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Oakland A's Fans, Value Investors

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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The Oakland Athletics will take the field tonight against the Texas Rangers with a squad that doesn’t look much like the A’s teams that made it to the playoffs each of the past three years. The best player on those teams, third baseman Josh Donaldson, was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in November. The most exciting player, left-fielder Yoenis Cespedes, was shoved out a couple of months before the end of last season in a trade with the Red Sox for pitcher Jon Lester -- who then departed in the off-season for a big contract with the Cubs. The A’s also traded away three other 2014 All-Stars, catcher Derek Norris, first baseman Brandon Moss and pitcher Jeff Samardzija.

Are A’s fans and the local media complaining about this? I don’t live in the Bay area, so I’m not perfectly positioned to monitor these things, but as a regular reader of A’s newspaper coverage and the fan site Athletics Nation I would say the answer is mostly no. Yes, there are some who believe that the Cespedes-Lester trade was a mistake, and the departure of Donaldson with several years to go on his contract definitely occasioned some moaning. But on the whole the reaction to general manager Billy Beane’s wholesale dismantling of a very successful team has been along the lines of, This should be interesting!

Here’s Tyler Blezinski, the founder of Athletics Nation:

I view my Oakland A's as the most fun team I follow because they're always changing. It never becomes boring routine…The essence of loving this franchise is embracing the change and the opportunity to find your next Josh Donaldson or Brandon Moss.

Donaldson and Moss were both castoffs from other teams who became stars with the A’s. Similar things have happened often enough since Beane became general manager in 1997 that it isn't unreasonable to think it will happen again. The man is a legend, the subject of a classic book and an Oscar-winning movie. So that’s one reason for fans to cut him slack.

But I also think that A’s fans (myself among them) have learned to live without the continuity that is supposed to engender team loyalty and instead enjoy the risky gambles that their team makes almost every off-season. If the writings on Athletics Nation are any indication, A’s fans have basically joined the team’s front office in becoming value investors, obsessed with statistical comparisons and identifying missed potential. And I think their equanimity and even enthusiasm in the face of frequent player turnover may have even become an asset to the team. Maybe.

It’s easy to see how some baseball franchises’ successes are enabled by fans. The St. Louis Cardinals, for example, couldn’t afford to be perennial competitors if Busch Stadium weren’t full so often. On the other hand, finance scholar Tobias J. Moskowitz and sportswriter L. Jon Wertheim theorized a few years ago that the Chicago Cubs were so perennially bad in part because fans showed up no matter what the team did on the field -- that is, the Cubs had the lowest “attendance elasticity to winning” in Major League Baseball. (As Ira Boudway reports in the latest Bloomberg Businessweek, the Cubs have been testing that theory with terrible on-field performance and falling attendance over the past couple of years, and now with a team that hopes to contend.)

The A’s, meanwhile, ranked 24th out of 30 Major League Baseball teams in home attendance last year, despite their winning record and roster full of All Stars. Athletics Nation is a legitimate phenomenon -- it was the first building block of what has since become the digital empire known as Vox Media -- but its online popularity has never translated into much in the way of tangible rewards for the team. On the other hand, low payrolls have enabled A’s owner Lew Wolff to turn a profit every year, he and Beane don’t have to put up with much flak from fans or the local media and the team has made it to the playoffs in eight of the past 15 seasons. Value investing works!

  1. I blame the stadium, at least partly. The A's were among baseball's attendance leaders in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when they went to the World Series three years in a row, their stadium had not yet been defaced by the new football stand known as Mount Davis and the neighboring San Francisco Giants still played in miserable, windswept Candlestick Park.

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