Where Will The A's Call Home?

For the past decade, the A's cry for a new ballpark has been a constant one. When Lewis Wolff's ownership group bought the A's earlier this year, he made it clear that the Coliseum was not in the A's long-term plans. So where does the A's new stadium hunt stand now? Guest columnist Rhamesis Muncada has been running a comprehensive blog about the A's new park search aptly named "new A's ballpark blog". Rhamesis stops by to give us an overview of the search and where it stands.

Background

Since the Haas family sold the Oakland A's to developers Steve Schott and Ken Hoffman in 1995, the team has been in a state of flux. Gone were the salad days of the late 80's, when GM Sandy Alderson had a blank check to get the best free agents. No longer were the rosters full of future Hall-of-Famers such as Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire and Dennis Eckersley. MLB's rapidly changing economics had transformed the A's from a big-money, big-spender team into franchise that frequently depended on revenue sharing to attain profitability.

During the late 80's, the A's were regarded as the class organization of baseball. Even the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum was regarded as one of the premier baseball facilities in baseball. It had dozens of skyboxes, a state-of-the-art DiamondVision video board, excellent concessions, and fantastic views and weather. Though the Coliseum was initially built for the Raiders with multipurpose features, it had acquitted itself well for baseball, especially when numerous improvements were made after the Raiders first left in 1982. The improvements were good enough to earn Oakland the 1987 All-Star Game.

It's amazing how much of a difference fifteen years makes. Since the A's last World Series appearance in 1990, sixteen new ballparks have been constructed, with one more scheduled to open next season (Busch), at least three in the works for the Nationals, Yankees and Mets, and several more that were or are being renovated to keep up with the Joneses (Angel and Dodger Stadiums, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Rogers Centre). The A's were put at a disadvantage when Oakland and Alameda County officials wooed the Raiders back with a revamped Coliseum that featured more premium areas such as exclusive club lounges and level after level of skyboxes. Unfortunately, those improvements were largely placed in the form of a new grandstand that replaced the once picturesque outfield area. A's fans have bitterly coined the centerpiece of those renovations "Mt. Davis." From overhead, the way Mt. Davis towers over the original seating bowl gives the Coliseum an uncanny resemblance to a toilet.

But it's not just looks that are the problem. In an August presentation to Coliseum officials and local politicians, new A's managing partner Lewis Wolff cited 140 baseball-related deficiencies. The main issue would be the fact that the lower deck of Mt. Davis destroys the outfield grass every August and September. Some of these deficiencies are more related to how the facility is not geared for baseball, such as the Coliseum's huge foul territory, tiny dugouts and bus shelter-like bullpens, which have set off their own controversies. There are hidden problems related to substandard clubhouses and training facilities. Others are more related to the fan experience. The Coliseum lacks field level club seats like those at SBC Park, and the luxury suites don't have their own concourse. The existing lower concourse is narrow and jams up faster than the MacArthur maze at rush hour.

The biggest issue, Wolff claims, is the Coliseum's seating capacity. It's simply too large to create any sort of feeling of ticket demand. Even for popular opponents such as the Giants, Yankees and Red Sox, tickets are plentiful and good seats are often available. Since supply is not a problem, there's no sense of urgency to motivate casual fans to become season ticket holders. Different promotions routinely exacerbate the problem. For each $2 Double Play Wednesday or bobblehead giveaway day there are two or three weekday games that attract only 15,000 people. It has been a puzzle for the team to transform this demand curve, and for the 2006 season they have introduced controversial new ticket policies that may affect it. By only selling season tickets in the Plaza and Field levels, the hotelier Wolff is trying to restrict supply for the pricier seating sections while also promising a better level of service for season ticket holders. What is unclear is whether or not the entire View level (upper deck) will be sold at all. There is a possibility that View level seats will be sold only for fireworks games or series against the Giants and Yankees. While some level of scarcity may be achieved, it probably won't make the Coliseum a more intimate venue since fans and television cameras will be able to pick up the expansive, empty upper deck every time they pan up.

