Thursday, April 11, 2019

Seb Gorka and Jay Sekulow and the Green and Gold

The good news: The A's are still on the radio. The bad news, they are on a super low wattage frequency and on a very politically charged station.

The Signal

Most A's games are night games and their new flagship, KTRB 860 "The Answer" is capped at 5,000 watts at night. In comparison, KNBR 680 is 50,000 watts all day and night, meaning -- in terms of terrestrial radio -- the Giants' signal is 10X stronger after dark.

Radio and A's fans should count their blessings, however,  as once upon a time during the Finley years they were on a 10 watt station out of Berkeley -- with Larry Baer at the mic.

But what about TuneIn? We'll get there.

The Company You Keep

Vince and Ken and Ray and Townie and Joe Walsh? and Sebastian Gorka? and Jay Sekulow?

Search any one of the three and you may very well find one or all of these loud firebrands offensive and just about the polar opposite of the progressive politics the Bay Area is known for.

Let's just look at Sekulow. In addition to being President Trump's attorney, Sekulow is chief counsel for The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). The group is decidedly anti-LGBTQIA+ as detailed in a 2017 Advocate article:

The ACLJ has represented many anti-LGBT and antichoice clients and causes. “ACLJ’s materials are often explicitly homophobic, and their fundraising emails signed by Sekulow have warned that the homosexual agenda is ‘bent on destroying our communities’ and ‘the family as we know it,’” the Human Rights Campaign reported in a 2014 press release.  

It has advocated for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, supported sodomy laws, denounced LGBT-inclusive antibullying policies in schools, and opposed allowing openly gay leaders in the Boy Scouts, according to HRC. It has also sought to export homophobia.

Since 2015, the A's have had a "Pride Night" at the Coliseum, in part to honor former Athletic and the first openly gay baseball player Glenn Burke. Being on a station with Jay Sekulow as one of its "stars" is a step backwards, and cannot be brushed aside simply because "there were no good other terrestrial options."

Radio Still Matters

The ubiquity of terrestrial radio is undeniable. Every car and almost every house and apartment has one. The A's deal creating a dedicated TuneIn channel is innovative and laudable, but the fact that they signed any radio deal shows that they know that streaming alone won't satisfy their audience.

While both smartphones and unlimited data plans are increasingly the norm, they aren't for everyone. And, the average age of a baseball fan nationally is 57 -- a demographic that is often less tech savvy.

If one tries to find the game on the radio and either: a) the signal is too weak at night; and/or b) the accompanying programming is offensive, they may just eschew following the team.

It's About Minting Fans, Right?

As reported in the Mercury News, the A's have had 15 "flagship" Bay Area radio stations since moving to Oakland in 1968. In contrast the Giants are 40 years and counting on KNBR. It behooves the A's to find a consistent, clear signal -- preferably in clear FM stereo, like KGMZ. And, ideally, the team should strive to be on a politically neutral outlet.

The above Merc article included a broadside by a KGMZ host, "We’re in the audience business and they’re not." With company like well-known islamaphobe Seb Gorka on KTRB what kind of audience are you looking to build? It seems obvious, but listening to a baseball team's radio station should be a safe space.

Ken and Vince and Ray and Townie deserve better; but, instead it looks like another 50 years of roaming the dial and, for now, being part of the "America First" Bay Area radio lineup.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

A Tale of Two Marketing Approaches for Raiders and A's

The Oakland Raiders are all set to move to Las Vegas, having found a pot of private and public money in the desert. At the same time, the Oakland Athletics are beating the "#RootedInOakland" drum as loud as possible. The Dave Kaval love-fest shows no signs of abating and bitter old Oakland boosters cried tears of joy when, asked about official MLB comments that Las Vegas was a possible future market, the A's president directly stated "We’re building in Oakland. All of our effort is going into that. We’re working with all our stakeholders to get this done. We’re looking at four sites in Oakland and we’re on target to announce the site and the timeline this year. This isn’t about us. We’re committed to Oakland."

The A's are, for the first time since the Haas years, wearing the "Oakland" on their away jerseys with pride.

