By Neil deMause
The Oakland A's open their 2014 season Monday night against the Indians at the Oakland Coliseum, an event unusual only for how usual it is. It's certainly not what anyone would have predicted five years ago yesterday, when Bud Selig announced he was appointing a three-person committee to decide the A's future home. With team owner Lew Wolff dead set on moving his team to San Jose, and the owners of the San Francisco Giants equally dead set on not allowing a move into their MLB-designated territory, Selig declared "the time has come for a thorough analysis of why a stadium deal has not been reached."
By "the time," Selig apparently meant "the 21st century," because the committee's verdict has been, shall we say, delayed a bit. "You could've written a Ph.D. dissertation by now," Wolff sighed way back in 2011, back when the team's aces were still Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez.
The saga of the A's and how they've remained stuck in their unloved concrete-donut-with-plumbing-issues has become a running joke, and the reason for it is an open secret. Wolff, a major real estate developer in San Jose, bought into the team in 2005 with the clear intent of relocating it to the South Bay, which was flush with Silicon Valley spending money and vacant land that could be developed for profit. After a brief dalliance with the city of Fremont -- which is as close as you can get to the Valley and still be in the East Bay -- Wolff set his sights on San Jose, coming up with plans for a 32,000-seat stadium that he would erect on his own dime, albeit with the help of a cut-rate price on some city land.
There was only one problem: Thanks to some stadium machinations back in the distant past -- 1990, when then-Giants owner Bob Lurie was looking to move to San Jose, and then-A's owner Walter Haas was happy enough to see him potentially abandoning the Bay Area proper to them -- Santa Clara County, the fast-growing region around San Jose that includes Silicon Valley, has been officially designated Giants territory, meaning no other affiliated baseball team, major or minor, can set foot in it without the expressed written consent of the commissioner of baseball. And the current Giants owners, now comfortably ensconced at AT&T Park with the South Bay's tech tycoons just a short drive away, have absolutely zero reason to cede control of the cash cow they've built over the past two decades.
Still, plenty of baseball fans are wondering: Seriously, five years? And this isn't a standoff that's likely to end anytime soon, either. Notwithstanding Selig's statement over the winter that he's "satisfied" he'll "work out something" by the end of 2014, Wolff and Giants CEO Larry Baer both seem determined to refuse to budge for all eternity.
Setting aside whether it would be better for baseball, Wolff or A's fans for the team to play in Oakland or San Jose -- we'll get to that in a minute -- you'll be forgiven for wondering what's the holdup here. After all, MLB territories have never been sacrosanct: The Mets and Angels invaded the territories of the Yankees and Dodgers once upon a time, and even transmogrifying the Montreal Expos into the Washington Nationals, once D.C. had been chosen as the team's new home over such metropoles as Norfolk, Va., only took a few short months of talks with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos to determine how many pounds of flesh it would take to compensate him for landing another team on his doorstep. (Answer: the lion's share of the Nats' cable money, forever and ever and ever.)
The Nats/O's territorial dispute, though, was a different creature from the current deadlock over San Jose. First off, D.C. never belonged to the Orioles the way San Jose belongs to the Giants. What Angelos was paid for was television rights territory, not territorial rights: This is a parallel system that divvies up the entire US-of-A into sections, each parceled out to one (or more teams). In TV-rights terms, all of Montana belongs to the Seattle Mariners, but if Lew Wolff wanted to move to Missoula, he wouldn't be facing his current predicament.
Territorial rights, meanwhile, are one of those things with roots so deep in the baseball past that no one truly understands their origins, like bunting. When William Hulbert created the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs in 1876, he decreed each team get exclusive rights to a five-mile radius around their home stadium, so that no one could set up a pirate team in the vacant lot across the street and poach customers. Eventually these territories came to encompass entire cities, and then, in the early 1990s, were expanded to neighboring counties as well, so that no one could set up shop in the suburbs and poach customers.
It sounds like a simple thing, but territorial rights have become the foundation of all of baseball (and other U.S. sports) economics. The Yankees, for example, are the most valuable team in baseball not just because of their 27 world championships and pinstriped tradition and yada yada, but because they, along with the Mets, have a monopoly on the most lucrative sports market on the planet. (This is so alien to the European sports world that a BBC interviewer this weekend asked me about it in tones of "Is cannibalism legal in your country, then?") And that's something they can thank William Hulbert for -- and all the Hulberts who came after, and made sure to enshrine the right to keep interlopers off of your lawn into MLB bylaws.
Still, this being America, everything is for sale, right? Couldn't Wolff just call up Baer and say, "How much do you want for San Jose?" Or, as Wendy Thurm has suggested, "We'll swap you the East Bay for the South Bay and kick in whatever the difference will be to you in lost revenue"?
In theory, yes, except for two things. First, Wolff isn't going to do that until he's sure Selig won't force the Giants to give him the rights for free. And second, it's altogether possible that what the Giants' owners would consider fair market price would be too rich for Wolff's blood: The best previous guesstimate is that a San Jose stadium would bring in maybe $50 million or so a year in new revenues, and after paying off a stadium mortgage, even a small payoff to the Giants would be enough to eat up the last of Wolff's profits on the deal.
This leaves Bud with just three options:
1. Order the Giants owners to sell San Jose to Wolff at a reasonable price, and watch his inbox light up with angry messages from every other owner who's fearful somebody else (the Marlins? the Rays?) will be camping out on their front lawn next.
2. Tell Wolff to get bent, and watch as one of his franchises has to choose between fixing up a 45-year-old stadium or wandering the wilderness in search of a new home -- and worse, from an MLB owner's perspective, have to negotiate a lease extension (and/or possible new stadium) with Oakland with no leverage of another city to run to if Oakland's pot isn't sufficiently sweet.
3. Tell both sides he's appointed a blue-ribbon commission and now it's up to them to work out the details.
You can see why Selig has gone for door No. 3.
If there's a glimmer of hope here, it's that Wolff, at least, seems to have opened the door a crack toward a solution that involves working things out in his current home, something he's so far avoided while visions of Googlebucks have danced in his head. Over the winter, Wolff said that he might be open to discussing a new stadium "where we're at right now" -- i.e., the Coliseum site, where Oakland officials have for years been floating the idea of a project called Coliseum City that would include stadiums for baseball, football, and, I believe, wrist wrestling. It's a tempting prospect, especially for those of us who have witnessed the energetic fan culture that has grown up to make its own fun at the Coliseum, and think it would be a shame for them to have to drive an hour or more each way to follow their team to San Jose.
Of course, Wolff has also hinted at lots of other things, including most recently building a temporary stadium if he can't work out a satisfactory lease extension on the Coliseum. And paying for Coliseum City is probably hopeless, given that no one knows how much it would cost or how it would be paid for, and there's no extra land available for Wolff to use for additional development to help earn his investment back. But maybe, just maybe, in another five years ...
And maybe by the year 2019 Billy Beane won't have traded Monday night's starter, Sonny Gray, for a pile of younger, cheaper arms. That's the nice thing about Opening Day: Anything is possible.
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Neil deMause is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has covered sports economics for Slate, the Village Voice, Baseball Prospectus and a bunch of other places you wouldn't remember. He runs the stadium news website Field of Schemes, and co-authored the book of the same name.