Still other issues are more bottom-line, revenue oriented. The A's have little ability to control stadium sponsorship and advertising deals since much of that was already contractually obligated and at nearly 40 years old, the Coliseum is not an attractive co-marketing venue.

The Possible New Locations

The Wolff Proposal

Wolff's presentation in August laid out a bold vision for not just the A's, but for Oakland as well. His plan called for a ballpark to be the anchor of a 90-100 acre development to be built immediately north of the existing Coliseum. The location would allow the ballpark to take advantage of existing infrastructure such as the 10,000-space Coliseum parking lot and the adjacent BART station. Surrounding the ballpark would be new retail and commercial buildings, as well as new residential towers for condominiums and apartments.

It is this ancillary development that Wolff is pitching that would use to fund the ballpark itself. Should Wolff and his partners be able to accomplish this, the ballpark could be funded and built without requiring any new taxes or bonds. Wolff is asking for some help from civic leaders in the form of zoning and other entitlements. He also wants assistance in brokering the land deals that will be required to obtain all of the parcels necessary to get Wolff's vision built. This is the big sticking point in his plan since it requires negotiation with dozens of property owners. Many of the businesses in this industrial zone are entrenched in their existing places of business and are reluctant to move. Others have property that sits vacant or underutilized, which could make a deal relatively easy. Since it's unlikely that local politicians will use the power of eminent domain to seize property for Wolff, any buildup of resistance to Wolff's overtures could delay or even kill the project. Wolff has indicated that there may be alternatives to getting property north of the Coliseum if his housing developments could be built elsewhere, but in the still hot Bay Area housing market, large swaths of readily available, properly zoned land are hard to come by.

Wolff also set what could be considered a soft deadline of Opening Day 2006. The deadline isn't so much to get all of the land acquisition completed as it is for the combined forces of Oakland, Alameda County and the Coliseum Authority to show some progress on getting the entitlements ready and on starting the land acquisition process. Should that progress not prove satisfactory, Wolff has said that he will start to look elsewhere – first in Oakland, then in greater Alameda County. Unfortunately for Oakland, there is a dearth of available land on which a ballpark could be built, let alone a massive mixed-use project. Most of the sites previously considered for a ballpark in downtown Oakland and in nearby neighborhoods have been claimed for other development. Other areas near the Coliseum may be considered, but they too have their infrastructure challenges and may not yield the kind of payoff that Wolff needs to fund the ballpark. He may be forced to look outside Oakland. Fremont has shown an interest in providing land for Wolff should the Oakland discussions not bear fruit, and its seriousness was proven by an initial investment in a ballpark feasibility study, which was approved in October.

There are those that believe that Wolff's plans are merely a bluff, or "vaporware" in Silicon Valley parlance. They are convinced that Wolff intentionally put out a difficult proposal with an impossibly short timeline in order to give him an easy escape route out of Oakland. This may prove true in several months' time, but until then most have chosen to give Wolff, who has a reputation for being a straight shooter, the benefit of the doubt.

Other sites in Alameda County

Fremont has positioned itself as a potential "savior" for the A's should Oakland not work out, but they're not being entirely altruistic. As a mid-sized city looking to emerge from its suburban reputation, Fremont views getting the A's as a way to put itself on the map. Like other Bay Area communities, Fremont won't approve any broad tax hikes to get a ballpark built, but they will provide the land and possible ancillary development Wolff is seeking. The prime site is just north of the NUMMI plant, which is in the Warm Springs district in south Fremont. An alternate is the Pacific Commons development, which is also in south Fremont. The advantage of the NUMMI site is that a new BART station is planned for the area. Pacific Commons' location west of I-880 makes BART impossible.

The Dublin/Pleasanton area has been considered for a ballpark in the past, but there are no indications that current Dublin or Pleasanton officials are planning such a pursuit. Wolff's main requirements are to have a ballpark near both a BART station and a freeway corridor, which makes it difficult to use just any available open space. If anything, any sites up for discussion will require fairly complicated land acquisition similar to what Wolff is seeking in Oakland.

