It’s Time to Call Lew Wolff’s Bluff

The threat that the A’s owner would move the team to San Francisco — or San Antonio or Montreal — unless he gets the deal he wants at the Coliseum is absurd.

Elected officials in Oakland and Alameda County have a long history of caving to the unreasonable demands of wealthy owners of professional sports teams. In 1995, city and county officials agreed to a disastrously expensive deal that brought the Raiders back to Oakland — a deal that continues to cost East Bay taxpayers about $20 million a year. And then last year, city and county officials succumbed to bogus threats made by Major League Baseball (MLB) and agreed to a less-than-desirable pact for the A’s at the Coliseum. Last week, it looked like it would happen all over again when the MLB and the owners of the A’s bullied the Coliseum Authority into voting for another flawed lease deal with the A’s by threatening to move the team out of Oakland.

Last week’s threat, however, was nothing more than a bluff, and this week Oakland city officials began to show signs that they might finally be developing a backbone when dealing with sports team owners.

According to City Hall sources, the most recent threat involved MLB telling Council President Pat Kernighan that the league would let the A’s start playing at AT&T Park in San Francisco in 2016 — if the Coliseum Authority turned down the lease deal that the A’s wanted (it was the same threat that MLB made in 2013). After last week’s threat, two city representatives on the Coliseum Authority, including Councilmember Larry Reid, voted for the lease deal, giving it the votes it needed to pass.

The county’s representatives on the authority — who have been even more obsequious toward the A’s and Raiders than the city has — pushed hard for the deal, but have yet to clearly explain why they think it’s so good for the public. That’s perhaps because it isn’t. The pact calls for allowing the A’s to pay $1.75 million in rent this year — but then the rent would drop over time to $1.25 million annually, a provision that would cost the city and county about $5 million over ten years. In addition, the deal calls for forgiving a $5 million debt the A’s owe the city and county in back rent. The A’s would then use the money they save in the deal to pay for a $10 million scoreboard. The team would also get to pocket all the revenues from Coliseum parking and concessions during the baseball season and nearly all the revenues from stadium advertising. In short, it’s a very favorable deal for the A’s, and so it’s no wonder that the team’s ownership started issuing threats last week when the city council ordered its representatives on the authority not to vote for it.

The threat that the A’s would move in with the Giants at AT&T Park was such an obvious bluff it was absurd. Requiring two teams to play a total of 162 home games a year at a single facility would have been a scheduling nightmare for the league. In fact, it’s hard to see the other thirty teams agreeing to rearrange their entire schedules around the needs of the A’s and Giants. Indeed, Commissioner Bud Selig was obviously overplaying his hand when he made this threat. He’s not czar and doesn’t have the power to make such a move on his own; rather, he serves at the pleasure of league’s 32 team owners. And they surely would have balked at the arrangement.

Moreover, the idea that A’s co-owner Lew Wolff would pay the Giants millions of dollars in rent at AT&T Park — and play second fiddle to a team that has single-handedly blocked his efforts to move the A’s to San Jose for the past decade — rather than agree to a fair deal at the Coliseum is beyond ridiculous. If there’s one group of people that Wolff and A’s majority owner John Fisher hate more than Oakland’s mayor and city council, it’s the Giants’ ownership. The A’s, in short, are never going to San Francisco.

They’re not going to San Jose, either, of course. So that’s perhaps why Reid told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this week that the A’s might instead relocate to San Antonio or Montreal if the Oakland City Council refuses to okay the lease deal. But those options are no less silly than going to San Francisco or San Jose. San Antonio, for starters, doesn’t even have a major-league-size ballpark. So it likely would be years before the A’s could play there. And while Montreal has a stadium, it lost its baseball team — the Expos — a few years ago because of an extreme lack of fan interest as well as conditions at the city’s outdated ballpark.

And so we’re to believe that those are better options for the A’s than paying a few million dollars more in Oakland to play in a town filled with diehard fans?

It’s a complete bluff.

But it might still work. Reid and Councilmember Noel Gallo appear ready to fold and vote for the deal when it comes to the council later this month, and there are other councilmembers who may do the same. Earlier this week, some councilmembers said they wanted to talk further with Wolff to get a better deal. That was a good sign, but if the past is any indicator, it seems unlikely that Wolff will be keen on renegotiating.

One of the problems is the belief among some elected officials that if they act as tough negotiators then sports fans will view them as somehow being unsupportive of the local teams. But it’s that kind of thinking that led to the extraordinarily bad Raiders deal in 1995, and the flawed A’s pact in 2013. As such, it’s time that our elected leaders put the needs of the public before those of wealthy team owners. 

Good Government

The Oakland council deserves credit for voting last week to place a measure on the November ballot that would create an independent redistricting commission in the city. Councilmembers also appear poised to green-light another good-government ballot measure next week that would ask voters to strengthen the city’s Public Ethics Commission. Let’s hope they do it.

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