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September 23, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

Losing Hope in Oakland

by Joey Matschulat

On September 4, 2002, the Oakland Athletics crammed a season-high 55,000-plus fans into the then-named Network Associates Coliseum for what is often fondly remembered as the climactic epoch of Moneyball—the night that the Athletics frittered away an early 11-run lead at home against the lowly Royals, followed by a classic incredulity-fueled Billy Beane tantrum, followed by Scott Hatteberg's heartwarming pinch-hit blast in the bottom of the ninth inning to win it. At the outset of the chapter devoted to that particular game, Michael Lewis painted a surreal picture of a "traffic jam extraordinary even by Northern California standards stretched as far as the eye could see" leading up to the sea of concrete surrounding the Coliseum on all sides.

On Wednesday night, the Coliseum played host to the playoff-bound Rangers and a comparatively exciting pitching matchup (Brandon McCarthy vs. C.J. Wilson). The announced crowd of 19,589—a figure that would rank somewhere between subpar and miserable in virtually every other major-league market, but actually constitutes the 27th-best showing in Oakland's first 80 home dates of the season. In case you were wondering what such an announced attendance total actually looks like, here was the scene from what is now named the O.co Coliseum less than five minutes before first pitch on Wednesday:

[Deeper research into the A's promotional schedule indicates that they have been running a promotion called "BART $2 Wednesdays," which enables fans to purchase seats in the outlying sections of the upper deck (in center field and around the foul poles) for $2 a pop. I'm assuming that promotion accounts for a substantial number of the fans pictured above that are perched in the second deck. And during the course of researching that, I also realized that the A's have been running a season-long promotion called "Free Hot Dog Thursdays." Having experienced first-hand the joys of navigating "Dollar Hot Dog Wednesdays" at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington (which the Texas fan base tends to approach with the same voracious gusto displayed by Fat Albert when he ate the Cosby Kids), I'm inclined to wonder how that promotion has ended up working out for Oakland.]

Down the coast some 400 miles, the desperation-fueled Angels zeroed in on their ninth consecutive season of three million fans clicking through the turnstiles, which says a great deal about what a World Series win combined with perennial playoff contention can do for team revenues. (Although with that said, the Angels' per-game home attendance is down slightly more than one thousand fans per game this season, and they would require an impossibly phenomenal final homestand to bump their present 39,018-fan average showing into the 40,000-fan club for an eighth consecutive season.) Up the coast a piece, the sad-sack Mariners stumbled ever closer to a 90-loss season, as well as their fourth consecutive season where their average home attendance per game fell. The future bears promise, but it's unclear whether that promise will manifest in the form of major-league results quickly enough to materially reverse their ill-trending attendance totals as early as next season.

And down in Texas, the Rangers' ballpark staff furiously prepared for a final three-game homestand that should easily bump them into the 2.9 million range, with an outside shot at surpassing the single-season franchise record of 2.945 million fans set back in 1997. In addition to bolstering both season and total ticket sales and luxury suite sales, the Rangers found their 2011 television ratings inflated by 35 percent at the midseason mark relative to last season, signifying the second-highest increase in baseball. It’s an impressive feat, even when considering that the Rangers were starting from a below-average TV ratings baseline coming into the season. What isn't quite so impressive, though is the fact that the Rangers' attendance totals still don’t hold a candle to those of the Angels and Mariners over the last 11 seasons (American League attendance rankings are listed in parentheses):

 

Angels

Athletics

Mariners

Rangers

2011 (projected)

3,160,448 (2nd)

1,479,946 (14th)

1,953,353 (8th)

2,927,760 (5th)

2010

3,250,814 (2nd)

1,418,391 (13th)

2,085,630 (8th)

2,505,171 (5th)

2009

3,240,386 (2nd)

1,408,783 (14th)

2,195,533 (7th)

2,156,016 (8th)

2008

3,336,747 (2nd)

1,665,256 (13th)

2,329,702 (7th)

1,945,677 (11th)

2007

3,365,632 (2nd)

1,921,844 (12th)

