Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

The Oakland A's are trying to solve their stadium problem. Still.

OAKLAND, Calif. — After decades of trying to move out of the dilapidated Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, the Athletics say they will soon announce a site, plans and a timeline for a new privately financed ballpark in Oakland. Leading the charge will be Dave Kaval, who was hired last November as team president, largely to guide the stadium effort.

The Coliseum, the A's home since 1968, is the fifth-oldest stadium in Major League Baseball. But unlike Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, it is not worthy of preservation. It is a bland, charmless concrete monstrosity, the last of the unfortunate wave of multipurpose stadiums built in the 1960s; the A's share it with the NFL's Raiders.

Before joining the A's, Kaval was the president of the San Jose Earthquakes, the nearby Major League Soccer team. There he spearheaded the construction of Avaya Stadium, an 18,000-seat soccer-specific arena that opened in 2015 to rave reviews.

Kaval is building up a reservoir of goodwill from A's fans who have endured decades of owners' threats to move the team out of Oakland. The A's have upgraded food and beverage choices at the Coliseum, reconnected with their past by renaming the playing field for the Hall of Famer Ricky Henderson and held playful events in the community like hat buybacks, where fans could trade a San Francisco Giants cap for an A's one.

"Ever since I started here in November, the commitment has been very clear to Oakland," said Kaval, who has overseen a marketing campaign with the tagline "Rooted in Oakland" this season. "I saw Oakland as a strength."

But goodwill alone will not build a ballpark. Kaval has to unify the team, the city and county governments, public agencies, interest groups and residents behind his vision for the park. He has to secure financing for a baseball-only stadium that could cost more than 1 billion dollars. He has to persuade corporations to lend their dollars in the form of sponsorships, naming rights and luxury box purchases.

Perhaps most difficult of all, he has to rebuild a fan base that has eroded after years of the team's attempting to leave Oakland and trading away popular players.

The pace of team owners agitating for gleaming new stadiums — financed by as much public money as they can drum up — is quickening. The Atlanta Braves are about to complete their first season in a new ballpark; their old one is just 20 years old. Cobb County taxpayers paid nearly $400 million for the new stadium, and now the county has a budget shortfall and will most likely have to cut services.

If any team can legitimately claim to need a new stadium, it is the A's. Besides ordinary plumbing problems, raw sewage has flooded the clubhouses several times, the Coliseum has none of the amenities most other parks have, and the luxury boxes are much better suited to watching football. The absence of dining and shopping options near the stadium gives fans little to do before and after games.

Stadiums also are not just stadiums anymore; they are commercial development hubs. Although various "Coliseum City" projects have been proposed, the location makes them impractical. The Coliseum is surrounded by acres of parking lots, with a freeway and industrial yards farther away. A nice little ballpark village with ground-floor retail and millennials living in condos is not really feasible.

As far back as 1990, two ownership groups ago, the A's were threatening to leave town over changes being made to the Coliseum to entice the Raiders to return from Los Angeles. During the last 20 years, the A's have considered ballpark sites in cities throughout the Bay Area, mostly focused on the South Bay, near Silicon Valley.

But the San Francisco Giants have asserted territorial rights to prevent the A's from building in San Jose or Santa Clara. An MLB ballpark committee could not broker a resolution, and the city of San Jose lost its legal challenge to MLB's antitrust exemption.

The A's may have an even better alternative. The Golden State Warriors and the Oakland Raiders, who also play at the Coliseum complex, are moving, to San Francisco and Las Vegas. By 2020 the A's will be the last major professional sports team in Oakland, which has undergone a major economic revival. Whether the A's are staying in Oakland by choice or necessity, their timing could not be better.

"I had a conversation with the mayor a long time ago, and she used 'Oakland is the new Brooklyn,'" said Andy Dolich, an A's executive from 1980 to 1995. Dolich said he told Libby Schaaf, Oakland's mayor, that in fact Brooklyn is the new Oakland. "Because we're way ahead. We have Lake Merritt, we have Piedmont, Montclair, we have Upper Broadway, we have the estuary."

The A's have publicly identified three potential sites for a new park: Howard Terminal, at the Port of Oakland; Laney College, a community college close to downtown; and their current site, in the industrial southeast of the city. Each location would present substantial challenges.

