Six games into the 2023 season and there have already been countless tweets and blog posts about the Athletics tanking attendance intentionally in order to make a case for relocation. What most of these comments have in common is a total lack of context regarding the team’s admittedly dismal turnout during the opening week.
Since becoming team president, Dave Kaval has said that the Coliseum is years past its use-by date and on that point he’s correct. Had the Raiders not ruined the park, a series of renovations and upgrades over the years may have extended the park’s life cycle but short of tearing down the monstrosity that is known as Mount Davis, there’s not much that can be done with that building. The team has made a few popular upgrades, namely the Treehouse bar section in left field, but those upgrades have been underutilized on game days.
When presented with the opportunity to have a professional house band in the Treehouse for every home game, the team balked citing the costs of union stagehands to set up the band every performance. Save for a few special events scattered throughout the season, the Treehouse is simply a place to get a cocktail while you’re watching the game so as far as upgrades go, it was nice but has never lived up to its potential.
But even after the upgrades to the park, Kaval would down-sell the stadium to anyone who would listen. Obviously, he’s establishing a need for a new park which is fine and appropriate but along the way, following the Covid fan-free season, ticket prices for season ticket holders doubled. Why would fans pay double to visit a ballpark that the team’s own president is denigrating on a daily basis?
Kaval introduced the incredibly popular All Access ticketing program which was presented as the future for sports ticketing. The program allowed fans to attend any home game they wished for one affordable price and it was a huge hit. Except that it apparently wasn’t a hit with the front office because that program, which put butts in seats that may otherwise not have attended a Wednesday afternoon game against a last place team, completely disappeared. The team claims it wasn’t financially viable but there’s a difference between losing money and not making as much as you could have.
Then there were the player trades that seemed to be the most aggressive in recent history. While it has been an A’s tradition to send off players right before they became expensive in exchange for young talent that a genius scouting department had recognized as future stars, these particular trades seemed more like a fire sale. The days of trading ten dollars for eight dollars and a stack of lottery tickets were gone and now the team was trading ten dollars for a three dollar check that was likely to bounce. A successful team that was probably a few additions shy of true greatness was instead dismantled and sold for parts and the parts, for the most part, didn’t fit the car.
When all of these factors are combined with the fact that the team has been on a “parallel path” to Las Vegas for years now, it’s no wonder that fans aren’t lining up in droves to watch a team of unknowns lose in a dilapidated mausoleum for twice the price they paid to watch players they knew and loved.
So, Are the Athletics Tanking on Purpose?
The argument that all of this equates to the Athletics tanking intentionally in an effort to “make a case” for relocation is as preposterous as a tweet displaying a picture of a half-empty stadium 15 minutes prior to first pitch and claiming it’s everyone who showed up that day.
First, the A’s do not need to make a case for relocation. They have the blessing from MLB, they have relocation fees waived, and they’ve been actively scouting and negotiating without any public objection from any of the 29 other franchises. And they certainly don’t need to make a case to A’s fans because their leaving Oakland will destroy the fanbase regardless of the reasoning and many will not follow the team to Nevada.
In this scenario, who do commentators believe the team is making a case to? Obviously the teams need to vote on relocation approval but the A’s citing poor attendance rather than an inability to build in Oakland is a wild gamble. Team owners, particularly on the west coast, may be reluctant to vote for relocation of a mismanaged team while also giving San Francisco the largest unshared market in the country, while also not receiving a share of the relocation fees. “If you can’t draw in your established home, what makes you think you’ll be able to draw in Las Vegas?” would be a perfectly reasonable question for owners to ask for which the Oakland A’s have no perfectly reasonable offer.
Would it not be a better argument to say, “look, this team still draws 20,000+ but we just can’t come to an agreement with Oakland/find a cite suitable for building/are too constrained by San Francisco’s territorial rights to continue in the bay area”? If an argument must be made, portraying oneself as a team that can’t properly be marketed in one of the largest media markets in the country probably isn’t a solid foundation.
What’s the real problem?
The tight lipped Athletics front office will never reveal their grand plan, if such a plan even exists but there are several theories that make more logical sense than intentional tanking.
During the Covid impacted season, much of the front office staff was laid off and without that staff there was no ability to manage even the most modest number of season ticket holders. So what did they do? They raise the prices and make the season ticket offer so unattractive that most people don’t sign up and no new staff is required for sales or account management. The unintended effect of that move, however, was a horrible public image that could not be repaired because there is nobody on the marketing team to mitigate damaging stories being published and no unified message from the front office– because there was no message at all.
Dave Kaval, in an interview with Hero Habit, tried to convince fans that prices had actually gone down but anyone who can read a receipt knew that was a lie but it was the only official comment from the team regarding the ticket prices and we never saw or heard from Dave again.
The issue here isn’t that the Athletics are intentionally tanking the team, the issue is that they’ve made a series of missteps for which they do not have the expertise or staff to correct for. It’s not three-dimensional chess, it’s checkers and the A’s are trying to play it with Monopoly pieces.
Fans are simply tired of the front office and they’re beyond aggravated by the majority owner who has easily become the least trusted owner in major league baseball — a group of people who are already pretty low on the trust and likeability chart in general. Why would casual fans support a team that doubles its prices, fields unknown players, never advertises, has a subpar stadium, and is constantly reminding the market that it may leave?
At the end of the day, the Oakland Athletics have never been closer to a new stadium and that stadium is in Oakland. Progress wise, Las Vegas is years behind where the team is in Oakland and despite all the missteps, bad PR, and odd decision making, Kaval and his team are owed a lot of praise for having come this far.
If this team is indeed making a case for relocation, spending millions of dollars and countless hours to get this close in Oakland is certainly sending a contrary message. If John Fisher were to sell the team tomorrow — or publicly state his intent and desire to remain in Oakland — ticket sales would go up immediately. Fans will always support the team on the jersey but their patience and willingness to support Fisher and Kaval’s front office financially has run its course. And that’s that. That’s the context in a nutshell. That’s why they team is drawing fewer than 5,000 people to weeknight games in April.