Eastward the A's? 

Dreams of a new Oakland ballpark might just strike out.

That was a hell of a ride we had last month. Just as the Oakland A's embarked upon an eleven-game winning streak that made the national press sit up and take notice -- and the Red Sox cringe -- word broke that once again, the team was on the verge of leaving town. Owners Steve Schott and Ken Hoffman were in the eleventh hour of sales negotiations with a group of Las Vegas investors -- which would almost certainly have meant moving the team elsewhere -- when Oakland City Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente gummed up the works by announcing to KTVU reporters news of the impending sale. After a few days of flurry and uncertainty, the sale quietly died, and the A's renewed their year-to-year lease at the Network Associates Coliseum.

But no one has any illusions about the fragility of the team's stay in Oakland. Although fan attendance has climbed by more than 340,000 this year, it was driven not only by the team's go-for-broke midsummer run, but also by the organization's bargain-basement marketing techniques such as "Dollar Wednesdays." While this makes for a great year of baseball, it has meant that revenue has not kept up with attendance, and Schott and Hoffman have found their profits merely squeaking up. Next year, they will have to beef up their relatively modest payroll to retain a winning team, and that will cut into their bottom line. Increased attendance must justify the salary boost, and most observers agree that only a new ballpark has a chance of keeping A's fans in the seats. If Schott and Hoffman can't get their new stadium here, they'll look for it elsewhere.

This presents a tricky problem for Oakland. Without a new stadium, the A's will most likely move. But Mayor Jerry Brown has repeatedly said that no public money will be used to build one. And that leaves only two possibilities: Let the team leave, or find a way to privately finance the construction of a new stadium. Is such a scheme actually possible, and do Oakland's leaders have the wherewithal to make it happen? Although Oakland has ruled out direct subsidies for stadium construction, the fact is that the city will inevitably throw in considerable assistance. City Manager Robert Bobb has commissioned the leading stadium construction firm HOK Sport to analyze five potential sites for a new stadium, all of which are controlled by public entities: two sites along the waterfront, one at Laney College, one uptown, and one at the existing Coliseum site. If any one of these is chosen, then the city, port, or Peralta Community College District will certainly not charge the A's much for control of the site, and the city will provide additional millions in infrastructural costs.

"We're working on the preliminary analysis, identifying the criteria for what makes a good site for a stadium," says Rosie Rios, who is handling the study for the Community and Economic Development Agency. "View corridors, public transportation, opportunities for adjacent development -- we're also identifying the constraints of the site, in terms of freeway access and surrounding parking areas. We're really in the reconnaissance stage."

A report on the feasibility of each location is due out of the city manager's office sometime in the fall, but so far most observers have settled on the 9th Avenue Terminal as the leading candidate; it's on the waterfront, not far from Jack London Square and I-880, and unlike the Howard Terminal it would not face prohibitive remediation costs. But Bobb, who last year floated the idea of a ballpark at Laney, recently suggested that a waterfront park would be little more than a stepchild of Pac Bell Park, and that Oakland is interested in stepping out on its own. "I don't want anything that just looks like San Francisco," he said. "I want a stadium that reflects our image as a rugged, socially responsible city."

Once the city or the port essentially donates the land, however, rigging private financing is far from a sure thing. There are advantages to keeping the project private that might make it palatable; publicly funded construction would probably be hamstrung by micromanagement and bureaucratic delays, for example. But amassing the millions it would cost to build a stadium, especially at a time when the team is looking to leave town, is daunting at best; although civic boosters have been promising a price tag as low at $274 million, few people take much stock in those estimates.

In fact, of the fifteen baseball stadiums built or under construction since 1990, only Pac Bell Park was financed with exclusively private funds. City planners hope that Pac Bell Park can serve as a model for patching together enough sponsorship deals, naming rights, concessions, and oversized Coke bottles to make the project pencil out, but now that the heyday of frivolous dot-com marketing budgets is over, there is some doubt about whether the Bay Area's biggest corporations will be willing to spend such money on two baseball stadiums. And the politics that led to the private construction of Pac Bell Park were hardly a walk in the park; it took four referenda, the Loma Prieta earthquake, and two failed attempts to move the Giants out of town before team owners agreed to build the complex themselves.

But if stadium construction is so difficult to finance (some estimates put the cost as high as $420 million), perhaps that's good news for Oakland. If Oakland is balking at building a stadium, then perhaps so will potential host cities like Sacramento, San Antonio, or Santa Clara. But according to Rodney Fort, a sports economist at Washington State University, it's not the smaller cities that are likely to appeal to the A's organization, but New York City.

Driving this idea is the age-old dilemma of competitive imbalance in Major League Baseball: Big teams like the Yankees will always be able to field stronger talent than the Minnesota Twins. According to Fort, the league commissioned a panel to analyze potential remedies, and the results may finally break the traditional preference for expansion over relocating existing teams. "The panel said the imbalance is very bad, and one of the things you can do is let the teams move," Fort claims. "The two kinds of revenue sharing that will affect competitive imbalance are a luxury tax and a salary cap. What will the players take as a concession from the owners, if the players will accept a salary cap? They'll take it for something in return, like free agency forever. But it's not going to come for free. They'd never accept it simply for the good of the game. On the other hand, Los Angeles and the New York area could easily support at least two more teams." Relocating the A's to New York would dilute the Yankees' revenue, and hence the franchise's competitive advantage -- and staring down George Steinbrenner may be easier than staring down the players' union.

On the other hand, Fort claims that Portland, Oregon is an immediate candidate to host the A's, and it all has to do with Microsoft executive Paul Allen. For years, Allen has been assembling a roster of professional teams, including the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers. And Allen is widely anticipated to create a regional cable sports channel to challenge the supremacy of Fox Sports News in the Pacific Northwest. Owning three pro sports teams, whose seasons take up the entire year, would be a perfect corollary to a rising cable sports network. "Paul Allen intends to drive Rupert Murdoch out of town," Fort says. "Think about the value of having a regional cable sports network, and that's the value of bringing the A's to Portland."

So private financing is something of a stretch, but public financing is a game Oakland's played before, and it hasn't liked the results. And there are cities that could snare the A's which most Oaklanders haven't even considered yet. But Robert Bobb is pushing forward, hoping that a stiff upper lip and the right amount of enthusiasm will lead the way through this quandary. After all, we still have twelve more months.

"Let's do the research," Bobb says. "I'm not one of those who say it can't be done. I don't like off-the-cuff reactions that something is impossible. Great communities prove that they can overcome the impossible."

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