By Neil deMause
Friday was supposed to be a big day in Oakland. That's when the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Joint Powers Authority, the city-county agency that runs the home of the A's and Raiders, was set to vote on a new lease to extend the baseball team's stay in Oakland for another ten years. Or maybe less than ten years -- A's owner Lew Wolff has been angling for an out clause if he wants to leave early -- but anyway, it looked like the two sides were actually going to agree on something, which in the A's stadium saga would qualify as historic.
Instead, it didn't happen, and in spectacular fashion. The city of Oakland, pissy that Wolff had announced a deal was nigh without waiting for them to reply to his latest offer, responded by simply not showing up for Friday's vote. That left the Coliseum Authority without a quorum, left a whole lot of people who'd gotten up early to testify twiddling their thumbs, and left even county JPA officials furious at their no-show city partners:
JPA Member says Oakland City Officials acting like "2nd and 3rd graders" for boycotting meeting to vote on A's lease extension.- Laura Anthony (@LauraAnthony7) June 27, 2014
Now, acting like second graders is pretty much par for the course in the A's drama. I covered much of the backstory -- Wolff's demands to be allowed to move to San Jose, the San Francisco Giants owners' response that the South Bay is its territory, Bud Selig's "la la la la I can't hear you" -- back in March, but since then things have if anything only gotten weirder. The explanation of events leading up to Friday's is a bit convoluted, but with enough bullet points we might actually get through it without anyone's head exploding.
Let's begin, shall we?
First, with the A's latest two-year lease set to expire after the 2015 season, Wolff surprised pretty much everyone last offseason by announcing that he was willing to discuss a long-term lease extension at the building that he once called "despicable." For a moment, it looked like an acknowledgment that MLB was never going to allow Wolff's San Jose dream to become reality, and gave A's fans hope for a short respite from endless speculation about the team's future.
At which point, things promptly went nutso again:
- Wolff threatened to move the A's to a "temporary stadium" elsewhere in the Bay Area if he couldn't get a new deal. (Hillsboro, Oregon, not quite clear on the concept of "Bay Area," promptly threw its hat in the ring.)
- "We hope to have [a deal] as soon as possible," Wolff announced in April. "It's really up to Oakland now."
- One week later, the Coliseum Authority offered Wolff a ten-year deal. Wolff immediately turned it down.
- Last Wednesday, Wolff announced that a deal was at hand. Oakland m ayor Jean Quan replied that this was news to her, but that talks were continuing and hopefully an agreement would be in place soon.
- "Soon" turned out not to be Friday, and all hell broke loose.
All of this might make more sense if we knew what Wolff and Oakland were still haggling over. But while there have been a few clues -- the Coliseum Authority has charged that Wolff is demanding $3.5 million a year in rent subsidies and refusing to pay overdue rent, Wolff has said he's demanding nothing of the sort -- neither side is revealing the actual lease details. The public was supposed to get an actual glimpse at the lease plan after Friday's vote, but clearly that didn't happen.
The key holdup, if media scuttlebutt can be believed, is over just who would be committing to what. Wolff reportedly wants the right to opt out of the lease early by paying a small penalty, plus the right to up and leave if the Oakland Raiders win permission to build a football stadium on the current Coliseum site. Quan, meanwhile, suggested that any lease extension should be contingent on the A's "deciding where they want a new stadium," which is clear as mud, but clearly isn't something that Wolff will happily agree to.
It's easy to chalk all this up to dysfunctional city officials, or a team owner conniving ways to stall while secretly seeking to skip town. But while I love a good conspiracy theory, it's important to remember that there aren't just two parties at the table here, but rather an insanely complicated multilateral game of chicken:
- For Wolff, a lease extension isn't so much a commitment to Oakland as a way to hedge his bets: He'd be assured of a place to play (or at least a two-year warning if the city and the Raiders want him to clear out) while he figures out whether he can wangle his way into San Jose or should settle for his current Plan B, a new stadium at the Oakland Coliseum site. It would also help him stake a claim on the Coliseum land over...
- The Raiders, whose owner, Mark Davis, has said he'd like to tear down the Coliseum as soon as possible so he can get his own stadium built there. Davis has been playing his own game of footsie with other cities (mostly Los Angeles, which is having its own stadium problems) in order to throw a scare into...
- Oakland elected officials, who are trying desperately to use whatever leverage they have (which mostly amounts to "what else are you gonna do, play in the street?") to keep both teams long term without giving away the store. Not that there's much store to give away -- twin stadiums would cost well over a billion dollars, and Oakland is only two years removed from slashing funding for its city zoo in order to balance its budget -- but at least getting Wolff to agree to a new lease while allowing for continued talks with Davis would stave off the twin specters of L.A. and...
- San Jose, whose antitrust lawsuit to force MLB to allow the A's to move to the South Bay is awaiting an appeals court ruling sometime this year, after the city lost an initial ruling last fall. Legal opinions differ on whether the suit has a shot at succeeding, but that almost doesn't matter as much as its ability to throw a scare into...
- Major League Baseball, which wants desperately to hold on to both its system of assigning territorial rights to its teams (lest half the league announce next week that they intend to move to New York) and the broad antitrust exemption that the Supreme Court dropped in its lap in 1922. With these two goals going head-to-head in the A's-San Jose squabble, Selig has done his best to angle for a resolution that enriches Wolff without inconveniencing any other owners, most recently issuing a press release endorsing Wolff's plan for a new stadium at the Coliseum site.
That's at minimum a five-sided battle, and those things never end well.
Wolff says he's still hopeful that a Coliseum Authority vote could take place later this week, and Oakland officials say they're willing to keep on talking. If all goes well, then, and everybody kisses and makes up, the Oakland city council and Alameda Board of Supervisors could vote to approve a lease extension later this summer -- at which point the next step would be to figure out how to meet the two teams' demands for a pair of new buildings.
The A's, in particular, have no shortage of proposed sites to consider, though each comes with its own problems: Wolff hates a proposal for a stadium at the waterfront Howard Terminal because, he says, it would cost too much to clean up and is too far from public transit; another site on the east end of Jack London Square is probably too small to fit an MLB stadium on, and there are questions about whether the A's and Raiders could both share the Coliseum site, though there's at least one rendering that shows them happily co-existing.
And then there's the big question: Who would pay for all these new buildings? Various developers are said to be interested in different Oakland stadium projects, but developers want to get a return on their investment, and given that most new stadiums don't turn a profit, that's going to leave somebody drenched in red ink.
Which is why, in the near term, everyone could end up realizing that the guns they're holding are aimed at their own heads, and agree to maintain the status quo for a while longer. So long as San Jose remains off the table, the East Bay is by far the best option for the A's, something Wolff has to know -- he and his partners didn't spend $180 million on the team, which sounds like a pittance in the post-Ballmer era but was a lot in 2005, in order to end up owning the Charlotte A's or the Louisville Sluggers. (For Davis, who is inclined to care less about city size since he'd get a cut of NFL national TV checks regardless, it's more about Oakland being his best option for extorting a generous stadium deal.) And for Oakland city officials, who want to keep both Wolff and Davis happy while also not breaking the bank, stalling as long as possible may seem their best hope.
Or San Jose could win (or lose) its suit, or Bud Selig's successor could issue an edict regarding the Giants' territorial rights, or a developer could show up willing to pay for two new stadiums no questions asked, or the Raiders could move to Omaha, or Brad Mills could use his civil engineering degree to figure out how to build a new stadium out of congealed sewage. I wouldn't hold your breath, though. As much fun as it is to pin blame for the logjam on one side or the other, the fact remains: that's a whole lot of logs.
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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.