Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: the A’s are waiting to hear if they can relocate to San Jose. You can pick a year (it’s been approx. a decade that this issue has been on the burner), but the issue remains.
Bud Selig, of course, is getting the blame for all of this. “Just decide!” is the mantra repeated over and over. It’s not that simple.
Before we say why it’s not simple, maybe it’s worth looking at how we got here, what’s in play, and then, yes… why it’s not that simple.
Bob Lurie Pines for a New Stadium
To really get to the heart of why the A’s still haven’t gotten into San Jose, you have to look back to a point where they originally controlled that territory. You read right: the location that the A’s currently wish to relocate to was once theirs. As I wrote in 2004:
The Giants control most of the Bay Area. Their physical territory includes San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Monterey and Marin Counties, plus Santa Clara County with respect to another major league team. By comparison, the Athletics' territory includes only Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.
When Bob Lurie was looking to get out of Candlestick Park in the late 80’s, baseball expanded the Giants territory to include Santa Clara County where there were efforts to pass funding to build a new ballpark in San Jose. The voters in Santa Clara County rejected tax hikes to fund the stadium in both 1990 and 1992, yet baseball reaffirmed those rights when Peter Magowan purchased the team in 1995 and built PacBell Park.
They say hindsight is 20/20. I wrote that baseball expanded the Giants territory to include Santa Clara Co. but what I didn’t add was that could only happen if then A’s owner Walter Haas allowed for it. He likely didn’t foresee Silicon Valley and the dot com boom becoming such huge factors. Remember, when John Sculley was at the helm, stock of Apple was near $5 at one point and the high tech industry was on death watch for the computer maker.
So, Haas weighed the possibility of the Giants relocating, and in the end, believed that having them as cross-town partners was better than having the whole Bay Area to himself. Go figure. Now, the Giants are unwilling to give up the territory that was gifted to them in the first place. They have said repeatedly that they see nothing that would indemnify them to the point of giving up the sponsorship base in Santa Clara Co. It’s no longer a territory that was given to them in attempts to stay in the Bay Area, it’s now “ours”.
Let’s make this one simple: Contraction is a non-starter. For one, to balance the league out, you have to have a National League team come along for the ride. One need only look back to 2000-2001 when Commissioner Selig said that the owners wanted to dissolve the Expos via contraction. At the time, the late Carl Pohlad threw his hat in the ring and said that if MLB needed an AL team to go with the Expos as an NL team into the land of contraction, the Twins would be happy to oblige. It was a ruse of sorts; Pohlad was seeking to get out of the Metrodome into a baseball-only stadium. The MLBPA threatened to sue if contraction were attempted based on the loss of workers (read: players would be out of jobs), and Fox Sports Net Minnesota filed a complaint against the Twins saying they would break their broadcast agreement if they were contracted (Read Fox Sports Net Minnesota, LLC v. Minnesota Twins Partnership from Dec. of 2001).
For all these reasons, contraction is a non-starter. As was the case prior, when push comes to shove, it has to be relocation, and even then, that’s nearly as tough as contraction.
Relocation, Television, and Back to the Issue with San Jose
So, let’s say that finally, San Jose is a non-option. In the meantime, let’s pretend that no viable options are left in Oakland for the A’s. If contraction is off the table, then relocation becomes the other discussion.
Relocation isn’t as easy as saying, “There’s a nice market. Let’s pick up and move.” We need only look at what’s happening in San Jose to show that baseball’s constitution and by-laws (read them here) have clear physical territories that clubs control.
But, it goes deeper than that.
The television territories in the league are guarded with as much fervor as the physical ones. If you look at the broadcast territories for the league (see here), you’ll note that no one place isn’t controlled by one club or more. So, if the A’s wanted to move to Portland (and remember, a relocation market would have to have at least an interim stadium and funding to build a new MLB-worthy ballpark), the Mariners would be up in arms as Portland is the M’s largest broadcast market outside of Seattle.
The best example of this was the relocation of the Expos. When contraction didn’t fly, the league went to relocation. It’s been well told, but Washington, DC, Portland, San Antonio, Las Vegas, Northern Virginia, and Norfolk were all in play. When DC coughed up all the stadium funding (along with the largest market), they became the favored relocation destination. Problem was, Orioles owner Peter Angelos saw the matter as infringing on his broadcast territory (although at every opportunity he said that attendance would suffer, as well). The solution was the creation of MASN with the Orioles as the primary owners.
That option doesn’t appear to be there for the A’s and the Giants. Or, the Giants seem uninterested. After all, the club is already a 30 percent owner in CSN Bay Area. Creating a new regional sports network, while an option, doesn’t appear to the solution that the Giants are willing to accept.
So, if the A’s have to relocate, and San Jose drops off the list, then markets within the Athletics own broadcast territory become the discussion. Sacramento is a possibility, but if a new ballpark is part of the deal, that may be too difficult. Just ask the Maloofs and the Sacramento Kings, who are hanging on by their fingernails in the market.
Staying in Oakland
Lew Wolff (and one assumes, John Fisher) haven’t been exactly receptive to staying in Oakland. The owner appears to see the market as a dead-end. The largest issue has been the repeated inability to get ballpark funding or a location to properly build one. If that changes (and that’s a large “if”), then the A’s remain the “Oakland A’s”. But, for now, that effort seems stuck in neutral until a clear yes or no is determined on San Jose.
Selling the A’s
If San Jose is deemed off the table, the odds that Lew Wolff, John Fisher, and the rest of the A’s ownership group looks to sell the club. Values have gone up, even if the A’s rank second to last in valuation by Forbes. Wolff’s group purchased the A’s for $180 million in 2005. What did Forbes value the A’s at entering last season (and remember, the valuations have been below what the market has been willing to bear)? $307 million.
If options run dry, the sale of the A’s becomes more of a reality by the second.
Why Selig Doesn’t Just Push the Giants Aside?
Back to the beginning, this isn’t as easy as Selig telling the Giants ownership, “Sorry guys. Santa Clara Co. wasn’t yours to begin with. We’re letting the A’s relocate to San Jose.” Relocation of clubs require approval by ¾ of the league’s owners. Simply put, if we’re (still) stalled, the votes aren’t there.
The reason for that is one about owners and their own best interests. Many of them are sitting there thinking, “If it could happen to the Giants, it could happen to us.” That especially holds true for the Yankees and the Mets.
As I wrote in 2008 (see Ranking the Top 10 Markets by Relocation or Expansion), if territorial rights are stripped away, Northern New Jersey is baseball’s best untapped market. If the A’s can relocate to San Jose, what’s to say that the Rays can’t pack up and move to Northern New Jersey? And, the memory of relocating the Expos to DC is certainly still on many owners’ minds, as well as the commissioner.
It’s not as easy as you think. Selig has to get 75 percent of the owners to agree to the idea of the A’s to San Jose.
It’s worth repeating, but there’s this: if negotiating with the players is difficult for the league, often times the battles within baseball’s own ranks can be just as tough. Just ask the Athletics. They were supposed to be moving to San Jose last month.
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey. He writes for Baseball Prospectus and is a contributor to Forbes SportsMoney blog.. He is available as a freelance writer. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network (select his name in the dropdown provided).
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