.Game On

Oakland reinvents the East Bay sports scene

To many East Bay pro sports fans, the future looks bleak. When the A’s pack up for Vegas after the 2024 season, all three pro sports teams will have left for what they see as greener—as in “more lucrative”—pastures.

Yet what’s percolating on The Town’s sports front represents a different—but flourishing—future, as interest and fanbases expand exponentially for soccer, cricket and women’s sports overall. Based on research by sports economists, the city may well have dodged a financial bullet when the potential Howard Terminal ballpark deal crumbled. And the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and the Oakland Arena, and their immediate area, still look to be on track for a major makeover.

Alameda County Board of Supervisors President Nate Miley pointed to the growing popularity of both the Oakland Roots pro soccer team and the women’s pre-pro team, Oakland Soul. Perhaps more surprisingly, he also cited cricket as an emerging East Bay sports passion. East Bay amateur cricket clubs exist in multiple locations including Richmond, El Cerrito, Bay Point, Hayward and Fremont.

“Many of us don’t know about cricket, but it’s hugely popular worldwide, and we have a significant population [in East Bay communities] who support it,” he said. “We could be at the cutting edge of sports going forward into the 21st century.”

Oakland City Councilmember Treva Reid agreed. “[The] International Cricket Council is interested in using the coliseum for the 2024 Cricket World Championships,” she said. “Having the World Championships at the coliseum would be equivalent to having the Super Bowl.”

The Roots and the Soul of soccer

Many already know how enthusiastically East Bay fans have adopted the Roots and the Soul. 

“When we founded the Roots in 2018, there was a huge, untapped appetite for pro soccer here,” said Mike Geddes, chief purpose officer for both teams. The goal, he said, was not only to feed that appetite, but to create teams that care about and support the community that supports them.

Though problems making the pitch at Laney College meet pro-soccer standards forced the Roots to move the rest of their 2023 matches to Cal State Hayward, the organization’s plan to build an interim stadium on an area adjacent to the coliseum is on track. Known as the “Malibu Lot,” the site would house an expandable modular stadium designed to accommodate growing crowds. “We have already outgrown our current site,” Geddes said. Both Laney and Cal State Hayward can seat 5,000-6,000 people.

Geddes foresees that if the Roots and the Soul are able to play in the new site by the 2025 season, as is the current plan, the crowds will grow to as much as 8,500 people. The organization is just about to launch its first crowd-funding effort for the new stadium. News about this can be accessed at https://www.oaklandrootssc.com/news/2023/06/29/our-town-your-team/.

And if, in a decade, plans for renovating and updating the coliseum come to fruition, Geddes believes the teams could successfully attract the attendance to play there.

In the meantime, the organization is staying true to its community-based mission in several ways, including Project 510, its academy program for young players, both male and—eventually—female, aimed at “identifying elite local talent that could graduate to pro soccer,” said Geddes. These young players compete against pro-level players in the Southwest Division of USL League Two.

The average age of 510 players is 17-18, with players as young as 15 on the team, Geddes said. He added, “The talent base here is so deep.”

Also giving back to the community is the Oakland Roots and Soul Foundation, which supports causes at the intersection of race and gender justice and sports in Oakland. Organization materials state: “Our mission … to challenge inequities in sport and society with a focus on race and gender justice.”

The appeal of both the Roots and the Soul isn’t lost on major sponsors and partners. Premium sponsors include Anthem Blue Cross, among others, and partners include the Oakland International Airport, One Toyota of Oakland and Modelo. On Aug. 4, the organization announced a new partnership with Xfinity. “Our sponsors and partners understand what we are doing on and off the field,” Geddes said.

The depth of corporate support bodes well for the teams as they move forward. “The Oakland Roots and Oakland Soul have become household names in Oakland, putting our city on the map as a global center for soccer,” Reid said.

The coliseum, the arena and the WNBA

In November 2021, the Oakland City Council unanimously approved a two-year exclusive negotiating agreement with the African American Sports and Entertainment Group ​​to negotiate potential terms for the acquisition and development of the city’s share of the Oakland Coliseum Complex. According to Reid, this includes potential terms for purchase, lease and/or partnership, a financial plan and community benefits.

According to both Miley and Reid, the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Authority Joint Powers Agency (JPA) also approved a five-year, non-binding term agreement between AASEG to proceed with their negotiations to secure a WNBA team. “There is a lot of community support for the AASEG,” Miley said, expressing the hope that the A’s will sell their remaining rights to that group.

