Bumbling owner sells out MLB fans with Athletics’ move to Las Vegas

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When the gavel – real or proverbial – came down Thursday morning on the Oakland Athletics’ bid to move to Las Vegas, and 30 multi-billionaire owners approved the relocation almost unconditionally, it sounded not so much like finality but a warning shot.

This is what they can do to you.

In an industry where revenue is measured in the tens of billions, in a market rich in baseball tradition, flush with wealth and passionate fans, the foundation can be uprooted in service of a panicked and incompetent owner.

John Fisher is already trying to flip the narrative.

The A’s owner has, in recent days and weeks, spun the tale that he left it all on the proverbial field/negotiating table, that this uprooting from the Bay to the desert was a no-choice proposition after the franchise tried for the better part of two decades to find a new home.

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His 29 fellow owners and Major League Baseball are publicly obligated to nod soberly and play along, with Dodgers chairman Mark Walter telling USA TODAY Sports that they “worked on that thing a long time.”

Yet in the seven years since Fisher became managing partner, he and club president Dave Kaval – who was probably inspired, and not horrified, by Office Space’s Bill Lumbergh – have staged a fizzle reel of futility.

There was the community-college site announced to much fanfare – which was news to the actual community college. An assurance that if needed, they’d build at the Coliseum site – endorsed by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred until they told him to declare it unviable.

No, no, never mind that, Howard Terminal was going to be a $12 billion mixed-used baseball paradise, a perfect locale to live, work, play and finish 40 games out in the American League West. Never mind that it was by far the most complex of the situations, that the city of Oakland was asked to jump through more hoops than the circus tigers the A’s will now share Las Vegas with.

Silly Oakland. Still burned 28 years later by a Raiders deal that sank the city’s finances – only for the Raiders to leave anyway – and nodding ruefully as the Warriors packed up and nuzzled closer to the tech bros across the Bay, the city wanted to protect itself and get this right.

Unfortunately, they were dealing with a nepo baby whose portfolio was starting to fray.

Manfred has said on several occasions that getting a stadium built in California is “a different animal” than other places, and that’s true. The state and its municipalities feature countless diversions and almost year-round gorgeous weather and are less inclined to approve hundreds of millions of dollars for a nominally necessary stadium, as they did in in Nashville, or multi-billion dollar monstrosities plopped in an Arlington, Texas parking lot.

Yet consider who succeeded in the Golden State this century, and how Fisher failed.

The San Francisco Giants managed to privately finance a gorgeous ballpark across the Bay, with current club CEO Larry Baer instrumental to that effort. Stan Kroenke finessed a transformational facility out of the citizens of Inglewood, finally solving the no-football-in-SoCal problem that vexed the NFL for two decades. Joe Lacob built a basketball paradise for the Warriors in San Francisco.

Fisher cut and ran, and we still don’t exactly know why.

The city of Oakland still wants some answers, mayor Sheng Thao insisting they were meeting the A’s requests and ready to turn the corner on a deal when Fisher and Kaval went ghost. Turns out there was $380 million of public funding awaiting in Las Vegas, where the math is fuzzy, the tourism board and unions always win and things like infrastructure and education are problems best left for the proles.

Fisher insists he had little choice and inspired significant ire when he told a trio of A’s fans lobbying owners at their Texas meetings that this was “a lot worse for me than you.”

Hey, Late Capitalism has been tough on everybody.

Sure, maybe you’re wondering how to make the mortgage payment this month, or catch up on back rent, or put your kids through school or wonder if you’ll need to work forever or die with dignity, but imagine being Fisher.

It’s not easy for a multi-billionaire with his riches tied up in brick-and-mortar retail and America’s erstwhile pastime.

Perhaps Fisher’s Howard Terminal dreams expired with the pandemic, as construction prices soared and shares of The Gap – it was cooler when his dad owned it – sagged.

So Fisher took a semi-sure thing, even as significant hurdles remain before the club hopes to open on the Strip by 2028 and play as short-timers and vagabonds until then. And even as he got barely more than half the public funding that his fellow failson across town, Mark Davis, bilked out of Nevada to bail on Oakland and come to Vegas.

Fisher will exchange 55 years of history for a market that at best is ambivalent and at worst, saturated and wary. (Or did you not hear the stories of regret from locals regarding the F1 race that’s torn up Sin City this week?)

He’ll have perhaps the smallest permanent stadium in baseball, 30,000-ish seats, but hey, he’ll have ticket scarcity and luxury seating. Who cares if capacity is cut by 25% when you can raise ticket prices by 40%?

It’s not hard to imagine a lot of those tickets paid for but unused, stuck in the virtual wallet of corporate casino types (yeah, that’s a redundancy) as high rollers opt for tickets to U2 or Adele or Cirque du Soleil, rather than Paul Blackburn vs. Patrick Sandoval.

And the Vegas maneuver brings up a question MLB can only do so much to answer: Just who is this game for?

The many owners and Manfred dumping on Oakland’s Coliseum – from an aesthetic standpoint, rightfully so – are only showing how out of touch they are with actual fans. To these billionaires, a McMansion behind a security gate is far more palatable than a night at a dive bar.

And to the vast majority of fans, a reasonably-priced ticket, a cold beverage, an appealing team are all they want. Alas: You sell a lot more water bottles than bottle service, but you can charge a lot more for the latter.

That question – Who is our audience? – is not going away, not until two expansion clubs are identified, and markets like Baltimore and Kansas City and Tampa Bay and Arizona and Anaheim squeeze as much as they can out of municipalities and, ultimately, their ticket-buying fans.

Right now, Major League Baseball is a paradox. The league is rightfully gleeful about a season in which attendance rose as Manfred’s transformative on-field maneuvers paid off better than imagined, and games are once again over before sunrise. Sure, World Series ratings were terrible, but unless Ross and Rachel or Jerry and Elaine or Who Shot J.R.? walks through that door, they know networks will pony up billions of dollars for the right to broadcast it.

Locally, the picture is far more muddled, what with the regional sports network crisis landing about a decade ahead of time, with the Camden Yards-era ballparks nearing what its revenue-hungry owners might think is obsolescence and with only so many rabbits to pull out of Manfred’s hat to lure younger fans.

It is within this environment that Fisher decided to bolt. MLB owners waived his relocation fee but did insert a condition that he pay a significant penalty should he sell the team early in their Vegas stay.

That’s almost cruel to fans in the desert, MLB mandating that they’re stuck with Fisher and his notoriously cheap payrolls and weak excuses. Their compadres in Oakland know the deal, that they must learn to enjoy baseball, and not Major League Baseball. After all, they just saw their team yanked away at the whims of billionaires, all so the very rich can issue veiled threats to their communities until they no longer consider it a bluff.

Who’s this game for? On a dark day in MLB’s history, it certainly was not for the fans, the first collateral damage when a billionaire gets restless.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY