Why The Oakland A’s Don’t Belong in Oakland

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By Jonathan Mahler

That the Oakland A's have made it this far is another "Moneyball" miracle. Sure, the A's (payroll: $49 million) face elimination tonight against the Detroit Tigers (payroll: $119 million). But Oakland's mere presence in the postseason is the best proof yet that smart management can triumph over free spending.

The 2012 A’s have another lesson to teach us, however: Baseball’s most famous small-market team shouldn’t even be one.

For years, the team’s owner, Lew Wolff, has been trying to move the franchise from Oakland to San Jose, about 41 miles south and nearly two-and-half times as large. And for years he has been thwarted by baseball’s ownership cartel, which is dead-set against allowing the A's to encroach on the San Francisco Giants’ territorial rights to the South Bay region. (Oakland is actually closer to San Francisco than San Francisco is to San Jose, but never mind. Logic has no place in this dispute.)

Oakland deserves every break it can get, and like any self-respecting city, it is scrambling to keep its A’s. Despite a $2 billion (and counting) debt, Mayor Jean Quan has conjured a vague, fantastical vision for a massive new development called Coliseum City. Stadiums! Hotels! Restaurants! Stores! The A’s do play in the only dual-use football/baseball stadium still in existence, a 1960’s-era concrete monstrosity that would provide a refreshing antidote to today’s faux-charming red-brick bandboxes if it weren’t such a miserable place to watch a ball game. And on an emotional level, it feels wrong to root for a team to abandon its home: Why punish fans for their failings of their cities?

At this point, however, the argument for keeping the A’s in Oakland is purely sentimental. This year’s team came out of nowhere, reaching the postseason after a 37-42 start (and preseason odds of winning the division of 0.4 percent). It was a lot of fun to watch, but the team’s attendance barely budged -- up from last in 2011 to fourth-to-last this year. That says everything you need to know about the ability of the city of Oakland (population: about 390,000) to sustain a big-league team.

A new stadium would not be the answer, either to the A’s problems (see this year’s Miami Marlins) or to Oakland’s. Mayors love to tout new stadiums as engines of economic redevelopment, but the supporting evidence is thin. As one economist has put it, “If you want to inject money into the local economy, it would be better to drop it from a helicopter than invest it in a new ballpark.”

Oakland’s two other professional sports franchises are already working on their exit strategies. The NBA's Golden State Warriors are planning to move to a new waterfront arena in San Francisco by 2017. The NFL's Raiders are a safe bet to either return to Los Angeles or move elsewhere in a matter of years.

Try as he might to position himself as such, Wolff is by no means an innocent victim in all of this. He and his partner John Fisher, the heir to the Gap fortune, bought the A’s for $180 million in 2005. Thanks largely to baseball’s growing media revenue, the team is now worth more than $300 million. It also runs a tidy annual profit. Meanwhile, Wolff and Fisher soak up the revenue-sharing and luxury-tax money to which their microscopic payroll entitles them.

As the A’s prepare for tonight’s make-or-break playoff game, there is finally strong demand for tickets. But Wolff has refused to make more seats available by removing the green tarps that cover most of the third deck and outfield stands, arguing that opening up the additional seating would ruin the park’s “intimate” feel.

Whether he realizes it or not, Wolff is also arguing that giving more of his team's fans a chance to watch the A's play is not one of his top priorities. Which is to say that he isn’t any different from the selfish, greedy owners who are preventing him from moving.

(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.

-0- Oct/09/2012 16:59 GMT