That support is echoed by Lionel Bea, co-founder of Bay Area Productions, an independent, Black-owned events company which brings major music acts, such as Mary J. Blige and Maxwell, to the Arena. “AASEG has reached out to me. Their plans include a permanent theater/concert pavilion,” Bea said, describing a model based on the very successful L.A. Live complex.

The AASEG vision for the redevelopment includes housing; large-scale hotel and conference facilities; retail, restaurant and entertainment development; local jobs and protection from displacement for local residents, alongside bringing a WNBA team to the arena. Miley noted that a major bond issue will be on the ballot in 2024. Some of the requested $1 billion in funding could be allocated towards affordable housing in the redevelopment, he said. If fully realized, the AASEG project would be the largest development in Oakland’s history. In every possible iteration, the arena would continue to be part of plans.

According to multiple sources, the WNBA will announce plans to expand the league as soon as 2025, and the short list of potential cities includes Oakland. Alana Beard, former WNBA star who played for both the Washington Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks, is part of the AASEG ownership group and is helping lead the drive for an Oakland team. She, like other members of the group, believes that a WNBA team in Oakland could quickly become the most successful franchise in the league. The vacuum left in the pro-sports scene has created pent-up demand in the sports fan base that the team would contribute to fulfilling, and the A’s impending departure will simply grow the need, sources say.

The original AASEG proposal emphasized existing statistics showing the viability of the Oakland/East Bay market. According to statistics compiled by Scarborough Marketing in 2019, the Bay Area has the fourth-highest number of WNBA fans among U.S. markets without a WNBA team. It also has 418,816 WNBA fans, higher than eight markets with a WNBA team.

And the popularity of women’s sports continues to grow by leaps and bounds. “I believe that the presence of the WNBA and teams such as Oakland Soul [could] make Oakland a pioneer for women’s empowerment in the sports industry,” Reid said. She pointed to the success of state champions at Oakland Tech and Bishop O’Dowd. “With a love of sports and empowering women being at the core of Oakland’s cultural foundation, we look forward to the possibility of bringing a WNBA team to our city,” she added.

A woman-owned WNBA team, she said, along with investment in a semi-pro and development league for local girls, and women’s program pipeline paths at local schools, colleges and sports organizations, would “support the future of the WNBA from the court, to executive offices, trainers [and] coaches, and create more women entrepreneur incubators in the industry to empower girls and women, on and off the court.”

Could football and baseball return?

As the “Sell the Team!” A’s protests and continued sightings of Raiders gear prove, there is still a large fan base for pro baseball and football in the East Bay. “I’d love to see another pro team come into the coliseum,” said Bea, a fervent Raiders fan when they played here.

Miley did not rule out the prospect of a pro-baseball and/or pro-football expansion franchise coming back to Oakland, but cautioned it could take many years of negotiations, alongside developing and approving joint city and county funding. “I could see it happening in a planned approach,” he said.

But the demands of pro owners for “modern” facilities, paid for mostly—if not primarily—by local taxpayers, could make that goal financially unsustainable and a bad use of tax dollars.

Economists, especially those who specialize in sports economics, continue to question the wisdom of cities’ massive investments in sports facilities. Economists JC Bradbury, Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys conducted a comprehensive review of more than 130 studies of the economic impact of sports teams and stadiums, with results published on the site Global Sports Matters in June 2022.

“Teams and stadiums are not associated with having strong economic impacts on local communities,” wrote Bradbury. “These findings explain why people in my line of work overwhelmingly agree that sports stadiums are poor public investments. In a recent University of Chicago survey of economic experts, 80 percent of respondents agreed that stadium subsidies were likely to cost taxpayers more than what they get in return.”

Bradbury added that “spending on tickets, concessions, and other related consumption in and around stadiums comes largely from local residents who were already spending their income locally…Stadiums don’t boost host economies, because stadium-related spending mostly isn’t new spending. It’s the same spending reallocated to a different location.”

That means that Oakland taxpayers may well be better off not footing the reported $1 billion that A’s owner John Fisher demanded in public funds for the Howard Terminal project. East Bay sports fans will likely be better served in a future that elevates other sports, including women’s, and which listens to, and gives back to, the communities they play in. One source, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “Oakland is responsible for the new trend in cities refusing to pay for teams to stay.”

Should that trend continue, the future may also find pro teams fully grasping the value of loyal, committed fan bases—and asking to make a home in Oakland.

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