The Blunt Reality Facing Oakland Sports Fans

About two weeks ago, the Nevada legislature, called into special session by Governor Joe Lombardo, passed a financing package for a new ballpark on the Las Vegas Strip for the Oakland Athletics, making that venerable franchise’s relocation to Las Vegas seemingly a fait accompli. Not since the Seattle Supersonics were inexplicably sold to a group of Oklahoma businessmen and needlessly stolen from the Pacific Northwest has a professional sports franchise relocation been more controversial and hated. Admittedly that covers a period of relative stability in franchise locations in the traditional four major sports with no teams moving after the Sonics until the NFL got serious about re-colonizing Los Angeles, and I don’t mean to denigrate the hard feelings the people of St. Louis and San Diego have about losing their NFL teams, but the backlash to the A’s pending relocation is definitely up there with the biggest ones in pro sports history, with A’s fans staying away from the stadium and their terrible team in droves except for a “reverse boycott” where over 20,000 fans swarmed the stadium in a massive show of support for keeping the team in Oakland. Owner John Fisher has been accused of following the “Major League” playbook for moving a team, intentionally driving away fans by making the team stink to better justify moving the team, while not seriously negotiating with the Oakland and Alameda County governments on a new stadium project at Howard Terminal that would have had more capacity than the Vegas stadium and given Fisher the opportunity to benefit from miscellaneous redevelopment in the area not possible in Vegas. And while sports commissioners are expected to stand by their owners no matter what, Rob Manfred’s aggressive and antagonistic remarks have further inflamed tensions and raised questions about just how good a commissioner he really is.

It’s an especially bitter pill to swallow for the people of Oakland, which stands to go from three major professional sports franchises to none in less than five years. The loss of the Raiders to Vegas and the Warriors across the bay stung, but they had their own logic to it and didn’t seem quite so unnecessary or cruel as what’s happening with the A’s. Folks in the East Bay argue that Oakland is its own city with its own culture and shouldn’t be lumped in with San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area, and deserves its own teams separate from it. A number of commentators have made the argument that, contrary to Fisher’s and Manfred’s claims, the A’s may well actually be better off as the second team in the Bay Area, a top-ten media market, than as the one team in Las Vegas, one of the smallest markets in professional sports.

All of that may be true, but nonetheless I can’t bring myself to feel as bad for the people of Oakland as in the case of other infamous franchise relocations. When you understand how the businessmen in the front offices of the major professional sports leagues think, it becomes apparent that Oakland is just too close to San Francisco, and the Bay Area as a whole not large enough, to justify having its own separate teams, especially considering the geography of Northern California as a whole, and it’s actually a minor miracle that MLB and the NFL put up with having teams in both Oakland and San Francisco for so long. 

For the past several decades, the most commonly cited proxy for the size of a “sports market” has been the list of television “designated market areas” published by Nielsen Media Research. It’s not a perfect measurement – for one thing, the fact it considers West Palm Beach a separate market from Miami, one big enough to, in theory, at least warrant consideration for a professional team, is probably a quirk of the Miami metro area being so long and stretched out along the coast that WPB is far enough away from Miami as to have warranted its own broadcast television signals despite effectively being part of the same metro for most other purposes – but nonetheless it works well enough for most purposes, especially as television revenue has become of primary importance for sports teams. Well, with Washington and Baltimore being considered separate markets, the Bay Area is, to my knowledge, the only market outside the “Big Three” of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago to host multiple teams in any of the major professional team sports since the Athletics moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City all the way back in 1955. (For that matter, baseball is the only sport where Chicago has had multiple teams since the Cardinals left in 1960, doubtless in no small part due to the historic separation between the American and National Leagues.)

This was somewhat justifiable when the Bay Area ranked around sixth in market size as they did for most of the 2000s and ’10s; Philadelphia and Dallas-Fort Worth may have been bigger markets, but the Bay Area is substantially more isolated from other large markets than those two, and could theoretically draw enough fans from nearby areas to justify multiple teams where larger markets couldn’t. But since Nielsen has incorporated the 2020 Census into their rankings, the Bay Area has fallen to tenth in the most recent rankings. Markets below the Big Three are close enough together that the Bay Area is still less than 500,000 homes behind Philadelphia, but still, it seems to me that at this point, Fort Worth clearly has a better claim to having its own team(s) than Oakland does; after all, they’d protest that they’re their own city separate from Dallas just as much as Oakland is separate from San Francisco. (Tarrant County has about 500,000 more people than Alameda County, although an Oakland team could more reliably draw from Contra Costa County and its 1.1 million residents than a Fort Worth team could draw from any other adjoining county.)

