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.