In the backdrop of the A's-Oakland love affair, the Raiders are gassing-up the moving vans. But, when they land in Sin City, the black-and-gold won't be launching a "#RootedInLasVegas" strategy. The football team, with marooned fanbases in Los Angeles and, soon, Oakland (for the second time), is counting on fans traveling to see the team. The local love just doesn't seem to be part of their plans.

In profiling the forthcoming Las Vegas Golden Knights, The Wall Street Journal noted the differences in marketing strategies between the city's forthcoming NHL and NFL franchises:

...Las Vegas’s ability to fill seats and succeed as a pro sports town still hinges on the idea that it is a market unlike others in the U.S. Underscoring the trickiness, the hockey and football camps are taking different approaches to the problem: the Golden Knights are focusing hard on the local market while the still-developing plan for the Raiders focuses more on courting tourists.

In the piece, it is detailed that the Golden Knights have the equivalent of 13,000 local season ticket holders locked in, surpassing the team's target of 10,000. The team's owner sums up their approach this way, "We’ve tried to make it very clear that we are the home team. We’re locals."

With all due respect to a great fanbase, the Raiders never really embraced their East Bay home the way the A's have of late.

Madden React

On Sirius XM, and later transcribed in The Washington Post, long-time Raiders coach John Madden made his feelings known about the team's pending move to Nevada:

With the stadium now, when they move out, that’s going to be torn down, and it’s going to be a high rise or some doggone thing. There’ll be no more Oakland Raiders There will be no more history of the Oakland Raiders, and that really bothers me....Boom, it just goes away.

Of course, John, it could be a baseball stadium.

The Kaval-Cade

A's president and fan dreamboat Dave Kaval made the rounds last night, appearing on TV and radio to talk about ballpark progress and bask in praise for his fan-friendly moves.

Admittedly, I've remained very skeptical of Kaval as he is a paid employee of owner John Fisher, a source of endless frustration and ire to pro-Oakland proponents until this year.

Will I ever give Kaval a big bear hug and say, "All is forgiven?" When the A's break ground on a new stadium in Oakland I will believe the hype.

The bear hug for either Kaval or Fisher just isn't coming as a discerning fan should keep their distance from ownership and its paid minions.

Upper Decks and Giveaways

Judging by attendance figures and in-game visuals, the de-tarped upper tank at the Coliseum is attracting few takers. This is a shame, particularly given the charitable donation tied to each seat. The extra capacity will likely come in handy on these days: 1) Opening Day; 2) fireworks games; 3) giveaway weekends; 4) Yankee/Red Sox games; and 5) if the team is competing for or in the playoffs.

The numbers on Sunday, May 6 will be interesting as it is a terrific-looking BoMel Bobblehead giveaway. The rub is that the team is only giving them away to 15,000 fans. By opening the upper deck, more folks are likely to come out -- and to go home empty-handed. Many MLB teams give items to all fans. Come on Super Dave, make it happen! Upset kids on giveaway days are tough to see. Trinkets like bobbleheads go a long way to forging fans for life.

Where is "Let's Go Oakland!"?

Back in 2012, then-CEO of Clorox Don Knauss made the rounds on Bay Area media, announcing that the group "Let's Go Oakland! (LGO)" had amassed a host of corporate money and resources to support the A's, should they choose to stay in town. Here is Knauss on KQED:

We’re very interested in working with Lew Wolff and John Fisher, the A’s current ownership, to keep the A’s here and to build a new stadium. Two-and-a-half years ago, some 45 companies in the East Bay committed to being corporate sponsors and put over a million dollars in escrow as sort of a down payment on sponsorships — things like marketing programs, seat licenses, luxury suite commitments. Anything to demonstrate to the current ownership that we as the business community were very committed to keeping the A’s here.

LGO is Doug Boxer's brainchild. Has anyone heard from him and, given the team's current, fervent Oakland-push, is that escrow account about to be tapped?

Friday, April 7, 2017

Don't Let the Food Trucks Fool You, A's are Still Fisher's

Opening Day at the old ballyard in Oakland brought something entirely foreign to the Athletics' loyal fans, hardy as weeds and equally abused. After years, in fact with the glorious exception of the Haas affair, the gloomy, loveless marriage between the team and "The Town" seemed to have suddenly improved. The A's woke up and decided to love the city they are with. Oh, happy days! Right?