I say the Bay Area is more isolated from other large markets, but there are two markets in the top 20 that have no more than one major pro sports team, Orlando and Sacramento, and in both cases their proximity to larger markets (Tampa Bay in Orlando’s case) likely has something to do with that. But having a sport with two teams in the Bay Area, even in sixth, and none in Sacramento starts looking kind of questionable at this point. Not only would a Sacramento team have the entire market all to itself, it could probably draw from the entire Central Valley, leaving a team in the Bay Area to take that market and other areas along the coast.

If the Bay Area were to have a second team, it’s hard to argue that it shouldn’t be in San Jose, the largest city in Northern California (yes, bigger than San Fran itself), more than twice as far from San Francisco as Oakland is, nearly far enough away to be a TV market in its own right, and right next door to Silicon Valley. Notably, the government considers Oakland to be part of the same metropolitan area as San Francisco, but San Jose is not, so just from a statistical perspective it would be far from clear to decision-makers at teams and leagues that Oakland is more its own city, separate from San Francisco, than San Jose is. That teams came to Oakland, not San Jose, in the 1960s is probably a result of a combination of factors, such as teams being more concerned about attracting fans to the ballpark as opposed to revenue from television, sponsorships, and luxury boxes, as well as tech not being as important to the Bay Area economy, especially compared to its ports, back then, which coupled with freeway-driven suburban sprawl not quite being the phenomenon it would eventually become, meant that San Jose didn’t have the population to stand out as a pro team destination back then. (In 1950 Alameda County had nearly triple the population of Santa Clara County; by 1960 Alameda County only had 1.5 times the population, and by 1970 the lead had shrunk to less than 10,000, but nonetheless the population axis of the Bay Area was still more clearly east-west than north-south.)

Now, advocates for Oakland would likely counter that the East Bay would still bring more potential fans than the South Bay. While Santa Clara County is the most populous county in Northern California with over 1.9 million residents, Alameda County’s nearly 1.6 million residents isn’t far behind, and adding in Contra Costa County’s 1.1 million residents would give the East Bay a fairly healthy lead of over 800,000 residents. But it’s worth noting that Alameda County extends almost all the way down to the south end of the Bay; Highway 237, the furthest-north non-bridge connection between the two sides of the Bay on the south end, is also the furthest-north exit on I-880 to lie entirely within Santa Clara County. Fremont, the furthest-south city in Alameda County, is also its second-most populous at over 230,000 residents, cutting the East Bay’s edge in half if that city alone were to identify more with a San Jose team than an Oakland one, before even getting into more far-flung areas to the south that might decide to take in a game in San Jose just because it’s the first city they’d encounter on their way into the Bay Area. (The midpoint between the former Oracle Arena and the SAP Center is probably within Fremont, but on its north end, so most of the population of the city is closer to San Jose than Oakland, even if not all of it. Oakland would also benefit from fans in Solano County on the north side of Suisun Bay, but if they have to compete with a Sacramento team as well, only Vallejo and Benicia, directly on the bay, would be closer to Oakland, contributing only around 150,000 residents – admittedly more than twice as many as the most obvious “far-flung area” to follow a San Jose team, San Benito County, which is part of San Jose’s metropolitan area but only contributes 64,000 residents.)

It’s entirely possible that a team in the East Bay would have more potential fans than the South Bay, but especially when you consider the wealth of Silicon Valley, it’s just as likely, if not more, that if you were starting a league from scratch, Oakland would be the fourth team you’d place in Northern California. (And while it made the questionable decision to put four of the first five teams in two cities, wasn’t as well-researched as it could have been, seems to have been made mostly to troll working-class markets, and didn’t include Sacramento, it is worth noting that when Colin Cowherd put together a “draft” of potential NFL cities after the Raiders moved to Las Vegas, the second team he put in the Bay Area was in San Jose, not Oakland.) In other words, it probably isn’t happening until sports leagues reach at least twice the size they’re at now, maybe more likely triple, which probably won’t happen without taking on a very different form.