Contra Costa County

While Contra Costa County is part of the A's operating territory, it hasn't emerged with any site candidates. This is not surprising since the county's individual communities are either too small (Concord, Walnut Creek) or too poor (Richmond) to pursue the A's. This could change if baseball-friendly civic leaders see a business opportunity in the A's, but it shouldn't be expected.

San Jose/Santa Clara County

The sordid history of the South Bay's dalliances with Major League Baseball can be summed up in two words: abject failure. Both the Giants and A's have failed in attempts to move to the area. A countywide ballot measure to lure the Giants to Santa Clara was defeated in 1989, and a San Jose effort failed in 1992. Since then, former A's managing partner Steve Schott, who went to Santa Clara University and runs his homebuilding business out of Santa Clara, has attempted to bring the A's to Santa Clara. That effort died on the vine, as Santa Clara officials were uneasy about the status of the team. Schott eventually got his ballpark built: a new stadium for Santa Clara University across the street from the main campus.

San Jose's current effort appears to be borne of its past failures. Early on a grassroots organization, Baseball San Jose was put together to build community support and attack the Giants' territorial rights, which covers the entire South Bay. Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone, who had worked on the previous county and city efforts, has put himself front-and-center in the newest plan, assailing Oakland at nearly every turn. Embattled San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales has been sounding the horn for baseball in San Jose, to the detriment of the soon-to-be-departed San Jose Earthquakes soccer franchise. Meanwhile, the city's Redevelopment Agency has started acquiring parcels of land in the greater downtown area in the hopes of packaging them as a viable ballpark site for the A's.

The basic strategy is two-pronged: get a site together, and hope that Oakland and the East Bay runs out of time. San Jose wants to position the deal as similar to what the Giants did at China Basin, where the land was provided for cheap but the team would bear construction costs. Infrastructure improvements such as transit have been completed, others such as BART as several years away. The site in question, Diridon South, is a similar distance away from the heart of downtown as HP Pavilion (formerly San Jose Arena). A ballpark, proponents argue, would further enhance downtown San Jose by providing the community with year-round sports in the A's and Sharks. Businesses in downtown San Jose stand to benefit greatly from such a plan.

San Jose is also placing some of its hope in its long-time relationship with Wolff, who started his real estate empire in San Jose when he purchased the downtown Holiday Inn, which happens to be only a mile from Diridon South. Wolff's investment group, Maritz Wolff, still has several holdings in the area, including the Fairmont Hotel and a few restaurants. Wolff bought into the Golden State Warriors in an attempt to bring them to San Jose, but he divested himself once he found the arena's primary tenant, the Sharks, had full control over prime dates and revenue. So far, Wolff has been very diplomatic in saying that he's looking first in Oakland, but that doesn't mean that he won't try to negotiate with them in some backroom deal. Since that's how commissioner Bud Selig and the owners seem to get much of their internal business done, one shouldn't be surprised if that is eventually what happens to bring the team to San Jose.

The problem for San Jose is that there aren't even in the position to start building once they get the land deal completed. That's because their fate is in the hands of MLB and the owners cabal, who thanks to an antitrust exemption, get to decide who plays where, who moves and when. That control is wrapped up in a difficult-to-explain concept called territorial rights.

Territorial Rights

Back to the Giants' moves in the late 80's. At the time, Santa Clara County was not assigned to either team. With the prospects of getting a new stadium built in San Francisco looking dim, Giants owner Bob Lurie asked MLB and A's owner Walter Haas, Jr. for the rights to Santa Clara County, with the intent of building in Santa Clara (and later San Jose). Ever the magnanimous type, Haas granted permission for Santa Clara to be conveyed to the Giants. The aforementioned ballot measures did not pass, but Lurie retained the territorial rights to Santa Clara County. When Lurie sold the team to a group headed by Peter Magowan, it appears that a deal was struck with MLB for Santa Clara County to remain with the Giants. The idea was that Magowan, who was planning a privately funded ballpark to be built in the China Basin area of San Francisco, wanted to protect his stadium investment. Magowan's reasoning was that a ballpark in Santa Clara County would be a significant threat to the Giants' season ticket base and its roll of corporate customers.

