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MLB says Oakland A’s can explore new markets, but it’s not clear where they’d go

A general view of the Oakland Athletics playing against the Houston Astros with a limited capacity crowd at RingCentral Coliseum on April 03, 2021 in Oakland, California.

Ezra Shaw | Getty Images

Perhaps Major League Baseball is bluffing as it plays a game of baseball liar’s dice to help the Oakland Athletics secure a new ballpark site.

Major League Baseball said on Tuesday that the Oakland Athetics could explore other cities if a $12 billion waterfront development project, which would include a new stadium, isn’t approved.

The team wants out of the Oakland Coliseum, which first opened in 1966. To get a sense of how old the Coliseum is, the Atlanta Braves and Texas Rangers have landed two new stadiums since the A’s began playing at the Coliseum in 1968.

The frustration from this dice game is well described in Marcus Thompson’s recent article in The Athletic. Saying goodbye to the A’s was the theme.

It’s sort of like the scene from the second “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie when Davy Jones played pirates liar’s dice with Will Turner and his dad. The game is built on deception and bluffing, but eventually a liar will be revealed and lose the game.

“It’s just another pebble in a pond of confusion,” said sports executive and former A’s vice president Andy Dolich.

“Every decade, since the late 1980s, it’s been at some point under consideration,” added former MLB executive Marty Conway. “Should the A’s move? Will they move? What’s the circumstance?”

Remember the Montreal Expos

Conway, who served as a special assistant under former MLB commissioner Peter Ueberroth, compared the A’s dilemma to the Montreal Expos. MLB’s first Canadian team moved in 2004 after a battle to replace the aging Olympic Stadium, which hosted its first baseball game in 1977.

“It just became impossible to go forward with,” said Conway of playing at Olympic Stadium. The Expos are now the Washington Nationals and play in a $400 million stadium that opened in 2008.

The A’s have their eyes on a new park at Oakland’s Charles P. Howard Terminal. The development would feature a 35,000-seat stadium, shopping, hotel property, commercial and residential units. The team presented its plan and is hoping for approval this summer.

“It’s either Howard or bust for Oakland,” A’s president Dave Kaval told an NBC Sports Bay Area earlier this week. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep advancing that.”

But if the city doesn’t approve, what will the A’s do? Other towns can be used for leverage, but where would the A’s play? And would MLB owners approve relocation to an expansion territory and miss out on a $2 billion fee?

“There are a few more pieces on the board to think about,” Conway said, adding the league still needs to resolve labor issues with players before seriously worrying about stadium problems.

“And if you’re the owner, moving a baseball team and remaining the owner is a difficult situation,” Conway added. “What usually works is you end up selling to somebody, and they move it.”

John Fisher during the game against the Seattle Mariners at the Oakland Alameda Coliseum on April 21, 2017 in Oakland, California.

Michael Zagaris | Getty Images

Where is the owner?

The A’s are worth roughly $1.12 billion, according to Forbes. The team is historically known for mastering the use of baseball analytics, thanks to Billy Beane. And right now, the A’s are in first place in the American League West division.

Still, A’s ownerJohn Fisher remains out of the spotlight. He’s the son of Doris and Donald Fisher, the founders of retail empire Gap Inc., and he’s relying on Kaval to land him a new park the same way Kaval did in 2015 for the San Jose Earthquakes, a Major League Soccer franchise Fisher also owns.

The $12 billion number is for the entire waterfront development project, but landing a new park at the terminal location would cost $2 billion. The A’s want public money, though, and Oakland officials appear in no hurry provide it.

There is a sense is among some sports bankers that Fisher wants to remain in the Bay Area, and if he can’t land a new park, perhaps he’ll sell the team or move.

A move to Sacramento might work. There is a push in Nashville, where former A’s legend Dave Stewart is helping to lure a team. Portland‘s interest has gone quiet. Las Vegas, where the former Oakland Raiders of the National Football League now reside, is tweeting about its interest.

The speculation about the A’s future is all over the place.

“One of the easiest things to do in sports is to say you’re going to buy a sports team,” Dolich said. “One of the hardest things to do is to end up owning one. I think it’s just another level of confusion that has to drive their fans crazy.”

Now a sports business professor at Georgetown University, Conway said the decision could come down to the wire in 2024, when the A’s lease expires.

“It’s easy to say ‘let the lease run out, and then you can do whatever,'” he said. “But those are difficult times – those single and two-year renewals.”

Matt Chapman #26 of the Oakland Athletics hits a single against the Tampa Bay Rays in the eighth inning at RingCentral Coliseum on May 09, 2021 in Oakland, California.

Thearon W. Henderson | Getty Images

Three strikes and Oakland is out

Eventually, city officials will reveal their dice, too. Will they let MLB escape like the NFL and the National Basketball Association, whose Golden State Warriors relocated across the Bay to San Francisco? Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf used her media appearance on Wednesday to express optimism about the A’s staying.

The executives with a history of MLB experience suggested caution moving forward, as the risk of losing a third pro sports team is greater than ever.

“There is a football team that used to be called the Oakland Raiders. Now, they aren’t,” said Dolich. “There is a basketball team that used to play in that Oakland arena; now it doesn’t. So, you’ve got to think about that seriously.”

“And if they move, there is no going back,” Conway added. “It’s not like Oakland is going to get an expansion team if they lose this team. It’s not going to happen. Baseball will not go back to a market where they already have the Giants.”

The game of baseball liar’s dice continues in Oakland. And once complete, a similar contest awaits MLB in Tampa Bay.

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