The A's 2016 offseason was rather compelling drama. First, minority owner and majority mouthpiece Lew Wolff announced an intention to sell his stake -- he the much derided Moses, always aiming to take the team to anywhere other than Oakland -- Fremont! San Jose!

Then, alerted via ship-to-shore radio as he traversed the Mediterranean on his yacht blissfully aware that he even owned a baseball team, silent uber-majority owner John Fisher -- he of the Gap family threads and wealth -- heard the team's distress call and sailed into the bay to restore order. Needing a first lieutenant, Fisher tapped Dave Kaval. Kaval, a (successful) mini-Moses in the stadium world, helped bring about a new facility for Fisher and Wolff's San Jose Earthquakes.

Kaval is where the story gets interesting. After years of deteriorating relationships with Oakland, open flirtations with San Jose and a decidedly underwhelming community presence, Kaval saw the light coming from the Sunny Side of the Bay and became born again in his and the team's passion for Oakland.

Kaval, named team president, off-the-bat announced that he was holding "office hours" for fans to come and offer suggestions for improving the fan experience. The good vibes led to a relocated FanFest gracing Jack London Square as opposed to being shoehorned into Oracle Arena. A savior has arrived!

There can be no doubt that the A's have installed a charismatic, smooth-talking president. And, some of the moves -- food trucks, christening the field after Rickey Henderson and the "#RootedInOakland" campaign -- are easy, feel-good lay-ups that any competent owner should have done. But, Kaval is not an equity ownership member. He's a public face for a team without one -- as Fisher is virtually invisible.

The buck really stops with Fisher, but he isn't speaking. It's easy to forget that the new collective bargaining agreement removes the A's revenue-sharing carve-out. This revenue is a big deal and will be completely gone in 2020.

While no one knows for sure if the estimates are accurate, Forbes listed the A's operating income at $32.7M in 2016. Given that they took home more than $30M in revenue sharing least year, it isn't hard to see how the team might become a more challenging investment for Fisher.

The cynic says that Kaval is making the team appear more attractive to potential suitors. Given the, until-now, chronic community disinterest by the team's ownership group, it's not unreasonable to think that the perceived value of the team in the eye's of potential suitors is depressed. It's important to remember that prices paid for franchises are not based on profitability or some kind of hard grounding. They are wildly inflated ego chases, fueled by prestige and scarcity.

Another cynical way of looking at the A's feel-good moves is that they are working to drum-up community support for a new ballpark. This is possible, but generally only used when a team is looking for public subsidies. As the Raiders just illustrated, none are coming in today's political environment in Oakland. Also, unlike the Raiders, the A's new ballpark has always been presented as a fully-funded private venture.

Could it be that John Fisher just realized what a middling fan experience the team offered and set out to change things? Unlikely. The A's have been very public about their need to remain profitable at all times and have embodied, in their myriad trades and salary dumps, the essence of a business-first operation. They are all about the dollars.

For A's fans, who for years derided and loathed the skinflint, leave-town Wolff, to turn around and embrace Kaval and say all is forgiven is to be incredibly short-sighted. The non-team performance improvements are much-needed and welcome, but this is not the start of a new era.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Raiders to Las Vegas: End to a Zero-Sum Game for Athletics Fans

The Raiders are, in a few years and barring some sort of "Holy Roller" moment, off to Las Vegas.

Given what I have said in the past -- mainly that the real prize at stake and the fulcrum point on which either the Athletics or the Raiders would stay, is the having sole rights to the Coliseum area and mixed-use development around it -- you would be forgiven to think that I am "happy" about this news. I am not.

The reality is that the A's-Raiders dynamic has been complex. If the Raiders were to have successfully booted the A's from the Coliseum as they long-desired, the A's could possibly have had leverage in their previous, and ultimately quixotic, quest to head to San Jose. Instead, the short term gain of both teams recently signing lease extensions meant the stadium issue was left to fester longer, giving Mark Davis wandering eyes.

And, the desire to evict the A's from the Raiders perspective never waned -- remaining a key issue up until the NFL owner's vote:

Goodell had pressed Schaaf to evict the Oakland A’s of M.L.B. — the football and baseball stadiums would have been neighbors under the proposed arrangement — and declare her loyalty to the financial well-being of the Raiders. 