Magowan's China Basin ballpark opened in 2000 to rave reviews and money coming in hand over fist. 2000 was still at the height of the dot-com boom, and numerous tech firms had everything from big-money advertising deals (remember Webvan?) to luxury suites and club seats at the newest trendy spot in the Bay Area. The Giants' on-field success, buoyed by slugger Barry Bonds' exploits at the plate, was off the charts. The concept of a privately funded ballpark, which was considered a bad deal at its inception by Magowan's MLB-owner peers, was turning out to be one of the shrewdest and best-timed deals in baseball history.

Fast forward to 2005. An aging Bonds, hampered by a bad knee and allegations of steroid use, played in only 14 games at the end of the season. The high hopes brought on by several key veteran acquisitions and the prospect of Bonds making one or two more runs at an elusive World Championship, collapsed amidst a rash of injuries and bad pitching. With Bonds getting closer to retirement with each passing day, the Giants find themselves in the unenviable position of being forced to plan for life after Bonds. The effects of a bad season didn't appear to show up in the team's seasonal turnstile count, which was recorded on paper as a 2% drop from 2004 to 2005. Not shown anywhere was the number of no-shows at the games. No-shows equate to unrealized revenue at the concessions stands and restaurants in the ballpark. The specter of an attendance drop looms as the Giants' decline continues. If the Giants do not sign a superstar or two to replace Bonds sufficiently, the team will have little but the ballpark to sell to fans, and since it will have lost its novelty of "newness," premium ticket prices will be a difficult sell to the discriminating Bay Area entertainment consumer.

Couple that with a new threat from San Jose, and it's easy to see why Magowan is so protective of his territories. Some remedies that have been suggested, such as swapping the East Bay for the South Bay, aren't as clear-cut as they might sound. So far Magowan has rejected any idea of even discussing a deal regarding territorial rights, but considering the way MLB is run, Magowan may be compelled to come to the table. Of course, that doesn't speak to some unfair advantages the Giants also have over the A's:

1. The Giants have territorial rights to San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Marin, Santa Cruz, and Monterey counties while the A's only have rights to Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

2. By building at China Basin, a more transit-friendly site, the Giants have pulled thousands of fans from the East Bay for each game, some of whom may have been more inclined to attend A's games if the Giants were still at Candlestick Park.

3. The Giants have a virtual monopoly over sports talk radio in the Bay Area because of their vested interest in 50,000-watt KNBR and its sister station, KTCT (a.k.a. KNBR-1050). Due to so-called contractual issues, even radio highlights of A's games don't get broadcast on KNBR.

4. A similar relationship exists with local Fox TV affiliate KTVU, which also happens to own the station that broadcast most of the A's road games, KICU. Coincidentally, KTVU broadcasts from Oakland while KICU originates in San Jose.

Faced with these circumstances, the question shifts from "Where will the A's build?" to "Can the A's survive in the Bay Area?" While that may seem a little extreme, it is clear that the A's don't currently operate in a situation where they can maximize revenue. Even getting a new ballpark is only part of the answer since the team has other challenges, such as finding a permanent, high-power radio home. Potential suitors in Portland, Las Vegas and perhaps Sacramento are licking their chops, though each of those cities is no definite shoo-in should the A's come calling due to financial or market limitations.

The next year will be crucial for the future of the Oakland Athletics. New media deals will happen thanks to shifts in radio ownership and the new presence of Comcast Sportsnet in the Bay Area. Fans will understand if staying in Oakland at a new ballpark is at all feasible. Alternatives will become better defined. There is a thought that a bidding war of sorts may be next. If it is, the new A's ballpark blog will report on any related news and events.

Rhamesis Muncada runs the new A's ballpark blog. He is also a life-long Bay Area resident who resides in San Jose.

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