A’s fans would object that they wouldn’t go embracing the Giants just because the A’s aren’t there anymore – a team they’re used to thinking of as rivals. But they’d have the option, and that’s all that MLB cares about. The people of the East Bay may be more populous than the Las Vegas area, but they’re at least potentially Giants fans, while Las Vegas will be going from not having a team nearby at all to having one, increasing the home fanbase for baseball as a whole. MLB is not concerned with cannibalizing its fanbase but with spreading out its teams as much as possible so they each have their own distinctive fanbase. Back in the 1950s MLB had no teams west or south of St. Louis and three teams in New York that seemingly traded the World Series between them, and as the population of the country continued to move west and south it became a problem that resulted in MLB losing popularity and the threat of new leagues trying to join the ranks of the major leagues, culminating in the Dodgers and Giants both moving to California and the advent of the expansion era. That is the fate that MLB is trying to avoid. The New York market falls just short of covering two thirty-seconds of the country, meaning if the 32 teams MLB is looking to eventually have were distributed perfectly evenly you could just about justify giving New York two; MLB is certainly not in the business of giving two teams to a market a third of the size of that. As much as fans hate them (and even the successful Dodgers and Giants moves left lasting scars on the New York sports landscape), franchise relocations, ideally, are how professional sports leagues keep pace with the evolving distribution of the nation’s population and where the potential and actual fans of their sport are. (And it shouldn’t be overlooked that Oakland itself has relocation to thank for having the A’s in the first place.)

Personally, I would be cautiously optimistic about the A’s in another market. The importance of not having to exist in the shadow of another team can’t be underestimated. Despite being one of the oldest and most storied teams in baseball, the only time the A’s have been the only team in their market was when they were in Kansas City, a time when they were effectively a glorified farm team for the Yankees for the first five years, followed by being run by an owner that very loudly and publicly declared his support for the Kansas City area yet almost immediately began shopping the franchise to other cities. This will be the first time the A’s have had a market to themselves in over 50 years.

Unfortunately, I can’t say for certain that it’ll be the first time they’ve had a market to themselves and not had the specter of another relocation hanging over them. Fisher doesn’t seem particularly interested in the area itself, the people of Las Vegas seem kind of lukewarm to the prospect, and the proposed new stadium would be one of the smallest in the majors, in terms of footprint if not seating. There’s also the question of whether Las Vegas is a good choice for a baseball team in general. Buffalo is the only smaller market to be home to an MLB or US-based NHL team, no smaller market has more than two major-sport teams, and once, as is widely speculated, the area gets an NBA team, Las Vegas would be half the size of the next-smallest market to have teams in all four traditional major sports (either Miami or Denver, depending on whether you lump West Palm Beach in with Miami). It’s hard to imagine the locals being able to support that many teams, and while Las Vegas is one of the country’s biggest tourist destinations, it’s not clear that the sorts of people that come to Vegas to gamble are particularly interested in also taking in a sporting event, especially if the team that’s in town isn’t the one from the place they came from. (Non-locals are coming out to watch Raiders games, but how many of them are Angelenos watching their real AFC team?) Vegas is a fast-growing market, and Nevada in general a growing state, but as the Athletic points out, it’s not growing as fast as other expansion candidates, and it’s not getting appreciably younger – and that’s not even getting into whether or not Vegas’ very existence is sustainable in the wake of the West’s looming water wars and the specter of climate change.

I would have expected hockey to be the least successful sport in the area given its place in the desert, but jumping in before any other sport, being good right away to the point of making the Stanley Cup Final their first year and winning it this month, and embracing the locals and making an effort to integrate themselves into the community, has resulted in them not only thriving but being hard to beat in terms of being the pre-eminent team in the market. (In light of the Golden Knights’ success, the much-maligned markets of Atlanta, Arizona, and South Florida have no excuse for not having much bigger hockey fanbases than they do.) If you had to pick another sport to be the odd one out, baseball would be a decent pick, as it has similar, though less severe, problems in warm-weather markets (namely Arizona and South Florida, plus Tampa Bay) to hockey for different reasons: because baseball is played in the summer, and draws more objections when it’s played entirely indoors compared to football, you’re asking people to come out to sit in the desert or semi-tropical sun in an open-air stadium for three hours, pretty much requiring most baseball stadiums built south of the 37th parallel to have retractable roofs and robust air-conditioning systems. More than with any other sport, the stadium itself is a big part of why a tourist might want to take in a baseball game, and it’s generally not stadiums with roofs that they’re interested in seeing. At the very least, the Raiders’ poor local support suggests Fisher will need to spend a lot more on putting a good product on the field than he has in Oakland for the move to succeed.

All told, Nashville and Charlotte, the two most-talked-about US-based expansion markets and two fast-growing markets in their own right, would probably be better destinations for the A’s than Vegas, and if you want to keep the A’s in the West, Portland is the largest market without an MLB team (though I would prefer a Portland team be in the NL, because I prefer regional rivalries to involve teams in opposite leagues), and Salt Lake City has bubbled up in expansion discussions as well. You could even move the A’s up the road to Sacramento and not completely lose the Oakland fanbase.

