02 April 2009

The last years of the Haas era revisited

I'm paraphrasing here, but here's a common refrain I've read lately:
Why can't we have owners like the Haas family, who respect the tradition of the Oakland A's and are willing to spend money?
Why not indeed? These damned money grubbing owners, all they want to do is (insert conspiracy theory here - apparently the theorists can't even come to a consensus this), they don't care about baseball! We need to exhume Wally Haas, reanimate him, sue MLB and the A's to invalidate the last two ownership groups, and put the soon-to-be canonized man back where he belongs, as owner of the A's.

Nostalgia's great, isn't it? We can choose to ignore certain facts that we feel are inconvenient. We can bask in the glory of the great triumphs while whistling in the dark about the more unsavory aspects.

When Rickey Henderson came back to the A's during the '89 season, it was a signal to fans from Haas and Sandy Alderson that the team was serious, that it was going to make its run. We all know about the great payoff for that season, but what happened the following years? As you can see from the chart below (data from the old Business of Baseball website), it was a tremendous struggle to stay competitive in the wake of baseball's economic upheaval. Some call it charity on Haas's part, I see it more as a very shrewd strategy. Haas saw that the Giants were struggling to get a new stadium in San Francisco, and there was a distinct opportunity for the A's to have the Bay Area all to themselves if the Giants left for Tampa Bay, or most of the Bay Area if they moved to San Jose.

The light blue line is the leading indicator. 1990, the team's last World Series appearance, was the last profitable season during the Haas era. From then on, the team lost a combined $30 million in 5 seasons. That's the equivalent of an entire season's payroll back then. Currently, the average payroll is around $90 million. Can you imagine the A's losing $90 million during a 5-year span? Fortunately, revenue sharing is around to help the bottom line, though even with the annual revenue sharing receipt, the A's would still lose money since their receipt would drop proportionally as their revenues rose.

It's good to remember the on field successes and the work done to get them. Throughout my childhood, I listened to Bill and Lon on my parents' 70's-era Sears console stereo in the living room while I did my homework. I still remember KSFO often using Madonna's "Borderline" as bumper music between innings. As great as these memories are, the successes did not occur in a vacuum. Incredible amounts of money were spent, from the core of the team to the annual rent-a-slugger and solid veteran 4th starter to having both legends King and Simmons in the booth. It's not only impractical to expect that of Lew Wolff, it's patently unfair.

Every owner does what he can with the cards he's dealt. Wolff signed off on a $79 million payroll in 2007, only to have the team beset with injuries. Hope springs eternal this season, but already we're seeing the injury bug decimate the pitching staff. (Side note: let's not get too excited about Anderson or Cahill yet. For every Big Three, there's also a Generation K - knock on wood.) If the team manages to stay competitive during the first half, it's likely that we'll see a big arm rental along with Matt Holliday stay through the end of the season. If not, guys will be sold off and we'll go back solely to grooming young guys who can hopefully stay healthy. We know that Billy's going to try to get value whenever and wherever he can. The cycle will repeat itself continually until a new stadium is built. It's sobering, but those are the Wolff/Fisher group's - and our - cards.


gojohn10 said...

The scary part is that during the Haas years the attendance was still below average if you take into account the quality of the team on the field. Not to mention,this was back when the coliseum was among the nicest ballparks in the league and the Giants were 15 miles further away.

Anonymous said...

What are you talking about John??

The Haas era began in 1981-1995. From 1981-1982 attendance was above average and from 83-87 it was only a little lower than the average. Between 88-92 we were killing in attendance well above the league average due to the quality put on the field and our postseason appearances. From 92-00 was when we were at our low in attendance record, but I blame a lot of that due to the on field performance and ownership issues.

From 01-05 we were pretty much on par with the rest of the league average in attendance. Starting from 05-present is when our attendance dropped to what it was during the early 80s...which also happened to be during the player's strike.

"Despite winning three World Series and two other A.L. West Division titles, the A's on-field success did not translate into success at the box office during the Finley Era in Oakland. Average home attendance from 1968–1980 was 777,000 per season, with 1,075,518 in 1975 being the highest attendance for a Finley-owned team. In marked contrast, during the first year of Haas' ownership, the Athletics drew 1,304,052—in a season shortened by a player strike. Were it not for the strike, the A's were on a pace to draw over 2.2 million in 1981. The A's lost in the American League Championship Series after winning the "first half" AL West Division title of the strike-interrupted 1981 season. They finished with the second-best overall record in baseball, and the best record in the American League.