She saw no reason to sever a relationship with a baseball team that also was entwined with her city’s identity. “Asking us to terminate their lease now,” she wrote to the league this past weekend, “is unnecessary and unreasonable.”

The A's were never in a position, given their public desire to move to San Jose until just a little while ago, to present Oakland and Alameda County with a reverse ultimatum -- boot the Raiders or we bolt. In fact, issuing such a statement could well have led to the city and county agreeing, arguing that at least the NFL has a dedicated stadium fund. The A's only have promises of private money. A bird-in-the-hand (the Raiders) beats a bird-in-the-bush (the A's).

And, while the A's may indeed be serious about scouting alternate locations, I really believe that the Coliseum area has been the end game ever since they were blocked from San Jose and realized that they actually play ball in Oakland. (Their full-throated embrace of the city is almost comical given how far and how long they worked to distance themselves.)

For a second, let's remove the teams and look at this issue dispassionately. From a monetary standpoint, reports indicate that Oakland and Alameda County may actually save money with their football team gone. They also no longer need to rustle up land and fund infrastructure improvements for two massive, privately-financed stadiums where the teams vacuum-up all gate revenue. From the San Francisco Chronicle:

“We’re barely breaking even now,” said Scott McKibben, executive director of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Authority, a public arm of the city and county that owns and manages the Coliseum and Oracle Arena properties. “Put simply, it’s a bigger loss if they stay and a bigger gain if they go.”

But, life is not dispassionate, and the Raiders leaving after having returned home only in 1995 is crushing to a great fan base. Raider fans are not thugs, despite the public perception of them. I once met "Dr. Death" in Raiders gear, in July, at an A's game. (Talk about dedication.) I spoke with him about the fanbase's reputation and he couldn't have been more pleasant to talk with as he detailed wonderful charity work done by fans in the community. Folks like Dr. Death deserved better.

The A's-Raiders stadium situation has been a zero-sum game. It can be debated, but I firmly believe that one team was going to leave in the end. When presented with this rubric, am I "happy" the Raiders are poised to decamp? No. But, as a baseball fan I preferred that the A's stayed.

What happened to Raiders fans was unfair and heartless. It was big money chasing bigger money. For fans of any professional sports team, the love of our teams is always tempered in the back of our minds by the knowledge that we are pawns -- ready to be wiped off the board and replaced if our cities and states don't provide the most-enticing buffet of benefits.

Just look at the collateral damage to Clark County, home of Las Vegas, as taxes were raised to erect the Raiders palace in the desert:

Even as politicians increased taxes for stadiums, Clark County school officials voted last spring to increase public class sizes and to close a school for at-risk students. There was simply no money. “This is the last thing we ever want to do,” Linda Young, president of the school board, said at that time.

But, the team isn't leaving Oakland and Alameda County without a parting gift, as Matier and Ross detail:

It turns out the oft-quoted $200 million taxpayer-backed bond that brought the Raiders back to the East Bay in 1995 (the Coliseum facelift) is going to end up costing $350 million.

We all want our teams' players to win, but cities, counties and states and fans are frequently the one's who lose. As much as we wish it wasn't, sports -- at the end of the day -- is just another business.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Did the Athletics Miss the Broadcast Rights Boom?

Increasingly, the term "Peak Television" is used to describe a landscape in which there is an abundance of original scripted television programs, to the point where it is almost too much choice and too much content to be produced and consumed in a profitable manner. 

At the same time, the buzzsaw that is the cord-cutting phenomenon continues to threaten the cable bundle. For the Athletics, as for any NBA, NHL and MLB team, the demise of the bundle is big trouble. 

For years, teams have extracted mega-rich broadcast rights packages as sports were viewed as the last "must see" element of the bundle. The expression "striking while the iron is hot," while hackneyed, was apt. Teams were wise to sign long-term deals, ensuring cash flow for decades, regardless of the media landscape. 