The strongest argument against moving the A’s at all is that the depth and loyalty of the Oakland fanbase shouldn’t be thrown away too easily. The Athletic cites studies showing that teams in the same sport in close proximity do cannibalize each other’s fanbases, but that having a loyal fanbase can confound that calculus, and that if both teams in a multi-team market are good, viewership and attendance for each can increase more than can be expected from the increase of fortunes of each individual team. The size and loyalty of a fanbase can be hard to measure when they’ve been crapped on as long as Fisher has, and Fisher has the wealth to put a more competitive team on the field and pay his share of the Howard Terminal project (and certainly shouldn’t be rewarded for his neglect of the team and stadium with a multi-million-dollar handout), but the reverse boycott shows that the fanbase hasn’t gone away entirely.

For the past few decades that loyalty hasn’t meant much to teams’ bottom lines, as ticket sales have become less important for revenue than local and national TV rights, which have been dependent largely on the number of people in the market who subscribe to the cable bundle more than the number of people who actually watch games (though having a diehard fan base does impact how much money you can bring in from everyone else). But with the cable bundle collapsing and the ongoing Bally Sports bankruptcy that’s resulted, that calculus may be shifting rapidly. Over the past two months, the Phoenix Suns, Vegas Golden Knights, and Utah Jazz have announced deals with local broadcast stations to show games, paired with direct-to-consumer streaming options, rather than stay on the sinking (or folding) ship of their existing RSNs or try and form a new one, and the A’s will likely have to take a similar route in their new market. That’s probably a good reason not to move, as the NBC Sports group of regional networks that the A’s are on now don’t appear to be in any real imminent danger of collapse, the recent sale of the Washington, DC network to Ted Leonsis and subsequent rebranding notwithstanding, but it’s fair to wonder if, as the cable bundle continues to contract, Comcast eventually decides to get out of the RSN business or at least leaves less popular teams like the A’s by the curb, or even if teams elect to adopt alternate means of distribution on their own. While any contract with a broadcast station is going to be at least partly dependent on retransmission consent, effectively filling the same role as subscriber fees to RSNs, by and large a broadcast-plus-DTC strategy rewards having an actual, loyal fanbase that watches games and subscribes to DTC services.

Unfortunately, for a few decades now sports teams and leagues have been more interested in taking advantage of that loyalty than rewarding it, because loyalty to a sports team can often seem more like an addiction than anything else. Despite all the evidence against new stadiums providing the economic benefits owners pitch for them, there will always be cities desperate enough to give those handouts, because of how the loss of a sufficiently beloved sports team can rip the heart out of a community and the introduction of one can knit it together. And when a team is ripped out of a city, the community will gladly bend the knee and say, “Thank you, may I have another?” Despite the odiousness of how the Sonics left town and how David Stern aided and abetted it, Seattleites started angling for a replacement expansion team almost the instant the move became final, continuing to show loyalty and attachment to sports controlled by people who return none of it.

The point I intend to make is not that the East Bay shouldn’t be outraged over the loss of the Athletics, but to recognize that no replacement is coming, and that a move of some sort was probably inevitable, even if not necessarily this move. All of that, of course, only serves to make the sting that much worse, compounded by the fact that the move will leave the East Bay without any professional teams at all for the foreseeable future. But Oakland is hardly the only city of significant size without a professional team, and the geographic considerations make them a difficult sell considering the alternatives. In retrospect, the Warriors shouldn’t have compounded the potential problem by moving across the bay to San Francisco, even if the existence of Chase Center makes a project I intend to work on later this summer easier – although the fact that they did underscores the challenges a working-class community has in attracting and retaining teams compared to sexier, richer cities.

What the situation speaks to is the lack of promotion and relegation in American sports. Promotion and relegation would allow every city in the country that could support a team to have one – not only bailing out the people of Oakland, Las Vegas, and countless other cities besides, but in the process making it so college towns across the country don’t have to invest college teams with the importance of pro ones, which has been instrumental in dissolving any semblance of the notion that college sports are amateur enterprises for the physical development of student-athletes as opposed to glorified professional teams that don’t pay their players. And because every city that can support a team can have one, billionaire owners can’t play cities against one another and extort them for handouts in order to take advantage of the connection fans have with their team and place their team in the highest-bidding city, to say nothing of having to actually invest in the team and winning in order to maintain their place in the most lucrative league – which is why it’ll never happen without the courts forcing it on them, and why some owners want to push European soccer closer to the American franchise model as opposed to the other way around. There’s a case to be made that the franchise model is a better fit for the era of television and the way demographics are progressing with a good chunk of the population and economic activity being concentrated in a handful of cosmopolitan cities, but pro/rel is purer, fairer, more in keeping with the level of connection fans and communities have with their teams and the principle of the free market, and works better for fans – and certainly for the people of Oakland.

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