Howard Terminal is part of a busy commercial port, crisscrossed by active railroad tracks but without public transportation links, and could require expensive environmental remediation. The Laney College site is tiny, making connected commercial development difficult, and would require moving several of the school's administrative offices. Although the current site is easy to build on, it's far from the city center.

"If this was easy, it would've been done already," Dolich said. "It literally took eight years for the Colosseum in Rome to be built, and we're on Year 12, 13 or 14 of this."

Making it more difficult is that Kaval is seemingly on his own. Since 2005, the A's majority owner has been John Fisher, heir to the Gap fortune. But Fisher allowed the minority owner Lew Wolff to be the team's public face and to represent the team in its dealings with MLB — until his recent ouster. Fisher says so little in public that when he bought the A's, the San Francisco Chronicle was forced to profile him through the lens of a private memoir his father had written.

Fisher, who also owns a stake in the Earthquakes, declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed for this article.

Kaval said he and Fisher have a "great working relationship" and a "system whereby we divide and conquer on certain things." When asked what Fisher concentrates on, Kaval mentioned the team's relationship with Major League Baseball before quickly promoting the team the A's have in place to build a ballpark.

"It looks as if the owner isn't going to be involved," Dolich said. "That to me is not a wonderful model of success."

The city of Oakland has not taken a leadership role, waiting to see what the A's decide. Through a spokesman, Schaaf declined to be interviewed.

The bay area may be the region of the country most hostile to public financing of sports arenas; the San Francisco 49ers received no direct public money for their new home in Santa Clara, and the under construction Warriors arena is entirely privately financed. Kaval insisted that the A's would privately finance their new stadium.

That will require corporate partners, and Oakland is home to just one Fortune 500 company, Clorox. But Kaval said he believed San Francisco and Silicon Valley-based companies would work with the A's.

"Their workforce is here in the East Bay," Kaval said. "I actually think the biggest benefit for them is around their workforce, and making sure their knowledge workers have options here for quality of life."

Even if the ballpark is built, Kaval will need help from the team's baseball side to field a team that will attract fans. This season the A's are far out of contention and attendance is flat despite improvements to the ballpark. The A's have traded Sonny Gray, Yonder Alonso, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson — some of the faces of the team — for prospects.

For decades the A's have used the poor condition of the Coliseum to justify their frequent roster teardowns, arguing that they cannot sustain a high payroll. Under the previous collective bargaining agreement, the A's — despite playing in one of the largest markets in the country — were considered a small-market club because of their stadium and received annual revenue-sharing checks, reportedly $35 million in 2015.

The CBA that was signed late last year will end payments to the A's in 2021 at the latest.

At that time, they will have to sink or swim on their own, putting tremendous pressure on Billy Beane, the team's longtime roster builder.

"The frustration isn't that we've had success; the frustration is that after success, we haven't kept" players, Beane told reporters this summer. "And we need to change that narrative by creating a good team and ultimately committing to keeping them around, so that when people buy a ticket, they'll know that the team is going to be there for a few years."

It is hard to overstate the importance of a contending team, or at least an improving one, when moving into a new stadium. To see why, the A's simply need to look across the bay. The 49ers have not had a winning record since opening Levi's Stadium three years ago, but they were Super Bowl contenders during its construction and were able to charge large sums for personal seat licenses and season tickets. The Warriors, who have won two of the last three NBA championships, are in a similar situation; their San Francisco arena is scheduled to open in 2019.

But given the A's financial constraints — they cannot, or will not, simply spend their way to relevance — can they time the blooming of a suddenly stocked farm system to stadium construction? Even after announcing a site, the team will have to secure financing, conduct community meetings and work with public agencies, all before shovels hit the ground. Unless they open a new stadium by 2021, Beane may have started rebuilding too early.

If and when the A's move to a new ballpark, the work of turning the team back into a powerhouse will be just beginning. The Giants have siphoned many of their potential fans, not to mention competition from the Warriors, the 49ers and the Raiders. But Kaval says they can coexist.

"Even in London, if you look at the big soccer teams, you can have more than one team thriving in a metropolis, like the San Francisco Bay area," he said. "We almost drew 3 million fans in the 1980s, so I think that there is a sleeping giant — pun intended — of A's fans out there."

Kaval added, "Being a part of kind of the rebirth of this city in many ways is something that people are watching, and they are interested in that."

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