2,672,223 (6th)

2,353,862 (8th)

2006

3,406,790 (2nd)

1,976,625 (12th)

2,481,165 (6th)

2,388,757 (7th)

2005

3,404,686 (2nd)

2,109,118 (8th)

2,725,459 (4th)

2,525,221 (6th)

2004

3,375,677 (2nd)

2,201,516 (7th)

2,940,731 (3rd)

2,513,685 (6th)

2003

3,061,094 (3rd)

2,216,596 (6th)

3,268,509 (2nd)

2,094,394 (7th)

2002

2,305,547 (7th)

2,169,811 (8th)

3,542,938 (1st)

2,352,397 (6th)

2001

2,000,919 (8th)

2,133,277 (7th)

3,507,326 (1st)

2,831,021 (5th)

Total (projected)

33,908,740

20,700,863

29,702,569

26,593,961

[A couple of theories propose themselves for the Rangers' inability to jump from the fifth spot from 2010 to 2011. First, there's little denying that the especially oppressive Texas heat this past summer had at least a minor detrimental effect on attendance. Case in point: the Rangers played 27 games this season with first-pitch temperatures of 100 degrees or hotter, but played just 24 such triple-digit games from 1998-2010... combined. Second, the continued decay of the Twins' new stadium attendance bounce combined with their flirtation with the 100-loss mark will probably knock them a few rungs down the attendance ladder next season. As far as whether Texas can overtake the Red Sox, Yankees, or Angels—well, the jury's still out on that. I won’t be counting on it, unless the Rangers win another pennant or the Reapers descend on Yankee Stadium during their mass invasion of Earth.]

But the real, pressing attendance problem in the AL West continues to be found in Oakland, where players, executives, and owners alike doggedly wait for a stadium resolution that will seemingly never come. The commissioner has gone so far as to acknowledge that the A's do not have a future in Oakland, and has ostensibly received some amount of meaningful input from the blue-ribbon committee he assembled more than two years ago to assess the Athletics’ situation and recommend a blueprint. To this point, however, no action has been taken, and each day lost to inertia is another minute setback for a franchise that is mortally crippled in terms of its revenue streams, its ability to attract free-agent talent, its ability to dump money into the rich gold mine of amateur talent...

In June, ESPN.com's Howard Bryant painted an honest but frightfully bleak picture of the A's-Giants stalemate, laying out the crumbling relationship between the A's and Oakland and the primary reasons for the interminable delays. The issue isn't simply that San Jose, the Athletics' intended destination, falls within the boundaries of the Giants' territorial rights; it's that the Giants apparently consider those rights to be non-negotiable and non-obtainable even if the A's were willing to amply compensate the Giants for their undercut revenue streams. That strikes me, the relative novice to this extremely complex and nuanced problem, as a marvelously difficult roadblock to overcome.

Said Giants president Larry Baer of the territorial-rights dilemma (again, from the Bryant column): "Once you begin talking about negotiating a dollar figure, the horse is already out of the barn. The South Bay was a core piece of our business model when we bought this team. We based much of our entire business strategy on Santa Clara County being a piece of our territory, and I don't think it is overstating it to say that allowing another franchise into our territory would set a dangerous precedent and have a traumatic effect on this franchise. ... If we were to go down to 2.5 million [in attendance], we'd be in the [expletive]. This franchise would be completely destabilized. So, for me, the question is this: Is baseball willing to have two teams receiving money from the revenue-sharing pool or one that is so financially healthy that it paid $30 million into it?"

 I don't have a very good handle on the truth-to-spin ratio in what Baer is saying, but shedding my personal allegiances and speaking purely as a fan of the game, I have to say that this is absolutely painful to watch unfold. I know that the synchronous timing of Oakland's poor season with the release of Moneyball (the movie) has been remarked upon by countless commentators, both baseball-educated and not... but the Athletics' misfortune extends beyond a mere poor season, in that this situation is simply hopeless. And there isn't a single fan base in baseball that I would wish such a terrible, joyless plight upon.  

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