For instance:

Dodgers - 25 years, reportedly more than $7B
Phillies - 25-years, $2.5B plus equity in broadcast network
Angels - 20 years, roughly $3B

And, perhaps most relevantly for the Athletics, the Giants have a 25 year deal partnership deal in place with Comcast SportsNet (CSN) Bay Area that reportedly provides around 30-33 percent of total revenue every year and started in 2008. Considering that in that time the Giants have won three World Series titles and that the channel also carries the blisteringly-hot world-champion Warriors, it is likely providing a nice chuck of revenue for the team. 

The Athletics bolted from CSN Bay Area to then CSN West and now CSN California starting with the 2009 season. The Athletics deal with CSN California reportedly provides $43-48M a year until 2029, with an opt-out clause in 2023. The team has no equity in the station and does not have a partnership deal like the Giants have with CSN Bay Area. Assuming the Athletics opt out, the contract should bring in about $672M (assuming $43M annually) over the course of the deal. If the same deal was extended to 20 years it would bring in $860M. 

The Athletics deal seems respectable, especially compared to the three "Big Market" examples outlined above, except for two things: 1) the Bay Area, despite the Athletics' spin, is a major market, the 5th biggest TV market in the country; and 2) other "Small Market" teams have cashed in with much richer deals recently. For example: 

Diamondbacks - 20 years, $1.5B+
Padres - 20 years, $1B plus equity in broadcast network

CSN California's owners Comcast are in an interesting predicament. On the one hand, as cable providers, they are acutely aware of the need for the bundle to have compelling content. On the other, they are also content creators and they have paid dearly for sports rights at similar regional sports channels across the country. And, based on ratings, we may have reached the tipping point where teams no longer have the leverage they have enjoyed in recent years -- especially with content that isn't highly-rated.

In a non-baseball example, the NCAA recently re-upped its deal with CBS and Turner Sports for the men's tournament -- despite the original contract not expiring until 2024. The new deal runs through 2032 and is set to pay $8.8B over eight years. This is despite the fact that this year's championship game -- featuring powerhouse UNC and a buzzer-beater by Villanova -- scored the lowest ratings since 2009. While CBS/Turner wanted the content, the NCAA preferred to take the easy route and guaranteed cash in extending, rather than testing the open market where the next logical suitor is a wounded ESPN. Just how wounded? ESPN has lost 7 million subscribers, out of its 100M base, in the past two years.

The reality is that the Athletics will enter a vastly different media market in 2023 or 2029 than the frothy times of a few years ago. Unless regional sports networks like CSN California start entering "Skinny Bundles" (streaming or cable-based) or launch stand-alone options, their reliance on the carriage fees provided by the bundle threaten any future mega broadcast deals with teams. The Athletics may very well be forced to accept similar or worse terms than their current deal offers. 

The above observation may lead to this conclusion: the Athletics should launch their own streaming channel. This would be a very tech-forward move, but its riddled with risk. The Athletics guaranteed cable money comes in regardless of viewership. Beyond a hardcore base, it's doubtful that a meaningful number of subscribers would materialize during a dreadful stretch -- like last season. In addition, the team would assume all costs -- including Ray Fosse's mustache wax. And, asking sports bars and restaurants to maintain a subscription for requesting patrons, in addition to a cable package, is nonsensical. In the future these channels may be the norm, but not in the foreseeable future.

The Athletics stadium saga is still a major concern, but without a long-term lucrative TV deal, they will only fall further behind in the revenue game.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

How MLB Has (Nearly) Ruined Gameday Audio

If you pay any, even passing attention to SMB tweets, you may have been understandably puzzled by irritated comments like this:
The reality is that your scribe, sadly, lives outside of the A's radio network and is at the mercy of MLB's Gameday Audio and AtBat apps.

I listen to a lot of baseball, to the point where I sometimes question why I have tuned-in to a meaningless late-season Padres - Rockies tilt. Until this year, MLB had an outstanding, nearly flawless audio product. In a world of intense money-grubbing, they had done the right thing -- simply stream the radio feeds as is. I could dose off to Ken and Vince and Ray on a late summer afternoon as if I was listening over the airwaves. All of this changed this year. And, it embodies the worst quality of this business masquerading as a public asset that we love so dearly.

During Spring Training KGMZ broadcasts the ads disappeared when listening on a phone/tablet. An uneasy silence bridged innings. Then, once the regular season began, extremely-loud-and-incredibly-repetitive ads polluted audio feeds.

