01 August 2005

What about Sacramento?

The Sacramento Bee's Marcus Bretón wrote a column last week encouraging the A's to move to Sacramento, where they would receive more fan support and greater attendance than they are currently getting at the Coliseum. He cites the four-county Sacramento Valley area's projected growth numbers, while also getting a few digs in regarding the A's poor radio position. Despite all of the bluster regarding Sacramento's potential, in comparing Oakland and Sacramento he only gets one point truly right: Sac would offer a better radio position.

What's wrong with the rest of what he says? I'll deconstruct the different points one-by-one.

When decrying the Double Play Wednesday ticket discounts, Breton writes that if it were a regular-priced game, "You would have seen about 25,000 fans, give or take, which is about the A's average this season, down from last year and one of the lowest attendance figures in Major League Baseball."

  • The A's are in the lower third in terms of attendance in the league, but the blame has to be placed partly on the stadium. A quick check of the attendance numbers shows that the standard deviation among the A's per game attendance figures so far is 10,563. That means it's just as likely for the A's to draw 15,000 (non-giveaway weeknights) as they did 35,000 (bobblehead Sundays) or 25,000 (the average). This is not going away as long as the A's stay in the Coliseum, an unsexy venue with a much larger than desired capacity. Presumably, a new ballpark built according to Wolff's small ballpark specifications should tighten that standard deviation up, drive up demand, and in turn, drive up ticket sales. Wolff doesn't need to move the team to Sacramento to prove this. It's all basic microeconomics.

"A month ago, the University of the Pacific's Business Forecasting Center told The Bee's Andrew McIntosh the Sacramento region's economy will more than double in the next quarter century. The four-county area - Sacramento, Yolo, Placer and El Dorado - will grow to 3.5 million residents."

  • Sacramento's growth potential is bright, but even then, the area will be still be only half as large as the Bay Area, if not less. It's a matter of going from a major market to a medium-sized market. Some would argue that Oakland actually is a medium-sized market. I'd rather call it not actualized, since other than the radio issue and the territorial rights issue in the South Bay, there are no limits on how the A's can market throughout the Bay Area, or even all of Northern California. By moving the A's to Sacramento, Wolff would ensure that the vast majority of casual baseball fans in the Bay Area would go to San Francisco, not 90 minutes to the northeast.

"Compare the number of A's games on Fox Sports Net to those of the Giants. It's not even close."

  • The basic difference between the Giants and A's FSN schedules is the lack of broadcasts on A's weekday day games. Is that such a big deal? The A's have alternatives should this become a sore spot. They could make those "getaway day" games night games, which would get picked up by FSN. They could also move to Comcast Sports Network once the current contract with FSN expires. Comcast, in its thirst to get more substantial local programming, may be willing to broadcast more games in its bid. A competitive situation should yield this.

"Sacramento could provide the land for a stadium that the A's will never find in Oakland or in Contra Costa County."

  • Really? In Sacramento? Let's put it this way: There's a reason why Raley Field was built in West Sacramento, not Sacramento. That reason is politics. Raley Field ended up being a near perfect site because it's just across the Sacramento River from downtown, yet it was in Yolo County, which became the prime location after much squabbling among different neighborhood and business interests in Sacramento. It stands to reason that Raley Field will remain the prime location for a major league team as well, especially if a significant public investment for a ballpark is required. With locals sour on a downtown Kings arena, it would be hard to see support really drummed up for a new ballpark there if another major league franchise (the Kings) wanted a new facility and the ballpark built in 2002 was designed for expansion to attract a MLB franchise. Add to that the fact that there are sites in the East Bay for a ballpark (some less ideal than others, but sites do exist) and the argument doesn't hold water.

Beyond that, there's the issue of Raley Field itself. Stadium construction has become a highly evolving marketplace, with new innovations forcing early renovations and in many cases, a yearly fund has to be set up just to support renovations. Milwaukee's Miller Park, opened in 2001, is set to undergo several millions of dollars worth of scoreboard and signage changes over the next three years. To get Raley Field up to Wolff's desired level of creature comforts, it's not going to work to just build a second deck on top of the ballpark's luxury suites and call it a day. Let's look at the wishlist:

  • Minisuites. These would have to be built on top of the existing luxury suites, and might require a separate concourse.
  • Club seats. Only 450 club seats exist in a section along the first base line, on the same level as the suites. To get more premium seating in the ballpark, designers would have to create more club seats on top of the suites, perhaps behind the minisuites. Extra ultra-premium club seats (think of the Coliseum's "Diamond Level" seats) also could be placed on field level behind the plate, but that would require extensive construction, as was done recently at US Cellular Field. The sweet spot for new stadiums is around 3-5,000 club seats.
  • Large luxury suites. This actually works to Raley Field's advantage, since the place already has 35 suites and could be expanded to Wolff's desired 40 by converting the existing club.
  • Adding 20,000+ seats. The existing seating bowl has 11,000 seats plus 3,000 in the outfield berms. Extending seating down the right field line to the foul pole would add less than 1,000 seats. A second deck, without the separate club seating area and minisuites, could add in the neighborhood of 15-17,000 seats. With the club, which would be at the front of the deck, second deck seating would be limited to 12-15,000. Designers could add a large number of bleacher seats in the outfield to get up to 32,000 seats, but the bleachers aren't exactly a premium location (except in Fenway or Wrigley), and if you do it wrong, Raley will turn into the next Arlington Stadium. That will do nothing but give a team an excuse to ask for yet another new facility, since they'll consider Raley only temporary.
  • Team facilities. If you've been to Raley Field, you'll notice that the team clubhouses are located in left field. That's not the most ideal place for clubhouse facilities, and construction of new ones in the bowels of a renovated Raley Field would have to be lumped into the budget.
  • Financing. Raley Field is an example of how a public-private partnership could be made to build a ballpark in California. In fact, it is considered the model upon which SB 4 was written. That said, it was a $29 million project, less than 1/10th the cost of new major league ballparks, so it was much easier to reach the goals required to pay back debt service. For instance, the minimum attendance per game to pay off the bonds was only 3,400, and the Rivercats average a near-sellout for every game. Build a major league facility, and suddenly the requirements go way up. So if Raley Field is upgraded to a major league facility, an extra $100-150 million in debt service will be required, but it may result in a ballpark that just isn't big enough to handle future requirements. If Raley is upgraded to become a temporary facility while a new one is built, then what becomes of it when the A's move into the new ballpark? Someone will end up picking up the tab for two ballparks.

Sacramento may become a solid major league baseball-ready city at some point in the near future. But to think that building a facility there won't involve obstacles similar to those being faced in Oakland, San Jose, or anywhere else in the Bay Area, is shortsighted.


The Cactus Leaguer said...

To your point about Sacramento being MLB ready someday... I think that if the A's manage to stay in the Bay Area, there is no way that MLB would go to Sacramento. At least, not before adding a 3rd team in NY, LA, and Chicago.

Juan said...

Its not inconceivable. If you're estimating upgrading Raley Field to cost is $150-$200 million, that's far less than the estimated $500-$800 million that constructing a new ballpark would cost the A's. Although San Jose may have more corporate donors, I don't believe their contributions will come anywhere near close to matching the savings that can be achieved by simply upgrading Raley Field.