizarre and confusing turn of events on July 20th, the City Council then voted to approve its own term sheet, leaving Kaval and the A’s scrambling to figure out what the new terms actually were while fielding questions about whether they were going to be leaving or not.
The issue was, and still is, that the two sides do not see eye-to-eye on financing for offsite infrastructure, a community fund to develop local jobs and support services, and how much affordable housing would be created as part of the project. The crux of the issue deciding whose terms will set the development up as a true community revitalization project that will bring money and much-needed housing back to Oakland’s dilapidated waterfront.
The A’s, understandably, are not interested in funding a slew of public-transit and affordable housing developments on behalf of the city. Conversely, the City Council is not about to pour money into a project unless they can tout concrete benefits it will provide for their constituents.
The two sides were able to work through several revisions of the terms and achieve a non-binding vote from the Alameda County Commissioners to move forward, but continued progress is far from guaranteed.
The A’s continue to hold up the threat of a departure to Nevada, with reports in early December 2021 indicating they were zeroing in on specific sites in Las Vegas. These threats are likely calculated in part to pressure the City Council and Alameda County Commissioners to hold binding votes to approve the Howard Terminal Project, but the pathway towards the “Las Vegas Athletics” remains wide open.
For Oakland and the A’s, the question boils down to how much a baseball team is willing to sacrifice profits to sponsor its community, and how much debt the community is willing to take on to keep its baseball team.
Uprooting From Oakland?
As negotiations continue, the goodwill the team developed with fans during the 2018-2019 seasons is evaporating quickly.
Returning to the Coliseum following the exclusion of fans in 2020, the Oakland faithful were met with the announcement that the A’s Access Membership program would not be continued and soon found that concessions, parking, and ticket prices had all skyrocketed. The result was an abysmal average attendance of fewer than 9000 per game, despite having a team that finished a respectable 86-76 and was in contention for the playoffs until the final weeks of the season.
Events unfolding after the end of the season continue to dim Oakland’s hope for their baseball future as well. At the end of October, it was announced that Bob Melvin, after becoming the winningest manager in A’s history in 18 years with the club, would leave for San Diego. On top of Melvin’s departure, rumors abound that a wholesale teardown of the roster is in store whenever the lockout ends.
It’s impossible to disassociate the cold welcome for fans at the Coliseum with the statements and actions that have come from A’s leadership throughout 2021. For the fans, baseball is an escape from the grind, a chance to unplug and focus on watching great plays by their hometown team instead of on making ends meet. The sudden about-face from “Rooted in Oakland” to “Last At-Bat for Oakland” is a painful reminder that, for the people making decisions about baseball, civic pride is just a marketing strategy.
For executives, what matters is profit, and as far as they’re concerned, the desert is as fertile as the bay.
Featured image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)
Great article Colin. Very interesting history that I want to know for when the A’s move to Vegas.