During one game here is what I heard, every single break:

Commercial 1: Home Depot deck products.
Commercial 2: Burger King "Crossain'wich"

Commercial number two, especially heard in repetition, makes any sane person want to jab a chopstick into their eardrum.

On YouTube, 1055thex fairly accurately recreates the sheer aural horror piped into my headphones at a higher decibel than I was listening to the game at:

So, how did a great product become loaded with offensive junk? Well, follow the cash train. In a press release likely read by me and one other person, Triton Digital trumpeted their partnership with MLB.

The spin is wonderful, with emphasis in bold mine:

This agreement with MLB Advanced Media, the interactive media and Internet company of Major League Baseball, will mark the first time targeted audio ads will be inserted into the Gameday Audio feeds, providing listeners with more relevant ads and giving advertisers access to an engaged and valued fan base....

“We selected Triton Digital because of its experience and expertise in the streaming audio space, and are confident Triton’s delivery of targeted and more relevant advertising will help advertisers and enhance the Gameday Audio experiences for our fans,” said Noah Garden, EVP, Business, MLB.

This was the only really honest quote:

“ Gameday Audio is an extremely enticing opportunity for advertisers,” said John Rosso, President, Market Development, Triton Digital.

The Naked Money Grab

Thankfully, minor improvements have been made the ad insertion process, making it just barely tolerable. It remains an uneven (inserted commercials are now too quiet) mess that is the antithesis of quality broadcasting.

The whole situation is a sad example of how the chase for cash is never-ending. Fans can pony up $20.00 for Gameday Audio or even $130.00 for MLB.TV premium and still be monetized further.

If either Triton Digital or MLB Advanced Media want to issue a retort, we'll publish it. However, they are probably too engrossed reading thank you notes from users praising the "more relevant ads" and "enhanced experience."

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A's Revenue Sharing Funds Could Dry Up After 2016

It seems so long ago, but Major League Baseball's current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is inching closer to its expiration at the end of the 2016 season. For most fans, this governing document is the inside-baseball of baseball and something that is hardly given a second thought, let alone a first one -- especially in an era of labor peace. However, as discussed here, the CBA contains an expiring provision that greatly impacts the assumedly Coliseum-dwelling Athletics:

The 2012 agreement sunset revenue sharing for "Big Market" clubs, carving out a notable exception for the Athletics. It's worth noting that this was necessary as the Bay Area is objectively not a "Small Market." Those who drafted the CBA were optimistic that the A's would have a new home by 2016. By all indications, the team may be either in the limbo it is in now with the Raiders, or counting down the days until it must vacate the Coliseum for a Raiders-centered "Coliseum City." The third option, that the A's are developers of "Coliseum City" is possible, but seemingly the least likely given ownerships public stance. And a fourth, a move to San Jose, seems highly improbable based on today's outlook.

One other outcome is that the players involved vis-a-vis ownership could shift. However, you don't name a training facility after yourself (as Lew Wolff did) if you are thinking about cashing out.

The Athletics received $32M in revenue sharing in 2011(the latest year data is available) and 2014 team revenue per the annual Forbes "Business of Baseball" report was $187M. This means that fully 17 percent of the club's revenue -- on a very good year attendance-wise -- is tied to funds that may evaporate come the start of the 2017 season.

Looked at another way, Forbes pegged the team's operating profit at $27.4M in 2014, meaning the loss of revenue sharing -- assuming a similar payroll -- would make the team a money-loser at the tune of -$4.6M. As Wolff and Co. have noted that they are only interested in running a profitable ballclub, one can safely assume that payroll would be capped much lower in a world without revenue sharing.

It's a sad state of affairs when a team sitting in the Metropolitan Statistic Area with the highest median household income needs its own personal welfare provision in a billion dollar league. However, that's what you get for a decade plus of studying without action.

Assuming the "A's Stadium Exemption" isn't inserted into the next CBA, the Athletics payroll will likely have a shorter ceiling and may create a non-virtuous revenue cycle:

less money = fewer quality players = more trading, more rebuilding, shorter competitive windows = decreased attendance = less money.

The simple answer is to put the Athletics on a solid path to a new stadium.