For the second time in three years a major sports team is leaving Oakland and heading to Las Vegas. On Wednesday the A’s announced the team had signed a binding agreement to purchase 49 acres of land in Las Vegas, with the intention of building a new ballpark in the city.
The A’s will likely follow the Raiders, who relocated to the city in 2020, and becomes the third major franchise in the city after the Vegas Golden Knights proved professional sports in Las Vegas could work. However, all the glitters isn’t gold, and the A’s relocation is much riskier than it seems on paper.
Why are the A’s moving?
Short answer: Money.
Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, the A’s current home, is one of the oldest professional sporting venues in the United States, dating back to its construction in 1966. Formerly shared with the then-Oakland Raiders, both the A’s and Raiders complained that they needed a new stadium to further revenue.
The Raiders left town when a deal couldn’t be reached, but the A’s still had time left on their current lease. The A’s had been trying for over 20 years to fund a new ballpark in the Oakland area without success. There are a multitude of reasons this failed over the years, but the biggest element stems from a lack of private investment.
Unlike other sports-hungry markets, cities in California are largely unwilling to grant extensive public funding for sports stadiums. As a result this leads to teams relying on private investment. This has worked in several instances — most notably with SoFi Stadium, which houses the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers and built using 90 percent of private funds.
This was a far more difficult process for the A’s. Soaring real estate prices in the Bay Area made private investment a more questionable proposition for private equity, while attempts to relocate within the area became increasingly difficult. In 2012, San Jose tried to lure the A’s to move to their city, but that was blocked by MLB and the San Francisco Giants, citing territorial rights. The case made it to the Supreme Court, where San Jose would eventually lose.
The A’s routinely said they were committed to staying in the area, but failed in reaching a stadium solution. Attempts were either blocked by local governments, or failed to get off the ground. The A’s last major attempt came with the Howard Terminal project, which came close to being finalized, but resulted in the team missing key deadlines to finalize the plan. As a result it had essentially become a foregone conclusion the team would move when MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced the league would waive the $1B relocation fee if the A’s moved to Las Vegas.
Why Las Vegas?
There is an obsession among sports leagues to get a foothold in one of the most globally recognized cities in the country. Open land, paired with unparalleled tax revenue to help fund projects makes Las Vegas a prime area to house a sporting team … on paper.
The risk is multi-fold, but largely couched in whether or not locals actually care. Las Vegas Vegas is unquestionably one of the largest tourism destinations in the country, but it’s been unclear whether or not that can translate into sustained success for sporting teams.
NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights have been an unmitigated success. Cultivating a rabid fanbase, paired with huge success early in their tenure has resulted in the Golden Knights having the highest attendance by capacity in all of hockey, with 103 percent of seating sold to each home game in 2022-23.
Relocating has been a little shakier for the Raiders. Make no mistake, the team is doing well, but it’s been far from the raging success story the team predicted. In 2022, the Raiders ranked 26th in ticket sales by attendance percentage, far below the 2nd place ranking the team had in Oakland in 2018, prior to announcing their relocation plans.
The deal the A’s have struck right now is just for the land. Financing the stadium itself isn’t a sure thing, with the team’s statement saying they will seek partial funding from the state of Nevada to finalize the deal.
“Now that a site is secured and land is purchased, the next step for the A’s is to finalize a public/private partnership with the state of Nevada by devising a fiscal package to send to legislation. After that comes, the formulation of a relocation plan with MLB.”
This will almost assuredly happen, and the move to Las Vegas would likely happen following the 2024 season, when their Coliseum lease expires.
Why this could fail spectacularly, and the A’s still might not care
Short answer: Money.
Without being flip, moving to Las Vegas and securing a new ballpark that is at least part-funded by tax money is the primary plan. The team being a success is in the periphery.
It’s almost impossible to conceive just how bad the A’s have been at building a successful ballclub. Team officials place the blame on their aging ballpark, but sporadic success surrounded by mediocrity is the real issue.
In recent playoff seasons, the A’s have ranked amongst the league’s bottom-third in average attendance, but that’s cratered in the last two seasons. In 2022 the A’s attracted just 9,973 fans per game, and this year isn’t much better, currently averaging 11,025 in attendance.
Building a fanbase from scratch is difficult. Building a new baseball fanbase is even trickier. Building a new baseball fanbase with a horrible team is almost impossible.
This might not matter, though. If a new ballpark project generates ancillary revenue for the A’s, and they don’t need to foot the entire bill for the park or relocation, they might not care if they only attract 5,000 fans a game. That’s the sad state of affairs when it comes to professional sports, especially when it means a team leaves a city after 53 years to move to a place it knows might fail, but doesn’t care because the money is right.
A’s ownership and management couldn’t make a major media market work. Now they move to a substantially smaller one to try. Good luck with that.