If you’re fed up with hearing about the Oakland Athletics’ half-assed quest to find a new stadium, MLB and the MLBPA want you to know they’re right there with you. A stipulation in the new collective bargaining agreement reclassifies the Athletics as a major-market team, which does away with the exception they were given under the last CBA to receive revenue sharing checks.
The Athletics reportedly received around $34 million from revenue sharing during the 2015 season, so this is a significant amount of money that’s about to stop flowing. (Team ownership has noted “the payroll always is significantly higher than its revenue-sharing income,” which is not really a counterargument, because revenue-sharing was never intended to cover a team’s entire payroll. Spotrac says the Athletics spent $84.4 million on players in 2015, the fourth-lowest payroll in the league.)
Revenue-sharing money can only be spent on on-the-field improvements: player salaries, first and foremost, then things like scouting and baseball operations staff. Teams report their revenue-sharing spending to the league, and while the league likely would have indicated by now if the Athletics were just pissing it away, it’s clear they’re not happy with the state of their American League team in the sixth-largest media market in the country. Going forward, the other owners won’t be subsidizing the ongoing failure.
The hint here for the Athletics is to get their shit together and figure out how to make a new stadium happen, finally. They were given the market-size exemption in the 2012 CBA due to the big concrete toilet where they play their games, but enough is apparently enough.
The Chronicle’s Athletics beat writer Susan Slusser saw this coming in a late October story exploring the potential for the team to be cut off under the new CBA:
Under the current deal, that largesse was set to end when Oakland got a new stadium. And therein lies the primary point of contention: There are many players, union officials and team owners who don’t believe that the A’s are pushing hard enough for a new home, happily pocketing revenue-sharing booty instead of hastening its disappearance.
“The view would be: They’re not really a small-market team, and they really have no place to go other than Oakland,” Gould said. “Revenue-sharing could be a club to say, ‘Start working on a stadium or you’re off the welfare.’”
The Athletics are currently a nightmare all around: Their stadium is garbage and ownership can’t figure out how to find a location for a new one, and the team keeps sending away its good players and refusing to sign high-priced free agents, leaving fans with no one to get attached to and frustrated by watching their former guys in the playoffs. All of this adds up to a lack of fan interest that is reflected in the Athletics’ home attendance averaging 18,784 butts in seat per game in 2016, beating only the Rays across MLB.
But Athletics ownership seems to want to point fingers everywhere other than at itself. Sharing a stadium with the Oakland Raiders, who also want to get the hell out of the Coliseum, is indeed a complicating factor, but the team has made it clear they are waiting for Mark Davis and company to make their move first.
The team is also still bitter about their cross-market rivals, the Giants, blocking the Athletics from moving to San Jose, where team Managing Partner Lew Wolff owns the MLS’s Earthquakes. The dream of San Jose is dead, though, as it wound its way through the legal system and was turned away by the Supreme Court.
There are alternate locations in Oakland—Howard Terminal and Jack London Square—that Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf is trying to sell the team on, but those are in less public transit–friendly parts of Oakland, and the team certainly can’t afford to make things less convenient for fans right now.
The stadium solution that might have worked was a proposal in Fremont, the Bay Area’s fourth-largest city, with a sizable concentration of Athletics fans. Wolff even put a bunch of money into the project, but reportedly lost $24 million outright when residents decided they did not want the traffic and congestion that comes with a new stadium. Now, nearly eight years since the project was killed, it feels like the one that got away.
In mid-November of this year, Wolff stepped away from the Athletics, cashing out most of his stake and moving from his position of Managing Partner to Chairman Emeritus, leaving co-owner John Fisher at the helm. It’s just a shame that Wolff, who collected revenue sharing for years without consequence, was able to step away just before the spigot was cut off.
So how will the Athletics manage the sudden loss of more than $34 million a year? There are a couple tacks they could take. They could focus on keeping payroll low and invest their resources in getting some sort of stadium deal done, or they could try to make the on-the-field product more consistent in hopes of bringing back some of the fans who’d rather stay home than pay peanuts to watch a game at the Coliseum. However, as the 49ers have learned, a new stadium is only a draw for as long as the team is worth a damn.
It would be nice to eventually see the Athletics rebound from tight financial straits like the Mets have in recent years. The Mets are the closest comparison I can think of in this case—modern stadium notwithstanding—as they’re always going to be the second fiddle in a huge market, and have grown their product on the field despite (in the Mets’ case, criminal) incompetence and cheap ownership, drawing back long-dormant fans and attracting new ones.
MLB might have something up its sleeve for the Athletics’ stadium drama, along the lines of how it handled the Mets’ Bernie Madoff drama, but for now, the Athletics’ dysfunction continues to make my head spin. And judging by the new CBA cutting off the team’s allowance, the league and the players are fed up with the dizzying dance out in Oakland, too.