All week, the inestimable Newballpark.org has been featuring a five-part interview with Oakland A’s owner Lew Wolff, about — well, his plans for a new ballpark, naturally, but lots of other stuff as well. The five sections, with linkage:
- Part 1 – History of working in Oakland, 980 Park site, Process
- Part 2 – Oakland now and what it takes, Earthquakes, contraction
- Part 3 – Territorial rights, Giants’ motives, Dodgers/Mets, Coliseum
- Part 4 – Tarps, discounts, player development, CBA, payroll, T-rights again
- Part 5 – Redevelopment, Target Field, Cisco Field, Keith Wolff, museum and history
It’s a fascinating (if long) read, in no small part because it’s a healthy reminder that the sports stadium game isn’t just about the battles of faceless politicians and plutocrats, but rather of human beings. It’s easy to hear about a team owner who wants a new home, and think, “Yeah, yeah, that’s what they all say, it’s part of their business model”; and as true as that may be, every unhappy owner is unhappy in his own way. Yet at the same time, you can’t forget the economic forces at work even while evaluating a particular owner (or mayor, or what have you) as a person: There are reasons why so many end up playing the same roles, and it has more to do with the pressures acting upon them than whether or not they’re nice people.
And with that, some of the top takeaways from the Wolff interview by Newballpark.org honcho Marine Layer:
- Wolff really thinks that asking for development rights, as he initially did with his Oakland and Fremont stadium plans, isn’t the same as asking for public money: “You entitle that – assuming the city wants that – those entitlements back then were worth $100k per unit just for the right to build, sort of like land value. Instead of the developer taking that money, that money would go into a small joint powers unit (authority) and be used to fund a baseball park. That’s a double win there.” Of course, the city could also have taken the money and put it into something else, but that doesn’t seem to cross Wolff’s mind.
- He genuinely doesn’t want to be that guy who saber-rattles about moving the team out of town: “I didn’t want to be the owner who says, ‘If you don’t do what I tell you we’re moving to San Antonio.’ Also, I didn’t want to get on a plane and start schmoozing with the mayor of San Antonio or Portland or Las Vegas or Monterrey, Mexico. I don’t think that’s the way to do one of these things.” Of course, that’s easier to do when you can play local cities off against each other, as Wolff has tried to do with San Jose, Fremont, and Oakland.
- He’s still peeved about Bud Selig’s relocation committee taking its damn sweet time about things: “You could’ve written a PhD dissertation by now. There’s other reasons that perhaps Bud Selig is contemplating this. … I think he’s got enough information to make a decision. He may be trying to figure out a good way that the Giants are happy and we’re happy. He tends to do that. And right now, what choice do I have?”
- Wolff doesn’t think that he can do much to make the Oakland Coliseum more attractive for fans: “Everybody’s saying you have to open this or do that, make it cheaper and cheaper. We need revenue, yet nobody says, ‘Look how reasonable the A’s game is compared to the Giants.’ Which is fine, they have a better environment to go to. You should pay more there.” (Wolff also talks about the difference between official paid attendance and actual “in-the-house” attendance, noting that one recent game that officially drew 11,000 fans had a turnstile count of only half that.)
- The A’s are doing okay financially, so long as they keep payroll around where it is currently: “The rule of thumb for running a team before you get huge revenues is that if you can keep your MLB salary at 50% of your revenues you‚Äôll probably be at the break even point or make a few dollars. … Our revenues are around $140-150 million. Our payroll is $75 million. That’s about right. I could name another team or two teams whose payroll is around $40 million. We’d make a lot of money if we did that. I will not do that.”
- The San Jose Earthquakes stadium is in a holding pattern because the financing doesn’t work yet: “We haven’t pulled the string yet to build it because if you look at the economics of it you’re only using it for 19 games or 20 games. … So what we’ve done is that if there are 10 steps to it we’re in step 7 or 8. We’ve spent money to do that but we haven’t pulled the string yet.”
The impression one gets of Lew Wolff overall — if you can get a meaningful impression from a transcription of an interview, especially one that the subject himself requested — is of a longtime power broker who is frustrated at not having the financial resources that the other MLB teams have at their disposal, and genuinely doesn’t see why he’s the only guy who’s having such trouble getting a stadium built. It’s hard not to sympathize with that — and yet, the argument still ultimately comes down to “all the other kids on the block are getting one, so I should too.”
At one point, Wolff complains about teams overspending for free agents and how it makes it harder for the A’s to operate: “All these teams that have spent haphazardly without breaking even have gone and caused problems for themselves and baseball.” One could equally well make the same argument about stadiums: When the Yankees get a new stadium partly on the public dime, it puts even more pressure on smaller-market teams like the A’s to get taxpayer subsidies for their own stadium. What might be fairest would be for the teams that have gotten stadium subsidies to pool their boodle and chip in for the A’s to build a stadium to keep up with the Joneses (beyond the revenue-sharing deduction it gives for stadium costs) — but you probably don’t want to hold your breath on that one.