Let’s start with the most important part: the fans of the Oakland A’s deserved better. At a time when the Tampa Bay Rays have become a force to be reckoned with in the AL East, and the Pittsburgh Pirates have started the season 13-7, John Fisher, the owner of the Athletics, hung fans out to dry. He’s the reason that the A’s have been woeful in the standings (currently 3-16) and why fans have walked away.
Fisher isn’t the first to field horrible teams in order to drive attendance down to look elsewhere. In fairness, Jeffrey Loria did so with the Montreal Expos. At least Charlie Finley, the owner of the A’s that moved them from Kansas City to Oakland, tried. Maybe the wild colors and using a donkey named Charlie-O was campy, but it showed something more than just, well…. nothing.
There are some realities, however. The Oakland Coliseum is a dump and nowhere near acceptable for an MLB team at this stage. Fisher, whom Forbes values at $2.2 billion, could have personally done something about it, but as often is the case in U.S. professional sports leagues, wanted the public/private venture for a waterfront ballpark and mixed-use development to be more “public” than private.
In a case of leveraging Oakland into a deal, the A’s, with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s blessing, started looking into Las Vegas as a location that the club would relocate to should Oakland not meet the criteria/demands for the development. When the process stalled, the A’s seemingly made good on the threat.
Late Wednesday, the A’s move from threatening to relocate, to making it closer to reality. As part of a statement, they went from talk to tangible.
"The A’s have signed a binding agreement to purchase land for a future ballpark in Las Vegas. We realize this is a difficult day for our Oakland fans and community.”
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According to a report by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the location is west of the Strip. The agreement is for 49 acres at Dean Martin Drive and Tropicana Avenue, owned by Red Rock Resorts
“We support the A’s turning their focus on Las Vegas and look forward to them bringing finality to this process by the end of the year,” Manfred said in a statement provided to the Review-Journal.
There are still open questions. The largest centers on how the actual ballpark and development are funded. The A’s have engaged a team of lobbyists to work in Carson City to try and get that public investment that is so important for Fisher.
“To put a package together that hopefully can work for all parties and that can be a positive return on investment,” A’s President Dave Kaval said to the Review-Journal. “That’s the next step in the process. Hopefully that is done in a positive fashion, and then we can go to Major League Baseball and apply for relocation.”
In the end, the ultimate question is whether the A’s will be any more successful than they have been in Oakland. Based on what’s possible with the Las Vegas site location and size, it will be a boon for John Fisher. As far as some panacea for attendance and interest in the A’s from a television perspective, it seems that the A’s will be no more than incrementally better than they are now, making the move a bust for baseball and a win for Fisher’s bottom line.
The A’s are looking to build a $1.5 billion, 30,000-seat ballpark with a partially retractable roof. Kaval reportedly said that ancillary development, including but not limited to food and beverage establishments and even an amphitheater, is included in the development.
If what was involved in the Oakland Howard Terminal is the blueprint, and the A’s pick up the total cost, it’s possible that they could pay more out of pocket. Estimates in Oakland were for “over $1 billion” but the ballpark was just a small fraction of the cost.
While the scope of the Las Vegas development is unclear, the total development cost for the Howard Terminal project was $11 billion, and was seeking “finance districts” that would use taxes to pay for it. Yes, the A’s were willing to pay for part of it. No, it wasn’t in entirety. It’s here that the A’s have employed the large number of lobbyists in Nevada in an effort to extract the sizable sum to get the remaining needed for the ballpark and ancillary development funded. That will be no easy trick given the Raiders got a hotel tax increase to foot $725 million of Allegiant Stadium and owner Mark Davis is reportedly pipping hot mad at the idea of the A’s moving in just over a mile away. Going back to the casinos and asking them to increase room taxes in order to fund (another) competing entertainment property is certainly not something they’ll want to line up for and could employ their own lobbying arm if they see the costs outweigh the benefits of the A’s moving into town.
But let’s say the A’s work out the public funding part. If so, the mixed-use development diversifies Fisher’s portfolio and creates a bit of “church and state” with the A’s. As is the case with Liberty Media owning the Atlanta Braves, they also own the Battery development around the ballpark. This development is separate from the Braves books but enjoys the walk-up of fans going to games at Truist Park.
All of this sets Fisher up to continue living off the margins with the A’s yet seeing extra benefits around the new ballpark. Unless the A’s retain the current media territory, it’s hard to see how any meaningful media rights deal comes out of Las Vegas. It is the 4oth largest media market and is currently shared six ways between the A’s, San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres, and Los Angeles Dodgers and Angels. It’s possible that the A’s will look to control the whole of Las Vegas, but that may be difficult if Fisher is looking to get 75% of the owners to vote in favor of moving the A’s from Oakland to Vegas.
And then there’s the matter of attendance.
The A’s in Oakland have been in the bottom of the 30 clubs for some time. They haven’t drawn over 1 million for a season since 2019. Kaval said the A’s envision 70% attendance in Las Vegas to be local with 30% being tourists. When the A’s eventually wind up in Vegas, the market will suddenly become oversaturated with major sports properties. With the NHL Golden Knights and the Raiders, there’s already deep cuts into the local population for their discretionary dollars. The problem for the A’s is one of game inventory. Where the Knights only need to sell 41 games, and the Raiders only selling eight games, the A’s will need to sell 81 games. As to the 30% of tourists, this may or may not work. If the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Mets or Dodgers come to town, there is enough brand interest to have fans go in the middle of summer from the coolness of a casino to the ballpark. But just how much interest is there going to be for the Rockies, or Pirates, or Mariners, or any number of other teams?
One thing of interest is that not all the land near the ballpark is going to be sold to the A’s. Red Rock Resorts will still control approx. 50 acres of land in the area once the deal for the site is finalized with the A’s. Is it possible that a casino could be attached to the ballpark or near it and one way to get fans into the ballpark for games would be to have hotel packages that include tickets to see games? It’s not out of the realm of possibility.
In the end, there appear to be two big winners when this is all said and done: John Fisher’s bottom line, and the San Francisco Giants who will then claim all of the Bay Area as their own. Rob Manfred and the league will get to have the A’s host an All-Star game at some stage, and it makes the Baseball Winter Meetings make more sense when it comes back to Vegas. But will the A’s moving really bring better teams to the A’s? Will there be any incentive for Fisher to do more than the minimum, as he’s doing now? It doesn’t appear it. If anything, the move to Las Vegas disincentives Fisher, takes a West Coast expansion market off the map for leveraging, and once the new car smell of the ballpark has worn off, make the A’s seem not too different than they are now. For that, the A’s will be a boon to Fisher’s business and a bust for baseball.