For the Oakland Athletics, it’s all going according to plan.
Observe the arena of sports long enough, and you eventually memorize the playbook. And for franchises aiming to hijack taxpayers for a new arena or hold fans hostage lest they lose their team to a thirstier city, Tuesday night’s barren abomination of A’s-Orioles at what’s now called the RingCentral Coliseum was merely the next page in a well-concocted script.
The attendance – “announced” attendance, at that – was just 3,748, the lowest crowd count at the alternately dreary and cheery Coliseum since 1980. It’s also the smallest crowd at a major league game minus pandemic restrictions since an announced 5,297 fans attended an August 2019 Miami Marlins game.
The reasons why are both well-worn and also infuriating.
The A’s search for a new stadium is nearing its third decade and so well-documented, you could count more artists’ renderings of potential homes than significant free agents the A’s retained.
The Coliseum itself – opened in 1966, home to the A’s since 1968 and roughly a top 10 major league park when it was a baseball-only facility in a sea of multi-purpose behemoths in the 1980s and early ’90s – has been allowed to fall into disrepair, its charm and sunny vistas dwarfed by a renovation inspired by the Raiders’ 1995 return to the city.
Yeah, the A’s could use a new park. But beyond the “lols” at sewage backups and playoff collapses and payroll-cutting trades, it’s what’s happened since the club has had the city to itself that’s most maddening.
The Raiders, as they do, held the city hostage in the ’90s and then bailed for Las Vegas, anyway. The Warriors built a dynasty and then hopped the bridge back to San Francisco for a haute couture arena and revenues more in line with their Silicon Valley-esque rise.
That left Oakland – The Town, as it was lovingly known by natives before getting beaten into the ground by appropriaters – all to the A’s. And every move that’s happened since the Raiders’ 2020 kickoff in Las Vegas has smacked of fan alienation.
Let’s start with the heel turn of A’s president Dave Kaval, who presented himself as the fan-friendly, public-facing voice of a bright new era of Oakland baseball. He littered his social media feeds with “boom” and “100” emojis, celebrating unlikely wins, directly answering fans’ queries as if he could solve anything and introducing aesthetically-pleasing and incentive-laced entry points such as food trucks, a “Treehouse “in-game hangout and an A’s Access plan that in its first year doubled the season ticket base and very much looked like the future of sports attendance.
Silly us, we thought it was for the purpose of pleasing the clientele. Instead, these were clearly trial balloons aimed at workshopping ideas for a new stadium.
Since the Raiders left and the pandemic landed, the A’s have held all the cards and their actions suggest as much.
A’s Access was discontinued. Parking was jacked up to $ 30, even as COVID-19 restrictions left mass-transit options emaciated. Single-game tickets were raised – $ 25 for a third-deck seat in a decrepit football stadium, anyone? – and in the grimmest turn yet, many season-ticket packages were significantly raised before this season.
How much? A bleacher seat went from $ 456 in 2019 to $ 840 in 2022, according to the San Jose Mercury Newswith more expensive options also doubling or nearly doubling.
Meanwhile, as the A’s continued jumping through ever-growing hoops for their desired waterfront home at Howard Terminal, Kaval and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred teamed up on a not-so-subtle bit of dark messaging: Your current home sucks.
When Oakland, fooled more than once by franchise owners, did not rubber stamp a half-billion dollars in infrastructure and carve out multiple tax districts to enrich the A’s, it was game on. Las Vegas was raised as a relocation option, with Kaval tweeting from a Golden Knights playoff game in case you’re not into the whole subtlety thing.
Manfred openly pushed Vegas as a “parallel track” to Howard Terminal, stamping the league endorsement on a plan that it was the only appropriate option for the A’s, and sending a loud message to those who might have enjoyed the East Oakland sunshine and dream of a newer ballpark there.
“The Oakland Coliseum site is not a viable option for the future vision of baseball,” MLB said in its initial public show to play the bad guy in this drama. “We have instructed the Athletics to begin to explore other markets while they continue to pursue a waterfront ballpark in Oakland. The Athletics need a new ballpark to remain competitive, so it is now in our best interest to also consider other markets.”
Of course, viability is in the eye of the ticket-holder.
Do you want a modern, 35,000-seat venue with good weather, access and even a few adjacent amusements? That would check off most fans’ wish lists, and the Coliseum site, with a billion or two dollars of TLC, could provide that.
Or do you want a real estate development masquerading as a ballpark, with a price tag of $ 12 billion further enriching the owner and allowing him to keep up with the Atlantas and San Franciscos and Chicagos of the world, with non-baseball revenue lining his pockets regardless of team performance?
Howard Terminal, and Howard Terminal only, could provide that.
We learned in stark detail just how much Manfred works for the owners during the recent 99-day lockout, and Howard Terminal would not only benefit the relatively unaccomplished but steadfast owner, John Fisher, but also max out the A’s franchise value, earning a knowing nod from the 29 other clubs.
Fans in Oakland were always sophisticated, and many hardy souls still showed up anyway. Now, perhaps, the final indignities have been delivered.
If the raising of ticket prices did not drive away the average fan, the spring training trades of All-Stars Chris Bassitt, Matt Chapman and Matt Olson drove it home. They have been replaced by young, plucky and charismatic players, same as it ever was in Oakland, where baseball operations guru Billy Beane and GM David Forst will probably erect another contender.
But this time, it’s different. This time, fans know the rebuild isn’t for them, but rather residents of Las Vegas, or perhaps the fattest of cats who can afford tickets to a 35,000-seat palace near the water, a site whose transit and parking plans still hold many unanswered questions.
Eventually, Oakland’s City Council, which in February approved an environmental impact report, will vote on the plan. Mayor Libby Schaaf is stumping for it. Many legal and political stumbling blocks remain and opposition exists, with one affected Port of Oakland worker telling the city council that Fisher was a “billionaire looting the city.”
But on Tuesday night, we found out just how many season-ticket holders and walk-up curiosity seekers are willing to weather the indignities in the meantime: 3,748.
Get used to it. And as you chuckle, and the A’s possibly draw closer to relocating, don’t forget who to blame.