Times are undoubtedly tough for pro sports team owners, who are looking collectively at billions of dollars in lost revenue thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, though the exact amount will depend on whether they can still play enough games to collect on TV contracts, how much they’ll save on reduced player salaries, and a bunch of other as-yet-indeterminable factors. It helps that the big four North American sports leagues normally bring in almost $40 billion a year in revenue and earn around $6 billion a year in profits (the latter estimated from eyeballing Forbes’ operating income figures, so don’t take that number as gospel), but still the current crisis has team owners looking for ways to pinch pennies, whether it’s telling players they won’t be allowed to play games unless they take huge pay cuts or laying off stadium workers even after they promised they wouldn’t.
Or, if you’re Oakland A’s owner and billionaire Gap heir John Fisher, you decide to simply stop paying rent because their stadium is being considered for use as an emergency medical treatment site while baseball is shut down:
In a March 31 letter, A’s general counsel D’Lonra Ellis cited the stadium authority being “unable to make the Coliseum available for our use” in light of shelter-in-place orders and restrictions on large gatherings enacted by Alameda County and the state.
The A’s had also learned the Coliseum complex was being evaluated as a potential “surge site” for treating COVID-19 patients, the letter stated, and would defer the payment “until we have a better understanding of when the Coliseum will be available for our use.”
Coliseum Authority head Henry Gardner was a little unclear on what justification A’s officials used for withholding this year’s $1.2 million rent payment, telling the Bay Area News Group that “they said because they haven’t used it, they were not able to generate revenue and they have no ability to pay,” then turning around and telling the San Francisco Chronicle that “the A’s never said they didn’t have the money.” There are also mixed reports on whether the ballclub is seeking to defer its rent payment or skip it altogether; BANG has apparently seen the letter, but has chosen not to share it with readers.
Now, there are legitimate arguments for a rent holiday during the pandemic: Some state lawmakers have proposed suspending all rent and mortgage payments for the time being so people don’t lose their homes and businesses for inability to pay, and some nations like Portugal are allowing low-income renters and small business owners to defer rent payments until after the economy has recovered. None of this, needless to say, is what Fisher has in mind, especially since his family investment holdings are thought to include tons of valuable Bay Area real estate — he just wants to be able to skip his own personal stadium rent payment, presumably while all of his tenants go on sending him checks. (It’s worth noting that The Gap has also stopped paying rent on its closed stores, saving an estimated $115 million in April alone.)
Fisher could still be forced to pay up — Coliseum authority member Ignacio De La Fuente responded to the A’s owner’s move by calling his justification “bull” and saying he was “full of it” — but it’s yet another stark reminder of how certain people have the power to simply stop paying rent, while others face eviction proceedings. If you’re Portugal, you try to draw this line based on ability to pay; if you’re the U.S., apparently, you draw it based on the ability to pay high-priced lawyers.