During the 15 years of Haas' ownership, the Athletics became one of baseball’s most successful teams at the gate, drawing 2,900,217 in 1990, still the club record for single season attendance, as well as on the field. Average annual home attendance during those years (excluding the strike years of 1981 and 1994) was over 1.9 million."

Marine Layer said...

Attendance is a very limited component. As you can see from the chart, in many of these seasons gate accounted for a third of revenue. The point is that even with great attendance, it can only take them so far.

Jeffrey said...

I think what gojohn is talking about is that in order to draw, the A's had to win a lot more games than other teams. It's pretty thorough analysis.

Also, in 40 years the A's have been above median attendance 8 times. I may be misremembering here... but I believe it is 8 times total over the course of 40 years.

Anonymous said...

Wolff on short leash with A's ownership?

"Through an Oakland social media site today, businessman Zenophon Abraham posted he heard directly from two well-placed sources that the Oakland A's ownership considering firing co-owner and team president Lew Wolff after his plan for building a new stadium in Fremont failed."

greenmachine said...

Is a new ballpark necessarily a cure-all? Aren't there teams playing in new ballparks that don't turn profits?

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:15,

Enough with the lame, self-serving, misleading cut-and-paste from Wikipedia. You've done that several times already (you probably wrote it).

1.9 million is the same Schott averaged and very close to what Wolff has averaged. That is Oakland's ceiling, and it's not that impressive. If all that deficit spending, all those All-Star players, all those World Series appearances, and a then-decent (in relative terms) ballpark - in the days before AT&T park - can only bring you 1.9 million attendance, you are not a viable market.

Anonymous said...

"During the 15 years of Haas' ownership, the Athletics became one of baseball’s most successful teams at the gate."

Complete crap. The A's lagged in attendance most of those years. Only the five unsustainable, deficit spending years the Oakland-only crowd keeps cherry-picking prevent the average from looking truly pathetic.

gojohn10 said...

Anon 1:15.

"During the 15 years of Haas' ownership" the A's were not, as you say, "one of baseball’s most successful teams at the gate." The A's ranked 8th out of the 14 AL teams in terms of attendance while averaging just under 83 wins/season during that time period. It's true. Look it up. That breaks down to below average attendance, even when normalized to the team's performance on the field (I will say it is only slightly below average, but still, below average and certainly not close to among the top of the league). Only when the A's had the championship run during the late 80's/early 90's did attendance near the top of the league. That is exactly what you would expect from a team with average attendance figures. People show up when they win and don't when they lose. Is that the best we can hope for?

Anonymous said...


You're wasting your time trying to reason with the Oakland-only crowd using, you know, actual facts.

Anonymous said...

That is the best you can hope for in Oakland.

jeepers said...

It's important to consider the differences in available revenue streams when comparing the Haas and Schott/Wolff eras. Attendance was a much more important part of the equation at that time, because there wasn't free money for doing nothing (revenue sharing), or the magnitude of TV/internet/media revenue currently available. Taking those factors into consideration, what the Haas family did with attendance was pretty remarkable. It dwarfs what the Schott regime did when the A's were just as good at baseball.

Jeffrey said...

greenmachine- I don't think it is all about profit. It is about increasing revenue streams, something I think all teams have done over the past decade and something new ballpark'd teams have enjoyed more than those without new ballparks.

Anonymous said...


Your argument makes no sense. The argument "attendance was more important because there were fewer revenue streams to rely on" might be persuasive if Haas had attained profitability through such attendance (or at least broke even). The reverse was true: Haas deficit spent to put butts in the seats and lost a bundle doing it. If you're willing to subsidize people going to your games, you ought to be able to increase attendance. It's not actually that impressive an accomplishment.

I love the A's. But frankly, if there's a rich owner out there willing to sink tens of millions into charitable endeavors, I'd rather he move the team somewhere it can sustain itself on a break even basis (even if that place happens to be outside the Bay Area)and spend that money to help abused children or something rather using it to subsidize my entertainment.